22 December 2022

Russia's performance in Ukraine: is avos' to blame?

Dear reader! We are about to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace! May our celebrations give us renewed commitment to work for peace all over our troubled planet, and to support those whose work for peace and justice involves great personal risks. Many thanks for your company in this difficult year.

Avos'—everything will be OK. Source.

Why did Russia's invasion of Ukraine go so very wrong?

Every war has a central component of lethal absurdity. This current conflict may be setting records for our time on both counts.

The goal of this war was first announced as the demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine. A couple of days later, a "victory" editorial column, quickly deleted, told readers that a new era had opened, with "...Russia restoring its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together."

As the "special military operation" bogged down, both the lethality and the absurdity were compounded. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians—civilian and military alike—died, and the accounts of torture and summary execution began to be tallied by local and international investigators. Russian soldiers were also being maimed and killed in the tens of thousands. Some of those soldiers were caught in hopeless battles; their lack of training, equipment, and unit-level leadership showed how little their lives counted in the grand plan, if "plan" there was.

Meanwhile, the home front didn't lack for absurdity. Protesters were arrested for "discrediting" the Russian armed forces by their public opposition, or for publishing "fake" information about real war crimes. Protesters were even arrested for displaying the biblical commandment not to kill, or for holding up blank signs. Meanwhile, to convince the majority of Russians that the cause was just, official propaganda increasingly emphasized the role of NATO, of Ukraine as a tool of Western hegemony, and more recently, the Russian struggle against satanic spiritual forces from the West. Russia was fighting for its very survival. In the light of that claim, Vladimir Putin promised the Russian military yesterday that they would be denied nothing they might need for success.

In the latest related absurdity, Vladimir Putin used the word "war" today for what had officials up to now had strictly labeled a "special military operation." A local legislator complained right away to the authorities that Putin himself should be held accountable for using that forbidden word "war." After all, hundreds of protesters had been arrested for that very act.

I've written before about the Russian word avos' ("Russian avos' and American politics," part one, part two). Here's how linguist Natalia Gogolitsyna describes this word in her book Untranslatable Russian Words:

This colloquial word and expression combines the meaning of "perhaps," "I wish," "on the off-chance" and "hopefully," which creates problems when translating. In Russian folklore, it has both positive and negative connotations.

This tendency to trust to improvisation, fate, seat-of-the-pants behavior might go at least part of the way to explaining the sheer organizational ineptitude, with all its lamentable consequences, of the Russian war campaign. Just one instance, from the New York Times investigative study, "Putin's War":

Even some of the president’s closest advisers were left in the dark until the tanks began to move. As another longtime confidant put it, "Putin decided that his own thinking would be enough."

Some commentators speculate that the support Ukraine got from NATO was not factored into Putin's calculations. If that is so, it was not for lack of explicit advance warning from the West, both public and private. Those warnings were discounted in light of Putin's and his closest deputies' "own thinking."


Maybe so ... at the political level. However, at the military level, there are other important explanations. The New York Times article documents the cost of years of corruption in the military establishment—shoddy or nonexistent facilities, equipment of poor quality and poorly maintained, evidence of massive diversions of funds, and so on. 

Perhaps even more important is the Russian military's understanding of its own mission. Even with all the deficiencies described in the Times article, the Russian armed forces may well have been sufficient for its primary task: to protect the Russian Federation itself, within its legal boundaries. It was simply not positioned and not equipped to invade another country. Its leadership knew perfectly well that they faced no military threat from the West.

Thus, absurdity has now taken on a scale of epic tragedy, a downward spiral that Vladimir Putin seems determined to ride to its inevitable bottom.

Over half a year ago I wrote a post on "Ukraine and the dilemmas of pacifism." I refused to feel obligated to tell secular powers which of several equally ugly choices they should take, preferring to think about actions we might take as peace people.

I haven't changed my mind about these priorities, but an article by Vladislav Zubok in Foreign Affairs gave me some food for thought concerning negotiations with the Russian side. In the article, "No One Would Win a Long War in Ukraine," Zubok understands clearly that Russia is the aggressor, but argues that there is probably no path to ending the war that does not involve being willing to talk to that aggressor. An abject Russian surrender to Ukraine might be an emotionally satisfying prospect, but it's highly unrealistic. Almost equally unlikely would be Putin's departure from power, to be replaced by a peace-loving democrat. And, while we'd be waiting for one or another of those fantasies to come true, Ukraine would continue to suffer terribly.

Here's a portion of the heart of Zubok's argument:

The West must be prepared to offer a map for the Russian elites and general population, outlining how they can end their isolation, free themselves of sanctions, and remove their pariah status.

This map should begin by explaining the risks of continuing the war. It should make clear that Russia cannot win. Ukraine’s Western-supplied military equipment is superior and its forces are determined. If Moscow keeps fighting, it will therefore sustain more defeats and casualties and place itself in increasing danger of calamitous and violent collapse. Russia’s future, the plan must gently explain, will be one of economic degradation; it risks becoming a weakened dependent of China. By accepting that it must end the war, the Russian government will spare itself the humiliation of a larger unraveling.

Then the map must outline the gains that Russia will make if it chooses the path of de-escalation. Specific content will have to be determined through discussion, but some elements are obvious. First, a pledge that Russia’s sovereignty and integrity will be respected after a peace settlement with Ukraine. As unlikely as it may sound today, a framework, other than NATO, should be convened to ensure Russia’s place in Europe’s security architecture. Revisiting Gorbachev’s vision of “a common European home,” marked by rapprochement rather than deterrence, and dismissed by both the West and Russia today, is a necessity. Second, the map must affirm that Western governments will recognize and respect Russia’s leadership, provided that Moscow rigorously obeys the UN Charter and international law, as well as honors Russia’s international treaties, agreements, and commitments. Third, the West should lay out a timetable for returning Russia’s frozen financial assets after demands for demilitarization and withdrawal are met. Finally, the map must declare that, after the end of the war, all international economic obstacles will be removed.

Until now, the West has used only sticks to coerce Russia to stop the war. The map must include some carrots, as well.

As hard as I try to remind myself that I'm a follower of the Prince of Peace, and that involves the commandment to love our enemies, the idea of including carrots in this context is ... hard to swallow. The evidence of mass-scale cruelty visited on Ukrainians and (arguably) even on Russian foot soldiers by the clear directive of those at the very top in Russia would make any meaningful conversation extremely awkward.

Again, it's not my responsibility (and not within my competence) to tell the political people which distasteful steps are going to be the most effective. And of course I don't what behind-the-scenes conversations are already going on, although I can pray for their success in stopping the killing. But neither should I stand in the way of those prepared to "love their enemy" enough to make contacts and take political risks on behalf of peace.

Radio Free Europe: Did Volodymyr Zelenskyy get what he wanted from his 12-hour visit to Washington, DC?

Anna Chagina of Tomsk, Russia: "Putin is a demon who stole my country." (Russian.)

In your opinion, who is to blame for the fact that this war began?

– Putin, first of all. He signs off on all the decisions. But he’s not the only one to blame. I am also to blame. I voted for Putin the first time he was elected. It was the only time I voted for him. He seemed like a man who could do something good for the country. I was very naive, and I didn’t know anything about Putin’s past. The epiphany came when I noticed that Russian reality had begun to resemble C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel That Hideous Strength. There is this character, the Grey Shadow, in the novel. He is nowhere and everywhere. His henchmen on the ground resemble him and poison the atmosphere. And there, as in Putin’s Russia, they endlessly repair what doesn’t need to be repaired and generate the semblance of busyness.

U.S. House of Representatives, January 6 Committee, Final Report.

Judy Maurer explains "Why grief calls my name at Christmas time."

Shari Lane writes about the "host of things that happen only during the holidays."

Micah Bales asks about what we do while we're waiting for Jesus.

Quaker Religious Education Collaborative asks whether our children "know enough about Quakerism..."—and summarize their work in the year 2022.

Mavis Staples, at Oxford, Mississippi, April 23 of this year: "My family, the Staple Singers, we've been taking you all there for 74 years."

"I'll Take You There": The Stax release of 1972 (audio). I remember the airplay vividly. In those days I was living in Royersford, Pennsylvania, working at Western Electric in King of Prussia, reading The Pentagon Papers, and applying to universities.


Nancy Thomas said...

Please send the link to Judy Maurer's article.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Nancy. Link is fixed...