by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
All of us find it more congenial to read and listen to news, propaganda, and opinions that agree with our own predilections, than with those that challenge or disagree with us. So I find myself eagerly absorbing any scraps of good news about the progress, or lack thereof, of what appears to be Vladimir Putin’s personally inspired assault on his neighbor Ukraine. It would be silly to pretend that every scrap is factual; keep in mind the old maxim: The first casualty in war is the truth. Then there is the overarching question of why elderly people with no dog in the fight bother to watch or read the news at all. If there’s nothing we can do about it, is it just entertainment we seek? Mayhem, destruction, chaos, and death aren’t exactly entertaining. But crowds always seem to gather at scenes of calamity.
The video and reports of Russian tanks and artillery advancing implacably upon relatively defenseless Ukrainian cities are as dismaying as the reports of citizen resistance are inspiring. The conclusion of the conflict seems inevitable. Which is why the news of resistance is so encouraging.
When something goes awry, I try to trace the cause of the resulting mess back to its source. This particular mess leads ineluctably to an apparently angry, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled elderly man sitting alone at an expensive desk in an ornate room in a billion-dollar palace.
Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin, an aging divorcé (he’ll be 70 this year) is looking a little puffy lately. He’s spent decades publicly deploring the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which he once served as an agent in the KGB. Now, with his own shelf life all but expired – imagine the stress of trying to manage a country of multiple ethnicities and eleven time zones – he’s clearly attempting to revive what he still thinks of as the glorious days of the USSR.
It’s difficult, as Robert Burns points out, to see ourselves as others see us. But we can try to imagine what the all-too-scrutable Vladimir sees when he looks at the Western alliance and its members. The buffoonery of the Trump years and the dangerous internal conflicts it engendered – and still prompt – have no doubt convinced him that we are too much at war with ourselves to lead the similarly fractured NATO leaders toward unanimity. The ease with which Russia swallowed the Crimean Peninsula must have reinforced that conviction. Ukraine, a large nation with immense exploitable resources and an inferior military lay on his southern border. It was a risk worth taking. Like the Germans and Japanese decades before him, he considered the West decadent and impotent.
Probably to his surprise, the Ukrainian people have been fighting back fiercely. The photo of a 68-year-old woman being instructed in the use of an antitank missile launcher is priceless. The Russian people, too, are objecting, if a little less violently; the streets of St. Petersburg filled with anti-war protestors the other evening. The NATO allies, to the wonderment of all, have quit their squabbling for the duration and begun to institute the sanctions that President Biden has been threatening for weeks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy apparently has decided that his life is worth more if he’s prepared to lose it than if he leaves the country to preserve it.
Russian air traffic is proscribed at least over NATO countries. Russian football teams are banned from international competition. Russia’s assets are frozen, and there’s been a run on its banks. Cocktail lovers are refusing to buy or drink Russian vodka. The oligarchs whose yachts are berthed along the Cote d-Azur and the Amalfi Coast for the winter can’t get to them, a situation that would give very few of us pause, but that you can bet causes gnashing of teeth in Moscow.
Would-be autocrats invariably begin their rule with protestations of love of country; as they begin to restrict civil freedoms, it’s for the sake of national security; and the end game is for the preservation of their own corrupt hides. The Ukrainians are doomed to armed struggle to resist the autocrat in the Kremlin. The rest of the Western world is behaving perfectly: taking away the economic and political props of the regime. Uneasy must lie the aging head that wears the crown.