Et tu, Putin?
Can the Russians sustain a campaign in Ukraine beyond a metaphorical Friday afternoon?
These are images of the "Friendship Arch" in Kiev. It commemorates friendship between Russians and Ukrainians.
Now, you only need to commemorate such things if such things are a little fragile. Indeed, note that someone had inscribed a crack in the arch. Note also the dispossessed Tatars tucked to the side. I took these images in 2019.
There are definitely many pro-Russian Ukrainians (mostly concentrated east of the Dnieper River). But, there is a lot of anti-Russian sentiment, and that may dominate. There are long-running, historical reasons for it. For starts, Russia, and especially Ukraine, may have suffered grievously during the First World War, but Ukraine suffered even more during the Russian Civil War that succeeded the Revolution.
Ukraine enjoyed something of a respite in the mid-1920's once the Reds had managed to suppress the Whites. The formative Soviet Union, such as it was, rose up among the shells of shattered countries; the authorities were in no place to impose new economic policies; Ukrainians got on with their lives. But, by the time Stalin had assumed leadership, the Soviet apparatus had situated itself to rollout the first stage of its plan to secure Heaven on Earth. That first stage would have been the Soviet’s First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932).
The Russians had long maintained a tradition of sending inconvenient people to Siberia -- just ask former inmate Dostoevsky -- but the Soviets established its G.U.L.A.G. system in the late Twenties largely to deal with recalcitrant Ukrainians. The principal rule governing the gulags was simple: “work to eat”.
Ukrainians proved to be recalcitrant, because they occupied much of Na Kraina, the “borderlands”, agricultural assets that were the principal subject of collectivization. Collectivization was not popular. Put it that way.
There were millions of recalcitrant Ukrainians. Add that to the manufactured famine of the early 1930's in Ukraine -- dutifully ignored by the New York Times and the Western press as a whole -- and one can imagine that maintaining "fellowship" might be an issue.
The Western press was cheerleading the Soviet initiative. The members of the press, led by Walter Duranty of the New York Times, were eager to see the Soviet experiment substantiate, in their minds, a superior way of organizing society. Walter Duranty garnered a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, notwithstanding the fact that he understood that the Five Year Plan was staffed with the slave labor of millions and had induced the deaths of millions. According to Eugene Lyons, the United Press International correspondent on the ground for many years in Moscow, Duranty appealed to that aphorism, “To make an omelette, one has to crack a few eggs.”
Ukraine is a land of ghosts and legends going back millennia. It is part of the homeland of the original Indo-European languages. It’s been occupied by Rus from the north and by Avars and waves of other Central Asian peoples from the steppes further east. Much of it was occupied by the Mongols of the Golden Horde when Marco Polo and his uncles first showed up at the Genoese trading port of Caffa on the Crimea. It’s always been a tough but dynamic neighborhood.
I had both the privilege and dumb luck of showing up in Ukraine just when the new government was taking up reform of its entire antitrust apparatus. This was 2019. The protagonist of the television series “Servant of the People,” Volodymyr Zelensky, handily won the election for president that year. The new Servant of the People party then secured an absolute majority in the Rada, the parliament. My few colleagues and I had the privilege of being radniki (advisors) working with the competition authorities.
How does one embed a robust caselaw process in a system that operates out of a civil code tradition? The former decentralizes the development of competition law. The latter invests the central authorities with more capacity to dictate outcomes.
Two years on, the reform legislation has had much fitful progress, and hopefully recent events will not frustrate ultimate success. That said, parties outside of competition policy may continue to look to competition policy to do more than it really can be engineered to do. Some observers in the West maintain the conceit that competition policy can somehow induce the “deoligarchization” of the economy.
One can only speculate about what the next few weeks and months will yield. Will Russian adventurism formalize the de facto secession of oblasti (provinces) in the east? Do the Russians have a bigger project in mind, the “Findlandization” of Ukraine? Do the Russians really have the financial capacity to put up with a protracted campaign? Are they hoping that a single round of shock-and-awe can achieve their objectives on the cheap?
Here's another comparison: Prague 1968. The Soviets rolled in and imposed regime change. The new regime proved to be robust and lasted another 20-some years, because there had been much internal support for it. But, what if there really isn’t much internal support in Ukraine for a pro-Russian regime? Could such a regime really expect to hold on? Hence the motivation for Prague-light, a kinder, gentler Finlandization.
I have no answers. Neither does the Biden administration nor any of the talking heads in the EU, NATO, or the television news. But, I certainly do know Ukrainians who share with Vladimir Putin regret over the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of them perceive that Gorbachev basically undermined Soviet empire. A different view would be that the Soviet Union had been disintegrating for some time. Indeed, the CIA had estimated that the economy of the Soviet Union was about half the size of the American economy at the time of its collapse. When the accountants went in to do their numbers, they determined that the Soviet economy was only about one-seventh, 14%, of the American economy. Once again, the CIA got caught not knowing what it was doing. It’s numbers were off by 350%.
Right now, observers report that the Russian economy is about half the size of the British economy. Are they right? Meanwhile, the economies of the entire West, dependent on the opiate that is printed money dressed up as “quantitative easing”, seem as precarious as they’ve been since at least the 1970’s. Who faces imminent collapse now?
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