An unprovoked invasion of a neighboring sovereign nation, bombing civilian areas, summary executions, and torture tell us that the Russians will have to answer for a host of horrific war crimes when their invasion of Ukraine has come to an end. But forcing a soldier to listen to ABBA music 24 hours a day reflects a special kind of cruelty that makes you wonder whether Russia should ever again be welcomed into the family of civilized nations.
Sometimes people make good decisions, sometimes they make bad decisions, and sometimes they make decisions that are so catastrophically ill-conceived it’s hard to imagine they were the product of rational thought. It’s been looking for some time now like Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine falls into the last category, and the consequences of his bad judgment seem to be getting worse and worse–for him personally, and for Russia.
It’s safe to say that the Russian invasion of Ukraine didn’t go as Putin thought it would. The Ukrainians fought valiantly in defense of their country, and the invasion was universally condemned by other nations. Even worse, as the Russian forces quickly became bogged down and began suffering devastating casualties, it also became clear that the vaunted Russian military wasn’t performing as anticipated due to planning, logistics, operational, and soldier morale issues. If American sports fans had been watching the Russian army’s performance in a stadium, you would undoubtedly have heard the “over-rated” chant.
After being mired in a fighting stalemate for months, things got worse for Russia recently, when a Ukrainian offensive caught the Russians off guard, drove Russian forces back, and captured huge amounts of Russian armaments and supplies. The Russian retreat created a decision point for Putin–and yesterday, he decided to double down, calling for a “partial mobilization” and even raising the chilling prospect of using nuclear weapons if he deemed the “territorial integrity” of Russia to be at stake. It is the first mobilization order in Russia since World War II. The order means that 300,000 Russians in the reserve or with military experience could be subject to conscription and sent to fight in the Ukraine, where thousands of Russian soldiers have already been killed, wounded, or captured.
Putting aside the reaction of the Russian people, it’s hard to see how throwing more hastily conscripted soldiers into the fight with Ukraine is going to turn the tide, when the trained professional soldiers Russia initially used in its invasion weren’t successful. And rounding up more soldiers doesn’t solve the tactical, logistical, and morale issues that have dogged the Russian forces since the invasion began.
Unlike most people, Vladimir Putin apparently can’t own up to making a mistake. Time will tell, but his mobilization decision may ultimately be seen as moving an initial error farther along the spectrum toward ultimate disaster.
The war in Ukraine goes on, and since it began Russia has absorbed a series of embarrassing defeats and setbacks, including most recently the sinking of one the ships in its Black Sea fleet. The stout defense of Ukrainians is heartening for those who oppose evil aggression and the slaughter of innocent civilians, but it also has raised the possibility that Vladimir Putin might be tempted to do the heretofore unthinkable: launch some kind of nuclear weapon. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warns that the world should be prepared for precisely that inconceivable scenario.
It’s a frightening time, for sure. And yet, things haven’t been as panicky as you might have thought. No one is hiding under the bed or encamped in their home fallout shelter. People live their lives and go to their schools and jobs, the economy bumps along, we worry about inflation and gas prices and shortages, and stocks continue to be traded. In fact, when you think about it, the stock market is pretty weird right now. Frightening times typically are bad for the stock market, which always reacts badly to uncertainty–and yet the market has held its own, even as concerns about the Russia-Ukraine conflict escalating to the nuclear level are raised. Why is that?
Paradoxically, it might simply be that the possibility of nuclear war is just too scary to really affect the markets. It’s too colossal a risk, and far outside the normal issues that affect trading in securities. If you’re worried about inflation, you can adjust your portfolio and trading patterns; if you’re concerned that equities are overvalued due to irrational exuberance, you can shift into fixed income investments. But there is no plausible investment strategy that can protect against the devastating impact of a nuclear exchange.
If you were searching for evidence that financial analysts are cold-blooded, look no farther! But, in a strange, counterintuitive way, this apocalyptic approach to investing makes sense in the current circumstances–and it may be why the market hasn’t plunged into Black Friday territory. The BCA Research approach might seem like the caterpillar approach from the fable of the ant and the caterpillar, but what else can an investor do? In such extraordinary times, the best approach may be to keep your head down, follow your investment strategy, and hope that Vladimir Putin keeps his finger off the button.
Under the UN Charter, the Court’s rulings are binding on the parties, and the Court has stated that they create “binding legal obligations” on the parties. The article linked above notes, however, that Vladimir Putin is nevertheless “unlikely” to abide by the order and cease the murderous invasion of Ukraine, and the Court has no standing army it can hurl into the fray, or any other means of enforcing its ruling. It’s entirely predictable that the Russians will ignore the order and undoubtedly will issue propaganda seeking to undercut the credibility of the Court and depict the judges as stooges of the imperialist West.
Presumably everyone understood this at the outset, and the Ukrainians nevertheless thought that the effort was worth it, if only to further evidence the barbaric and lawless actions of the Putin regime. I’m not sure that the decision is a very positive thing for the ICJ, however, because it is not good for courts to issue orders that they know will never be enforced or enforceable. A record of unenforceable orders undercuts the credibility of the court and can only serve to encourage noncompliance with other orders in the future. The Russian actions in the Ukraine are so heinous that the ICJ apparently decided to go ahead and issue the order, regardless.
The situation reminds me of an incident I learned about in law school. In 1832 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Worcester v. Georgia, issued a decision about Georgia’s rights with respect to Cherokee tribal lands. President Andrew Jackson strongly disagreed with the decision and famously stated: “John Marshall (the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Because both the President and the state of Georgia basically ignored the ruling, it had no effect, and the terrible “Trail of Tears,” in which Cherokees were forced to relocate to Oklahoma at the cost of thousands of Native American lives, was the ultimate result. It took decades for the Court’s credibility to recover to the position it now occupies, where the public outcry if an American President ignored a Supreme Court ruling would quickly make the President’s position unsustainable.
Unfortunately, Russia is not the United States, and the ICJ does not have the same implicit authority in Russia that the U.S. Supreme Court has in our country. The ICJ’s ruling today is undoubtedly correct, and it provides another reason to steadfastly oppose Vladimir Putin’s egregious activities in the Ukraine–but it will be up to history to determine whether the impact of Putin’s flouting of the order on the International Court of Justice’s credibility, and on parties’ compliance with its future orders, was worth it.
We’re now at the two-week point in Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and it’s safe to say it hasn’t gone well for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the architect of the invasion. If you believe the news reports, Russia expected a quick win, and Russian soldiers expected to be welcomed with open arms. The reality has been the exact opposite. The Russian forces have encountered fierce resistance and are mired in the mud, and the Ukrainian people have shown great grit and determination in resisting the Russians at every turn.
That’s what happens when you overestimate your capabilities, and believe your own faulty propaganda.
But the consequences for Putin are a lot more significant than just doing worse in a war than he expected. He’s shown that the Russian military isn’t nearly as fearsome as people thought it would be. He’s galvanized and unified the West in a way that hasn’t been the case in years, and encouraged countries like Germany to reverse their policies on defense spending and energy dependence. He’s isolated the Russian financial sector and put the fortunes of the Russian oligarchs who supported him at risk. There are reports that the Russian treasury might be bankrupted by the war and may be forced to default on debt. And in the process, Russia has become a kind of global pariah in way that wasn’t even the case during the heyday of the Soviet Union.
And what might be bugging Putin the most is that this war has exposed him in a way that goes to a core personal issue. Putin has always seemed highly conscious of cultivating a macho image, and carefully orchestrates photos of himself riding horses without a shirt and going hunting. But if Putin were really the bold, studly guy he’s been trying to portray, we’d be seeing him out in the field with the Russian generals and soldiers. Instead, he’s staying in the office–a guy with a bald spot sitting at the end of a ridiculously long table, as if he’s afraid to even get close to his own aides. It’s pretty safe to say that, even if Russia “wins” the war in the Ukraine, people will never see Vladimir Putin in quite the same way again.
Many people will no doubt be tempted to enjoy some schadenfreude at Putin’s problems, but a little caution is in order. This colossal strategic mistake by Putin may just force a reduced and depleted Russia to turn to China for financial and other assistance, which would materially alter the strategic balance in the world. I think Putin’s bad gamble is going to make the world a much more dangerous and volatile place for the next few years.
On Friday Russia enacted a new law that makes it a crime for foreign news organizations to intentionally report “fake news” about Russia’s war in the Ukraine. Violation of the new law is punishable by sentences of up to 15 years in prison.
Western news outlets reacted promptly, and with obvious alarm, to the new law. The BBC’s director-general said the law “appears to criminalise the process of independent journalism,” and the BBC reacted by announcing that it would temporarily halt its reporting in Russia. CNN and CBS said that they would cease broadcasting from Russia, reporters for Bloomberg News and the Canadian Broadcasting Company in Russia also stopped work, and other news organizations removed the bylines of reporters stationed in Russia who were filing reports on the war in Ukraine. Still other networks and newspapers are figuring out how to respond. Obviously, no news service wants to risk the possibility that the accurate reporting of news that is at variance with Russian propaganda would be deemed “fake news” by repressive authorities and result in reporters being jailed.
We’ve often heard about the “fog of war,” in which participants and observers are enveloped and left floundering in a decisional murk because they can’t get accurate information about what is really happening on the ground. One of the concerns about the war in Ukraine is that we are not getting the facts, and therefore are at the mercy of propaganda from both sides. Russia’s decision to put western reporters at risk of prison time for their reporting activities will just make the “fog of war” even thicker for those of us in western countries.
But I suppose it is also fair to draw inferences from Russia’s decision to enact its new law. If the war–and activities on the home front in Russia–were going really well for the Kremlin, there presumably would be no need to criminalize journalism. Russia’s desperate effort to control the bad news therefore might actually make the fog a little less dense.
The current set of financial sanctions that have been brought to bear against Russia may be the most sophisticated and extensive in history. A group of countries that include the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada have cut off Russian banks from SWIFT, a global financial messaging service. Even the historically ever-neutral Swiss have joined in the sanctions and frozen Russian assets. The U.S. also banned U.S. dollar transactions with the Russian central bank. The overall goal is to prevent the Russian central bank from accessing the reserves Vladimir Putin was expecting it would be able to tap to finance the conflict.
We’ve come to expect economic sanctions to take a while to work, but that hasn’t been the case here. The assembled sanctions caused an immediate drop in the value of the Russian ruble, as shown in the chart above that shows its value against the dollar. You don’t need to be a financial whiz kid to recognize that any data that shows the value of a nation’s currency tumbling off a cliff isn’t good news for that country. A ruble is now worth less than a penny. The sanctions also caused a run on the banks by everyday Russians who are afraid the purchasing power of their savings will vanish as the ruble crashes and inflation takes hold. And the sanctions also caused Russia’s central bank to raise interest rates and halt any trading on the Moscow stock exchange, which also aren’t positive signs for the Russian economy.
Financial sanctions can be effective against some countries, but not so much against others. Countries without advanced economies, or that are willing to become pariah states like North Korea, or that have secret benefactors that might help them skirt sanctions are better equipped to withstand the impact. Russia doesn’t really fit into any of those categories. In fact, the prompt and devastating impact of the sanctions is causing some people to wonder whether they might be too effective, and back Putin into a corner that might cause him to entertain doing the unthinkable and escalating the conflict to a nuclear stage. We’ll have to hope that other, rational forces in Russia prevent that.
Unfortunately, the sanctions will cause the most pain for the ordinary Russians, who had nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine–but one of the ultimate political goals in any war is to crush the resolve of the enemy population so it will sue for peace. That’s what the allied fighters on the financial front are hoping to achieve.
Many of us recall “Baghdad Bob,” the Information Minister for Iraq whose press briefings during the Iraq War in 2003, and confident declarations that the Iraqi forces were pulverizing the enemy, were laughably divorced from reality. Baghdad Bob’s willingness to lie to the press, even as invading tanks rolled past behind him, was so complete that the photo of him, above, has become one of the standard internet memes that is used whenever someone is trying to present reality in a way that is contradicted by the obvious truth.
Speaking of Baghdad Bob . . . how is the Russian media presenting the war in Ukraine and the protests that have sprung up in some parts of Russia?
The problem for Russia is that its people have cell phones and computers and multiple ways of communicating without resort to the traditional media, and that decentralized, personal communication technology is changing the way war can be presented on the home front, just as it is changing how war is conducted on the battlefield. Patriotic programming and outright propaganda lose their force if you can flip on your cell phone and see video recorded or forwarded by your contacts of anti-war protests happening across the country and Russian police breaking up spontaneous demonstrations against the war.
Who knows? Maybe we’ll see footage of a Russian spokesman assuring the world that the Russian people are united in their support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the background an anti-war protest marches through the streets–and a new “Moscow Mel” meme will be born.
Like everyone else, I have been following the events unfolding in Ukraine, and hoping like crazy that the courageous Ukrainians continue to stand up against the Russians and make them pay for starting a brutal and totally unnecessary war. In the fog of war you never know what is actually happening, but it looks like the Ukrainians, and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, are putting up a fierce fight–according to some reports, at least, much more fierce than Vladimir Putin and Moscow expected.
I’m also fascinated by the new issues that modern technology are introducing to the harsh realities of war. Two stories in particular are helping to illustrate how the internet is changing the paradigm in ways that Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, General Lee, General Patton, and other experts on war could never have anticipated.
First, consider Ukraine’s President. He has been extraordinarily deft in using modern communications tools to rally his citizens and his troops, using his cell phone and other technology as a kind of tactical device. After the fighting began, President Zelenskiy made a broadcast, using his cell phone, in which he was posed in front of a notable landmark in Kyiv. In the screen shot above, Zelenskiy looks like a guy taking a selfie on a visit, but his broadcast had an important point: refuting Russian propaganda that he had fled the capital. Zelenskiy’s immediate, selfie response exposed the propaganda as fiction, undercutting Russian credibility (to the extent there was any) and fortifying the resolve of Ukrainians who saw with their own eyes that their leader was standing firm. Zelenskiy, who was an entertainer before becoming President, clearly has a command of modern technology and an intuitive understanding of how it can be used to his advantage. His videos make Zelenskiy look like the future and Putin look like a Cold War relic–which he really is.
The other day we were out and about, and I noticed we were running low on gas. I stopped at a gas station to fill up and was shocked to see that gas prices were up to $3.39 a gallon. Admittedly, I don’t drive much since my commute became a walk, and it had been a while since I filled the tank. Still, $3.39 seemed like a pretty abrupt upward change in the price for unleaded regular.
Statistics show that there has been a rise in gas prices in Ohio, which have risen again since my visit to the pump last week. You can see charts with records of Ohio gas prices here and here. The data shows a recent surge in prices, with fuel costs up by more than 4 percent week to week and more than 38 percent over the past year–which obviously is not a good trend. At the same time, however, the data shows that the current price for gas is below historic highs, which touched $4.00 a gallon in 2008 and 2011 and came close in 2014. It seems to be human nature to forget the prior high-price periods and fondly remember only the low-price days.
Still, the current trend of price increases is alarming, and the volatile situation caused by Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine isn’t going to help reduce gasoline prices, either. At some point, a continuing spike in prices will cause new sources of gas to come on line–that’s how the law of supply and demand works–and it may prompt the Biden Administration to change policies that many believe have contributed to price increases. Until that happens, though, we’ll have to ride out the surge, and the burden is going to fall primarily on people who have long commutes and have to use their cars a lot.
A sudden jump in gas prices isn’t something that people typically budget for, so it will cause belt-tightening and grousing. And if the Ukraine situation provokes further increases and takes prices to new heights above the $4.00 a gallon level, that might just be something that people actually remember going forward.
Tomorrow Russia will be sending a humanoid robot into space. The robot will be one of the passengers on a Soyuz capsule that will take the robot and other crew members to the International Space Station. Once there, the robot will perform certain tasks under the direction and supervision of a Russian cosmonaut.
There are some signs that the robot’s trip is a bit of a publicity stunt, with a whiff of the old “space race” about it. For one thing, the robot’s name was recently changed, from “Fedor” to “Skybot F-850.” For another, the Russians say the robot will occupy the commander’s seat on the Soyuz, rather than being carted up in the cargo compartment — although Soyuz being a capsule, there really isn’t a commander’s seat or much piloting going on. The robot also seems to be a kind of multi-purpose robot who is largely controlled through immersive teleoperation (i.e., controlled by a human) rather than fully autonomous.
As for the whiff of the old space race days, there’s a conscious effort to compare Skybot F-850 to an American robot called Robonaut-2 that worked at the International Space Station a few years ago and is ready to return. Robonaut-2, the Russians point out, was shipped to the ISS as part of the cargo rather than as a member of the crew. Good thing for Robonaut-2 that robots can’t feel embarrassment!
Even though the Russian effort seems to have a lot of publicity elements to it, I’m still glad to see a focus on moving forward with robotics in space. Astronauts are great, of course, but a lot of the hard work involved in tackling space is going to be done by robots who don’t have to worry about atmospheres or food. If a little taste of the space race will help to move the process along, I’m all for it.
Nobody wants to see civilians assaulted by chemical weapons, of course, and I agree with President Trump that anyone who uses chemical weapons is a “monster.” The problem is that the Assad regime denies any use of chemical weapons, and its allies — namely, Russia and Iran — are backing the regime. Indeed, at one point Russia claimed that Great Britain had, for some elusive reason, staged the chemical attack. The outlandishness of that claim gives us a pretty good idea of how to assess the relative credibility of the charges and countercharges concerning who did what.
But in the curious arena of international affairs, questions of credibility and truth, and right and wrong, often don’t mean much. Attacking Syria will have consequences for our relations with Russia and Iran, such as they are, and might put other American allies, like Israel, at increased risk. Of course, it could also risk drawing the United States deeper into the quagmire of internal disputes in a foreign nation, a la Afghanistan and Iraq. On the other hand, do countries like the United States, France, and Great Britain, which have the ability to take concrete steps to try to stop the use of chemical weapons, have a moral obligation to do something like launching these attacks when international organizations like the United Nations prove to be incapable of protecting innocents from monstrous and barbaric attacks?
It’s a dilemma that is above my pay grade, and one which I hope our leaders have thought through thoroughly and carefully. I’m all for stopping the use of chemical weapons, but it is the unpredictable long-term consequences that give me concern.
An evil, grinning chimp with fangs? A crying woman in a blue dress? A goateed, wide-eyed doctor in a lab coat ready to plunge some unknown instrument into your skull? A hollow-eyed, distraught boy kneeling on the ground? A bizarre fight between an emaciated bull and a reptilian creature? Who came with this stuff, the psychological warfare section of the KGB?
But maybe we’re being too hard on the Soviets. Let’s face it, American playgrounds aren’t exactly free from disturbing stuff, either. Any playground that has a jungle gym, an old-fashioned merry-go-ground, and “monkey bars” is bound to present its share of childhood horror. And the decorations at some playgrounds are unsettling, too. We used to live a block away from a park we called “Yogi Bear Park” because it had a teeter-totter where the fulcrum was a covered by a cheap plastic depiction of the head of Yogi Bear. The adults recognized the figure as Smarter than the Average Bear, but to little kids it was an unknown, apparently grimacing figure wearing a bad hat and a tie. What the parents saw as Yogi, the kids perceived as a weird, lurking presence. Not surprisingly, the tykes tended to steer clear of old Yogi.
For that matter, childhood is filled with intentionally scary stuff that suggests that adults get a kick out of frightening youngsters. “Fairy tales” aren’t happy stories about fairies, but horror shows of child-eating witches, child-eating wolves, and other evil creatures ready to devour any wayward kid. Hey, kids! How about a bedtime story?
We apparently delight in terrifying children. The Russian playgrounds just bring it out into the open.
The story got me to thinking about an incident that occurred when I was a kid. One time UJ and I were exploring around a nearby stream on a warm summer’s day in the suburban Akron area near our house. We noticed that the water had a weird smell to it, and that there were clumps of dirty brown foam drifting by on the top of the water. It’s the first time I can remember encountering pollution, and thereafter I really paid attention to it. I noticed the litter on highways, and the news stories about air pollution, but the pollution problem always seemed to be most obvious with rivers, streams, and lakes — like the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie.
Shortly after UJ and I saw the dirty, foaming river, the United States started to pass major environmental regulations, and states did, too. And while there is no doubt that the federal and state environmental regulators have had their moments of overreaching and bureaucratic inertia, there is equally no doubt that the environmental protection laws, and clean-up requirements, have had a tremendous, positive impact on air and water quality. Anyone who compares the Lake Erie of 1970 to the Lake Erie of today will acknowledge that fact.
I’d like to think that an incident like the red river of Russia couldn’t happen in the United States — but if it did, I also have confidence that we would get it cleaned up. I tend to be suspicious of government promises to fix problems, because they often turn out to be empty words, but environmental regulation is one area where the government has had a major impact. The red river is a good reminder of that.
Recently I ran across an interesting article on developments in the oil-producing world. Provocatively headlined “The Collapse of the Old Oil Order,” it addresses the dissension within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the economic forces that are affecting the price of oil and keeping it below $50 a barrel.
Much of the article addresses geopolitical forces — like Saudi Arabia’s very rocky relations with Iran and Russia, two other big petroleum producers, and changes within the Saudi regime itself to move the Kingdom’s economy away from near-total reliance on oil prices and its seemingly endless supply of crude — but the piece also gets into the basics of global supply and demand. And those familiar elements from Economics 101 have changed in ways that the experts didn’t really predict, especially on the supply side.
With the discovery of massive supplies of shale oil and gas in the United States and the development of technology to extract it, for example, there’s lots of new supply in the marketplace, and no one is making the predictions that we’re going to run out of oil in the foreseeable future that we used to hear. In addition, green initiatives and other forces have affected the demand for oil in developed countries, and the consumption of oil in developing countries hasn’t bridged the gap. The result is an oversupply, with countries whose oil production costs are highest struggling to deal with the current economic reality.
Gas prices aren’t exactly cheap — in Columbus and nationally, they’ve actually increased recently — but they are far from their peak prices of $4.00 a gallon or more years ago. And the days when mighty OPEC was unified and could singlehandedly send shock waves through the global economy seem to be behind us. It’s a good example of how predicting the future based on the uninterrupted continuation of current trends can often be wrong.