A highly simplified crash course on the situation in Ukraine, fourth analysis
The whole thing reads like a soap opera. It’s got intrigue, jealousy, backstabbing, violence. It’s got guns, Nazis, a David and Goliath drama.
The problem is, it’s deadly real.
When Putin says he’s going after Nazis, he’s not entirely lying. While Ukraine is not overrun by National Socialists and boasts a Jewish president, Nazis do play a role in this lopsided war. The Azov Battalion — sometimes called the Azov Detachment or Azov Regiment — is a unit of the National Guard of Ukraine, based in Mariupol. What sets the regiment apart is its professed right-wing extremist ideals and use of neo-Nazi insignia. The regiment was initially formed as a volunteer militia in 2014, seeing its first combat experience recapturing Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists in June of that year. Then, in November, the regiment was incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine, making its members official soldiers serving in the guard.
Obviously, the racist ideals of the regiment are detestable and officially sanctioning such a unit would be unheard of in the West. But things are different in Eastern Europe.
Anti-Semitism is deeply entrenched in parts of Eastern Europe. It is an ancient hatred, not usually flaunted but it is alive and well. Before people of Eastern European heritage take offense, please know I am not indicting any single group. No part of the world is free from racism and I do not wish this essay to be sidetracked by the racism that lives on the continent. Further, some of the world’s most vibrant Jewish communities had deep roots in Eastern Europe, communities that thrived for hundreds of years. But like any place on Earth, some people are racists.
Nevertheless, the first time I encountered anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, I was startled. It was matter-of-fact, a workaday sort of thing, unhidden, not aggressive but definitely overt. As I began watching for it, I saw an anti-Semitism deep and old, almost a fact of life, a custom passed from father to son. In the U.S., we expect such racism to take an angry form, a Nazis-in-Skokie kind of thing. The anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe is ancient, quiet yet pervasive — it’s different than what we see here.
Although Putin has turned a 900-strong racist regiment into hordes of Nazis, at least his grand lie is based in a bit of truth.
On the theme of going big, current thinking holds that Putin has grandiose plans to create not some new Soviet Union, but the sprawling old Imperial Russian Empire. Like all empires, Imperial Russia’s borders and territories were somewhat liquid, as leaders and wars came and went. But altogether, Imperial Russia was at one point the largest country in the world, extending from the Black Sea to the Bering Straits. If Putin could secure this as his legacy, Russian history would hold him in high esteem, a latter-day Alexander the Great.
But Putin’s big plans are falling apart. And those big plans are falling apart in a big way.
In the last two days, the Red Army has accomplished nothing of note, other than attacking civilians. Oh, yeah, it wiped out Kharkiv’s schools and hospitals. As it stands, hundreds of war crimes have been documented on video. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has launched an investigation. And Russia has embarrassingly little to show for it.
The bizarre moments of black comedy that have peppered this affair continued when a Ukrainian farmer hitched his tractor to Russian Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile system and towed it right on into town. The incident meant little, but it provided a deliciously insulting image against the “might” of the Red Army.
On the other side, in the last two days Ukrainian forces report killing hundreds of Russian troops, destroying dozens of Russian helicopter gunships, retaking the city of Chuhuiv and sinking a Russian warship off Odessa. Exaggerated? Maybe. But maybe not. Even if it’s half true, the Ukrainians are kicking Russian ass.
In total, Ukraine estimates 11,000 Russian soldiers are dead, 1,000 armored vehicles are destroyed along with nearly 300 tanks, 68 helicopters and just under 50 fixed-wing aircraft. Independent observers offer lower estimates but the International Institute for Strategic Studies says “the situation is becoming unsustainable for Russia.”
At least one ranking military commander believes the Red Army might be on its last legs. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff and current Chief of the Defence Staff — professional commander of the British Armed Forces — suggested that Putin’s “decimated” force could lose the war in Ukraine. Coming on the heels of Pentagon reports that 95 percent of Russia’s combat power is currently concentrated in Ukraine and a 24-hour period that saw eight Russian warplanes shot down, Radakin said, “Russia is suffering, Russia is an isolated power. It is less powerful than it was ten days ago. Some of the lead elements of Russian forces have been decimated by the Ukrainian response.”
Radakin detailed failure after failure in Russian equipment, maintenance and discipline. He explained that Russia hasn’t operated at the current complex scale since World War II. He pointed to the infamous convoy of hundreds of vehicles and upwards of 15,000 troops, stalled by embarrassing Russian ineptitude, sitting outside Kyiv, a full month behind schedule, according to U.K. intelligence sources.
When asked if a Russian win was inevitable, Radakin didn’t hesitate. “No. I think we’ve seen a Russian invasion that is not going well,” said the admiral. “I think we’re also seeing remarkable resistance by Ukraine, both its armed forces and its people and we’re seeing the unity of the whole globe coming together, applying pressure to Russia.”
On the other hand, one of the world’s top experts on Russian affairs offers a grave warning.
Fiona Hill says we’re in World War III, we just don’t know it yet.
Hill, an academic who’s spent years watching and parsing Russian affairs, asserts that World War III began in 2014 or before. Hill worked as an intelligence analyst under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Under Donald Trump, she served as deputy assistant to the president and National Security Council (NSC) senior director for European and Russian affairs. Hill’s eventual clashes with Trump are irrelevant to her expertise — there is likely no more qualified expert on Russian affairs than Hill. That’s why Hill’s warning should be taken deadly seriously.
“We’re already in [World War III]. We have been for some time,” Hill told Politico, detailing how the major conflicts of the 2oth Century were entwined. “Many of the things that we’re talking about here have their roots in the carving up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire at the end of World War I,” she said. Hill then brought up recent events in Syria, Iraq and Kuwait.
“All of the conflicts that we’re seeing have roots in those earlier conflicts,” said Hill. “We are already in a hot war over Ukraine, which started in 2014. People shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that we’re just on the brink of something. We’ve been well and truly in it for quite a long period of time.”
I believe Hill is correct, even if Putin has overextended at the moment. In the hindsight 100 years from now, the Ukraine invasion may go down as a prelude to a much larger, much more complicated, much further reaching action.
Even today, the Russians are hinting at a cease-fire, ostensibly for humanitarian purposes. Yeah, right. We’ve all seen horrific videos of the Red Army shelling families during so-called cease-fires — yes families with kids, literally blown to shreds, caught on video, more than once. There’s nothing humanitarian about barbarians needing to regroup. But it sounds good in the world media.
Back in the Soviet Union — oops, I mean Russia — media has been shut down, social media has been cut off, police are brutally cracking down on growing demonstrations as the Russian people discover their government lied about everything and is systemically wiping out Ukrainian civilians, even as they flee.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reacted strongly to Russia’s latest war crimes in a television address today. “A man, a woman and two children. Right on the road… they were just trying to get out of town. To escape,” said Zelensky. “…How many such families have died in Ukraine?”
After stating Ukrainians would neither forgive nor forget, he went on. “We will punish everyone who committed atrocities in this war, on our land. We will find every bastard which shot at our cities, our people… There will be no quiet place on this Earth for you, except for the grave.”
I stand behind my original assertion that the Russian people offer perhaps the best ending to this situation. If they stand up in sufficient numbers — tens of thousands at a time — no oppressive action will stifle the Russian disgust at what’s taking place in their name.
The Russian people are starting to figure out what the world already knows. Their revulsion may yet be the key to blunting Putin’s ego and ending his bloody fool’s errand.
Photograph © 2022 Ahmed Zalabany via Unsplash