Ukraine III: Superyachts, Cluster Bombs and an Ego

A highly simplified crash course on the situation in Ukraine, third analysis

Vladimir Putin is a disciplined man. His tenure as president of the Russian Federation and his earlier service to the communist government of the former Soviet Union earned him the reputation of a cold and calculating man but no one could say he was undisciplined. In fact, if Putin had one redeeming trait, his habitual discipline imbued him with a certain restraint, even if he did wield his power with rather less reserve than a Western leader with similar authority.

Putin’s biography reads like that of a man possessed of measured zeal tempered by self-control. In Russia, his prowess in judo and sambo — a Russian military combat sport — is the stuff of legend. Putin does hold a black belt, but some Westerners believe his martial arts abilities are heavily exaggerated or even fraudulent altogether.

Putin earned a law degree in 1975 from what is now Saint Petersburg State University. He studied German long enough to master it as a second language.

Right out of law school, Putin went to work for the KGB. He was assigned to counter-intelligence, then transferred to Leningrad where he watched consular staff and tracked foreigners. Putin then spent five years in East Germany, putting his fluency in the language to good use by posing as a translator. Near the end of his East German tenure, Putin was involved in some shady documents removal and destruction as the Berlin Wall fell.

Caught briefly under the umbrella of suspicion permeating both communist governments, Putin returned to Leningrad when the East German government collapsed. In the ensuing turmoil around the fall of Soviet communism, Putin was appointed to the Leningrad mayor’s staff, where his corruption earned him an investigation. This didn’t prevent him from remaining in the government of the newly-renamed St. Petersburg.

In 1998, first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, appointed Putin Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB). It was no coincidence that the FSB was the KGB’s replacement organization, handling security and intelligence matters.

One year later, Putin was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister. Several months later, Yeltsin resigned, making Putin acting president of the federation. In this role, Putin deftly smothered corruption allegations against Yeltsin and himself. Putin was then elected president in early 2000.

Putin won his second term in 2004. Both terms were marked by heavy-handed actions including the crushing of the Chechen rebellion. Constitutionally prohibited from a third term, Putin simply arranged for his puppet, Dmitry Medvedev, to serve as president while Medvedev immediately appointed Putin prime minister.

Under allegations of election fraud, Putin again won the presidency in 2012. Not surprisingly, the resulting public demonstrations were met with his trademark heavy hand, and a huge pro-Putin demonstration was staged to “prove” Putin’s popularity. Every stage of Putin’s career was stained by varying degrees of corruption.

In 2014, Putin annexed the Republic of Crimea and City of Sevastopol. That same year, Putin sent military units into Ukraine under similar circumstances as this week. Both actions were part of Putin’s efforts to rein in the autonomous states in “the Russian sphere of influence,” which is a circumspect way of saying “former Soviet territories which have no business joining the E.U. or NATO.”

Vladimir Putin is a disciplined man. He is accustomed to disagreement with his decisions. For a man who wields the power of life and death over millions, Putin is comfortable being the object of everything from indifference to intense hatred. While other men of great power rarely — or never — exercise their might in a manner that costs human lives, Putin has long been familiar with putting his power to effective use. On a small scale, Putin is content choosing whether a man lives or dies but Putin’s proficiency with his chilling strength means he’s equally at ease deciding whether a nation lives or dies.

Vladimir Putin is not accustomed to making colossal blunders. But he made one this week.

As mistakes go, this one was the misstep of a lifetime. It gave Putin generous tastes of two other things to which he is not accustomed: failure and embarrassment.

Putin’s blunder also ended his career, but he doesn’t know it yet. He knows things are different but he hasn’t yet realized his transformation from president to tin-pot dictator. Before last week, we knew he was not trustworthy, that he operated under his own paranoid cold war protocols. But we afforded him the dignity and respect due a head of state. No longer. No legitimate government on the planet will ever recognize or welcome him as a statesman again.

While he may not realize the severity of his personal fate yet, Putin knows he made a massive error and he’s embarrassed, angry and vengeful.

Once he saw the magnitude of his blunder, every decision Putin has made, every action he’s taken has been done solely to assuage his damaged ego. The growing international sanctions these moves have earned are crippling his country, likely setting it back 20 years.

But at this point, the damage to his beloved Russia is irrelevant when compared to the damage Putin’s ego is inflicting on Ukraine. In a matter of days, Putin was well on his way to reducing Ukraine to a Third World wasteland, just to satisfy his ego.

For the first time in human history, a nuclear power plant was attacked with missiles by an army. According to the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, this attack constitutes a war crime. Without question, there are conventions prohibiting attacking an operating nuclear power plant.

But Putin isn’t particularly concerned about rules and conventions at the moment.

The Russians have bombed countless apartment blocks. They’ve damaged or destroyed dozens of schools. They’ve shelled restaurants, shops, playgrounds — hundreds of civilian structures nowhere near military targets.

The Russians blew up some children playing soccer. They’ve strung trip-mines throughout cities.

Cruise missiles are taking out large buildings. Illegal cluster bombs are being used to target civilians.

The Red Army is intentionally targeting civilians. Russian soldiers are freely looting shops. Putin is destroying Ukraine.

Over one million people have fled the violence in a diaspora that shows no sign of slowing down.

Rumor has it that in the next few days, hundreds of hired pro-Putin demonstrators will be bused into various locations throughout Ukraine to greet the Russian “liberators” with flowers and cheers. Putin believes it’ll make for a great photo op.

The Russians are also sending in a fake “humanitarian aid” convoy for the cameras — feed the narrative back home that the army is here to stop all the looting — the irony, of course, is the looting is being done by Russian soldiers.

Back in Russia, strictly-controlled state television shows only staged footage of Russian soldiers offering humanitarian aid to pathetic victims. Older Russians, who get most of their news via television, have bought Putin’s lies of neo-Nazis and drug addicts overrunning Ukraine, that this is a humanitarian mission. Putin shut down two independent television stations two days ago. Media coverage is forbidden to use words like “war” or “invasion” or anything that could make Russia look bad.

Fortunately, younger Russians get their news from friends throughout Europe and social media, although Putin banned Facebook earlier today. The younger Russians have roundly rejected Putin’s lies — they know what’s going on in Ukraine and they’re angry and ashamed at their country’s acts.

As for us, the outraged rest of the world, we’re between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Putin brought nukes into the equation as soon as he realized the staggering magnitude of his blunders. Nukes served both as a warning and as a bargaining chip. Surely he wouldn’t launch a preemptive nuclear attack… or would he? Probably not but it’s Putin in a state we’ve never witnessed.

Then, as mentioned above, there’s the first time in history that one nation attacked another’s nuclear power plant. After Russia attacked the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station with rockets, setting it aflame, Russian military personnel eventually seized the facility. The Ukrainian technical staff is being forced to work at gunpoint. Effectively, Putin is holding the largest nuclear power plant in Europe hostage.

The power plant seizure speaks to Putin’s panicked state: he recognized the stakes had changed and he now has less reason to exercise restraint in pursuing his endgame.

Oh, that pesky endgame! Many theoreticians believe Putin is after the former Soviet states. We know he was after Ukraine and NATO breathed a quiet sigh of relief that Ukraine had not yet joined the alliance. But what about Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? The three former Soviet republics are now members of NATO. Former Warsaw Pact members Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Romania lie in the “sphere of influence,” too. If Putin makes a move into any NATO signatory, the alliance is treaty-bound to defend its members. If Putin plays either of his nuclear cards as the Red Army marches into Latvia, how will NATO respond?

Putin won’t go after Poland but Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are likely fair game. As a sign of the times, the Republic of Georgia yesterday asked to fast-track its acceptance into NATO.

Repeatedly, the plaintive cry has come from prominent and ordinary Ukrainians: “Please! Give us a no-fly zone!” It’s a desperate and heartfelt plea and a sensible request. But whoever puts aircraft up over Ukraine effectively places themselves on a war footing with Russia. This is a huge escalation and a massive commitment — if another nuclear-armed nation enforced a no-fly zone, it could potentially lead Putin to start a nuclear war. Everyone, including Ukraine, must consider this factor.

Still, if Putin has his greedy eye on the Baltic States, would it make more sense in terms of time and personnel to stop him right now? If we’re going to have to meet the full terms of defending a NATO signatory later, wouldn’t it give a coalition more flexibility to stop Putin in Ukraine, where we’re not bound to full NATO terms?

At the moment, Putin’s shabby army is capable of inflicting horrific damage but they’re doing it in a shockingly undisciplined and sloppy manner. Up against a coalition with real air power and actual soldiers, the Russian army would retreat, scatter and desert in less than two days.

But all of this is just guesswork, a last-option sort of thing.

So, realistically, what do we do?

Russian Oil
We must cut the Russian oil. It’s not the bulk of what we buy, not by a long shot. We get less than 1.3 percent of our oil from Russia, just under 30 million barrels in 2020. Compare that with the 1.3 billion barrels we imported from Canada the same year.

Russian Products & Investment
We need to cut ties with everything Russian. From the lowliest vodka to greedy venture capitalists and investors, we need to remove ourselves from everything Russian. All Western companies should pull out of the country — this is a moral issue, it supersedes everything else.

United Nations
Russia must lose its seat on the U.N. Security Council.

War Crimes
Putin must face charges of war crimes. The actions of Putin’s army are well-documented. Several Western news organizations are identifying, documenting and plotting what appear to be hundreds of violations including use of prohibited weapons and intentionally attacking civilian targets. The news organizations will turn over evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Putin will almost certainly deny the charges and avoid facing them by remaining out of reach of the ICC — he’ll stay in Russia. Charging Putin will guarantee he never attends a summit, retreat, meeting, reception or banquet ever again. It permanently removes him from the world stage, reducing his effectiveness as Russian leader to almost zero.

In the unlikely event Putin faces the charges, a conviction will secure the same result, plus incarceration

The Oligarchs
Next, the infamous oligarchs. Nearly all of them were ordinary managers within the communist machine. Under the sudden freedoms and restructuring that began with perestroika and broadened dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet government, many were given “loans” to buy the companies they managed.

Under Putin’s corrupt government, all of them got filthy rich — including Putin. The oligarchs act as Putin’s money launderers and secret bankers. Every one of them need to have their assets seized and/or frozen, not just a dozen or two. There are several hundred of them. Their families must be included in seizures, too — adult children were enriched and often ownership of ostentatious toys is shared.

The point in going after the oligarchs is severalfold. They’re all linked and many are very close to Putin. They routinely affect policy. In theory, the oligarchs could affect a regime change, if they wanted it. Ultimately, if the oligarchs are punished, Putin is punished.

An interesting footnote: Putin’s luxury yacht was moved into the safety of Russian waters two weeks before he invaded Ukraine.

In trying to analyze Putin’s motivations, one of the most common theories is his legacy. Putin is a disciplined man who’s been conscious of his legacy for at least the last half of his career. Now, Putin is trying to secure his legacy as the savior who restored the Russian Empire. But then last week happened.

After last week’s series of mammoth errors, Putin will be fortunate to be remembered as anything other than the corrupt tin-pot dictator he revealed himself to be.

But if we play our cards right, Putin will get his notable legacy — it just won’t be quite as grandiose as he imagined. Still, Putin might be enough of a narcissist to appreciate that a legacy of disgrace is better than no legacy at all.

At any rate, his opinion won’t matter for much longer, not more than two or three years, if he’s lucky.

Photograph © 2022

This is part 3 of a 6-part series. Click here for part 1. Click here for part 2. Click here for part 4. Click here for part 5. Click here for part 6.

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