“To Fold or Not to Fold”
Greetings to you with my best wishes for your health and happiness. I am responding to the post “Know when to fold ’em”. This is past due and perhaps approaching expiry. I wanted to write in response only when I could give it my all and considered thoughts.
Notwithstanding the developments in Europe and elsewhere in the world since this blog post was published, I will keep my thoughts to where they were at the time of reading and two weeks after. Hindsight is 20/20 and I will not take advantage of hindsight as it is the only fair thing to do.
I also want to first express my admiration for the poem ‘From Afar’ that Ms. Agnieszka Zbieranska wrote. You may recall that while reading it I choked with emotions. The poem represents generational rejection of all things Soviet and its continuation. It is a rejection of uniformism, of the notion of homogeneity of the slavs, of the patriarchy of the cold, grey and dead ‘Russian empire’ and of the Leninist view that human individualism had no value.
I am not an expert in military thinking, strategy or weapon systems employment so I won’t even attempt my submission in those terms. Sometimes it is hard to understand and explain in logical terms. If logic prevailed, there wouldn’t have been an amassing of 200 000 troops at the Ukrainian/Russian border, Putin would have understood that Russia’s future lay in its integration in the world’s knowledge economy and the immense opportunities that are there in the greening of the economy. There wouldn’t have been annexation of Crimean peninsula in 2014 – and with that G8 becoming a G7 again.
Russia with all its resources could have attempted at becoming the world’s manufacturing powerhouse. But none of that seems interesting or aspirational for Putin. The world since the signing of the Magna Carta – 807 years ago has moved in the direction of being a more progressive place to live (reverses being mere blips). And if logic would have prevailed, Putin would have continued on the path of being a progressive, reformer and post-cold war ally to the West that leaders like Tony Blair thought him to be (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2000/apr/17/russia.nickhopkins).
Instead he has chosen to be the opposite. Fearful of Russia getting the winds of democracy from its neighbours, he has chosen to install regimes where he could and is waging war where he can’t
Unable to find answers in logic, I turned to art. For life often imitates art. It wasn’t until last year that I watched the film Dr. Zhivago based on Boris Pasternak’s novel of the same name. The story is set in the dying days of the Russian Tsar’s empire and the ascent of the bolsheviks. There is a scene depicting middle of harsh Russian winter where villages have been reduced to cinder by retreating forces of the Tsar who are implementing a Scorched Earth policy. Women and children are left with nothing to eat and dead frozen stiff. The grey and cold as painted by Pasternak is striking. The story does not portray the Bolsheviks as liberators. Instead in an Orwellian sense the farm had been taken over by the pigs.
Is it surprising that Pasternak’s book was banned in the Soviet Union and he was forced to not accept the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature? My grandfather had subscribed for me children’s monthly journal ‘Misha’ and ‘Science in the USSR’ sometime around 1987. I used to look forward to its arrival by mail. Fast forward to the 2006 and after with me now living in Toronto, Canada.
I met many Russian and Ukrainian emigres who were children of the 70s and 80s in the Soviet Union. I shared my impression of life in the USSR based on my readings. To my surprise my friends and acquantances did not know of any of the books and journals that I had read. They had no access to colour print books. They told me that life as portrayed outside to the world was very different from the scant life of living in grocery store lineups.
Coming to Ukraine… It is noteworthy that in Toronto the numbers of Ukrainians and ethnic Russians are roughly the same. There are ethnic Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians each with their own cultural associations. It has struck me that every year Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles have their own summer festivals that they organize in the part of Toronto where they are the most concentrated. The only support provided by the city is closing off a block or two of streets and traffic redirected. The streets get festooned in the colours of Blue and Yellow. At the City Hall, Ukrainians hoist Ukraine’s national flag next to the Canadian Maple Leaf.
I have never ever been to or heard of a summer festival organized by the ethnic Russian community. This is an observation that I made over several years. The Ukrainian language has sustained centuries of Russian attempts at assimilation. The Baltic states about resisted about 60 years. The people of these countries are very protective about their language, culture and way of life. Any attempts of forced assimilation would be met with resistance in these countries and the diaspora living abroad.
Agnieszka’s poem ‘From Afar’ speaks of the colourful village markets reduced to the Soviet grey. I have met dissidents and then ordinary students from Hungary who found refuge in Canada. They fought during the Hungarian uprising of 1958. They fought for the idea of living a life of their choice. The resistance despite being fierce had no chance since communication technology was in the hands of the government of that time and the world was still reeling from the WW2 and its aftermath. The uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968 also could not sustain the onslaught of Russian armour rolling through the streets of Prague.
More of life imitating art. In the ‘Star Trek’ episode ‘The Borg Collective’, the Borg asks for surrender and suggests that the culture and language will be assimilated into the Borg Collective. “All Resistance is Futile, you will be assimilated”. We know how that went for the Borg ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5rlAjuwdLQ )
Well today we have Zelensky, Captain of the ship called Ukraine, empowered by his people with a 73% vote just about 3 years back. He is doing just what his constituents want. An entire generation of Ukrainians has grown up since 1990 in a free country. They have done things differently from their parents. They think differently and they have dreams of living a modern life with progressive thinking. Have things been perfect in the past 30 years?
Have all the promises of independence been fulfilled? It would be dishonest to say yes. But Ukraine has been on the move towards becoming a modern democracy. And that has irked Putin for he can’t fathom living with a democracy next to his autocratic government. Ukraine’s polity had shelved plans to apply for NATO membership in 2008. That changed with Russian annexation of Crimea and aggression in the Luhansk and Donbas region.
It is in 2014 Ukraine applied for membership following annexation of Crimea. The world thinks of Ukraine being at war with Russia since Feb 22 2022, but Ukrainians say that they have been at war since 2014. NATO membership application is just an excuse. The real reason is Putin’s distaste of democracies.
What do you do if there is a bully buoyed by delusions of grandeur? Freedom doesn’t come free. It extracts a heavy price when it comes to defending it. Ukrainians have as a collective decided that they are going to resist with all their might. Zelensky has rallied his countrymen, the world and given up his family life. When given a choice to move his government out of Ukraine, his answer was “I am not asking for a ride, I am asking for ammunition”.
Just about a month and half ago I watched the 2003 movie ‘The Italian Job’ on DVD. In a scene, one of the characters ‘Skinny’ (quite the opposite of skinny actually) advises the villain “If there’s one thing I know, it’s never to mess with mother nature, mother in-laws and, mother freaking Ukrainians.” I guess Putin missed watching the movie.
Prologue (based on the events of the last 6 weeks)
I don’t know that what the war in Ukraine will be like going forward and for how long. It could possibly be a long war of attrition. But one thing is clear – Ukraine and its idea will continue to live within its territory, its emigres and its millions of refugees in Europe, US and Canada. Canadians’ support for Ukraine across the political spectrum is very high. Just like in Europe many people with extra rooms in their homes are welcoming refugees.
The Canadian government has promised Europe that it will pitch in to ease the refugee crisis by taking in half a million currently in Europe. The west’s support for Ukraine has come with a price – gasoline prices have gone up 30%, inflation in the US is 8.5% a 40 year high and the economy looks like heading for a recession. Western companies ranging from fast food McDonald, to oil major Shell to major investment banks like Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan have wound up their operations in Russia while incurring 100s of billions in losses. (https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/02/business/companies-pulling-back-russia-ukraine-war-intl-hnk/index.html)
Germany has shelved its 77 years of pacifism and is providing Ukraine with Gepard anti-aircraft guns, amongst other things. The Swiss have give up their traditional neutrality, frozen Oligarch accounts and stopped transactions with the Russian Central Bank. The US and 40 other countries are coming together to provide Ukraine with a realistic chance. This doesn’t look like the abandoned ‘Draupadi’, but one who is Krishna supplied till ‘Dushasana’ collapses from the effort of disrobing her.
What has Putin achieved for the Russian people? A shutout from the global economy and looming economic disaster. Russian technocrats and professionals leaving in droves for other countries while they can. It is possible that all computer microchip exports will be banned to Russia. Russia’s much vaunted military prowess lies tattered by a much smaller but highly motivated and well armed rag tag army.
While Ukrainians are paying with their blood, family separations and civilians being massacred by the Russian occupiers, the Russians will pay a very heft price for being unplugged from the global world order. As for containing NATO expansion, it has had the opposite effect. Stockholm and Helsinki are preparing for NATO membership applications. He has brought together NATO countries like nothing else after the Cold War. A corrected for inflation spending on defence by NATO countries will averaged go over the 2% goal (one that the US was failing to encourage its NATO partners to do otherwise).
Submitted with much respect and hopes for common sense and calm to prevail.