As Putin tests the waters, &c.

acceptable solution
Russian president Vladimir Putin attends Navy Day in St. Petersburg, July 29, 2018. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klementyev/Kremlin via Reuters)

On Russia, Ukraine, Cuba, Hungary, China, and more

Putin is testing the waters in Ukraine — seeing how far he can go. Will anyone resist him (besides the Ukrainians, to the extent they can)?

Commenting on the clash in the Black Sea, which took place last Sunday, Garry Kasparov tweeted, “Another dangerous step in Putin’s war on Ukraine. And if unopposed, he’ll take another and another, until he goes too far and we have the wider conflict everyone thinks they’re avoiding by not reacting to his first steps.”

Deterrence is an elementary concept, but often forgotten or ignored. Or shied away from. People may argue that deterrence is too costly or too dangerous — but if you shy away from it, you may find yourself with a far worse problem on your hands.

“The U.S. can’t be the world’s policeman!” This cry has rung out for decades — and there is obvious truth in it. But I am reminded of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who said, What if there’s a world criminal? Who’s going to stop him? Will he go unchecked? What then?

Many, many people regard Ukraine as expendable. (These do not include the Ukrainians.) Aren’t they kinda sorta Russian anyway, you know? (No.) In any case, remember the proverb: “L’appétit vient en mangeant.” Appetite comes from eating. Don’t suppose that a man such as Putin will be sated with one state.

And why should Ukraine play Czechoslovakia?

In 2016, when I was writing about Putin and his “near abroad,” a colleague told me, “Relax: Ukraine will revert to Russia, as is the historic norm.” He was practically looking forward to this. In my view, however, some historic norms are made to be broken — e.g., slavery.

The domination of the Baltic states by Russia is a historic norm, too. Should we be relaxed about the “reversion” of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to Russia, too?

America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, spoke strongly about the incident in the Black Sea:

Sunday’s outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory is part of a pattern of Russian behavior …

What we witnessed this weekend is yet another reckless Russian escalation. …

The United States will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine against this Russian aggression. …

In the name of international peace and security, Russia must immediately cease its unlawful conduct and respect the navigational rights and freedoms of all states.

President Trump spoke with a different tone: “We do not like what’s happening either way.” (“Either way” is an interesting formulation.) “We don’t like what’s happening, and hopefully it’ll get straightened out.”

A reporter on Russian state TV seized on the difference between Trump and Haley, and mocked the latter: “She must have an unstable connection to the Captain’s Bridge, since the owner of the White House didn’t blame Russia.”

On Twitter, Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said, “This is why what the president says matters.”

Yes, it does. I don’t envy President Trump, and his team, having to deal with the problem of Russia and Ukraine (not to mention Iran, North Korea, and other problems) — but that’s what they signed up for. We must all root for their wisdom.

• A headline in the Globe and Mail read, “Canada’s brain-injured Cuba diplomats speak out about Ottawa’s silence.” And the first paragraph:

For members of the tight-knit community of Canadian diplomats based in Havana, life became terrifying and disorienting last year — and many of them, speaking to the media for the first time, say it has only become more aggravating since mysterious cases of brain injury forced them to return to Canada.

The rest of the article is here. I was moved by the statement of one diplomat: “We understand foreign policy is not always about transparency. … We get that. But not when it comes to the detriment of our family, our health, and our safety. That is where we have to draw the line. It’s not acceptable to be the sacrificed sheep. That’s just not an acceptable solution.”

• Let’s check in on Orbán’s Hungary. A headline reads, “The DEA busted two Russian arms dealers and Hungary extradited them to Moscow.” This is very bad news. A fascinating story, regardless — an infuriating story, too (here). With the help of the Hungarians, we captured these men — who were set to supply Mexican drug cartels in their fight against American law enforcement. We requested the extradition of the arms dealers to the United States. But Orbán sent them home to his friend Vlad.

America first, you know?

Speaking of that: Orbán and Steve Bannon are partnering. A natural match. See a Reuters report, here. One line reads, “Orban has welcomed the idea of Bannon’s group, called The Movement, saying it was time that someone from the United States came to Europe to spread conservative thinking instead of liberal values.”

Well, a lot depends on what you mean by “conservative” and what you mean by “liberal.”

One more item: You know how some people say that Orbán refuses to accept any refugees, escaping persecution? He made an exception: Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia’s former prime minister, who was due to serve a jail sentence for corruption, but escaped into Orbán’s arms, apparently with the help of Hungarian intelligence. (Article here.)

• Readers may remember that I wrote about the Bitkov family, a Russian family who had fled to Guatemala and were there imprisoned. Their case was a Kafkaesque brew of Kremlin darkness and local complicity. My article is here.

Two lawyers who have helped the Bitkovs are Victoria Sandoval and Rolando Alvarado. They are two of the most noble, selfless, and compassionate people I have ever known, or heard about. They received the Sergei Magnitsky award for human rights — and their remarks on that occasion are here, on video. If you have the time, it will be well repaid.

I am in awe of such people, really. And grateful for them.

• Laura Mannering served a term as bureau chief in Hong Kong for the Agence France-Presse. She saw the walls close in, so to speak — or the noose tighten. More and more, the Chinese Communist Party is asserting its control. Read her farewell piece, here.

It is titled “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkey.” This is an idiom, she explains, denoting the use of “heavy-handed tactics to make an example of someone in a bid to deter others.”

• “You’re playing around with the wrong person.” That’s what President Trump told General Motors, according to the president himself. The company had displeased him.

In the United States, is the president the boss of business? Is this conservative? Or populist or nationalist? It seems to me more Perón than America, as traditionally understood.

Trump also speaks of “running the country.” He “runs the country,” he says. In ordinary times, this would make conservative heads explode.

In recent days, one of Trump’s spokespeople, Kellyanne Conway, has said, “He runs the country’s economy” (“he” being Trump). Is that true? She also said, in reference to GM workers who have been laid off, “The message to them is that this president has created an economy where their skill sets can thrive.” Does a president create an economy?

It seems to me that conservative lessons, taught over the decades, have not made a dent, or much of one. If a Republican administration can speak this way — what hope is there for, say, a typical university?

• Trump is always knocking Joe McCarthy. Will the Right stand for it? For example, the president jotted the following tweet yesterday:

While the disgusting Fake News is doing everything within their power not to report it that way, at least 3 major players are intimating that the Angry Mueller Gang of Dems is viciously telling witnesses to lie about facts & they will get relief. This is our Joseph McCarthy Era!

Who will rise to defend Tailgunner Joe from this defamation coming from on high!

• As you may have heard, Mia Love, the Utah congressman, has lost an election. In the wake of this loss, she said, “Now I am unleashed, I am untethered, and I am unshackled, and I can say exactly what’s on my mind.” I understand. There are exigencies of politics (and opinion journalism and other fields). But also, I think that politicians can be franker even while in office.

• Feel like a little language? I have long been tired of reading “italics in the original,” or words to that effect. It used to be, you noted it when you italicized something that had not been italicized in the original. If you quoted something that included italics and said nothing — it was assumed, understood, that the italics were in the original.

Everything gets dumber, day by day. (That’s not true, but I’m simply playing Grouchy now.)

• Stay on language for a second: My favorite part of this David Brooks column (along with the evocation of Midge Decter)? The term “wokester” — as in, “Liberal educated boomers have hogged the spotlight since Woodstock. But now events are driven by the oldsters who fuel Trump and the young wokesters who drive the left.”

Heh, great.

• Let’s end on names — the subject of names, one of my favorite subjects. A lot of people love to snort at the name “Beto.” “He’s Robert Francis O’Rourke! Who does he think he’s foolin’, tryin’ to be all Hispanic?” Similarly, some people knock the “Ted” in “Ted Cruz” — “Isn’t he ‘Rafael’? What’s this ‘Ted’ business?”

Gary Hart was born “Gary Hartpence.” When the senator was riding high, a lot of his critics liked to snort that he was “Mr. Hartpence.” What’d he think he was getting away with? (Hart had changed his signature, too — his style of writing his name — which was also held to be suspect.)

My general view: People are entitled to the names they select or prefer. (They’re entitled to their pronunciation, too.) We could think of exceptions, but, as a rule, this’ll do. Do you agree? I might could do an essay on this general issue.

(“Might could” — one of my favorite locutions ever.)

See you!