Putting the U Into Ukraine
All politics is local. And murderous. And a playground for the ways in which we suck.
Never thought about Ukraine. Not even just a little. Like never.
But in 1976 I thought a lot about a Ukrainian girl. Fourteen years old or not, both me and her, and all things Ukraine had suddenly seemed/felt exotic to me. Soviet Union adjacent, but not. And this during some decades when to be Soviet was all James Bond-black cars, thick accents and Natashas slinking around in form-fitting Black dresses honey trapping everyone not named Boris.
Natashas that were, to quote one such figure from an old Flintstones’ cartoon, a cartoon that somehow had managed to sandwich prehistory with the Cold War, “much too important to be captured.” And the girl I was obsessed with? In no way cut from the same cloth, and this alone means, or at least it meant to me, that a cool realness was afoot. She was obtainable. Well, that and the fact that she liked/tolerated me for the most part. Enough of a part that we were “friends”. Much to my chagrin.
But I had gleaned that she had liked Santana. In 1976 I was liking KISS, and R&B. But Santana? Well, you gotta do what you gotta do. Besides which Santana was playing for three nights in New York. Which was a perfect calculus for breaking the friend deadlock.
Also, my stepfather was a newspaper man and so good tickets for any nights we wanted. So I asked.
“Hey. I got tickets for Santana. You wanna go?”
She asked me which night and I picked the first one.
“Ah. Yeah. See. Um, can’t that night.” In literary terms most of us would call this foreshadowing. Not me.
The next day, another move of the chess piece. And a full-on charm offensive.
Putin is a dead man. His invasion? A dead man’s gambit. His explanation? A stutter of justification. The likelihood of success, the way he might be willing to define it? Nonexistent.
“Hey. I got tickets for the second night too…better for you?” I can feel you cringing. I am cringing. But it seemed as necessary then to ask, as it does now, to re-tell my asking.
“Yeah. No. Can’t then for sure.”
Another day and then I’m all in for closing out the troika: so I ask. Again. I’m not being a hammerhead as much as I just…want…to…be sure. Unsurprisingly, she was also busy the third night.
Which I was fine with. Ultimately. And ultimately I hadn’t had the occasion to think of Ukraine again until the former Soviet Union, now Russia, started killing Ukrainians this week.
“I’m so fucking angry.” The speaker was Engseng Ho, the Frederick S. Danzinger Associate Professor of Anthropology and of Social Studies at Harvard University, and Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. Way back when I just knew him as “my roommate”. (Fun fact: his hands are the ones handcuffed on the cover of Whipping Boy’s record, The Sound of No Hands Clapping.)
And the reason for his anger then? Umbrage at Western audacity. He happened to be driving behind a Volvo with a bumper sticker on a back bumper that proclaimed “Runners for World Peace.”
“That these two things are somehow coincident for them…” he muttered and shook his head. “The arrogance.”
I mention this on account of me imagining him reading this and feeling the same. However, during the period that he and I were roommates, I was also ensconced in the defense industry. Was editing the C3I Annual (Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence) and not only Defense Electronics magazine, but also Defense Computing.
After being convinced by Managing Editor and mensch Dave Boutacoff, that I should take the transfer to the defense side of the business, my punk rock bonafides be damned (the non-defense pub owned by the same company was floundering), I was knee deep. Boutacoff’s argument was simple and simply put.
“Do you think you have a right to defend yourself?”
“Well does it also make sense to you that if you’re going to defend yourself there are smarter ways to do that, as well as ways that are not so smart?”
“That’s what we’re here for. To inform decisions about what’s smart and what’s not.”
[O]ne thing is certain if you know anything about Ukraine: the war might end but the fighting never will.
And I was uncomfortably sold. Even when some executive staff members’ names kept coming up in the Iran-Contra imbroglio. Other staffers, known associates of G. Gordon Liddy, had gone prepper. West Point ring knockers abounded and the office itself was a stones throw from Lockheed, Ford Aerospace, and Raytheon. You couldn’t have gotten more military industrial complex than that.
I stayed there almost three years. Saw Reagan out of office and then followed Boutacoff over to the editorial side of the utility industry. Which also included nuclear power.
If you’ve seen the Klaus Maria Brandauer film Mephisto, about an artist slowly compromised by the Nazi rise to power, you might understand how this was going. Proximity and familiarity don’t breed so much contempt as they do…shrugs?
However, excuses or reasons notwithstanding, this taught me one thing, at the very least: nothing is as it seems.
And covering the fight world in Saint Petersburg for German TV back 20 years ago when fight venues were rung around by Rolls Royces while Russian butcher shops we passed were sporting only two — not one, not three — pieces of meat, I felt I could do better than a bumper sticker.
So here you go: Putin is a dead man.
His invasion? A dead man’s gambit. His explanation? A stutter of justification. The likelihood of success, the way he might be willing to define it? Nonexistent.
“Putin can’t take over the whole country — I don’t think.” The speaker? A former Undersecretary of Defense, now plying his time at a conservative think tank. He was, and remains, a friend. “What he can probably do is take over the entire coastline down to Romania and the Eastern half of the country, with the dividing line being the Dnieper River.”
“He’d like to decapitate the government and install a puppet government in Kiev. A ‘Free Ukraine’ will remain in the West. So if all goes to plan, all negotiations will center around the relations between the two Ukraines. If all doesn’t go to plan, and Putin meets more resistance than expected, and/or the Zelenskyy government remains in place, then there might be some room for diplomacy.”
So this is real, and concerning?
“Real. And very concerning.”
Enough so that my Navy Corpsman and combat medic friend Max Moore is setting up a GoFundMe to get to Poland and then Ukraine.
Why? “To volunteer at the field hospitals and teach combat medicine to the national guard there.”
But it all seems to me to be a pointless and unnecessary power grab. Not only with the potential to turn into a Vietnam (or an Iraq, or Afghanistan), but then also one that activates the other Baltic states. And Putin, nothing more than a true 20th century man in his belief that pulling from a 1956 playbook is going to “win”. Because one thing is certain if you know anything about Ukraine: the war might end but the fighting never will.
“What the hell is Eugene doing about all of this?” My mother-in-law, ensconced in north-western Poland, right on the Baltic Sea, had questions. Questions sprung from the belief that the media has the power, any power really, to raise a call to arms and alter a narrative.
“Well, he’s been busy,” my wife explained. “He was on TMZ Live today.”
“Oh. Talking about the war?”
“Talking about Sharon Osbourne.”
And I was. But I’m not now. And, finally, on a breaking news item out right as I’m about to press Publish there’s this:
Senior U.S. official tells @ABC "some Russian forces are disoriented, realizing the battles against Ukrainians are harder than they thought. A Russian soldier was heard saying on a radio call, ‘We don’t know who to shoot, they all look like us.’”