The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Ukraine Through the Lens of an Honor or Mafia Society

There’s a good thread here, on how Russian prisons work. Go read it, and come back.

Now, I’ve never in been in prison, but I grew up in boarding school and I was near the bottom of the hierarchy most of the time I was there. I’ve also spent time in poverty in rough neighbourhoods and jobs, in which I was not near the bottom of the hierarchy, because I learned my lesson.

One of the best memories of my life is the day someone tried to push me around (reasonably, if you live in this ethos, I had been a coward and was known as one), and I realized I didn’t care how much I got hurt, but I was going to hurt him. My life got a lot better after that day.

At its simplest, the rules are as follows:

1) You must be willing to fight rather than be pushed around, even if you know you’ll lose.

2) Your word must be good: If you say you’ll do something, you always do it.

3) You protect your allies and friends. Again, even in fights you’ll lose, because if you don’t, you won’t have any allies or friends.

4) If you one of yours gets hurt or taken out, you do the same to one of theirs, and often, more than one of theirs.

The movie the Untouchables had Sean Connery state this ethos simply. It’s 15 second, watch it.

This is why I have said that, even though I think the Baltic states, for example, should never have been let into NATO, if Russia attacks them I support war, and if it goes nuclear, so be it.

It is at the emotional core of much of the disagreement over how far the West should go to help Ukraine. Ukraine was not in NATO. It was not in the EU. But for many Europeans and whites, Ukraine parses emotionally as “one of us.” And you don’t let one of us swing.

We didn’t give our word to protect Ukraine and I’m not willing to risk nuclear war over it. Others, feeling more of an emotive tie, are. This is also one reason why, during NATO expansion, so many people said something like, “Are Americans/Europeans/We really willing to die for the Baltic Republics or Poland (or Ukraine)?” What they were trying to say is that expanding an alliance to people we really weren’t willing to die for weakens the alliance, because what makes a defensive alliance work is that there’s no question that fucking with one of you means all of you jump in.

If you make that promise for someone for whom you’re not really willing to get the shit kicked out of you (or to die), and then you don’t keep the promise, even former members of your group, who were solid before, start becoming unreliable. “If they didn’t step up for Lithuania, will they die for me?” thinks Germany.

Next thing you know, your alliance is broken. This is why Russian requests to kick members out of NATO were a non-starter*: Once they’re in, kicking them out means threats can break our alliance. To others, the implication that Russia would get a veto over Ukraine was too far, for the same emotional logic. (Emotional logic is real logic, humans run on emotion, not reason.)

Note, however, that the code of honor also includes “keep your word.” NATO expanded, though it promised the Russians it wouldn’t. We broke our given word. When they asked us to remove most of the new NATO members, they too were acting on the code of honor: You said you’d do X, and you didn’t. Make it good, or else. When someone breaks their word to you, they must either make it good or be punished.

This puts us in a bind. We did break our word, but having accepted new members into NATO, we can’t kick any out without risking the entire alliance. This is one reason why we should never have expanded NATO.

We gave our word, and we broke it. There were bound to be consequences.

This is one reason why smart people have always opposed the US and its allies breaking the international laws they enforce on other people. The law is supposed to apply to everyone. Once people realize your word is bad, that it doesn’t apply to you, they not only despise you, they will certainly come to see no reason to keep your rules, because those rules are just a form of force. You’ve said, “We can do it, because we’re powerful and you can’t.”

And they say, “No, fuck you.”

So, when the West created the new country of Kosovo, despite the notion that borders are supposed to be inviolate, Russians were angered. So they started doing the same thing, over and over again. North and South Ossetia, Crimea, Ukraine. Because to not do it when the powerful do, is to show weakness.

This is also why Russia did not, and will not, give into sanctions. Even if sanctions hurt them more than the West, they still hurt the West. To give in is to submit to inferior status, to say, “You can do what you want to me and I’ll just take it.”

And, this is why Ukrainians are fighting hard. “Okay, fine, but we’re going to make you pay.”

The problem with all of this is that “honor societies,” let alone mafia societies (which is what Russia is, internally), suck to live in. They are horrid places. Russian prisons (and American prisons have a similar dynamic) are some of the worst places in the world. Even if you’re at the top, you’re never free of threat or fear.

Most of the good part of civilization is getting rid of this logic. It is why weregild was introduced, where, if you kill someone, you pay a fee to their relatives, in order to avoid the murder devolving into a blood feud, into the “Chicago Way.” Because if they put one of yours in the hospital, and you then put one in the morgue, well, they then have to put two in the morgue. You scare people with torture and rape and you kill their women and children, if the society gets sick enough.

Societies that live like this have a very hard time advancing, because they’re armed camps. They can only advance when a great tyrant or group arises who can say, “You all belong to me, and only I get to kill people” — and they have to make that stick. This is, sadly, most of what civilization has been. “I get to hurt people, and no one else does.”

To live in a good society, where the weak aren’t treated terribly (and the weak are often, y’know, the scientists and artists and all the people who make the world worth living in), and where even the strong are not in fear all the time, means getting out of this trap.

To do so, you start by treating everyone equally, and by keeping your own laws. If you say someone else can’t do it, you can’t do it either. This makes people trust you, and in time, trust each other. If you move from the rule of a tyrant to the rule of a group that enforces fair and equal rules, then you move into a place of trust. Fear goes down and down, and the society or civilization becomes a better and better place to live.

But unless there is only one society or group, there are always outgroups and the fear of what they do. Things like international law were attempts to make only group, one set of rules, and so on. In practice, the problem has been twofold. First, international law has been obeyed only by the weak — except when the strong have made a law it’s not in in their short term interest to break. The second is that some groups, for example the Chinese, weren’t allowed to meaningfully participate in making the rules. (Heck, in some ways, even Europe wasn’t. The US controlled half the world’s industry, and they made the rules.)

To create a good society, the powerful have to look to the long-term interest; they have to obey rules that are not in their short-term interest. If they are known to obey their own rules and to make fair rules, they are trusted by others and therefore, much safer.

The tweeter in the thread at the beginning of this post said that asking China to intervene with Russia was crazy, because we think they’re our enemies. But, while there are wrongs on both sides, we’re the ones who sanctioned them in order to cripple their largest tech company. We did that in part (this is the DC view) because they were breaking the rules of the international order, but they don’t regard those rules as fair or see that we are bound by those rules.

And so on.

The last important point is that this stuff is at the heart of the pathology of choosing really evil leaders. We often judge how a leader will protect us from outsiders based on how he treats insiders: Is he a mean bastard? One problem is that a mean bastard will spend most of his time ruling you, not fighting outsiders. The next problem is that if the leader has insiders, they aren’t you. Biden is a lovely father and a great boss, by all accounts. But you aren’t his son, his friend, or his employee. You’re an outsider, and to you he will be a bastard.

All of this emotion comprises the trap in which we find ourselves, as a species. We have to pick good leaders, who are kind and fair to people who aren’t in their group, and yet, are able to defend our group. Corbyn, for example, was not this. He was kind and fair and lovely and would not even attack people who were his enemies.

FDR, on the other hand, was more or less this — if you were white (he was a racist). He cared about all white Americans, but not really about blacks, and he hated the Japanese (the one ethnic group he did like was Chinese).

To live in a good society, we must make rules that are fair to everyone, and everyone must respect them. Rules that are ignored by both the leaders and the powerful destroy civilizations and lead to eras of internal and external war. Society must work for everyone, or it will eventually work for no one, and this includes global society.

We have chosen not to respect our own principles and laws and to create laws and principles that are not good for everyone who tries to operate in good faith. As a result, our societies are rotting from the inside, and on the outside, we are slouching towards multiple possible armageddons.

Be fair, be just, be tough, and be kind, or soon, there may be no humans left to be any of these things.

Correction: Commenter Dorian notes and is right: Point of order – it was never a Russian demand that NATO literally kick any countries out of NATO. Rather, it was that all NATO members pre-1997 expansion remove their forces from post-1997 expansion countries. The post-1997 expansion countries would still have the benefit of NATO membership and security guarantees, they just couldn’t be used as a base for foreign military infrastructure and troops.






Guerrilla Warfare: The Way of the Weak


Finally, Proof of the Obvious About Schools & Masks


  1. Soichiro Rocks

    Since Putin can’t be bothered since he’s too busy murdering the unwashed in Ukraine, why don’t we form our own special forces team and execute the Ukrainian oligarchs ourselves? Let’s start with Igor Kolomoyskyi, Zelensky’s puppet master. Who’s in? Who’s down for this?

    How many Ukrainian oligarchs has Putin murdered thus far versus unwashed Ukrainians? What? None you say? How can that be? Surely Putin has the ability to assassinate these goons, right? Why hasn’t he? Why doesn’t he? Is killing defenseless Ukrainian, and Russian I might add or Russian in language and spirituality, men woman and children more appealing because they’re such easy pathetic targets and because you don’t kill your own meaning oligarchs don’t kill oligarchs just as apes don’t kill apes?

    Death to oligarchs and their enablers everywhere, be they Russian or Ukrainian or Western or African or Chinese or Arab/Persian. This war in Ukraine is not a Russian war against Ukraine, it is a sanctioned world war by and for the oligarchs against the unwashed of the planet for it is the unwashed of the planet who are taking it in the shorts and will continue to take it in the shorts.

  2. Astrid

    Kamil Galeev’s perspective is interesting, but I wonder if it’s not also dated and colored by his particular axes to grind (his employer’s, at least). His CV suggests that he’s been out of Russia for at least 10 years, so Putin had likely substantially consolidated Russian government authority and interests in the mean time. Russia (and China) of 2022 is not the same as 2012 or 2002. I don’t know much about Russian politics but their military and diplomatic corp appear highly capable and professional, which speaks of a society that is no longer operating under mafia rules.

    That Czech company cited may find that in the short run, a nice Shenzhen company is happy to help out mother Russia with a reasonably priced solution. Even things that can’t be produced in China or India can be smuggled or black marketed through in the short run. In the long run, if the rift is not quickly smoothed over, patents will be broken and the third rail of Western power (and rent extraction) will be shorted.

    The logic of standings up to bullies for the Ukrainians assumes that the bully won’t beat them to death first. Afghanistan proved they can stand up to the bully. I’m much more dubious as the Banderista Ukrainian regime’s ability to do the same. You want to defend yourself against the bully when confronted, but if you show yourself to be a direct threat to the bully through your provocations and bragging about your muscular friends, you better make sure your “friends” are willing to really bleed for you. The West might be that stupid to really bleed for Ukraine, or they may realize that going hungry and broke for a Neo-Nazi regime is not worth it by April.

    There’s a reason why Russia and China did not act against the West’s numerous provocations until they felt they had the odds on their side. That includes having each other’s backs and (reluctant or warm) support of the bulk of the World Island populace outside of Europe.

  3. Dan Lynch

    Two separate issues in this essay 1) the so-called honor culture and 2) the conflict in Ukraine.

    I have not been in a penitentiary, but have spent years in bottom rung work environments that were pretty much like the twitter thread described — there was no co-operation (no wonder it is so hard to unionize in the U.S.) and your co-workers would find ways to hurt you just for the hell of it, because when you are very low status, the only way to feel better about your status is to make someone else feel even lower than you. One day I wondered out loud why my coworkers were always picking on each other, and one co-worker, a laborer at the very bottom rung, replied without hesitation “oh, it’s like chickens will always pick on the weakest chicken.” That’s pretty much it.

    So yeah, I can agree with the description of the honor culture, especially at the lowest levels of society — the lower you are, the more insecure you are, and the more the only way to elevate your relative status is to make someone else be even lower than you.

    But does this apply to Ukraine? Is Putin a mafia thug and is the Ukraine conflict a status play? No and no. Putin is a rational actor who very much believes in following the rules. He’s a law and order kind of guy, both domestically and internationally. The so-called invasion was 100% legal after recognizing the independence of the Donbass statelets and formally receiving and voting on their requests for military assistance.

    Contrary to the propaganda pushed in the West, the so-called invasion is going well. The bulk of the Ukr military is surrounded. The Ukr. air force & air defense have ceased to exist. Ukr. communications have been knocked out. Major cities are surrounded. Militarily, the war is over, and what remains is mopping up and negotiating the terms of surrender. Sure, there will be small bands of resistance armed with stinger missiles, able to cause mischief, but if Russia is good to its word not to occupy Ukr, then that resistance will not be Russia’s problem.

    Plus, public sentiment in Ukr may swing once the right wing militias have been neutralized. Recall that there was no resistance after Hitler and his armies fell — once they no longer had power, and they had been publicly shamed for the death camps, the Nazis no longer had any appeal. But no one could have predicted that, and I don’t claim to be able to predict if it will be the case in Ukr. Russia claims it will hold war crime tribunals and, if done right, the tribunals may be important in shaping post-war public opinion.

  4. edwin

    I see this as a companion piece to John Mearsheimer. Spent the worst year of my life in boarding school.

    Recognize the moral values from from Systems of Survival.

  5. Dan Lynch

    I typed a page length response which I thought was pretty good, but my cat was dancing between me and my keyboard when I hit the submit button so my response may have been lost.

    Anyway, an additional problem with threatening a no-fly zone is that NATO lacks the technical ability to impose a no-fly zone, and Putin knows that NATO lacks the technical ability to impose a no-fly zone. One rule of honor cultures is that if you make a threat, then you have to be able to carry out that threat. If you make threats that are obvious BS that cannot actually be carried out, that will be viewed as a sign of weakness.

    Pray tell how would NATO impose a no-fly zone? Our air-defenses are 3rd rate and our F-35 jets are a laughingstock. Russia’s S-400’s would shoot down NATO planes once they enter Russian-controlled airspace, and, if necessary, Russia’s missiles could take out NATO air bases and air defenses. Then what? No, it would not lead to a nuclear war, but it would lead to NATO’s military impotence being put on public display for all the world to see. It would be a victory for Russia and a humiliating loss for NATO.

  6. ptb

    Useful framework as part of a larger whole. But at the same time, I’d re-emphasize that it’s also a direct path to the ends-justify-the-means policy model. Like Kissinger, with cool detachment admiring Stalin’s unwavering dedication to “great power” logic, therefore building up a strong stable of allies like Pol Pot, Pinochet, Saddam, Bin Laden and so forth. And hey if you gotta starve a million kids in 90s Iraq or current Afghanisan or Yemen, them’s the rules of the game, we didn’t make’em.

    Follow-up question: How do intractable there-can-only-be-one type rivalries get transmuted into compromises or at least stabilized division into turfs, when mutual destruction is on the table?

  7. Feral Finster

    Having spent much of my adult life in Ukraine, ‘honor” is perhaps the last word I’d use to describe its political class.

    That said, one salient feature of third world polities is that everything is seen as a zero-sum winner takes all game.

  8. StewartM

    Ian, you’ve been echoing what I’ve been saying for some time now. Expanding NATO eastwards weakened it, not strengthened it, as we extended protections to countries who when push-came-to-shove we really didn’t think worth risking nuclear war over. If we could tolerate the Soviet Union being in charge of the Baltic states for about 50 years, without going to war over it, why would Russia incorporating them back tomorrow become a red line that-shall-not-be-crossed?

    Worse–like the VOA egging the Hungarian rebels to fight in 1956, when we had absolutely no ability or intent to do anything meaningful to help them, we were letting these people down. It would have been far better for all involved for us to have said “Like Finland, you will have to reach an understanding with Moscow to preserve your independence. Do not delude yourself that you can be free to anger Moscow”. I know this doesn’t represent a fair world, but it’s the one we really live in.

    I don’t know any way out of it now save to withdraw NATO support from these countries, or to scrap NATO altogether and reform a new, similar, organization consisting of the original member states, or (maybe) to withdraw the US from NATO, which would leave the rump NATO far more circumspect in choosing its battles.

  9. someofparts

    Soichiro Rocks, it doesn’t sound like you read Ian’s post at all. It sounds like you have your own agenda which is hysterical and mindless. I have watched you carry on like this in comments at NC. I don’t appreciate seeing you bring your poor behavior to this community.

  10. Willy

    Well, I do appreciate Ian breaking it down this way. This isn’t a game of Ukrainian Nazis, tough-love disciplined Chechens, or neocon/neoliberalism done Russian style. It’s toxic masculinity at its worst, using anything as an obfuscator excuse for horrific behaviors, at least until we allow them to capture total control.

    BTW, I’d probably be a full blown communist if those folks ever came up with a practical answer for “these people”. Maybe I need to watch the endings of the Untouchables, Goodfellas, and the Godfather series again.

  11. Occasional Poster

    I still have some hope that Russia finishes its mission in Ukraine sooner rather than later and gets the hell out before the West and its escalation tactics blow the whole thing up in everybody’s face. I am not at all sure going all in and “defending” Ukraine to the bitter end is a good idea. Actually I am pretty sure it’s a terrible idea. Ian seems to have been infected by the overwrought emotional freak out over this conflict that’s currently dominating the news cycle 24/7.

    We need to stop and think carefully about who is lining up to fight this war of liberation on behalf of the always well intentioned West. Suppose the insurgents win. This will only happen after Ukraine has been pulverized and countless civilians killed. Is it worth it? What kind of place will Ukraine be if the Western armed insurgents actually win? Who will govern it? Oh, right.

    If we are going to arm Nazis and far right fanatics why not send in some ISIS guys too for good measure. If reports can be believed there are already Syrian “rebels” on the way to join the pending slaughter. (It will be interesting to see how they get a long with fascists who brag about killing Chechen Muslims with bullets dipped in pig fat.)

    This whole thing is absolute madness. The US plan (the silly EU is just the yes man and cheerleader) is to turn Ukraine into an apocalyptic hellscape, ostensibly to save Ukrainian civilians from the evil Ruskies. To save the people we have to first make sure many thousands of them are killed and their country is reduced to a smoking ruin. Okay.

    So let me sum this up and see if I understand it correctly. Russia invades Ukraine and the West realizes just how much it loves the Ukrainian people. To show them how much we care about them the plan, if all runs smoothly, is a massive escalation and a long and unpredictable war fought by fascist extremists, and perhaps also al-Qaeda types from Syria, and the kinds of people who gravitate to these groups. Destabilizing Europe and escalation beyond Ukraine’s borders is a bonus am I right? Extra big love for the peeps of Ukraine!

    Let’s say the Russians lose badly. They shake hands with the rightful victors, wish the Nazis and NATO all the best and cross the border back into Russia, land of many sanctions, no hard feelings.

    Yeah, the more I think about this the more I hope the Russians win this quickly. Even better would be an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated peace, with Ukraine out of NATO for good. But that would thwart the kinetic “help” the West wants to provide its new Ukrainian BFFs, so it’s a long shot.

    If this thing kicks off the blowback and unintended consequences will be immense. Start digging your bunkers now.

  12. VietnamVet

    This is true. A certain number of human males naturally bully and gang up, especially if poor and deprived. A nerd, before it became a word, I was bullied in the 7th grade and when I hit back, I never was bothered again until I was a short-timer in Vietnam, once at work, and now I am isolated and harassed by my own government for not being vaccinated. Being born on second base in the USA has helped until recently.

    The fundamental problem is that the Empire makes its own reality. Engulfed in a sea of propaganda, truth is ignored. NATO’s one and only job was to prevent a Russian invasion of Europe. It failed. Western Oligarchs’ paid managers poked and prodded Russia until it snapped. The plan now is to use Ukrainians as cannon fodder, start a guerrilla war in Western Ukraine, and stress Russia until it falls apart. Then western corporations can profit from Eurasia’s resources. This is a complete fantasy.

    The West does not have a million+ manned infantry force, thousands of tanks and personnel carriers in position as a maneuver force, nor has it started a crash program to trench, fence, build artillery bunkers and tank traps, and clear lines of fire around Ukraine. If the current planning fails which is likely since Westerners believe their own propaganda, the only way to prevent Russia from invading Poland to stop resupply of the guerillas is to ignite tactical nuclear weapons on top of the Russian invasion force in Ukraine. The Baltic states are so small (two border Russia) that any nuclear weapons used to protect them would be ignited in Russia itself and would destroy them too.

    The Elite think they are invincible and assume that the Kremlin won’t launch their ICBMs in response and destroy themselves. They will. They said they will.

  13. Dorian

    Point of order – it was never a Russian demand that NATO literally kick any countries out of NATO. Rather, it was that all NATO members pre-1997 expansion remove their forces from post-1997 expansion countries. The post-1997 expansion countries would still have the benefit of NATO membership and security guarantees, they just couldn’t be used as a base for foreign military infrastructure and troops.

  14. bruce wilder

    Rob Morris, a foreign policy youtuber/tiktoker, predicted that Russia would eventually find way to target U.S. troops in Syria, despite the harm to their client Assad, basically because (my words) payback’s a bitch.

  15. Jan Wiklund

    We shouldn’t forget that there is – according to Charles Tilly – no analytical difference between a state and organized crime. In both cases, it’s about protection money. See

    And organized crime is, to an astonishing degree, a matter of showing oneself tough to get other mafias from one’s back.

    Indeed, when Randal Collins investigated why organized criminal gangs had begun, he found that it every time was about protecting the members from other gangs. To do that, one must show up some violence. And doing that, one easily fall foul with the law. See

  16. Ché Pasa

    +1 on Jan Wiklund’s observation and links. Large scale government by nature is akin to organized crime, mafia, what have you, and we’ve found no way around it. Sometimes the elements cooperate, sometimes not, but they always interrelate.

    These interrelationships operate on principles of power, use of violence, vengeance for slights and wrongs and dominance over the weak, whether internal or external. The case can be made it’s human nature, much like tribalism, and there is nothing you can do to decouple large scale governments from their instinct to behave like criminal organizations and enterprises.

    It may help to recognize that both Russia and Ukraine are ruled by oligarchies — ie: kleptocrats — who have robbed the People blind since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I understand it, living conditions have been particularly bad in the former Ukrainian SSR, and blamecasting/scapegoating has been focused on Russia/Russians/Russified Ukrainians especially since 2014, and it’s been bloody. Law, such as it is, is discriminatory, criminalizing half or more of the country’s population simply for being. Enforcement has been in the hands of the Rightist/fascist/nazis. The results are predictable.

    Cutting through some of the Western bullshit propaganda, Zelensky(y) has come in for some pretty nasty criticism. He is himself now being considered at fault for a great deal of the suffering of the Ukrainian people by goading the Russian bear unnecessarily and unwisely. Whether or not he’s under the thrall of USandNato elites and his own oligarchs, he’s the face of all of this misery, and he’s instigated a lot of it — and refuses to climb down. He is also, apparently, a minor oligarch in his own right, not just some popular actor elevated by acclamation to the presidency, and is a player in the oligarchic contest for power. His “heroism” is a matter of opinion.

    And so it goes. I wish all this suffering weren’t happening, and were there any wisdom among the big players, I’m convinced it wouldn’t be, but we’ve seen over and over again that our rulers, whatever their ideological bent, are critically short on Wisdom.

    Changing rulers, for some reason, doesn’t seem to change that, does it?

  17. Astrid

    I will question whether the Baltic states, NATO, or the continued existence of USA is worth going to world war over. I think of you asked these populations, even in their MSM addled states, whether they’d risk way and nuclear annihilation for NATO or USA, you’d get very few takers. So I may understand why Beltwayistan thinks they have to double down, but why would Ian or the rest of us?

  18. bruce wilder

    It strikes me how this “emotional logic” fits so neatly into common personality types and leads so easily to groups (which may contain many examples of any personality type, unless some filter applies to group composition) following a path “logically” to destructive violence. I am particularly attuned in the case of Ukraine to the inability of any of the Parties — Ukraine, Russia, U.S., NATO, EU, internal factions in Ukraine — to reverse course.

    I listened to one “reasonable” commenter with an interest in military affairs consider Poland’s offer of aging MIGs to Ukraine (via the U.S. — apparently, the Poles, though happy to help Ukraine kill Russians, would prefer to deter the Russians from retaliating against Poles). His impulsive “ideas” about what would be “fair” (his word) in regard to various schemes to transfer the hardware to Ukraine without giving the Russians cause to retaliate did not extend to any possibility that the whole idea might be bad, that it might change the game, not win the game.

    I cannot help noting that Russia made a show of “negotiating” a resolution before the invasion, with proffered draft agreements put on the table. No negotiater makes such offers expecting them to be accepted. It really is about clarifying the unwillingness of the counterparty to engage at all. The Russians have been losing the contest for Ukraine with the U.S./E.U. for almost twenty years, playing a game I am sure is unknown in Russian prisons despite its elements of domination and humiliation and corrupt dealing and predation. Ukraine has been losing that game, too, but does not know it, which is why the U.S./E.U. have been so effective, signalling their virtue for example by insisting on anti-corruption efforts that never seem to accomplish much, while Russia has failed despite being openly oligarch-friendly. In the rules of the neocon/neoliberal game, control of the narrative is crucial and Putin’s desperation in playing the invasion card lost the narrative. I am sure the idea was to change the game, not to lose the game being played, but here we are.

    So far, the West has continued playing its old game. Threatening a no-fly zone and imposing (selective and “targeted”) economic sanctions are moves in the old game, just as holding Nordstream2 hostage was old game politics.

    Some early hot takes have suggested that the game has been changed — a new game with new rules now takes over. I agree that that is the likely consequence in the long-term, but in the short-term, the old game played by the neoliberal/neocon masters continues.

  19. StewartM

    When I first posted my remarks, I hadn’t yet read the article on Russian prisons. Now that I’ve read it, I find it realistic (I’ve had friends who’ve been in prison) but not terribly applicable to the situation in the Ukraine. This is especially true after I’ve read Dorian’s comments.

    Stephen Ambrose once wrote that the person who has had the biggest influence on US foreign policy in the 20th century, and possibly beyond, is Adolf Hitler. After having had to deal with Hitler and the Nazis, we began to see Hitler everywhere in all our adversaries. Stalin was Hitler. Mao was Hitler. Ho Chi Minh was Hitler. Saddam Hussein was Hitler. Kim Jong-un was Hitler. And now Putin is Hitler.

    But the reason the West made an attempt to appease Hitler in the late 1930s was….generally, appeasement works! In our daily lives and in the lives of states, finding out what someone’s gripe is with you, and working out a solution you both can live with, is the way to handle things. In reality, the person or leader of a country that has no limits, where agreeing with your neighbor that you won’t play loud music after 9 pm means he’ll next demand to rape your spouse on a whim, is rare. I’d agree that appeasement doesn’t work in specific situations, like prison, but that’s a specially selected subset of the population.

    One of the axioms of Marsha Gessen’s book Surviving Autocracy is “believe the autocrat”. With Hitler, who *wasn’t believed* at first in the 1930s, he was astonishing specific about his goals of creating a German continental state that would stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals. So what does Putin want? Insofar as I can read, he wants to restore Russia as a major player in world politics, and moreover wants to restore the Russian boundaries of either the old Soviet Union and/or the Russian empire. But that’s it. No world domination, no conquest of all of Europe.

    And that, I would suggest, is why Hitler was different than Stalin, Mao, Saddam Hussein, and the rest. These all at limited aims, their aims may have been objectionable, but they could be sated. Moreover, the more they had of what they wanted, the more conservative their policies (once you’ve got mostly what you want, you’re leery of losing it by being too aggressive). There was some ideological differences too—Hitler, believing in Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history, thought Germany’s continental empire had to be built within *his lifetime*, as he saw no one else in the Nazi hierarchy as ‘great’ like himself and thus this accelerated his timetable; Soviet leaders, indoctrinated under Marxist dogma that the eventual triumph of their system was ‘scientific fact’, could by contrast accept occasional defeats as temporary setbacks in the eventual triumph of communism. This is why the prison article linked above is really not applicable; Stalin, Mao, Saddam, Kim were all just as bloodthirsty and power-hungry as the poster thinks Putin is, and maybe more, but if those leaders could accept limits and hew to agreements then I’d say Putin could as well.

    But what is true of everyone is–at some point, everyone has a red line. The eastward expansion of NATO is one such red line for Putin. At some point you will push your adversary into a fight, no matter how reasonable or unreasonable he/she is. From my perspective, that is what we’re foolishly doing, and moreover we’re foolishly doing it over a set of conditions we would have gladly accepted 40 years ago. If then Russian military forces had just been located in the USSR back in 1975, and not in Eastern Europe at all, we’d be overjoyed back then. Now we feel that they must be on Russia’s doorstep deep in the former USSR. Why?

  20. Ian Welsh

    I’ve also read that some of Munich was just that Britain and France really weren’t read to fight and were buying time. Don’t know how true, but from what I know of military spending in the 30s it’s plausible. For a time I know that the British fleet in the Med was cruising around without munitions, hoping their bluff wasn’t called.

  21. Willy

    I like the game played by SNL, where Carlson and Ingraham were portrayed as soulless entertainers trying to figure out what their audience wants to hear so they can continue making serious coin.

    Others seem to prefer the nuance game. Somewhere in the vast sums of variables is a hidden variable which they’ll be discovering first. I’ll bet those people were good at Where’s Waldo.

    Myself, I’ll admit to being a sucker for the plausibility game, where extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Sadly, I also believe that repeating the same implausible over and over again without plausible evidence, should send players to jail without passing go and collecting $200. Good thing I’m not a mafia boss.

  22. Z

    I don’t particularly think that Russia is an oligarch-friendly country. There are oligarchs there, but it’s not like new ones are welcomed in IMO, it was just part of the lay of the land that Putin inherited when he came into power and he ran many of them out and allowed the ones that he saw beneficial to his power structure to remain. But Putin is not welcoming in new oligarchs because they may upset the power balance in the country.

    The U.S. is much more friendlier to oligarchs than Russia because Putin sincerely cares about Russia while our presidents use the office a lot more as a personal platform and care little about the U.S., just keeping their oligarchs rich and happy.


  23. Ché Pasa

    I watched “Ukraine on Fire” (download linked at NC yesterday.) It brought back some really, really bad memories of the Euromaidan revolt and coup and the aftermath in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014. The horrid Nuland person figures prominently along with a whole list of rightist/fascist/nazi players who are still around doing their nasties.

    I’ve linked to a Utoob post of the video, but it may be taken down soon as for some reason, Utoob believes it violates their policies. For those who didn’t follow what was going on in Kiev and elsewhere in the former Ukrainian SSR that has led to this moment, I recommend the brief overview provided by “Ukraine on Fire.” Please note the very familiar rhetoric of Russian perfidy and the growing risk of nuclear war/annihilation.

    The hobgobblin of consistency, eh?

  24. Mark Level

    I really appreciated Ian’s personal comments about boarding school and bullies, “Mafia societies” & toxic masculinity, so going to share something similar myself. So I grew up pretty wealthy, my dad was the first one in his family to go to college (came from peasant farming German Irish stock in the Midwest) and thought he was in the 1% in that era, 1977 when I graduated from High School and the years just after. I was a “late bloomer” viz height, was always the 2nd smallest boy in my classes, among the last 2 or 3 picked during team sports, etc. Because I went to a pretty good suburban school the only time I was somewhat bullied was in gym class, but it wasn’t that severe actually. As I recall, they stopped gender segregating us and girls shared classes with boys my Junior year, & what bullying I experienced really slacked off, coz for whatever reasons at my HS boys didn’t get status by being bullies. I finally grew 4 inches from 5 foot 4 at the end of my 11th grade year to 5 ft 8 at the beginning of 12th grade. (Eventually at age 21 I hit 6 feet, exactly the same height as my dad and brother.) Anyway, Senior year I could compete with the other boys and saw very little bullying . . . My dad was super-Authoritarian due to his upbringing and we started having serious conflicts when he realized his oldest son would never be a carbon copy of him, a jock and anti-intellectual, from about age 15 or so he couldn’t stand to be in the room with me and berated me constantly. So anyway, school was my refuge, I did great in all my classes (except PE, & struggled in science). . . went to the University of Chicago due to good GPA plus very high SAT scores . . . I grew socially during that time, reinvented myself and had many friendships etc. But smoked pot a fair bit, somewhat of a sophomore slump my 2nd year. I was home and my best friend whose family had moved to Texas was staying with us. Dad found out I had smoked pot and threatened to have me “institutionalized”, kicked my buddy out– I wasn’t being lazy though, I worked 2 jobs that summer, the good one was for the US Census bureau gearing up for the 1980 census. Even though I was only 19 I’d done so well on the civil service test I had a high-paid job testing the lower paid workers’ data . . . Anyway, moved to Chicago, worked in a shipping-receiving job for 1 year, the following year I went down to Western Louisiana with friends to work in the oil industry and get a higher income. First I worked in a pipeyard inspecting drilling pipe, moving it around and into radioactive machines to test the pipes to make sure no holes to cause blowouts . . . Unpleasant outdoors work, I put on some major arm and leg muscles but you only made real money with overtime, had to work 70 hours a week or so to save anything. Next I got an Able Bodied Seaman’s (lol) card and began working as a deckhand on boats taking drilling pipe, drilling mud and groceries out to the Gulf of Mexico Oil rigs. I was stationed in Morgan City Louisiana (where I’d signed on), then Janis Joplin’s old home town, Port Arthur, Texas. Now I seriously got to learn about bullying and fighting. There were only 6 of us on the boat, the Elderly captain and his cook/lover (sleeping with him was part of the job), plus 2 other deckhands and the engineer. They were all Southern boys, called me a “Yankee” (shit, Chicago has next to no New England vibe), got their noses bent out of shape that I wouldn’t call blacks “the n— word”, that I jeered at Jim Bakker and the Evangelist hucksters on TV, etc. So of course in very short time the Engineer attacked me violently 3x . . . the first 2 didn’t go well, but I had better balance and quickness even though he was 5 years older and outweighed me by 35 lbs. or more (I was 110 lbs. at the time, ate 5 heavy meals a day but any weight I gained melted right off) . . . so I “won” the 3rd fight pretty decisively & I was then respected and was verbally mocked (& aimed it right back) but never attacked again. It taught me a lot my privileged upbringing hadn’t about violence, male respect and confidence, etc. I got out after 7 or 8 months with some lingering PTSD from the initial trauma but at age 22 moved to New Orleans and gradually up to better blue-collar jobs. I only had 1 more fight later in life and one near-fight as well . . . In ‘late ’88 just before I left New Orleans for Oakland I was at a Ramones show (the core 3 still all alive!) in the mosh pit in my best steel-toed boots, black leather spiked armband, etc. After moshing we’d all been drinking, and a more drunk dude stumbled up to me and stood atop my steel-toed boots; having just finished moshing, I pushed him abruptly, not even having thought, and he immediately assumed I was trying to start some sh*t. I assured him calmly that I wasn’t and that it was just a reflex. He continued, getting more belligerent and then I just gave him a certain “look”, Let’s go if I really have to. He stopped, no fight, we parted amicably. The next year in Oakland, I had a married girlfriend, pretty stupid but I was 29 at the time and could not resist. I knew her husband, we were part of a big group of pagan, Anarchist and communist punk rockers and weirdos. He worked on cars, I was a substitute high school teacher. He came by the big hippy, punk collective house and challenged me to a fight. I told him I didn’t want to but would if we had to. He said we did, so we went into my bedroom, I put my shoes on, then we walked out to the backyard and started throwing punches. Fortunately we were very evenly matched (this woman had a definite “type”, her hubby looked like my slightly smaller brother); at one point I put him in a headlock with my right arm and was punching his face repeatedly and hard; he landed at least one good punch on my mouth as I had swollen gums after, he also tried to kick me in the balls but missed . . . the person most seriously hurt was a roomie, ironically a big Russian guy, Nikolai, who got between us and who W— knocked down trying to get at me. The hubby apologized after the fight and the affair continued on and off for years . . . . Anyway, the point? Those of us who have lived thru violence get the ethos whether or not we support it. Later when I was a teacher and we were all bullied by stupid PMC admin, my boozhie co-workers only half stood with me when I didn’t take the abuse and pushed back. I think I am a better rounded person for having lived and survived predatory violence at an age where I was able to adapt and eventually stand up for myself. Republicans are mostly pigs, violent and ignorant, but their lesser evil codependent Libs are prissy cowards who will and do repeatedly “bring a tote bag to a knife fight.” Violence is despicable and should be avoided– but humans remain animals and it can’t be. Some exposure at least immunizes one to respond (or in ideal cases, not respond, because people know better than to abuse you).

  25. Soredemos

    It’s always ‘Putin Putin Putin’, as if Russia doesn’t have its own security state and bureaucracy that have massive influence on Russian foreign policy.

  26. Soredemos

    What’s with the sniping at FDR? Is this more of the ‘the New Deal was bad for black people’ type nonsense? Maybe he was personally racist (though I seriously doubt he was more than Truman was), but while there were definitely compromises made to appease Southern Democrats in the New Deal, it still did massively benefit blacks and other minorities. The fact is that the black vote shifted massively from the Republicans (still living off the brand fumes of the Radicals) to the Democrats under FDR. Black people themselves thought he was pretty good.

  27. Soredemos

    That Kamil Galeev thread is very long-winded blather that is of no use whatsoever in analyzing the situation in Ukraine. First he seems to be calling people opposing a NATO no fly zone cowardly concessionists, which, hey, idiot, it’s called not starting WW3. Also there’s an inherent delusional arrogance that thinks NATO could even impose such a state of affairs if it wanted to.

    Later on he claims that Russia expected Ukraine to fall over instantly, and when it didn’t Russia desperately started pushing for negotiations. This is 100% bullshit. While Russia definitely miscalculated in a few specific areas, eg Kharkov, they went in prepared for a multiweek campaign. Russia has a number of stated demands, and Kiev could end this at any point by submitting to them: neutrality, substantive disarmament, and hand over the Nazis. The repeated negotiation attempts say ‘we can do this the easy way or the hard way, but we are going to do it’.

    At a minimum Russia went in fully expecting to have to cauldron off and massacre the Nazi formations on the Donbass front, since they were unlikely to ever willingly surrender.

  28. someofparts

    Mark Level – As a woman I have never been part of the male culture of respect through combat that you and Ian are speaking about here. Even so, as a woman and an old one in the bargain, one thing I learned from a lifetime of dating men was to spot the difference between men who understand that code and have the respect of other men, and those who don’t. Of course it is not a universal rule, and may even be a minority position, but I learned that if I found a nice guy who carried himself in a way that told me other men respected him, that such a man was infinitely better for a woman to be close to than a prissy liberal coward.

  29. someofparts

    Stewart M – Two responses to your comments:

    1) When it comes to leaders who cannot be sated unless they dominate expansively, beyond what they need to establish security and prosperity for themselves, these days that would be the rulers of the US.

    2) As far as the unrelenting provocations the US and its puppets have directed at Putin, it always reminds me that there is an actual legal category for something I will paraphrase as ‘fighting words’. That is to say that it is understood at law, at least here in the US, that an antagonist can say certain things to a rival that are understood to be so offensive as to legally be considered the first blow.

  30. Soichiro Rocks

    Who are the “rulers” of America? It’s a serious question. Please answer it fully and accurately. Who are the “rulers” of America? If they’re to be opposed and deposed, they need to be identified and listed.

    If Putin has been goaded as some of his Western defenders are claiming, that doesn’t say much for Putin, does it? Either he’s a moron or he’s nuts. They are the only two options. If the claim of Putin’s apologists is true, that the West wants to entangle him in a quagmire in Ukraine that will break him, then why did he take the bait? He’s allegedly supposed to be a master chess player and yet he makes a strategic blunder like this? Ukraine will surely be his Waterloo. The question is, will it also be humanity’s Waterloo? If the media has its way it will be and coverage of Armageddon will be brought to us by Xarelto and Entresto.

  31. Soredemos

    @Soichiro Rocks

    What do you assume he intends to stay in Ukraine?

  32. Soichiro Rocks

    I don’t assume it but Putin is about face and saving face. He has crafted a narrative to the Russian people about what this invasion is all about. He has to hew to that narrative or else his lasting legacy is that of a capitulator.

    A quick in and out is not hewing to that Peter The Great narrative. He will look weak if he withdraws without accomplishing his mission of Ukrainian DeNazification, hence he’s crossed the Rubicon. Invading Ukraine was and is an insane gambit no matter how many apologetic ways Susan Webber wants to paint it. There is no easy way out once you’ve committed. Any off ramps offered by the West will leave Putin diminished should he accept any of them.

    Putin must see this through but the problem is, see what through? He’s crafted a narrative to the Russian people to justify the invasion of Ukraine but the narrative is a lie. I still can’t figure his true intentions for invading Ukraine beyond self-sabotage, but whatever those intentions were or are, he must now fulfill them. Abandonment of his true mission is no longer an option. He’s really painted himself into a corner.

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