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Nothing is as Clear and Certain as it Appears to Be: The Ukraine Crisis

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“in the midst of war and crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight” Barbara Tuchman The Guns of August

There is nothing more uncertain than how leaders and people will react in crisis. We would like to think that we can be certain in our predilections, but we cannot because the reality is that human nature is always at play, and human beings have a penchant for doing things that are not expected.

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It did not take long after the showcase of the Sochi Olympic Games for Vladimir Putin to move against the Ukraine and for all practical purposes annex the Crimea. But now after a few weeks it seems that the West is beginning to galvanize in its opposition to the Russian action. Germany is leading the charge from the side of the European Union, with Chancellor Merkel taking the lead. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been taking a hard diplomatic line while military forces gather.

It appears that targeted economic sanctions are in the offing while the European Union prepares to help supply the Ukraine’s energy needs.

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The Russians have blockaded the small Ukrainian Navy in its Crimean ports, it has an estimated 30,000 soldiers in the Crimea and other forces are conducting “exercises” near the Ukrainian border. The Provisional Government of the Ukraine has called up its reserve forces, the United States is deploying naval and air force units to the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean as well as Poland and the Baltic States.

But at the same time this is not the Cold War where two ideological blocks wrestled for domination. Instead the motivations, geopolitical and economic factors that connect the West and Russia make this much more complicated. Money is a big factor and it is of interest to note that a good amount of the resupply of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan is conducted over what is called the Northern Route, which goes through Russia and the Ukraine.

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The situation in the Crimea and the Ukraine is potentially volatile. Any situation that costs the lives of Ukrainians of either Ukrainian or Russian background could spiral out of control. Passions on both sides are running high. We in the West also need to remember that many Russians and men like Putin still feel the humiliation of the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and end of the Soviet Union. Many Russians who even now are not fans of the Soviet system long for the days of empire and Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe.

In 1914 France was motivated by the humiliation that she suffered in 1871 at the hands of Prussia and the loss of Alsace Lorraine. The Russians have a similar attachment to areas where sizable ethnic Russian populations live, including the Eastern Ukraine and the Baltic. One has to remember the words of Otto Von Bismarck who said: “A generation that has taken a beating is always followed by a generation that deals one.”

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When looking at why this is happening we have to remember history.  Likewise we have to also remember the historic Russian paranoia when it comes to the influence of Europe and the West on areas that they believe are still part of Greater Russia. Their memory is long and past wounds are still fresh. Thus the blundering of the EU during the Fall of 2013 in its dealings with Ukraine, dealings which looked to the Russians like an attempt to draw Ukraine further away from them helped cause this situation. Likewise the Eastward expansion of NATO in the 1990s and early 2000s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact is considered both an insult and threat. The same is true of the presence of the American Anti-Ballistic Missile system in Poland, which is considered by many Russians to be directed at them, not Iran.

The situation is complex and influenced by many factors, and unlike some American politicians and pundits say, it has nothing to do with Benghazi or even what they claim is the “weakness” of President Obama. The roots of this crisis are long standing and diverse and have almost everything to do Russia’s relationship with Europe and very little to do with the United States. Thus for American politicians and pundits to demonstrate their woeful ignorance of history by blaming this all on President Obama is so self serving and transparent that it is embarrassing. But then American politics is almost always a demonstration of ignorance and arrogance.

The problem for the United States is that we have little credibility when it comes criticizing nations like Russia when they do the same as we do. Our actions to invade Iraq in 2003, actions which under the criteria that we laid down at Nuremberg violated international law make it hard for any American leader to criticize another power. This is true even when Putin’s actions, also illegal under international law are no worse and certainly by the historic ties of Crimea to Russia are more justifiable than what we did in Iraq.

Thus the outright hypocrisy of the architects of that invasion like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld shamelessly attack President Obama for his “weak” response to Putin’s actions are in large part to blame for them. They squandered our international standing and credibility, broke the military and bankrupted the country. They then lay the blame on Obama. By the decisions that they made and the subsequent consequences they tied Obama’s hands.

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Sometimes these crisis blow over. Sometimes they stabilize but cause problems that continue for some time after the initial crisis. But there are some times that they take on a life of their own and that the people who think they are directing events end up being caught up in them, often with tragic results. While I do not think this will end in war, the possibility of such cannot be dismissed.

Tuchman in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam wrote:

“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Policies Contrary to Their Own Interests: Putin’s New Cold War

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“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests.” Barbara Tuchman

Today Russian forces continued their occupation of Crimea in spite of international outrage. Not only did they continue to build up their forces in Ukraine to the point that they operationally control the peninsula, they upped the ante demanding that Ukrainian army and navy units to surrender by Wednesday or face a “military storm.”

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It is something that Europe has not seen since the Cold War when the Soviet Union used military force and violence to put down revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

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However, I think in political terms it is much closer to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 after Britain France and Italy stripped that country of its power by forcing the Czechs to surrender the Sudetenland to Hitler in October of 1938. Up to that moment the European powers bet on the appeasement of the Hitler regime. In a sense over the past decade the West has given Putin free reign to exercise his power over former territories, coercing them and occasionally using economic and even military power to bring them into line.

But now it is Ukraine. a complex region where Asiatic Russia meets Europe. The Ukraine is not Georgia or Chechnya. It is a region that has been a battlefield between Russia, the indigenous peoples as well as Germany, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Turkey. It is the dividing line between western Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. In the 1850s even England and France found themselves intervening in the Crimea.

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I believe that Putin under the flimsiest of pretensions has elected to use military force to attempt to coerce the Ukraine back under the thumb of a Russian Hegemon and to frighten the West into not intervening. It is a mistake. Just as in 1938 when Hitler believed that he could continue to steamroll the through Europe without war. In betting on the weakness of the West, Putin is playing the same game. Contrary to the speculation that Putin is doing this as a show of strength it is actually a display of Putin’s domestic insecurity.

Russia is not nearly as economically or militarily strong as Putin acts. There are serious ethnic and social divisions in the country and despite its assertions the Russian economy is much more dependent on the good graces of other nations as it is not. Already following Putin’s move into the Crimea the Russian currency and stock markets are tanking. I suspect that the West will soon impose sanctions that hit Russian economic and banking oligarchs where it hurts which will undercut support for Putin where he needs it most. Likewise I expect that Russia will be expelled from the G-8 and possibly cut off from other international banking and economic organizations.Likewise both the U.S. and the United Kingdom are bound by treaty to protect the territorial integrity of the Ukraine.

140302073009-03-ukraine-0203-horizontal-galleryPutin has had a run of success until now. However his crackdown against dissidents, campaigns against homosexuals and the state supported Russian Orthodox Church assault against other Christian denominations have already undermined his credibility as a world leader.

The invasion of the Ukraine will solidify opposition to Russia abroad, and increase anti-Putin sentiment in Russia. Should the Russian military attempt to invade other parts of Ukraine as they are threatening, Putin will find that he has bit off more than he can chew. His forces are certainly more than a match for the Ukrainian military, but he will not be able to hold or occupy the vast areas of the Ukraine in the face of opposition that will rapidly move toward a protracted insurgency. This insurgency will be supported by nations such as Chechnya which will take the war to the heart of Russia. It will turn out worse for Russia than the invasion of Afghanistan for the Soviet Union.

A new Cold War has already begun, Putin has made sure of that. The world that existed just three weeks ago when athletes from around the world gathered in Sochi for the Winter Olympics no longer exists. The only thing that we can hope is that the new Cold War does not become a hot war.

I am reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s words in The Guns of August: “The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.” 

The world that we knew is now changed.

Let us pray for peace.

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From the Miracle On Ice to the Shootout at Sochi: Drama and Sportsmanship on the Hockey Rink

Miracle on Ice, February 22, 1980, Lake Placid, NY.

On February 22nd 1980 the impossible took place, a underdog team of American college hockey players defeated the might Soviet Union Team at Lake Placid New York. It was one of the most memorable and legendary moments in sports history.

I cannot forget that day. I had finished work making and rolling pizza dough at Shakey’s Pizza in Stockton, went home and showered. I then got in my 1966 Buick LeSaber 400 to head over to Judy’s house.  On my way over I was listening to the music on a local AM radio station when ABC news radio broke in to air final few seconds of the game live. I remember listening as Al Michaels made the famous call:

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“Eleven seconds, you’ve got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!” 

The last minute of play in the Miracle on Ice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYscemhnf88 and about ten key minutes of that game.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fztlLwgSFCg

I could not believe it. I found that was screaming in the car.  As soon as I got to Judy’s I went in and told her and her parents. When the game came on, as it was tape delayed I watched it with undivided attention. To this day I cannot forget that night and as I watch the tapes of that game I am still moved to tears by the emotions that come from it.

The underdog Americans had beaten the vaunted Soviet team 4-3. That team went on to defeat Finland in the Gold medal game 4-2. The next day they were guests at the White House and after that the team broke up. Thirteen of those players went on to NHL careers. Brooks led the 2002 Team USA to a Silver Medal in 2002 before being killed in a car crash in 2003. That Silver Medal was the first medal in Hockey for the US since 1980.

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The Soviet people and their news media were stunned by the loss. Though the Soviet Team won Silver by defeating Sweden 9-2 the team had lost its luster. While the Soviet Team remained dominant until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990 it was the end of an era. The Soviets who had taken Gold in the four previous Olympics went on to win Olympic Gold in 1984, 1988 and again after the fall of the Soviet Union as the Unified Team in 1992.

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But even so, the upset loss to the young Americans was something that many never really got over. It was not about Cold War politics, it was about pride in their team and their passion for the sport of Hockey. For years many Russians, even after the fall of the Soviet Union longed for Olympic revenge against the Americans.

Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke watched today’s United States versus Russia game at a bar in Sochi with ordinary Russians. His story is well worth the read, but one comment stood out to me in relation to the 1980 game.

“The 1980 game will forever be a scar on my heart,” said 69-year-old Vladimir Makushkin, pausing while carrying his beer from table to table. “Every American knew we were the stronger team. It was students that beat us … young students!”

You can read his article here: http://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/la-sp-sochi-mens-hockey-plaschke-20140216,0,1790197.column#ixzz2tRThGXrh 

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Today in Sochi the American and Russian teams met in a first round game. It was different than 1980. These teams are very evenly matched. Many of the players on both teams play together or against each other in the NHL. They are professionals, they are teammates but today they were playing for something different, Olympic Gold.

Members of Team USA celebrate after defeating Russia in a shootout during their men's preliminary round ice hockey game at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games

It was a game of greatness, high drama with the teams being tied as the Third Period ended. A shootout ensued and in the 8th round of the shootout T.J. Oshie scored the deciding goal to give the Americans the win.

For many Russians today’s loss was devastating. But at the same time the fans that Plaschke watched the game with displayed the sportsmanship that one expects of fans that love their team, but also love and respect the game even more than the politics that  so often enters into Olympic and other International athletic competitions.

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I think that Americans and Russians alike are much more appreciative of each other as well as the shortcomings of our respective governments in post Cold War era. Maybe, just maybe such appreciations will help both of our peoples become closer in the coming years, despite the pressure exerted by the unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers that is so strong in each of our countries.

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Though I was for the American team, I have tremendous respect for the Russians, many of whom I cheer for in the NHL. I am happy that Team USA won, but I will not gloat.  It was a tremendous game between tow outstanding teams and the Russians could have won as easily as the Team USA. The Russians and many of the other teams are hugely talented and this tournament could be won by any team. I think that the Canadians probably have the best team in the tournament, but anything can happen.

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Vladislav Tretyak, who was the starting Goalie for the Soviet squad at Lake Placid and was replaced at the end of the second period with the game tied is often asked about the Miracle on ice. He sees it through the lens of hockey and not politics. He noted: “It was cold above us, but we (the U.S. and Soviet players) always had fine relations… There was none of that, no politics involved.” When asked about the loss he simply says  “That’s ice hockey.” 

So on that, in the hopes that good sportsmanship, camaraderie and the love of a game can bring better appreciation for each other by Americans and Russians I wish you a good night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts and Concerns Regarding the Sochi Winter Olympics

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I find it strange as I am not watching the Winter Olympics tonight. I have always been more of a fan of the Winter Games than the summer. I cannot remember the last time that I purposely didn’t watch the beginning of any Olympic Games, certainly not the Winter Games. The first Winter Olympiad that I remember watching was in 1972 when it was held in Sapporo Japan. It was a time that I was playing hockey and a time that I fell in love with with the Winter Games.

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However I am not watching tonight, and it is not for lack of interest in the sports, athletes and human interest stories. But something doesn’t seem right. I have a sense of foreboding about these games. The security situation troubles me, Chechen and other militant Islamists in the Caucasus have made credible threats. Based on their track record of successfully carrying out major bloody terror attacks throughout Russia, including Moscow, Volgagrad, and Beslan gives credence to the capabilities of these terrorists. I fear for the athletes, their families, the spectators and the citizens of Sochi. I do hope that the Russian Security Services are successful in preventing any attacks. 

There are other things that trouble me. From the reports that I read it does not look like Sochi is really ready for prime time. The isolation of Sochi from the rest of Russia and the world is The reported troubles make it appear that the thin veneer of progress that Putin has tried to apply to a crumbling state is already wearing badly. 

Likewise I do not trust Russian President Putin, it seems to me that he is returning Russia to an authoritarian state which persecutes its minorities, be they ethnic, religious or other supposedly less than desirable groups, specifically in the last case the Russian LGBT community. 

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The sad thing in the latter case is that supposedly American Christians like Scott Lively, and advocacy groups like the National Organization on Marriage, as well as many in the conservative Christian alternate media are encouraging and abetting those that would crush the rights of a minority group, in fact they praise Putin’s authoritarianism. I think that speaks volumes of what they think of civil, political and human liberties and is an indicator of what they would do in this country if they ever gained control of all the mechanisms of government. Thankfully I cannot see that happening, but stranger things have happened when virulent radicals promote fear and intolerance in the name of their religion, or ideology.  

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Now I am sure that I will watch many of the events shown of these games. I hope they will be successful and I will also be praying that no terrorist attacks harm anyone involved. That being concerned I am concerned for all in Sochi tonight. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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