There are already severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings across Tennessee and Kentucky this morning … that should spread south into Georgia, Alabama as the day goes on.
For those in coastal GA/SC, the severe weather should stay inland, but there is a slight risk of a few storms reaching the coast late this afternoon and evening, so worth taking a look after 5pm or so …
During the time between Pascha and Ascension, Orthodox Christians traditionally use the greeting “Christ is Risen!” (in Greek, Χριστὸς ἀνέστη!/Christos Anesti, or in Russian, Христосъ воскресе!/Christos Voskrese), the response is “Truly he has Risen (Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!/Alethos Anesti, Воистину воскресе!/Voistinu Voskrese).
Although a small and often ignored minority in the US, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is at least one third of the total number of Christians worldwide. The Orthodox Churches are those churches who trace their liturgy, practices, and lines of succession continuously back to the Apostles. While often identified by the language and original ethnicity of the parish, such as Greek, Russian, Antoichian, and so forth, they share common beliefs and services with minor differences. So the Sunday Divine Liturgy may be celebrated in Greek, Russian, Arabic, English or, as is so common here in the US, a mixture of the original language of the immigrants who started the church and English, they are in all the important ways the same. While in the past unified by a common set of beliefs, in the last few years there have been some unfortunate divisions creeping into the Eastern Churches, especially between Greek and Slavic churches, as various political powers try to manipulate them for their own purposes and heirarchs more concerned with worldly influence and conformity than the heavenly kingdom accept (and profit from) that interference. Yet the faith remains – carried on in family homes, small village parishes, and remote monasteries, shepherded by those clergy who remain faithful to tradition and keep their focus on eternity …
Because the culture of Christianity in the US is largely based on Protestantism and the different worldviews between the Catholic and Protestant denominations (now colored by such arguably orthogonal groups as “Prosperity Gospel” megachurches, Mormonism, etc.) few here have an appreciation of Orthodoxy, and often see it as some kind of ethnic or Primitive Christianity, “Catholic without the Pope” or “Catholic with an Eastern Pope.” None of these perspectives is accurate. There are very fundamental differences in theology between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. Probably the most basic difference is that Western Christianity tends to have its roots in a more legalistic theology whereas the Eastern Churches have a more mystical approach. That is not to say it is without serious reason and logic behind it – but rather (in my view) a more balanced view of the limits of human knowledge without, as some Protestant sects do, rejecting reason.
The human experience is a complex interplay of reason, logic, faith, and emotion. Theology and religion are fascinating topics, and while sadly often the source of conflict, they form a rich tapestry that should bring us together. As the evening gatha said in Zen Buddhist monasteries goes:
Let me respectfully remind you … life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken … Take heed. Do not squander your life.
For those in the coastal Georgia and South Carolina Low Country, while there is some uncertainty there seems to be two bands of potentially severe weather on the way today. The first is a Quasi Linear Convective System (QLCS), which is a fancy term for a line of thunderstorms, interacting with a warm front late this morning. The second is a squall line that is shaping up to push through during the peak energy time, late this afternoon and early evening. Overall, heavy rain (up to 3″ in the Savannah area, maybe near high tide, so expect street flooding!), gusty winds, and according to the Storm Prediction Center a 10% chance for a tornado … so keep your weather radios on and be aware we could get some heavy weather today. You can see stuff shaping up to our southwest in this radar composite as of 7:30am …
For the last few weeks I’ve been watching the COVID-19 excess mortality statistics from NIH/CDC. As I constantly rant, the real time numbers you see on the cable “news” networks are utter rubbish: it takes several weeks for death certificates and reporting to become reliable, and of course just raw daily numbers lack context. So here is the latest reliable data charting excess mortality in the US from all causes since 2016 through late March. Above zero means more than expected; below zero means fewer people died than we would expect. The last data point (well below zero) is likely based on incomplete data, but is probably not drastically wrong. You can clearly see the bad 2017/2018 influenza season as the spike on the left side – and the very obvious and undeniable COVID-19 pandemic on the right (although people do deny it for whatever stupid reasons):
So … it is possible that in mid to late March all cause mortality in the US returned to something like statistically normal. I’m using “all cause” because that puts everything in perspective – deaths caused by everything from COVID-19, influenza, traffic accidents, crime, etc. The biggest deviations in this number over the last 20 years or more have been due to Influenza (like the spike in 2017/18), and of course now COVID-19 is the big driver. There are probably a lot of reasons for the big drop in COVID-19 related mortality – first, to be blunt, a lot of the initially vulnerable population has likely succumbed to the virus (many of them probably shouldn’t have, but that’s another rant). Second, the precautions like masking and distancing are helping, third, the vaccination program is likely starting to impact the numbers, and of course we are exiting the winter respiratory virus season.
Even given the case counts over the last couple of weeks (which were trending in the wrong direction) this trend in mortality is likely to be preserved, and the overall mortality in the US to remain in the normal range unless something changes. Have we turned the corner? Maybe … unless the variants are deadlier than expected, people get stupid about precautions too soon, etc. And other parts of the world aren’t doing so well. So don’t start partying yet – but maybe you can smile a little behind your mask …
Complex discussions like the situation in Ukraine are difficult when limited to 800-1000 word screeds even with links to other content. I’ve received some critical questions and feedback on the previous post, and they deserve answers – and that will take lots of words. I hope those who don’t like my positions on this topic will take some time to read and think about these replies. You may ultimately not agree, but I hope you don’t dismiss these arguments out of hand, and this helps you see that there is perhaps another legitimate side to this conflict that is not based on misinformation or devious Russian propaganda. So here goes …
Ultimately, most of the criticisms seem to be from a perspective based on what I feel is a misleading “periodization.” Periodization is a concept that foreign policy experts and historians use to define the relevant scope of time needed to understand a given issue or circumstance. In other words, when does history start for the purpose of an explanatory narrative around which we can formulate an appropriate course of action? Unfortunately, far too many people (such as our politicians and the vast majority of the so-called US “Russia experts” who say things like “dishonesty is in Russian DNA”) drag history along with them like Jacob Marley’s chains. This clinging on to the past ends up not informing the present, but contaminating it. Of course, the opposite can be just as true – if you abbreviate history too much, you risk losing needed context. Finding that balance is usually hard. But it is the first step in understanding our crisis in relations with Russia.
The key question is: Are Russian actions unprovoked, or are they a response to prior western actions?
Many of the critical replies I’ve received cite episodes from the Soviet era. But the Soviet Union is gone 30 years now. Is it valid to apply Soviet era actions to Modern Russia? I argue that by and large it is not, and we need to let the Soviet Union remain in the Dustbin of History. Unlike most foreign policy situations, in this case I think periodization is fairly straightforward: the breakup of the Soviet Union provides a reasonable starting point. It was messy in some ways but also a relatively “clean” slate in others with a new form of government, and an unusual opportunity to build a more open, democratic society with a new economic system that did not require the trauma of a hot war to initiate.
By 1991/1992, Russia was on its knees, and we had two options: help them stand up and join the western family of nations as an equal, integrated partner to try to overcome ghosts of the past, or try to maintain a superior position, keep Russia down, and prevent Russia from ever becoming a potential adversary again. It is obvious to me that the West, lead by the US, took that latter path. I think Russia tried at first to take the path of cooperation and integration, but in the face of the lack of Western acceptance felt it had to respond, and we have now reverted to tit for tat responses to various actions where each side takes a provocative action then uses the response as justification for further actions. But lets rewind the clock to 1991 and see how things evolved.
I read a recent comprehensive analysis that documents how hundreds of billions of dollars of assets were looted from the Former Soviet Republics (FSR) and transferred into the Western financial system. This looting of the FSR caused major distortions in both the economy and social fabric of Russia. On top of that, the US conducted a massive interference campaign in internal Russian politics. The Yeltsin campaign in 1996 was essentially run by the Clinton White House and Democrat operatives. I have some of the campaign materials from that election. Yeltsin was by then becoming a drunk, incompetent, corrupt, barely conscious figurehead. But he was rinsed through a Western style advertising campaign and made presentable. The level of fraud was epic, and the US (via IMF) ensured that the Russian Government got a loan to be able to pay wages and benefits just in time for the election. It is widely accepted that election was stolen with US assistance.
Russians have not forgotten this – with good reason. They also see how the US continues to pump money into “opposition” (either US friendly or simply disruptive) political parties, and US Diplomats are often seen openly and directly (and, btw, in violation of international norms) participating in political rallies. They also see how the US and international media pump up marginal figures like Navalny, and fuel divisive internal issues like LGBTQ rights to try to create internal turmoil. They also saw what happened in Ukraine, where the “transparent and honest elections” (per OSCE and PACE observers) in which the US did not like the outcome were overthrown in 2014 by a US instigated coup. Russia also learned a lesson that was quickly implemented in retaliation: social media can be used to rapidly inflame existing social divisions so as to create turmoil that can be used in the furtherance of external agendas.
From an international relationship perspective, when the Soviet Union was dissolved a number of new agreements were made as to the conduct of relations between the west, Russia, and the other FSR, and Russia was designated as the “successor state” to various arms control agreements made during Soviet times like ABM, IRBM, and so forth. Who violated them first? The answer is pretty clear: it was the west lead/pushed by the US.
During the 1990’s, Russian weapons development activities were at a standstill, and military deployments minimal. But despite the “peace”, US R&D actually accelerated in the fields of developing new strategic weapons, as well as expanded NATO eastward, and continued aggressive exercises and flights along the borders of Russia to which Russia could not respond. By the early 2000’s, and the election of Bush II, the US was arguably directly violating both the ABM and IRBM treaties. The west had clearly violated the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances and associated side agreements on NATO expansion, and was actively interfering in the elections in all of the FSR successor states, including gross interference in Ukraine (in direct violation of that agreement) as well as the previously noted interference in Russian internal politics.
Has Russia subsequently violated these agreements? Not sure that matters – if Party A abrogates an agreement, then Party B is generally no longer obligated to follow it, but let’s say for discussion purposes that Russia has subsequently violated these agreements. Would Russia have violated those agreements had the US not taken advantage of the situation and acted as it did? We will never know, but I suspect not. I have been to Russia and had extensive contacts in the international community throughout the key period of 1991 to 2014. At first there was a great deal of excitement at the opportunity to peacefully spin down the Cold War and join with the West in a constructive relationship. But as the 1990’s evolved into the mid 2000’s, that excitement turned to resentment within Russia.
That’s more extended background and the context (periodization) within which I view the situation. Now some answers to some specific questions I’ve received over the last day or so … questions (often consolidated or paraphrased) in bold:
Super Typhoon Surigae is an impressive Category Four (Saffir Simpson scale) storm, just offshore from the Philippines this morning. Here is a composite high resolution view from the NOAA VIIRS sensor on polar orbiting satellites …
Surigae is expected to stay offshore and economic impacts should be limited. It’s an impressive storm for so early in the year, hopefully not a portent of things to come.
There is some talk in US West Coast newspapers that the remains of Surigae might brink some relief to the dry conditions in the US Western states in a week or so. It’s possible – the typhoon will likely be dragging a lot of moisture North that will will be streaming across the Pacific. Of course by that time it will no longer by a tropical system, but the region could certainly use the rain (just not all at once, because that causes mudslides …)
But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile. — Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander
My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right. — Senator (former Civil War General) Carl Shurtz, 1871
Hopefully everyone reading this is aware that tensions between the US and Russian governments are at the worst level in their 30 year history. If you include the Soviet Union, then global tensions are the worst since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (which you shouldn’t unless you mean the risk of peer-on-peer nuclear war; despite the fact that many in the US Government are blindly stuck in that mode of thinking, Modern Russia is definitely not the Soviet Union). While the Cuban Crisis is before my time, I was there during the late cold war, including the 1983 Able Archer incident.I feel the situation now is far more dangerous. During the Cold War, both sides wanted to avoid outright war, and made sure that conflicts that could lead to a war were defused. Although there were NUTS (Nuclear Utilization Targeting Strategy) on both sides, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) was the rule of the day, and nuclear escalation was unthinkable except in response to a nuclear attack. Today that situation has changed. In a level of hubris that would make any writer of a Greek Tragedy green with envy, policy planners in the US now believe that tactical nuclear weapons can be used and contained to regional conflicts without risk to the US “homeland” or escalation to an all global exchange. This was the rationalization for the deployment of the W76-2 warhead, which I discussed in this post last year. I won’t repeat the insanity of that move other than to say that it totally ignores Russian doctrine and makes the world a far more dangerous place. And it has painted the US into a tactical and doctrinal corner that can only end poorly. One key reason for the relative stability of the Cold war is that each side would rather lose a conventional conflict or crisis that lay outside its borders rather than risk nuclear war. In the current Ukraine crisis, that safeguard no longer seems to exist for several reasons.
As always, you need background and context to understand this situation, which means lots of words. I wrote a piece on this back during the impeachment circus. Even that longish overview glossed over several topics such as the vital gas pipelines that cross Ukraine, and the nearly completed Nordstream 2 pipeline system that further bypasses it. Those gas pipelines are of increased importance given the connections to the Ukraine energy sector by key people in the Democratic Party, as well as the fact that the US wants to maintain influence and control over Europe’s energy resources. It argues that European dependence on cheaper Natural Gas from Russia creates a security risk for Europe. Of course, one could also argue that dependence on US LNG (which costs many times that of pipeline gas) creates an equally dangerous dependence on the US, given it’s predilection for sanctions as a weapon, as well as reduces European competitiveness in the global economy by more costly energy sources. So the bottom line is that while much is made about Democracy or the sanctity of national borders (something the US seems to have a highly selective view about, given allies like Saudi Arabia), like many if not most things this is at heart about economics and the control of resources.
There is so much misinformation and misleading perspectives (propaganda?) about the current crisis in the US and western media. You’ve been told that Russia has built up considerable forces on the border of Ukraine. That’s absolutely true. But did you know that it could be argued that the US and NATO started this round of escalation by moving nearly 40,000 troops into countries bordering Russia as part of an “exercise” (Defender 2021, which is running in conjunction with other ongoing operations)? And that Ukraine, believing that NATO will support their adventures, has been moving forces to the border of the disputed regions for weeks to take advantage of the exercise, has been shelling civilian targets, and otherwise violating the Minsk 2 agreements and associated cease fires that were meant to try to bring a negotiated settlement to the crisis? Did you know Ukraine effectively declared war on Russia last month? And that Ukrainian officials have actually intimated they are hoping for a provocation that will trigger a Russian reaction, knowing they will lose badly in any conflict, just to draw in US and NATO forces? In context, the Russians moving forces to their border are perfectly reasonable. I doubt the US would merely watch if a hostile Mexico mobilized their military, then allowed China to put tens of thousands of troops on the Rio Grande …
The current situation is especially risky because the present Ukrainian government feels it can provoke Russia since the US “has its back.” They have good reason to believe that – the current President and other US leaders have have business connections to Ukrainian oligarchs and have publicly stated their support. Many in the US Government, coming from a neoconservative background, want to “put Russia in its place” and expand US economic hegemony by restricting European options with respect to energy as noted above. Others in the Democratic party are angry over the mostly mythical “election interference” in 2016 and 2020, hypocritically ignoring the tens of billions of dollars the US has spent “promoting” (and subverting when it doesn’t suit US interests) democracy in Russia and Ukraine. So there is pressure to “look and act strong.” Yet strategically and tactically a US/NATO intervention would probably not go well, and may well lead to the use of nuclear weapons unless the US would be willing to lose a conventional conflict. And since the nuclear threshold has been lowered with systems like the W76-2, and the US fundamentally does not understand (or believe) Russian nuclear doctrine, the US might think it can use tactical devices without a corresponding use against the US. It is almost certainly wrong.
A discussion of the “correlation of forces” in Ukraine from a military perspective is complex. Sober analysts on both sides realize that the public pronouncements of both sides are optimistic for public consumption, the reality is that while probably not as simple as they might want it to be, Russia could easily wipe out the Ukrainian military (and supporting NATO units if they chose to help) if the conflict were to be kept confined to that theater. If it became a wider scale conflict, Russia could not easily (and by all indications has absolutely no desire to) “take over Europe” militarily. It could very probably not only successfully defend itself against NATO but inflict considerable pain should the conflict widen. Here the risks are enormous: Russia would be on the front lines, and militarily it would be inevitable that strikes would be made on Russian soil. However … Russia now has the ability to strike the US “homeland” with conventional weapons as well as infrastructure and financial system assets, which it might well do. How would Americans react to that? Badly and jingoistically, I would assume. But most likely Russia would not strike the US homeland directly out of fear of escalation unless serious casualties were inflicted inside Russia itself, and try to keep the conflict European by only attacking US assets in Europe or other theaters like Near East Asia. This raises the question of what the US would do at that point: would it accept the loss of Ukraine and a frozen conflict or try to “win” using tactical nuclear weapons? If the latter, which some in the US military and State Department advocate, it would almost inevitably result in a global nuclear exchange if a nuclear strike of any kind were to occur on or near Russian soil (per clearly stated Russian doctrine). A frightening but all too plausible scenario.
But will the US go to war over Ukraine? The Ukrainians believe so. However, while I think the Russiphobia in Washington knows few bounds, I’m not so sure. It would actually suit US interests just fine to have Ukraine start a war with Russia and lose. Russia would occupy Donbass (the disputed region – there are no signs Russia wants anything much to do with the Nazi infested realms west of the Dniper). This would be an epic angst-fest for the Washington Elites, and would likely completely alienate Europe from Russia economically. The new “Iron Curtain” (this time raised by the US) would likely ensure European subservience and dependence on the US for the foreseeable future. The remaining 70 percent or so of Ukraine would almost certainly be incorporated in NATO, and the Military Industrial Complex (which already sucks up over half of the US discretionary budget) would enjoy a massive influx of even more money. Win-win. Well, except for the vast majority of people in Ukraine who just want to live their lives, or the majority of Americans who don’t own Lockheed-Martin stock and selfishly want things like health care, roads, and schools. Russia too sees benefits to a short, sharp conflict that “resolves” the Donbass situation. It has been festering for years, with ethnically Russian speaking people caught in the crossfire of this unnecessary conflict. Russia also seems to be giving up on any relationships with the west, and especially with the US. So the three sides – the US, Ukraine, and Russia – have all pretty much given up on a peaceful solution; one of the three actively wants war (Ukraine), one wants a war but likely won’t back its nominal ally (US), and the other (Russia) isn’t willing to be intimidated and thinks it can win if it has to.
Unknown in all of this is what the other regional players (especially Turkey and Iran) would do. And of course there is the China wildcard – no question of their military involvement, but it would present them with many geopolitical and economic opportunities. An already unstable world will become even more dangerous.
During the late Cold War, there were a number of analysts who actually understood both the Soviet Union as well as the Russian People. Today, there seem to be far fewer US policymakers who have such an understanding. The public misunderstanding is even worse. There are certainly no voices like the late Stephen Cohen trying to foster an understanding of them. As I noted in a previous post, we have a bad situation where those voices that are heard are often personally biased. Worse, a situation has been created that you can’t even cite many authoritative Russian sources or contrary opinions (even to point out their errors, much less when they have a valid point to make) without being deplatformed and silenced in the primary modes of communications these days, the social media giants of Facebook and Twitter. There are several commentaries I would love to link to here to try to get across the profound misunderstandings that Americans have about what is going on in Russia and vice versa. I can’t – this post would be blocked. And, yet, the “country” that the above quotes speak of protecting is either unaware of this impending catastrophe, or else actively cheering it on under the influence of a “news” media that largely parrots official government statements with virtually no critical thought, much less investigation or context.
So in (not so) short, we are in a very dangerous situation, and the burden for stepping back from the edge falls squarely on the US. It is well past time to declare in no uncertain terms that this government (that of the United States of America), is on a morally and ethically wrong path in its relations with Russia, one that is in violation of a wide swath of agreements and assurances, and from a purely practical standpoint is dangerous and puts global stability and the lives of millions at risk. So what to do?
First, the US needs to stop baiting Russia, and accept it is a world player. Drop the moralizing – while the US had moral credibility during the Cold War, it has squandered that precious advantage and needs to rebuild it by adhering to international norms of behavior before it calls out others. IMNSHO, the simple fact is that the situation in Donbass and Crimea between Russia and Ukraine was largely created and inflamed by the US for crass geopolitical reasons. There is no direct US strategic security interest, and if it were not for US backing, the parties would have sorted this out long ago. Second, the US needs to stop trying to control the world. Those days were fleeting, the US mismanaged that window in the 1990’s, made it worse in the 2000’s, and it needs to accept – and more importantly, influence and benefit – a multi-polar world, or be left behind. Third, the US needs to honestly and seriously create a internal situation where it is not so dependent on exploiting a global economic system that it can’t control. That last will be the most difficult, but is the most essential, because that fragile system creates the circumstances where the US feels it needs to run everything or risk destruction.
I know that many of you are worried about the environment, energy, the pandemic, civil rights, or whatever the media inflamed issue of the day seems to be. None of that matters if we blow ourselves up over artificially generated, great power gamesmanship and selfish, hubris driven geopolitical conflicts. Russia absolutely isn’t perfect, or righteous, but in this case it is the US that is in the wrong and has been for some time.
But by far the biggest concern is the potential for a major conflict to erupt in Ukraine. Despite rhetoric that on the surface seems geared towards defusing the situation (such as Biden’s offer to meet Putin), under the surface all sides are preparing for war, and all four major parties (the US, Ukraine, the DPR/LPR, and Russia) believe the situation is in their favor. Three of them are right. But we all know who loses: the average person caught up in the conflict zone … more on the situation in Donbass/Ukraine later this week.
Today is the 60th Anniversary of the flight of Yuri Gagarin, and is celebrated in Russia as День Космона́втики or Cosmonautics Day. Because it was so convolved with the Cold War and early space race, the date was mostly ignored in the western world out of embarrassment over the fact the Soviets beat the US into space. It wasn’t until the 40th Anniversary, when “Yuri’s Night” became popular, and culminating with the 50th Anniversary, when the UN designated the 12th of April as “International Day of Human Space Flight” and NASA began to more formally commemorate the event, that the event has become more properly commemorated. Most of the reporting I’ve looked at this morning emphasize the Cold War aspects rather than the amazing accomplishment itself (a CNN story I looked at was rather biased and historically inaccurate). This article on phys.org has some background for those who are interested in more.
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was like many of the early cosmonauts and astronauts far more than the comic-book heroes they were often made out to be. One of the lesser known aspects of his personality and family is that despite the officially atheistic communist government and society, like many Russians he was underneath a Christian. His family kept icons, and he ensured his daughter Yelena was baptized before his first (and, sadly, only) flight. Many in the US government and media utterly fail to recognize the return of Christianity in Russia, writing it off as some kind of facade. Yet the facade was in fact communism – Christianity endured and persevered under the surface and quickly returned once the Soviet Union fell. Surveys this year show that 66% of Russians consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians, and fully 17% are observing Lent (Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, is later than Western Easter this year, not being celebrated until May 2nd).
But today we celebrate Gagarin’s first flight, and the monumental achievement of Sergey Pavlovich Korolev and his rocket designs that are still in use today. Here is a photo I shot of the statue of Gagarin just outside his office in the Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City …