For Poland and Czechoslovakia and other former Warsaw Pact members who had been under the Russian heal since the end of the war, it's the critical protective shield.
Former president Donald Trump does not seem at all surprised by the invasion, nor does he seem particularly bothered by it. Once again, he dutifully praised Vladimir Putin for the "genius" of his political maneuvering. This seems both unamerican and a little uninformed on Trump's part.
Looking back to the post-war Soviet era, Russia had a buffer zone of eastern European countries between itself and western Europe. They controlled East Germany which provided protection against any resurgent German rearmament. But it's been a long time and NATO isn't an offensive threat to Russia in any otherwise normal world.
The Sunday political shows and internet news sites are full of half-sourced evaluations mixed with other stories that seem like wishful thinking. A lot of us are hoping that the wishes will come true, even as we know that the world is not a Walt Disney creation.
It may be that the Russian invasion has stalled ever so little.
The best case scenario, if you can use that kind of language in the face of a massive human tragedy, is that this will turn out to be Putin's great failure.
I don't see how any person, no matter how well versed on the situation, can really know, including Putin himself. There are a few tantalizing clues.
What are the overall lessons of the past week?
The first is an old story. Living in a dictatorship is dangerous to your health. I think we Americans already knew that right down to our bones (most of us anyway), but the people who either live in dictatorships or are in the process of creating a dictatorship out of an anarchy don't always realize that their momentary relief from violence provided by the latest strong-man is paid for by a lifetime of danger and suffering. Back when I was reading Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples, I began to realize that for all his political savvy, Churchill didn't realize that the main lesson from his series was the dangers of living under a hereditary monarchy. We now have an analogous situation for both the Russian and Ukrainian people with respect to the danger of living under retaliation against political speech.
It is a great failure and true tragedy that the Russian people did not understand well enough the dangers of a newer dictatorship in the days following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The next lesson is that NATO has been a resounding success in protecting its own members from invasion and aggression. Remember that the original reason for its founding was the situation immediately following WWII, when the Russian Army was occupying much of eastern Europe and Stalin was installing puppet rulers in all of the occupied countries. Western rulers worried that the Soviets could potentially try to extend the Warsaw Pact further west. The concern was that a Russian ruler might come into power who would be reckless and aggressive. Sound familiar all of a sudden?
That's where the current level of wishful thinking comes in. The news is full of two kinds of stories. The first -- generally credible -- is that Russia has lost the propaganda war already. There don't seem to be a lot of people either in Europe or anywhere else who are buying into Putin's list of reasons for the invasion. The New Republic online led off with a story that Putin had already lost.
The lesson for Ukraine and its bordering countries is three-fold: The first is that Ukraine wouldn't have been invaded had they already been a member of NATO. The next is that the NATO countries should have tried harder to bring Ukraine into its alliance. The final lesson is for the future should Ukraine survive the invasion: Joining NATO ought to be their first priority.
(For this reason, Russia is likely to make it a priority in any peace negotiation that Ukraine never join NATO. Ukraine and the rest of Europe should say NO. Alternatively, they can wait for Putin's rule to end, and then become part of the alliance.)
The worst case scenario is that Russia totally defeats the Ukrainian army, turns Ukraine into another puppet state, and gradually grinds down all opposition through its willingness to be brutal. If we, along with the rest of the world, go back to business as usual and normal trade relations with Russia, that is what will happen. The presidential election of 2024 is therefore another danger to Ukrainian independence.
The tantalizing hints, as mentioned above, suggest that the Ukrainians are doing a lot better than the experts had expected. As one colleague explained, she expected that Ukraine would be defeated before dinner. Instead, they appear to be holding on, at least in the north. Newsfeeds from the east suggest at least some minimal level of effect coming from the resistance. On the other hand, we also see clips of Ukrainians, almost cheerful as they hand-build Molotov cocktails. The clip had a curiously staged look, and I feared for those youngsters even as I watched.
We read of Ukrainian attempts at psychological warfare, including the defenders talking directly to the Russian invaders, asking them why they are attacking their brothers. Is it really happening? If so, to what extent?
We seem to be back to the days of a CNN War, where the latest stories are on video and transferred by satellite at the speed of light. This goes far in undermining Russian propaganda.
One thing the Sunday news showed was that there is plenty of support for the Ukraine in this country but, as one announcer told us, there didn't seem to be anybody actually defending the Russian side. To those of us of a certain age, this is different from what used to be.
As to the military reality, my guess would be that the ability to maintain an air force and an effective level of defense against the Russian Airforce is key. Being able to attack the enemy armor from the air at least gives you some defense against being overrun in a matter of hours. Having no air force and being outnumbered in tanks and soldiers is a recipe to be overrun within a few days.
We do read that the west, including NATO countries, are sending anti-tank and anti-aircraft arms to Ukraine at a high rate.
For a more in-depth analysis by a military expert, check out Robert Farley at Lawyers Guns & Money which you can find here. Farley points out that the Ukrainian situation has stimulated Germany's leader to call for a 50% increase in German military spending. Farley argues (referring to German leader Scholz) "If Scholz holds, Russia has already lost this war in any meaningful geostrategic sense. German rearmament is Russia's nightmare, in no small part because German GDP is 2.5x that of Russia."
But that's a long-run prediction regarding a significant blow to any future Russian adventurism. Here is Farley's more pessimistic view on the immediate future:
" Spoke a bit about this yesterday on twitter, but I would caution against optimistic assessments of Ukraine’s military situation. It does appear to be true that Russia forces have not met the timetable that they set for themselves, have suffered casualties that most countries would consider unacceptable, and have met a degree of resistance that they did not expect. But you could have said at least two out of the three of these things about the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Military operations are dynamic, and a successful holding action at one place along the front can produce defensive gaps in other areas that lead to rapid collapse if the attacker is flexible enough to take advantage."
Most of the experts and pundits were predicting that Russia would occupy Ukraine but were hoping that the Ukrainians would be able to engage in long term resistance. As one expert on the Stephen Colbert show explained, "remember that we thought Iraq would be easy."
So at the moment, we're apparently supposed to hope that Ukraine will be Russia's Iraq or, to extend the metaphor, like Russia's attempt to occupy Afghanistan.
A note to and about Trump supporters
Reports and televised clips show Donald Trump's response to Putin's efforts as he spoke to a packed room of his supporters. You've all probably seen it. Trump refers to Putin's recognition of Ukrainian areas as separate countries as "genius." At a moment that the world was fearful that what has now happened would indeed happen, Trump was entirely mindless of the potential misery and slaughter that would befall the Ukrainians. He spoke with frank admiration of how Putin could take Ukraine for a few dollars in sanctions.
There was an insensitivity in those remarks that is stark and striking. Even if these remarks did not show that Trump is, indeed, in Putin's back pocket, they certainly show that he does not and cannot empathize with the rest of humanity the way a normal person would. Trump's latest actions show that he is either the crassest of opportunists or that he is a traitor to everything his country stands for.
One news source took the time to remind us that when he was president, Trump, in his attempt to extort political favors from Ukraine, withheld $400 million in military aid until the publicity forced him finally to provide the assistance. But of course the hard-right in the U.S. congress want to blame the Russian actions on the Biden administration. Good luck with that.
Here's a suggestion that should be fun for conspiracy theorists out there: Trump is close to Putin because Russian intelligence has something on Trump, and Trump has provided intelligence to the Russians over the years. Trump wasn't and isn't surprised at the Russian invasion of Ukraine because he already knew it was coming. Maybe Putin didn't tell him directly, but the two of them are pretty close psychologically, particularly in their lack of empathy.
Addendum: A mayoral candidates' forum
On Sunday, the San Pedro Democratic Club hosted a mayoral candidate forum. The candidates who appeared were Mike Feuer, Kevin DeLeon, Joe Buscaino, and Karen Bass. DeLeon and Buscaino are currently City Council members, Feuer is the City Attorney, and Bass is in the House of Representatives. The procedure was that locals were invited in advance to ask one question each. It became obvious from the very beginning that the candidates were going to be put on the spot with regard to being opposed to any introduction of automation at the Port of Los Angeles because it would cost longshoremen their jobs. Every candidate promised to be against automation, at least automation that wasn't also designed to preserve the same number of jobs at the same salaries.
We didn't see even one of the candidates promising to make such decisions based on what's good for everyone in the city as opposed to one interest group. A couple of them tried to rationalize their promises along these lines, but none of it was very convincing. I happened to hope, along with most people in the room, that we would have lots of well paid workers, lots less air pollution, and money flowing into the rest of the local economy, but it's not obvious to me that this is going to be the case in spite of the promises that were made.
But all of the candidates got in line on this issue, and it was obvious from that point on that this wasn't going to be a very interesting afternoon. There wasn't a lot of difference among the candidates on any of the questions. Maybe Joe Buscaino, as the former police officer, went a little further to the right as he spoke of the chaos in our streets due to crime, or something along those lines.
Here's the question that wasn't asked of the City Council members or of the City Attorney: In terms of the crimes committed by members of the City Council in recent years and during your terms, what did you know and when did you know it?
There was a question asked of the candidates about the currently poor relationship between our neighborhood councils and the current city government agencies. They all offered up nicely tuned bromides and platitudes. A couple of them (including the City Attorney, who had been on the City Council at one time) told us about how they had created the equivalent of neighborhood councils or worked with something like them way back when, or had been instrumental in their creation. None of them seemed to have much in the way of specific knowledge of the real problems existent in the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment or the city's own curtain of silence when it comes to realistic discussions with us. We need a lot more from our candidates, first of all to make for an interesting debate, and second of all to keep me awake if I ever attend another of them.
I just saw a new Rick Caruso ad on television. It was better than the previous ad, but not really convincing. I'm not terribly impressed by a multimillionaire promising to work for a dollar a year, and promises to fix LA or the equivalent are really pretty superfluous. The ad hinted at some previous government service pasted over old photos of former mayors, but I still don't know who Caruso is or how well he could govern.
On that one day in one candidate forum, Karen Bass wins narrowly on points.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com)