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What keeps me up at night                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Mar/14/2022 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Politics & Gov, World Watching,

I would like to believe that as I have matured in life, I have gotten my emotions under control. When things go well, I enjoy the moment while trying not to celebrate to a level that belittles someone else. When things have not worked out as I have hoped, I try to focus on what should happen next and minimize any outward appearance of being upset or disappointed. There is another emotional situation which I thought I had beat into submission, but current geopolitical events are showing me that FEAR can still be very consuming.

Growing up I was the smallest in my circle of friends. I worked very hard to always be perceived as an equal. I played hard in sports including getting tackled hard in football. I pushed myself to always pop back up with the attitude…”is that all you got?”

When I got older, the challenges to be viewed as an equal become more intense. I have climbed mountains, raced cars and jumped out of planes. All of these challenges required a certain amount of personal management of that ugly beast fear. I still remember looking out the open side of the plane before my first jump. I know I froze, but still managed to step out the plane with only a little hesitation. I know now that in all these situations, I had some control. I could choose to swallow hard and jump, or step back and sit down.

There is another kind of fear, the kind where you feel no sense of control.

I am old enough that when I was in elementary school we did “duck and cover drills.” Obviously, for a second grader these drills had absolutely no meaning except as a distraction from regular reading, writing, and arithmetic activities. In hindsight there would have been no legitimate target to waste a nuclear missile on Beaverton Oregon.
While in high school in the mid 1970’s I learned about all the missiles that the Soviets had pointed at us and all the similar weapons we had aimed at them. I remember the anxiety this created. Every time there was a contrail in the sky or the sound of jet engines, I got worried. Eventually, but not right away I had the concept of “MAD”, Mutual Assured Destruction explained, and I stopped staring at the sky in nervous fear. I remember the teacher explaining that the real fear is what happens when a zealot with nothing to lose, or some extremist group gets control of a nuclear weapon. I was assured by those around me that while the Soviets had a different ideology than us, they understood that no one wins a nuclear war.

The notion of that nuclear weapon getting in the hands of a zealot seemed slight in light of the big and powerful governments who controlled these devices.

Since that time most of my late-night fears have been limited to what kind of people would my children grow up to be? I suspect those are fears and anxieties cause sleepless nights for most parents.

On 24 February 2022 the Russian Army began an invasion of Ukraine. I believe that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin expected this to be a quick and nearly bloodless event. Leaning on the example of how quickly the Crimean Peninsula fell to Russia in 2014, this would be a reasonably valid expectation. A lot has apparently changed in 8 years.

The Russian military has stalled behind poor logistics, equipment failures, and a general lack of military training. On the other side of the battlefield the Ukrainian people have demonstrated significant resilience and most of the western world has united in imposing sanctions on Russia not previously seen. Even Finland and Sweden, who spent the last 80 years being overtly neutral have sent weapons to aid the Ukrainians. There is no doubt that poor intelligence and faulty planning are factors in the stalled Russian war machine.

While most western countries have condemned Russia’s move, support has been slow to happen. Much like the Russian generals, I suspect that most western observers believed as well that Ukraine would fall in 48-72 hours. The Russians are doubling down now and transitioning from a campaign of rapid victory to methodically encircling towns in a siege mindset and then leveling everything. When a conventional war turns into an “urban war” these tactics are unfortunately part of the playbook. Once a city is occupied, every roof top represents a vantage point for a gorilla with an anti-tank weapon or a sniper with a good rifle so getting rid of the rooftops matters.

With things going poorly for Putin, on February 26th he put his nuclear forces on “special combat readiness,” “high alert” in our terminology. Would Putin actually do the unthinkable? Part of established Russian military doctrine is “escalate to deescalate.” This is kind of like playing poker. Really, the strategy is more “escalate to win, escalate to end,” (John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2021). This is the strategy that the threat of nuclear weapons will coerce the enemy to stand down and not fight.

It has been reported that Putin recently fired 6-8 of his senior generals recently. In the West this would be a significant and foretelling event. In Russia dating back to the 1930’s Stalin fired generals in mass. This tradition has continued anytime that the senior military corps proposed a strategy or vision that contradicted Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Yeltsin or Putin. Some observers believe the mass firings are done to reduce the risk of a “house coup.”

There is no good path forward at this point. Putin has effectively locked down the flow of information into Russia. Most citizens appear to believe that they are fighting a war of liberation in Ukraine. The Russian war machine has transitioned to attacking urban centers including apartments, hospitals and such instead of military and communications targets exclusively. This kind of war leaves Putin and his inner circle facing war crimes if they are every captured. Putin is really only left with completing his campaign and then erecting a new “Iron Curtain” to avoid facing consequences in the west.

The elephant in the room is China. China publicly is a strong supporter of Russia and its ambitions, but this campaign in Ukraine must be leaving Chinese leadership with a great deal to consider. While China is a center for world trade and manufacturing, this is mostly because their labor is cheap and reliable. They are very dependent on the rest of the world to feed their population. The Chinese backing of Russia may in the midst of the resulting humanitarian crisis and western unity bring pause to their considered alliances and their vision for Taiwan.

In the short-term Putin seems safe behind his "propaganda bubble,” but international sanctions will begin to impact daily life in Russia very soon. Whether it is the lack of a new iPhone, or wounded soldiers returning home with a different story…..the pressure to change is coming.

There is another internal Russian force that has not been talked about much in terms of power. These are the Russian oligarch’s. The oligarch’s are a collection of powerful businessmen. In truth, they are mostly former high ranking state officials from the Soviet era. When the USSR fell and the means was available to accumulate “private property,” they leveraged their positions to acquire large amounts of wealth and resources which ultimately means power. Much of their wealth is dependent on being able to participate in the world markets. These powerful individuals are entirely likely to do some action amongst themselves to depose or rein in Putin.

It is still very clear that things like international sanctions were considered by Putin in his run up to attacking Ukraine. It is also clear that he did not realize how his war chest would be frozen in international banks. Much like his military showing that they were unprepared for an organized resistance, so to his economy many not be as resilient has he hoped.

I am still trying figuring out how to deal with my anxieties about nuclear weapons. I feel like I have circled back to that lesson learned in high school about nuclear weapons. Big governments are supposed to be smart enough to not actually use them. The fear was, what happens when an extremist group or individual get control of one. Unfortunately, backed into a corner…now Putin appears more and more like one of the extremist zealots. I hope the people he gives orders to are more grounded in reality.

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Elbert Hubbard
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