Latest Project

WAR IN EUROPE 2022 The ongoing disaster in Ukraine – The first two weeks

Published March 9th, 2022

Vladimir Putin’s atrocious attack against Ukraine is the biggest military and humanitarian catastrophe in Europe since World War II. Putin sent 200,000 Russian troops in to “decapitate” Ukraine’s elected government, to keep the country from ever joining the NATO alliance, and take over – to undo the history of the past 30 years and bring Ukraine back where he thinks it belongs: as part of imperial greater Russia. He may well think he can do the same to the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe that became NATO members after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Putin has described the economic sanctions that the United States and Europe have imposed as almost a declaration of war, and said that if we impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine to shoot down Russian bombers and helicopters, he will regard us all as combatants from that minute on.

And he’s threatened to use nuclear weapons. “Anyone who tries to interfere with us to create threats to our country and our people must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences you have never faced in your history,” he said Feb. 24. Several days later, he announced that he had put Russian nuclear forces on alert – in “special combat readiness.”

Are we on the brink of war? World War III? We could be. Putin is no Communist, but he is the most dangerous leader in Moscow since Josef Stalin. What he is trying to do is to re-impose by force the control over Ukraine and the power of intimidation over all of Eastern Europe that Soviet leaders had during the Cold War.

He miscalculated if he thought he thought he could sweep to victory in days. Instead, heroic resistance by Ukrainian forces – many of its 170,000 troops and 100,000 reservists, and thousands of armed civilians, under President Volodymyr Zelensky’s brave and inspiring leadership -- held off Russian takeover of the capital, Kyiv, and the city of Kharkiv, both of which have been heavily damaged by Russian bombardment and fighting in outlying civilian neighborhoods. The Russians had more immediate success in the south of the country, seizing the port city of Kherson , surrounding Mariupol and making its 400,000 people hostages, depriving them of food, fuel, and utilities). Russian troops also kept moving west towards Odessa, whose capture would give them complete control over all of the ’s Black Sea ports Ukraine uses to ship most of its exports – wheat, corn, food, manufactured goods.

When President Biden offered to fly President Zelensky out to safety early in the conflict, his response was that he didn’t need a ride, he needed more ammunition. And he got it, with a huge airlift of thousands and thousands of Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft rockets, and tons of guns and ammunition to a Polish base near close enough for Ukrainian forces to pick them up and take them home. But the odds that the Ukrainians can prevail against 200,000 better-armed Russian troops are against them -- unless Putin backs off, or unless wiser heads in Moscow pull him off.

“February 24, 2022, marks a historic turning point in the history of our continent,” Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz said after Putin started the war on that day. And he is right. Putin moved in on Ukraine to make sure it could never join the NATO alliance, which he demands should withdraw its military forces from the former Soviet satellites, from Poland and Hungary to the Baltics, that were able to join over the past three decades. NATO was founded in 1949 to deter and prevent war, not to start a war. The US-led alliance is an essential part of the multinational system that deterred Soviet attacks for half a century and then, in the past three decades, allowed democracy, freedom and prosperity to flourish all across Europe. But Putin regards NATO as a threat.

His actions have outraged and frightened all Europe, not just the countries that belong to NATO. Hundreds of thousands of people in Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Paris, London have demonstrated mass support for Ukraine. And Sweden and Finland, neutral during the Cold War, abandoned neutrality by sending arms, munitions and rations to Ukraine. The Finnish president said he is ready to ask his parliament to consider whether the country should join NATO, and Sweden is apparently thinking the same way.

In the two weeks after the war started, more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees fled west, the greatest humanitarian crisis of the century for the continent. Millions more could follow, and the crisis could go on for years.

Let us not deceive ourselves. Deterrence, the core of the NATO strategy for peace in Europe for so many years, failed to avert Putin’s war. President Biden and other Western leaders saw the Russian forces gathering around Ukraine’s borders and tried to deter an attack. They tried to talk Putin out of it by threatening economic sanctions against Russia. He lied that he hadn’t decided to invade, but Biden made clear that US and NATO intelligence knew that he was lying. None of that worked on Putin. Sanctions were declared when the war started, and then were strengthened when he didn’t stop it.

The sanctions have caused chaos in Russia, They have cut off big Russian banks from access to the international SWIFT funds-transfer system, and made the Central Bank unable to support the ruble on financial markets with its huge foreign currency reserves, so the ruble is now worth less than a penny. The Russian stock market closed. Panicked Russians rushed to get their money out of their banks. Oligarchs’and billionaires’ assets abroad were frozen or seized. International airlines cancelled all flights to and from Russia. Even Aeroflot had to cancel nearly all flights because so many of its planes are leased from Western companies, which are now calling them back.

The oil giants Shell and British Petroleum pulled out of joint ventures with Russian natural gas and oil companies. But both in Europe and the United States, there was at first no immediate move to cut off all Russian oil and gas imports, which Europe depends on heavily and which bring billions of dollars in hard currency to Russia. Ukraine’s President Zelensky used a Zoom all with members of Congress to plead to cut off the imports, which could really cripple parts of the Russian economy that Putin cares most about. Not until the third week of the conflict was approaching did U.S. and European leaders begin seriously contemplating cutting off all energy imports from Russia.

The reason for the delay was that the economies of Russia and the West, separated by the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, have become far more interrelated in many ways in our day. Europe has been depending on Russia for 40 percent of the natural gas and 25 percent of the oil it needs. The United States gets maybe 10 percent of its needs from Russia. As much as cutting off Russian energy imports would hurt the aggressor, they would also hurt here. Energy prices all over the world are spiking, worsening the inflation that is already causing political problems for President Biden and European leaders. Think $5 a gallon -- or maybe even $10 -- for gas! It wasn’t until March 8 that Biden – with bipartisan support from Congress, even as the stock market was taking a dive – decided to ban Russian oil and natural gas imports. In Europe, Chancellor Scholz wasn’t ready to go that far yet. The British government said it would phase out oil imports from Russia by the end of 2022, but said nothing about gas. So Putin has still been spared maximum pain.

Russian forces may be slowed in their advance by poor morale and bad tactics as well as by the amazingly effective resistance by Ukraine’s armed forces, bolstered by thousands of highly motivated armed civilian volunteers. But the Russians are intensifying their attacks on Ukrainian cities, factories, airfields, roads, and electricity plants, even bombing the huge nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, in the southern part of the country. Luckily none of its reactors was hit. If that had happened, there could have been a second Chernobyl catastrophe. The Russians moved in, seized the plant, and made its staff hostages. And they’ve got other nuclear power plants in Ukraine in their sights, too.

But they were unable to quickly take the capital, Kyiv, or President Zelensky. As a huge Russian armada moved closer to encircling the city a week ago, Zelensky agreed to send his Defense Minister and other officials to the Belorussian border to start talks with Putin’s people to see if they would stop the onslaught. The Russians agreed to safe corridors for civilians to flee the fighting, but then kept firing at them, killing innocent children as well. Kharkiv, in the north of Ukraine and closer to Russia than Kyiv, came under heavy bombardment while the talks were ongoing. Residential areas were blasted with cluster bombs and a municipal building in the center of the city was blown up by a huge rocket-launched explosion.

How much has NATO done to help? The alliance activated its 40,000-strong Rapid Response Force for the first time in its history. But none of them, and none of the 10,000 – 15,000 additional American troops Biden has sent across the Atlantic are going into Ukraine. They are reinforcing NATO positions in neighboring Poland. Romania and the Baltic States to discourage Putin from attacking them, or to bolster their defenses in case he does. Reports suggest that some of them, in the Baltic states especially, would like a lot more help.

Militarily, the alliance rushed more hardware to the Ukrainian forces while they still could. President Biden provided $350 million more in U.S. military aid, on top of $650 million last year. Even Germany, initially reluctant, decided to send 1,000 rocket-propelled grenades and 500 Stingers, and other allied countries joined. And in Brussels, the European Union, for the first time, said it would pay for $500 million worth of arms and supplies to Ukraine from E.U. member countries. Ukrainian transports have been able so far to bring all this in over the border crossings from Poland and Romania. Hungary’s government didn’t want to risk letting them do it from there. But the Russians have been moving helicopters and armor towards the Polish border and could soon make it impossible for the Ukrainians to get more arms through.

Zelensky pleaded for more aircraft so his forces could shoot down Russian bombers. Poland, and possibly Romania, both NATO members, were considering turning over Russian-made fighter planes in their air forces to the Ukrainians, if the United States or the alliance could provide replacements. The Pentagon nixed the idea because it could give Putin a pretext to attack them, or us.

Zelensky also vehemently demanded that the U.S. and NATO impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine and shoot down the Russian aircraft that have devastated so much territory and killed hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian citizens. Putin has made clear that he will consider any country whose forces attack his in or over Ukraine as a combatant – in other words, an enemy. That could mean World War III, with or without nuclear weapons, over Eastern Europe and beyond.

So let’s not deceive ourselves. This is a perilous moment. As things stand, the Ukrainians could keep fighting, even for a long time. But unless Russia agrees to a halt or a cease-fire, all the resistance probably can achieve is a stalemate. Even that is not guaranteed. If it does happen, how long could it continue? All that is clear is that what Russia has started has fundamentally changed the world as we have known it for the past 30 years, and the consequences could be with us for decades.

Putin appears to have as much absolute control in Moscow as Stalin did when he ruled the Soviet Union, but there has been speculation that maybe Putin has isolated himself so completely during the Covid pandemic that he may have gone off his rocker. There’s also speculation that if the invasion drags on or even becomes a stalemate, perhaps some of his fellow former KGB apparatchiks and wealthy oligarchs who back him could change their minds and move to unseat him. Billions of dollars’ worth of their assets in the U.S. and Europe are now frozen or blocked, Russian billionaires’ yachts have been seized. But what about Putin’s KGB pals and generals, who aren’t so wealthy? Retired U.S. General Wesley Clark, who was the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in the 1990s, mused that if the Ukrainian resistance could do enough damage to the Russian forces, maybe some of their generals would take Putin on and stop the fighting.
Maybe. But maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

We in the West will clearly have to rethink the security architecture that kept the peace in Europe through the Cold War starting with the Berlin Airlift in 1949 until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but could not keep the Russians back in 2022. Deterrence as NATO tried to practice it here didn’t work with a Russian President who has as much control over his own country, and as many fiendish resentments against what he feels other countries have done to it, and to him, as Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany did. Would sending a NATO combat brigade into Ukraine while Russian forces were still surrounding the country have deterred the invasion? Or could it have prompted Putin to declare World War III? We couldn’t know, and didn’t take the risk.

We in the West should think about whether we should be spending more money on developing the strength of our armed forces. Germany’s Chancellor Scholz clearly has done this. As hundreds of thousands of Germans demonstrated peacefully in Berlin in support of the Ukraine, he announced that Germany was finally ready, after years of procrastinating, to raise its military spending on defense, as the alliance has long demanded because underspending has made much of the German armed forces’ equipment comparatively rundown and outdated. Now, because of the Ukraine shock, German military spending will rise to more than 2 percent of German GNP. That’s a huge step for Germany – as is Scholz’s decision to let German military equipment be sent to a country at war. The modern German “No more war” reaction to the horrors perpetrated by Hitler has now been modified by willingness to consider contributions to other countries’ defenses when they come under attack – until now, the Germans had been willing to send helmets and rations, but not weapons, to Ukraine.

Germany had also helped the Russians build a gas pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 2, that would have gone into operation soon, to increase the flow of Russian gas to Germany, whose industrial economy needs vast amounts of gas. Chancellor Scholz’s predecessor Angela Merkel had long resisted calls to call it off , and one of her predecessors as Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, has been chairman of the shareholders’ committee of the parent company in Switzerland. But Scholz suspended the pipeline’s certification after the Russians invaded and the company is now facing bankruptcy. A colossal blow, but maybe it should have happened before the invasion, not after. Not only Germany but all the other member countries of NATO, and the whole European Community, should rethink their energy dependence on Russia and find alternatives to that. Certainly reducing consumption of oil, gas, and coal, wherever it comes from, is also now urgently necessary if we are to avoid global environmental catastrophe, as well.

There’s a lot else we can rethink. One is whether the United States and other NATO countries could have done more to take the Russian perspective into account after the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States and the allies were forging ahead spreading democracy and free enterprise into Eastern Europe after the Iron Curtain lifted. Putin’s been brooding for two decades about how Western countries took advantage of Russia’s weakness. Well, did they?

Let’s go back to 1989-1990, when all of Communist-controlled Eastern Europe was boiling. The Berlin Wall collapsed on Nov. 9, 1989, when East German Communist border guards finally stopped trying to keep hundreds of thousands of citizens from fleeing to a better life in the West.

Vladimir Putin back then was an officer in a small KGB unit that worked with the East German secret police, the Stasi, in Dresden, recruiting agents to work undercover in the West, and figuring out ways to get access to western technology. When the popular uprising that took down the Wall in Berlin spread to Dresden, a large crowd surrounded the Stasi headquarters for two days. In the small apartment building nearby where they worked and lived, Putin and the other Russian officers burned papers, names of contacts, and so on. They burned so much, he later said, that the furnace blew up. When they moved on the Russians, he called the nearby Soviet military base and asked for reinforcements, but the duty officer there told him “Moscow is silent,” and the base could offer no help until it got orders. Later, in interviews in his book “First Person,” published here in 2000 by PublicAffairs (founded by my colleague as a former Moscow correspondent, Peter Osnos), Putin said that “Moscow is silent” moment had showed him that the Soviet Union had “a terminal disease without a cure – a paralysis of power.”

In a few months, in early 1990, Communism was collapsing in East Germany, and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was on the verge of realizing the dream of reunification. But as one of the four occupying powers in Germany at the end of World War II, in the eastern zone, the Soviet Union would have to agree if reunification was to take place. President George H.W. Bush sent Secretary of State James Baker to Moscow that February to tell the Soviets that if Germany were reunified, there would be (quote) ??iron-clad guarantees” that NATO forces would not move into East German territory. Quote: “If we maintain a presence in a Germany that is a part of NATO, there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east,” unquote, Baker told Mikhail Gorbachev on Feb. 9, 1990. So there was no Soviet veto, and that October, the Federal Republic of Germany absorbed the German Democratic Republic. In 1991, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and Putin resigned from the KGB as a lieutenant colonel. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved as well.

Putin went back to Leningrad, St. Petersburg, where he had studied law, and began his political career there then working with a law professor who was later elected mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Putin went on after a few years to Moscow and started scheming his way up to the top.

In mid-1994, Russian forces left the eastern part of Germany. No American or other European troops moved in to replace them there, but all of united Germany was now a member of NATO. But the non-Communist Russian leaders who followed Gorbachev, struggling with chaos after the collapse of the Communist economic system, soon found themselves facing what they saw as the threat of NATO expansion as the newly independent former Eastern European Soviet satellite countries nervously sought the protection from Russia that they knew only too well how much they might need.

Poland was a lot farther east of NATO than the “one inch” Baker had promised, but it wanted to join and Baker’s successors in Washington were increasingly supportive. Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor as Russian President, told President Bill Clinton in a meeting at the Kremlin in May of 1995 that letting Poland into NATO would be a “humiliation” for Russia, “a new form of encirclement,” and suggested that Russia could give Poland and others guarantees of their security instead.

Clinton told him that East Europeans saw NATO membership as “part of being accepted by the West,” but they also worried about something else: “They are not so sure what’s going to happen in Russia if you’re not around,” he said. Prophetic! (Another former colleague, David K. Shipler, the Times Bureau Chief in Moscow before me in the late 1970s, recounted these details online in his platform The Shipler Report.) Putin was named President of Russia when Yeltsin resigned on the last day of 1999, amid a wave of fear created by a series of deadly explosions in apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere. Putin blamed the blasts, which killed hundreds of people, on separatists from the rebellious Islamist Caucasian republic of Chechnya, where Russian forces had fought a bloody and destructive war five years earlier. Now Putin, with popular support, launched a second war against them. Later, there were suspicions that his secret police had set off the apartment blasts themselves, to create a pretext for the war. Russian forces crushed the separatists and destroyed what was left of Chechnya’s capital city. Putin handily won the first popular election for the Presidency shortly afterward, in 2000. NATO was not involved in that struggle, but one of the reasons for Putin’s brutality in Chechnya was to discourage the neighboring former Soviet republic of Georgia from aspirations to join the alliance. Those aspirations have only grown stronger since, especially after Putin sent troops to support the breakaway of two Georgian regions in 2008. So what about that promise to Gorbachev in 1990 that NATO would not move “one inch to the east” of Germany? Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic all joined the alliance in 1999, and Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004, eventually followed by 5 others. Gorbachev later said that he’d been had.

But Putin drew the line at Ukraine. He viewed the possibility of Ukrainian membership in NATO as a catastrophe in the making, because he regards NATO as the biggest military threat to Russia. But NATO did not attract all these Eastern European countries because it was promising to attack Russia. They saw membership as protection against a Russian attack against them. NATO first held out the possibility that Ukraine could become a member at a summit meeting in Bucharest in 2008, but made clear it would take time. Ukraine also had hopes of closer political association with Europe to go along with growing economic ties.

Ukraine’s elected president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, was more interested in strengthening ties with Russia than with Europe, and opposition to his policies led to huge popular demonstrations that wracked Kyiv in late 2013 and early 2014. Police killed 130 people, and a mass insurrection tore through the country.

Facing impeachment, Yanukovych fled and appealed to Russia for help. The Ukrainian parliament called a new election, which produced a pro-Western government in Kyiv. The Russians responded by invading, seizing the Crimean Peninsula, and supporting rebellion by Russian separatists fighting government forces in two districts bordering Russia, the Donbas region. “Little green men,” Russian soldiers without Russian uniforms, were still keeping that war going against the Ukrainian government when Zelensky was elected President in 2019.

The United States and NATO had been supporting Ukraine in that indirect war with Russia ever since, with billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment and ammunition -- $3 billion from the United States alone. And there were annual training exercises in Ukraine with thousands of NATO troops, including Americans, training Ukranian forces. The most recent exercises, Three Swords and Rapid Trident, took place just last Fall, 2021, with 4,000 US and 2,000 other NATO soldiers in Ukraine, and more were planned for this year.

This kind of cooperation was also ongoing earlier, during the Trump Administration. Donald Trump, remember, faced impeachment charges as President for illegally withholding Congressionally-approved aid to Ukraine as the 2020 election campaign approached. It was a move to try to get President Zelensky to investigate activities of Joe Biden and his son Hunter in Ukraine and dig up dirt Trump could use against Biden politically. This is the same Trump who has now described Putin’s moves as “clever.”

So what does all this mean for the future?

The allies, including the United States, hoped that when the Soviet Union fell apart, freedom and democracy would then turn the Russians into friends. It didn’t happen. We perhaps took it too much for granted that it would happen, and didn’t do enough to help them see how we’d all be better off if we were friends. We let the Russians set up an observation office for awhile in NATO headquarters in Brussels, but it didn’t lead to a cooperative or even a non-hostile relationship.

But it’s clear from everything Putin has said and done over the last two decades that he didn’t want one. He never trusted us when we told him we did. And now we have the gravest security threat to Europe, and to us, in half a century. War can spiral out of control in any number of ways. Resistance in Ukraine could continue for months. The Russians could launch cyberattacks on the U.S. and Western Europe. We could launch cyberattacks against the Russians.

Shto dyelats, as the Russians say? What to do? What are they going to do? What are we going to do? What is China going to do? Putin went to Beijing for the Olympics to meet with Xi Jinping before the invasion. Did Xi, who has always emphasized the importance of national sovereignty, know what Putin was planning? China has its own ambitions for reintegrating the lost province of Taiwan. But Chinese statements about Putin’s attempt to seize or neutralize Ukraine have been notably noncommittal lately. Whatever happens, the world we have known for the past 30 years has changed.

Living With GunsLiving With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment

Published November 13th, 2012

Americans own as many as 300 million guns, and about 30,000 of us die from gunshots every year. Even though about two-thirds of such deaths are suicides, the number of murders is shocking. Furthermore, the disturbing phenomenon of mass shootings by psychopaths who are able to obtain guns legally continues. On Memorial Day weekend, Elliot O. Rodger, a disturbed 22-year-old former college student in Isla Vista, California, stabbed three people to death and then, with three semi-automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, went on a shooting spree that killed three more and wounded 13 before he killed himself.

Can we really “live with guns?” Yes we can, but only if we can find a way to talk reasonably with each other about them rather than shouting slogans, which is what we have been doing in the culture wars we have been waging with each other over the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

Living With Guns“Living With Guns” argues that the Second Amendment recognizes and protects an individual’s right to own and use guns. Americans have had that right since colonial days, but we tend to forget that it has always been connected with a civic duty. Back then it was to come to the common defense when called by the local or state militia. After the Revolution, the founders recognized the right to keep and bear arms as an important guarantee that the powerful federal government they established with the Constitution could not use a standing federal army to impose tyranny over the states and their militias, or on individual Americans. Like all other rights, the right to own guns was not unqualified and was subject to reasonable regulation, as it had been since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.

But times changed. Social and racial turbulence in the 1960s was followed by a wave of drug use and violent crime. Under the banner of being “tough on crime,” Conservatives urged and passed “stand your ground” laws in many states, giving people greater license to look to their own guns for self-defense. Meanwhile more liberal areas like Washington, D.C. and Chicago, afflicted with high murder rates in those troubled times, in effect banned gun ownership in an effort to bring them down. But the bans did not work. And gun bans are not constitutional, according to the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, in opinions in 2008 on Washington’s law and in 2010 on Chicago’s (and for that matter, others nationwide). In Living With Guns I make the case that history shows that the justices were right on that point, though wrong in their more sweeping assertion that the primary purpose of the right was self-defense.

They also ruled that reasonable gun control laws were constitutional. But strict gun control by itself cannot solve our gun violence problem. Keeping guns out of the hands of as many law-abiding Americans as possible does not keep them out of the hands of criminals who do not bother to register guns at all. Draconian gun laws and regulations do not work as well as social and economic policies that work with, rather than against, violence-prone young people in troubled neighborhoods -- for example, those programs that endeavor to convince them that using guns is not a solution to frustration.

Reasonable gun regulations are on the books, but they are full of loopholes. Everybody agrees that people convicted of crimes, the mentally unstable, those addicted to drugs, people subject to restraining orders against a spouse, and the like should not have guns, and Federal law forbids licensed dealers from selling to them. But the Federal background check database of names is full of holes. Other loopholes in the law allow private individuals to sell guns with no background checks at all on buyers.
Conservatives and the NRA fight all efforts to tighten the regulations, as if the crime wave of 20 and 30 years ago had not significantly ebbed, along with the crack-cocaine epidemic that caused much of it. “Stand your ground” laws that make it easier for people who have guns to use them when they feel threatened, like the one invoked by the neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida who shot Trayvon Martin to death in 2012, do nothing to reduce gun violence by criminals.

All Americans should be encouraged to recognize that gun ownership is a right, but that gun owners still have a civic duty, to exercise the right carefully and responsibly, not recklessly. The current impasse makes the next gun massacre simply a matter of time. “Living With Guns” explores ways to make it possible for Americans to live in greater safety, even with so many guns around.

The Author’s Proposals To Increase Public Safety

All of the recommendations in “Living With Guns” on how to make it safer for all of us to live with guns turned up in one form or another in the package of legislative and executive measures proposed by President Obama on Jan. 16, after the Newtown massacre.

See the proposals as they appear in Chapter Eight of the book, where the reasons for them are fully explained. READ MORE HERE.