-by Skip Kaltenheuser
Ukraine is a now a tilt-a-whirl that’s come loose. It’s jarring, set against memories of a couple weeks of interviewing people in Kyiv during the regime of corrupt Putin crony Viktor Yanukovych nearly a decade ago. To better grasp what’s happening, I seek inputs beyond the mainstream, given its dubious track record, from WMD’s in Iraq to Russiagate. One shouldn’t ignore the mainstream, but one needs a wider angle lens.
Here’s a few suggestions for circumventing journalism’s herd instinct. Start the day with the 7 am EST Links Section at Naked Capitalism with, which assembles a broad array varying viewpoints, often introducing new sources worth making a note of. Democracy Now presents interviews worth a look; particularly good ones on Ukraine are in the Feb. 24th show:
Subsequent Democracy Now interviews continue to offer insight, including the spectre of risks to nuclear power plants, (Chernobyl, in Ukraine, showed how things can go wrong).
We can doff our hats to Bill Clinton for yet another long-term impact he gifted us with, this one by his decision to expand NATO willy-nilly, eventually providing the pretense for Vladimir Putin to abandon diplomacy and attack, as described here: The Clinton-era blunder that set the stage for today’s Ukrainian crisis.
Responsible Statecraft is a source worth monitoring for its analyses of how we land in such predicaments. Another is Consortium News, which pulls in solid expertise and avoids getting stuck on prior narratives. The Intercept often has interesting insights, such as How Putin’s Designs on Ukraine Reflect the “Dangerous Nostalgia” of a Lost Empire.
Chris Hedges covered Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union crumbled, so his perspective is well-rooted. Here’s his latest, from ScheerPost.com: Hedges: The Chronicle of a War Foretold.
Any perspective by Col. Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Colin Powell, is worth grabbing, wherever you can find it. Same with Daniel Ellsberg, who probably knows more about government disinformation and near-fatal nuclear brinkmanship than anyone I know. Katrina Vanden Heuvel knows the territory; here’s a recent piece, Putin’s Invasion. One might also benefit from the offerings and analyses of the Committee of the Republic. Some of that group’s past offerings, zoomed during the pandemic, scrutinize the military/industrial/congressional complex, (Ike’s original draft included “congressional”). They are accessible on You Tube, here.
Of course every effort to divine what’s happening becomes more difficult given the speed of events. Today’s certainties are apt to collapse tomorrow. Best luck.
Part of the game we all play now is deciphering what goes on in Putin’s head, particularly as pressures build. He’s not a nice man-- a poisoner, a killer of journalists, a kleptocrat without peer, a fantasist yearning for Russia’s old empire. I have always assumed our intelligence "services" must be fully aware of how much Putin and his cronies have looted from Russia, and where and how the fortunes are stashed. Finding ways to disseminate this information to the Russian people always seemed to me a proper way to undermine Putin’s leadership, once the need for that became as obvious, as it appears to be now.
It occurs to me that there might be some in the Kremlin who’d like to see Putin go away and might welcome his graft being fully outed. I also wonder if Putin’s hold on power was wobbling a bit behind the scenes. He wouldn’t be the first to try and shore up support at home with a war. Perhaps Putin is now cornered by his runaway train rhetoric. Who knows? I don’t. In any case, his reckless gambit in Ukraine might fizzle as Russia becomes a pariah state. Russian memories of the disasters wrought by Afghanistan may surface.
This item from a favorite site, Putin Thought of Everything-- Except a Crash of 45 Percent on the Moscow Stock Exchange and Big Russian Companies Losing Half their Market Value, shows how fast things are already going south for Russia. A continuing pile-on of sanctions will likely keep Russia’s economy in free-fall.
However, our ever-conflicted banksters, including on Wall Street, no strangers to money-laundering, are not proving reliable, and with a variety of lobbyists are undermining sanctions that target Russia’s top tier, as noted here, Here’s Why the Russian Sanctions Are a Dud: Big Foreign Banks from the U.S., France, Austria and Italy Are Operating in a “Routine Manner” in Russia, from Wall Street on Parade, and here bidens-ukraine-plans-face-wall-street-roadblock, from the Daily Poster.
Suffering all around, Ukrainians, Russians and all those impacted, including by the looming refugee crisis. To think the world has to cope with this and sideline everything else that ought to be on the front burner, from the pandemic to nuclear disarmament to climate change, is a lousy state of affairs. According to the Daily Poster, the American Petroleum Institute is already offering its solution, drilling everywhere, and not sanctioning Russian oil and gas production. This amid predictions of a severe global fire season.
One new wrinkle might be Putin complicit with our good friends the Saudis to drive up the price of oil. For that, the invasion is working like a charm.
Keep an eye open for all the grifters lining up to capitalize on our latest precarity, especially those who don’t think we squander enough of our treasure on our military. We slipped out of the Forever Wars, but continue to set spending records. There are so many moving parts with mixed purpose in this drama, don’t be surprised when some elude us.
From a slightly simpler time, a reprise of observations done after a couple weeks spent in Kyiv on a writing assignment follows below. I was there back when Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, ran Ukraine. It includes an imbedded slideshow for a sense of Kyiv. I didn’t mind when Ukraine finally gave the wildly corrupt Viktor the bum’s rush in 2014, I just wish there’d been the patience to wait to do it via an election, which would have left no doubt as to the popular will to dump him. And given the corruption that continued after his departure, I wish I’d ended with The Who lyric, Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Kyiv Kaleidoscope: Viktor Yanukovych, We Hardly Knew Ye! But We Knew Enough, Good Riddance
Story & Photographs by Skip Kaltenheuser
A couple years ago I was on an assignment that had me a couple weeks in Kyiv to explore Ukraine's economic potentials, for reports of possible interest to investors. We hear "economic basket case" from pundits ten times a day now, but that's a reflection of the kleptocracy that ran the country. It's not indicative of the people who were stuck beneath the kleptocratic thumb. The country actually has a great deal going for it, from some of the richest and deepest topsoil on earth-- even after the Third Reich and the Soviets plundered it trainload after trainload-- to a well-educated, highly cultured and talented young labor force, missing only jobs. The disciplined restraint shown by the opposition once it had the upper hand wasn't a shock, the younger crowd is an impressive bunch.
One day I might write more extensively about the experience, which was fascinating but also had ample elements of farce, primarily when crossing government intersections. But the main lesson learned was that what has happened these past few months was always a coming attraction. Just a matter of when, if frustration could be suppressed until the election. And fear went somewhere into the equation. The more I encountered young people, the sadder it was to hear their growing despair. Their excellent education system was falling apart as was everything touched by the kleptocracy. There were no prospects for them, because everywhere the fix was in. Younger people were eager to align more with the EU, on the chance it might bring more opportunities and perhaps a reordering of their society.
How bad is it? Here's one instance. A German bank was fleeced by a local outfit. When the Germans sued, the locals paid the bureaucracy to change the name of street where the local company's office was, allowing a judge on the take to throw out the case for improper service, etc... Getting nowhere, the Germans hired some local Russians. At a restaurant where the officials of the local company often lunched, a small explosion was arranged under the dinner table. Not powerful enough to kill or permanently maim, just big enough to deliver a potent message. The Germans got their money back, but what a hassle of a way to conduct business.
People are guarded when asked about problems dealing with the government, they worry about where their replies might end up going. But if people trust your motives and discretion, frustrations pour out. Small business folk can't get things off the ground because if an enterprise looks promising, government fees/bribes start increasing. If one defies the odds and gets something rolling, some official's cousin comes along to offer his skills as a partner. Running a pub or restaurant? Be prepared for government inspectors to take an active interest in your success, and to come with their buddies to drink up your profits while discovering all manner of license fees. Complaints to government, as if government would snap to action, are frowned on. Frowns can have rough consequences. Sometimes even foreign companies and their lawyers will level about their frustrations, trying to get large projects underway while dodging local moguls who want in on everything.
So local would-be entrepreneurs without political connections or the means for bribes just stay home. For many young folk, their main strategy has become an exit strategy, to go elsewhere. Long shots at beauty contests, and rock bands. Very skilled computer hackers. Cruise ship crews, anywhere. That's where the economic basket case comes from. The young see no future in a kleptocracy.
In Kyiv there's a small but elegant department store that caters to oligarchs. I wandered around under the watchful eye of security, having the place mostly to myself. Just a couple of oligarchs shopping, while their girlfriends relaxed at a very expensive restaurant on top, next to a a fancy art gallery. I wouldn't have been shocked to find a plastic surgeon on call. The small parking lot outside was occupied by private security types, with their own pricey cars, though not as pricey as their bosses' rides. It's a source of local amusement during rush hour, spotting oligarchs and/or high government officials and their bodyguards, their fleets of luxury cars jamming things up at intersections. After seeing what neckties were selling for in the store, I was tempted to run to my hotel and return with my own ties, a few of which could've been contenders, to see if I might start up a quick discount business selling my favorites to the bored bodyguards in the parking lot.
The whole scene is in high contrast to the reality behind many of the attractive women dressed to the nines one sees walking down the street. Their clothing ensembles are often put together by a half dozen or so girlfriends pooling parts of their limited wardrobes so a chum with a special date or an interview can look her best.
I could digress into tales of communists turned oligarchs. A few are now billionaires, some are on the lam after their and Vladimir Putin's pet president fled the country. The point is that a handful of characters have held most of the country's cookies. With few exceptions, they bottleneck the gates of opportunity for anyone not playing ball by their rules. But I'm going to digress instead to something I recently came across, a professor trying to make the case that too many people in the West are reflexively critical of Russia's Vladimir Putin and his motivations. We need to stand in Putin's shoes to see where he's coming from. Really. I can't recall exactly when I got the notion that Putin might be a poisoner, with radiation, of dissidents, or an assassin of journalists. The whole thing is probably just a misunderstanding of an unfortunate series of coincidences involving people with a different world view than Putin's. But I will be watching with interest to see if any of the Ukrainian government's records dumped in the drink or elsewhere, when Yanukovych and his minions beat their hasty retreat, reveal money trails to Putin's gang. Or if evidence surfaces that encouragement for using snipers against Kyiv protesters came out of Russia. In any case, Putin's ringing endorsement of Yanukovych will continue to leave a ringing in many Ukrainian ears.