When the Shirt Hits the Fan
By Jim Kent
One of the first, and I think most important things, for amuriccans to remember about this war is that it is not a Russian war, not even if you toss in Belarus. It is a war initiated and solely belonging to Vlad the Shirtless, accompanied by the ventriloquial figure Lukashenko. Nobody in the US or Ukraine or NATO or the Samoan national cricket team wanted this war. It looks like not that many people in Russia wanted it until Vlad the Shirtless shut down all their sources of actual news, and many still don't.
So let's not go after individual Russians, even if we can identify them--our record of being able to tell, say, Muslims from Sikhs is not reassuring. And this also goes for Russian businesses, most of which are not Russian, and anybody with a name we think is Russian, most of which aren't. And whatever you do, please leave the Russian Tea Room on West 57th alone. It was founded around 1930 by folks leaving Russia because of Josef Stalin, one of the personal heroes and political role models of Vlad the Shirtless.
Pretty much everybody agrees, except Putin's sock puppets, that the invasion has been botched badly from the outset. A surprise attack may work if your team is ready for it and the other team isn't, but this war started with that prerequisite not only unmet but reversed. Almost nobody in Russia, including operational-level military leaders, had been told about it. If you don't know something is going to happen, you're probably not going to prepare for it adequately. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, have been more or less expecting something like this invasion for several years and have mostly used the time wisely.
Among others who were unprepared were the people of the US and its Friends-and-Relations. The US gummint did a remarkably good job of telling us what Putin was going to do, but a miserable job of telling us what it would mean for us. You had to find some niche economists for that, and most people don't know niche economists. The niche economist biz has some sad stories--one of my first deans had taken a Ph.D. in Soviet economics, a field that evanesced as the dew at midday--but anybody who can talk about such commodities as wheat and nickel is turning down several t.v. interviews a day. Even the monetary specialists get asked a lot more about the effect of the ruble devaluation on say, the Turkish lira. And, of course, sanctions lawyers will be able to retire by St. Swithin's Day if it doesn't rain. But I digress, which is what we do in my family instead of preparing.
What this means is that many amurricans were surprised at shortages and price rises, and of course blame The Current Incumbent for these unpleasantries. The price rises, as we all know, were on the way before the Ukraine invasion, but have been given a considerable boost by that event. This will have strange effects on our government, including whatever happens in the November elections; I am still not taking bets on that.
Among other things, the lack of preparation by anybody who isn't Ukraine means nobody can right now figure out a plausible ending. One thing that often works is allowing The Bad Guys to lower their aspirations and declare victory short of absolute annihilation. For example, Zelensky's head or a successful occupation of at least Odessa might work. However, that depends on Vlad the Shirtless being satisfied with that. One is not optimistic on that score.
He seems to want to be seen as Peter the Great or Catherine the Ditto or Comrade Stalin, and not Ivan the Terrible after the Poland adventure and concomitant economic wreckage. He will not, I am afraid, be pacified by just taking some chunks out of Ukraine. Whether he has in mind the same fate for Poland or the Baltics or Moldova remains to be seen. Of course, some sort of peace agreement is theoretically possible as long as nobody on the not-Putin team believes for a minute that he intends to honor it. He has already violated an agreement on that topic, and has in the meantime shown no inclination to decent behavior.
If I were Vlad the Shirtless (I'm not; I am forbidden to go out shirtless because it frightens the dogs and children), I might arrange an attack on the Baltics or Poland by, or at least from, Belarus. This would be a quick and easy way to test NATO's commitment to Article V without involving Russia directly. Lukashenko wouldn't enjoy being tossed off the sleigh to the wolves, but there is a reported Russian saying to the effect that if you dance with a bear, it is not you who decides when the dance is over.
Putin would very much like Zelensky to vanish completely or at least wake up dead one morning. If he's captured he'll have to be poisoned while trying to escape, or commit suicide by shooting himself in the back several times. Even Putin doesn't think anyone would believe that. I have some acquaintances who say Zelensky won't be killed because he's so brave. This is pretty dumb--everybody at the Alamo was presumptively brave.
Anyway, no matter what shape Zelensky is in that morning, the resistance will not perforce end by lunchtime. This will almost surely go on at some level of intensity for entirely too long. Even Disney would find it hard to write an ending that would be both relatively pleasant and remotely believable.
One thing that is not helpful is to characterize Vlad the Shirtless as evil or stupid or crazy. He is certainly the first, certainly not the second, and probably not the third. Even if he were, labels really don't help to design responses. Another is to wish him suddenly dead. He would almost surely be succeeded by either chaos or someone just as bad, or both in either order. We'll have to ride this out, making mostly tactical adjustments to whatever he comes up with on any given day.
So buckle up. And if you haven't already started to, watch Zelensky's "Servant of the People" on Netflix. It is very funny, but not as funny as it would have been several years ago.