The sound of an iron curtain falling?

Jeremy Gordin writes on Vladimir Putin and Russia's decision to invade the Ukraine

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” said Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

“History is a nightmare during which I’m trying to get a good night’s rest,” said Von Humboldt Fleisher in Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow.

“History is a nightmare which grabbed me this morning, as I was getting out of bed,” said Jeremy Gordin.

This is to say: as I woke, I heard that the Russian Federation/Vladimir Putin had invaded Ukraine in the early hours of this morning, after Putin announced to the Russian people that a “special military operation” would strive for “the demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine – which has by the way (well, for now), a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

This “denazification” is but one of the many seemingly inexplicable elements of the whole business (I’ll get back to it); and all these inexplicable elements made me think of just how difficult it is, especially from Parkview rather than Kyiv, to figure out just what the hell is going on. (Though I don’t suppose it’d be much better in Kyiv).

There is just so much ... not exactly misinformation (though there’s no doubt tons of it too) ... there are just so many conflicting “narratives”.

But I calmed down and remembered the famous question put by Pontius Pilate to Jesus (who, according to some, was also messing with the local imperial power). “Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?” (KJV John 18:38).

As you might know, Pilate’s precise intention has been debated endlessly by intemellectuals. Was Pilate’s question some kind of bad joke (“jesting Pilate”), suggesting inter alia that Jesus’ “trial” was a mockery? Or was Pilate actually trying to reflect or discuss the philosophical “position” that truth is well-nigh impossible to ascertain [i] ? No firm conclusion has yet been reached [ii].

All I’m trying to say that it’s difficult to grasp why Putin and his generals would take the giant step of “invading” Ukraine proper [iii]. What’s the point? Why go through all this mess and palaver, not to mention the death and destruction that look as though they might already be happening?

Broadly speaking, the one main narrative is simply that Putin’s a nasty and malevolent autocrat who – not having got his way over halting Ukraine from possibly joining Nato at some point – has flouted international law, obliterated the best negotiating track (the Minsk agreement), and thereby in one fell swoop destroyed world “democracy,” international law, and is taking Europe perilously close to World War Three. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Today, on CNN, I heard General Sir Richard Shirreff, NATO’s deputy supreme [iv] allied commander for Europe from 2011-14, say that there is no doubt that Putin’s plan is to flatten Nato and its allies in Europe. Full stop.

A local commentator, J Brooks Spector, has raised the spectre of China and Iran deciding this might be a good moment to pick fights: “[W]ill this moment in world politics ... give China the sense that ... now [is] the best time for some real action towards Taiwan, an island the Chinese consistently claim to be an integral part of China ... [W]ould Iran see this moment as the time to deal decisively with its enemies on the Arabian Peninsula and Israel – or vice versa?”

This narrative is bolstered by suggestions from a number of “politicians and media analysts [that] Putin may be mentally unstable, or that he is isolated in a bubble of yes-men who don’t warn him of dangers ahead [v]. Many commentators say he is trying to restore the Soviet Union or recreate a Russian sphere of influence on his country’s borders, and that this week’s intrusion into eastern Ukraine is the first step towards an all-out attack on Kyiv to topple its government and even move against the Baltic states.”

That quote comes from a piece in the UK Guardian written by my brother-in-law Jonathan Steele, for six years the Moscow bureau chief, and generally a clear-eyed commentator, especially on matters Russian.

But Steele then turns on (what I am calling) the main narrative, which has been adopted by nearly all the mainstream media, by saying that the above views and assertions are not “necessarily true” (the English are very polite).

Steele wrote that “The Russian president is a rational man with his own analysis of recent European history” and that what happened this week is that “Putin lost his patience, and his temper. He is furious with the Ukraine government”.

Steele argues that Putin feels Ukraine has repeatedly rejected the Minsk agreement, which would give the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk substantial autonomy, and he is angry with France and Germany, the co-signatories, and the United States, for not pressing Ukraine’s president to implement them.

Putin is equally angry, says Steele, with the Americans for shunning Russia’s early interest in joining Nato, for not taking on board Russia’s security concerns about Nato’s expansion and the deployment of offensive missiles close to Russia’s borders. “By invading Donetsk and Luhansk, [Putin] has created a ‘frozen conflict,’ knowing the alliance cannot admit countries that don’t control all their borders. Frozen conflicts already cripple Georgia and Moldova, which are also split by pro-Russian statelets. Now Ukraine joins the list,” wrote Steele.

Problem is Steele’s final paragraph (written on 23 February or the day before that): “There is speculation about what will happen next but from [Putin’s] standpoint, it is not actually necessary to send troops further into the country. He has already taken what he needs.”

Oops. Trouble is that today Putin did send in his troops.

Another person who has “challenged” the MSM version is Sir Tony Brenton, British ambassador to Russia from 2004–2008. He’s said that Putin’s “huge gamble” came after Putin apparently saw “no alternative”.

Although Putin “is at fault,” said Brenton – “It’s an appalling breach of international law, it’s a major shift in the way we do business in Europe, and the world is made significantly worse by it” – Brenton says the West did play a big role in the disaster by not taking the Kremlin’s security concerns into consideration. He said: “There’s [been] a certain unwillingness by the West to recognize how seriously Putin takes this issue.”

Brenton added: “The Russian government and Putin in particular don’t take sanctions seriously. Not because they dismiss the potential economic damage they can do, but because they take Russian national security much more seriously than they take Russian economic welfare.”

Brenton said Russia will continue to do business with China, India, Middle Eastern countries, and many others that will not shun Russia and continue to see it as a mighty and important country.

“People talking about getting the whole world together to oppose Putin is obviously unrealistic,” Brenton said. “What is going on here in a way is a demonstration of the diminishing clout that the West holds over world affairs compared to where we were actually quite recently, five or 10 years ago.”

Brenton also remarked: “The measure of being a serious power isn’t how moral you are, it’s how strong you are. And Russia has demonstrated, I’m afraid, significant political will and, depending on how the war goes, significant military capacity to make itself felt in the world.”

What then might Putin say about history? “The history of my country is a nightmare through which I live every day, and I’ve extracted from it what I need. What anyway is truth?” [vi]

As for history, it’s a fickle business, isn’t it? If Putin pulls off his gamble, and “reunites” old Imperial Russia, he might be remembered, like Bismarck, as one of the greatest statesmen of his age.

But if he fails, and especially if this leads to his downfall, he could be remembered as one of the greatest criminals.


[i] There were a lot of Pyrrhonists and Academic Skeptics around in those days who argued that truth could not be grasped.

[ii] It’s also been suggested by some commentators that Pilate’s question was the result of frustration at not being able to get from Jesus a straightforward reply to his questions.

And, by the way, if you’re interested (and somehow to me it feels relevant), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Do I still have to add that in the entire New Testament there is only one solitary figure one is obliged to respect? Pilate, the Roman governor. To take a Jewish affair seriously – he cannot persuade himself to do that. One Jew more or less – what does it matter?... The noble scorn of a Roman before whom an impudent misuse of the word ‘truth’ was carried on has enriched the New Testament with the only expression which possesses value – which is its criticism, its annihilation even: ‘What is truth...’” (The Antichrist, section 46.)

[iii] I.e., excluding The Donbas (the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic) and the Crimea.

[iv] And presumably he was a real (deputy) “supreme” commander – commanding more soldiers etc. than the “supreme” commander of the EFF.

[v] Ironically, though, there is also (another!) narrative that many of those close to Putin didn’t/don’t want him to pursue this course – and it is they who have been leaking information to the US – whose intelligence has for once been (you might have noticed) surprisingly good.

[vi] Talking of which: that “denazification” thing: “the Azov Special Operations Detachment or Azov Battalion (until September 2014), is a Neo-Nazi Ukrainian National Guard unit, based in Mariupol, in the Azov Sea coastal region. It saw its first combat experience recapturing Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists forces in June 2014. In November 2014, Azov was incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine, and since then all members are contract soldiers serving in the National Guard of Ukraine”. Wikipedia.