Vladimir Putin is Re-Thinking the Unthinkable

On July 25, 1945, acting U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Thomas T. Handy wrote orders to Gen. Carl Spaatz then commanding U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific.  The orders numbered one page and were remarkably succinct: upon receipt of the “special bomb” by the 509th Composite Group on Tinian Island, Spaatz would order its delivery after Aug. 3 on “one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Hiigata and Nagasaki.”

“Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by project staff,” the orders continued. “Further instructions will be issued concerning targets other than those listed above.”

In other words, the order to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan was operational, not political—a decision to be made not by the President but by the theater commander. At that moment, two bombs were ready for use in warfare. A third could be delivered to Tinian by Aug. 15, 1945. With two demonstrated designs, the Manhattan Project had reached industrial production of the atomic bomb. On Aug. 13, four days after the destruction of Nagasaki and only two days before the Japanese surrender, Col. Lyle Seeman, an aide to Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves, told Gen. John Hull that they could expect new bombs to be available at the rate of nearly three a month. Hull himself counted the weapons in total: seven available through September and October 1945.

Hull recognized the effect the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japanese morale.  That was their intention.  But if this and further bombings did not force the Japanese to capitulate, Hull was already thinking ahead to Operation Downfall, the planned Allied amphibious landings on the Japanese home islands.  He grasped the new weapon’s use on the battlefield to destroy division-strength formations of Japanese troops or to tear up lines of communication deep in the enemy’s rear.  If the atomic bomb failed as a strategic weapon, perhaps it could succeed as a tactical weapon.

The atomic bombs did not preclude conventional air attack.  Two days after Hiroshima, American aircraft firebombed Yawata and Fukuyama.  On Aug. 14, 1,000 American aircraft attacked Iwakuni, Osaka, Tokoyama, Kumagaya, and Isesaki.  The U.S. and its Allies had already firebombed Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Kessel, Darmstadt, and Pforzheim in Germany, Kobe and Tokyo, and Japanese-occupied Wuhan, China.  The Tokyo incendiary attack killed at least as many people as Hiroshima.  By the end of the war, Gen. Curtis LeMay had attacked 68 of 70 industrial targets across Japan.  “If you kill enough of them,” he once said, “they stop fighting.”

Today’s historical narrative summarizes the end of World War II as immediately following the two atomic bombings that saved a million Americans from having to invade Japan.  This is true but not complete.  At the time, the United States was prepared to fight a prolonged nuclear war to hasten surrender or completely destroy Japan’s warfighting capability.  The atomic bomb was a political weapon but very nearly became a common one.

Vladimir Putin reads history as only a cynic can.  He views Western rhetoric about humanitarian intervention, international law, and human rights, as simple cover for what is, to him, base national interest.  If the price for what he wants requires a little window-dressing, he can perform the necessary public gestures.  So Putin’s naked aggression in Georgia, Syria, Chechnya, West Africa, and Ukraine is legitimated by political referendum or legal argument.  There is no difference in his mind between shelling Grozny flat and the Second Battle of Fallujah.  There is no difference between poisoning dissidents in London and American drone strikes in Kabul. There is no difference between his intervention in Syria and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no difference between Russian protection of the self-declared independent Donbas republics and NATO-protected Kosovo, no difference between Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

Putin’s rhetoric extends well beyond cynicism into real danger.  His window-dressing is cover for his personal and national ambition: great power status, the new Russian empire, and an anti-modern political ideology.  He believes in the exigencies of state.  There is no Russia without a strong Russia.

If Putin has studied American war projections in mid-1945, he would see something very familiar from recent years: the United States using overwhelming force against a rapidly dwindling threat.  American leadership was already prepared to destroy Japanese cities one by one or annihilate whole armies in a stroke to end the war and avert mass American casualties.  The United States has never modified its nuclear first-use policy.  There is no doubt in Putin’s mind that if Warsaw Pact armored columns had poured through the Fulda Gap in 1983 that the U.S. and NATO would have started firing tactical nuclear weapons, the size of the first atomic bombs, into eastern Europe.

So what would keep Putin from doing the same?

This war of choice, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, is now existential—to him.  It is true he has been buoyed politically by the “special military operation” and he is genuinely supported by most Russians, propaganda victory or no.  The only real opposition comes from his right.  He is in a much stronger position than he was a year ago.  He has compromised all of his lieutenants so that, like Cortés scuttling his ships at Veracruz, their own survival is at stake.  So, in a sense, he has already won if what he risked was his own position and power.

But things could go badly for him very quickly.  He has managed to hide battlefield failures and the incompetent and hollowed-out Russian military so far.  It will be difficult to hide his defeat if Ukraine mounts a successful counter-offensive or if Russian forces capitulate, desert, or mutiny.  More importantly, the destruction of his armies will mean he has one less security backstop protecting him from a putsch.

This brings us to Putin’s scenario of the unthinkable:

With his armies fighting a rear-guard while trying to withdraw across the Donets River, Putin activates Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems prepositioned in Crimea. Russia has already deployed to the Black Sea land-attack submarines equipped with nuclear-tipped Kalibr cruise missiles.  As he did earlier in the invasion, Putin issues a vague threat to Ukraine and the international community—but the ultimatum would be clear.

Iskander (SS-26 Stone) tactical ballistic missile launcher. Wikipedia

Unheeded, he orders a strike on Odessa, population one million.  A missile launched from Crimea flying barely 400 kilometers reaches its target in seconds.  The 500-kiloton (estimated—yields on modern Russian nuclear weapons are not known) nuclear warhead explodes, destroying half the city instantly and setting fire to the rest.  A toxic plume of radionuclides pours out of the city.  Depending on the direction of the wind, fallout either settles into the Black Sea or spreads north over Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia, largely missing Russia. Ukraine’s only major seaport is now a razed, radioactive no-man’s-land.

Simulated 500kt airburst over Odesa. Center yellow circle is fireball radius. Outer yellow circle includes fatal thermal radiation. Simulation via NUKEMAP By Alex Wellerstein.

The international community is shocked and horrified.  But Putin has attacked his neighbor, not an ally.  He has drawn the nuclear saber and his ultimatum stands.  As a port, Odessa was a legitimate strategic target.  Putin orders Kyiv to capitulate.  There is no difference in his mind between the Western exigencies demanded to end World War II and his own survival.

Nuclear-capable improved Kilo-class Russian submarine Rostov-on-Don. Russian government official photo.

After a day without a response from Kyiv or the international community Putin orders another strike. The Russian Kilo-class submarine B-237 Rostov-on-Don, which transited the Dardenelles to enter the Black Sea in February, receives its order and fires a Kalibr cruise missile, aiming its thermonuclear warhead at Mykolaiv, a city of nearly 400,000 on the Buh River with access to the Black Sea. Mykolaiv is closer to Crimea, but it is also another strategic target with its shipbuilders and refit yards. In a moment, the city is devastated and the Buh boils.

Simulated 500kt airburst over Mykolaiv. Center yellow circle is fireball radius. Outer yellow circle includes fatal thermal radiation. Simulation via NUKEMAP By Alex Wellerstein

Two cities are destroyed, tens of thousands of Ukrainians killed, thousands of square kilometers laid waste and irradiated. This is no loss to Putin, who still claims innocently that he wants only the Donbas. The cost of clean-up and reconstruction will fall on Ukraine and its Western supporters. NATO will never extend its security guarantees to a defeated neighbor. The European Union will slow-track Ukrainian membership while it pours billions of euros into rebuilding and decontaminating the second-largest country in Europe. The mess, in other words, is in others’ hands, while the Donbas is in Putin’s. Mission accomplished.

Deterring or responding to a nuclear attack on a third country do not figure in current U.S. or NATO nuclear weapons planning.  We extend the protection of our nuclear umbrella to countries with whom we have written security agreements.  That does not include Ukraine.  For what we know at this point, deterrence has worked as intended: Russia has not resorted to chemical or nuclear weapons, it has not attacked countries outside Ukraine, and it has not explicitly threatened NATO member nations.

But with his back to the wall, his political survival suddenly at stake, Putin is all in and ready to call a bluff.  He bets the West will not respond in kind.  He bets NATO will not risk global thermonuclear war over two peripheral eastern European cities.  He bets European capitals will pressure Kyiv to cough up Donbas for everyone’s sake.  In which case, Putin will win.  Maybe not the full pot he expected when he tried to seize Kyiv, but enough that he can claim victory at home and further consolidate his power.  He could claim to have killed tens of thousands of fascists threatening Russia while he was at it and burdening the West with Ukraine’s clean-up and recovery.  Putin wins again.

If we can’t deter Putin, what options are available to prevent or respond to a nuclear strike?  Modern anti-aircraft weapons with anti-ballistic missile capabilities such as the U.S. Patriot, Israeli Iron Dome, or similar C-RAM systems can provide point defense against missile attacks and strike aircraft.  These should be sent to Ukraine with training immediately.  U.S. Aegis seaborne systems in the Black Sea and NATO AWACS surveillance aircraft deployed from Romania could warn of launch.  Western nations should also prepare equipment and training for Ukrainians to respond to a nuclear incident.

Putin’s willingness to play with this kind of risk is found not just in his cynical rhetoric but also in current practice.  Garrisoning the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station is only the latest example—Russian forces effectively bulldozed parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in their initial push to sack Kyiv.  With the stakes so much higher now, not just for military success and Russian glory but his own individual survival, Putin could very easily justify a rapid climb up the escalation ladder.

After all, he would say, it’s what the Americans did first.

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The Yugoslav Idea (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

The whole of history since the ascension of Jesus into heaven is concerned with one work only: the building and perfecting of this “City of God.”

St. Augustine

THE ONLY QUESTION in western political philosophy is how people live together.  All forms of government seek to answer this question.  We most often talk about this in terms of thesis and antithesis, examining the differences between republicanism and monarchy, democracy and autocracy, prime ministers and dictators, power and autonomy, pluralism and homogeneity.  These oppositional dichotomies tend to dominate our understanding of politics and distract from the similarities they often share.  I find it much more illuminating to compare like cases than unlike cases.  Which brings us to the idea, and the problem, of Yugoslavia.

The idea of a political union of the western Balkans dates to the 17th century and took its modern form following the 1848 national revolutions in Europe.  During World War I, politicians in exile in London formed the Yugoslav Committee to pursue the project.  As the war ended and the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes arose more or less organically as the constituent states declared independence and pledged loyalty to the new kingdom to be led by Alexander I.

Proclamation of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in Congress Square, Ljubljana, Slovenia, October 1918. (Photo by Fran Grabjec, Museum of Modern History via Wikipedia)

Yugoslavia was one of only two polities that lived and died in the 20th century.  The Soviet Union was the other.  Several imperial regimes collapsed as Yugoslavia rose, but most had existed for centuries, dominating the western Balkans during that time.  Twentieth century Yugoslavia was created to solve a 19th century problem, which was domination and interference from more powerful neighbors, including Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Italy, Russia, and Bulgaria.  All southern Slavic populations experienced this but with very different effects and outcomes.  After centuries of being divided and conquered, the historically Slavic states determined they were stronger united.

This was true as far as it went.  While the western Balkans shared history, language (mostly; Macedonian is more related to Bulgarian and Albanian has no peer anywhere), and some beliefs, in reality Serbia with the largest population was the most dominant republic.  So after resolving the problem of external domination, Yugoslavia next had to address the problem of Serbian domination of the union.

Kingdom of Yugoslavia coat of arms

Following Alexander’s assassination, the kingdom was named Yugoslavia.  Germany invaded in 1941, one of the most costly misadventures in the war.  Soviet-supplied communist partisans led by Josip Broz, known as Tito, were the most successful guerilla outfit in Europe.  Tito managed not only to bleed the Germans: he sidelined the Yugoslav government in exile, consolidated power, and won material from both the Allies and from Italian forces stranded in the Balkans after the capitulation.

As the war ended, Tito had a strong hand.  He had won over or coopted every other major political or opposition group in the country.  With this coalition, he held the first election after the war in 1945 and won a majority of seats in parliament.  The parliament promptly removed Peter II (he refused to abdicate and died an alcoholic in Denver in 1970) and rewrote the constitution as a socialist republic with Tito as head of state.  He remained in control for the next 35 years.

Socialist Yugoslavia’s coat of arms

Tito proved adept at driving the middle ground between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, playing them off one another to the country’s benefit.  He dodged several Soviet assassination attempts and co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement.  Yugoslavia had perhaps the most workable, purely socialist economy in Europe, with factory and farm collectives operating independently in a kind of managed competition.  There were no immigration restrictions so Yugoslavs traveled freely.  The country’s exports (including firearms and Fiat cars built under license by Zastava) permitted foreign imports as well.  For my friends in Warsaw Pact countries during this time, Yugoslavia was a consumers’ paradise compared to home.

There are, of course, many arguments for why Yugoslavia fell apart.  Tito, the strongman, died in 1980.  The parliament then decentralized the government and economy to the constituent republics.  This needless, inefficient multiplication of government functions helped stall the economy.  By the early 1970s, 20 percent of the Yugoslav workforce was employed abroad.  Following the oil shock, the Yugoslav economy began to fall apart.  The dinar cratered and the government soon buried itself in foreign debt to prop up production.

Into this crisis and power vacuum stepped recently radicalized ex-communist apparatchiks like Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman.  Milosevic, as nominal president of the federal Yugoslavia, first deployed the Serb-dominated national army to corral republics like Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia from seceding.  When this failed, he unleashed his army and irregulars in the Bosnian Republika Srpska to absorb Serbian populations centers and cleanse Bosnian Muslims from their country.  This resulted in the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide of Srebrenica that provoked first UN and eventually NATO intervention to halt the slaughter.

French forces deployed by NATO to Sarajevo, January 1996. (NATO)

The war, it should be said, was not unique at the time.  As the Soviet central government weakened, republican leaders like Boris Yeltsin seized power and legitimacy.  With Mikhail Gorbachev deposed and the special committee dissolved in 1991, the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union realized their independence.  That came not without bloodshed, including the prospect of a pitched battle in Moscow between rival Russian and Soviet authorities.  Gorbachev warned he would not intervene in his eastern European client states but did not hesitate to crush national demonstrations in the Baltic republics.  Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova all engaged in civil war after independence.  The object of this violence, as in Yugoslavia, was political control.

But neither was the war inevitable.  It was not the fated result after centuries of smothered ethnic hatreds and foreign domination.  Political power can be shared peacefully.  War is always a choice.  That is why the comparison of similarly structured states and governments are more worthwhile than pitting opposites against each other.  For example, the similarities between Yugoslavia and Belgium are clear to see: a loose federation of three semi-autonomous regions, divided by language and (partially) religion, each triplicating government services.  As unsatisfactory and inefficient as this system of government is, it is impossible to imagine Walloons, Flemish, and ostbelgien taking up arms to destroy the state.

What is left behind in the former Yugoslavia?  As my friend Peter Korchnak has diligently documented, there is much to remember and a powerful nostalgia for that country pervades those who fled the war only to return to a landscape they could no longer recognize.  Yugoslavia made sense of the complex intersection of language, faith, and ethnicity especially in mixed marriages (which depending on the census ranged from 10 percent to 30 percent of all couples).  It stood as an example of united opposition to fascism and genocide.  It rejected as false the dichotomy between liberalism and communism. It meant something.

Yugoslavia was, in short, an ideal – an e pluribus unum in the Balkans – whose death, like the threat to democracy we now face, feels like a betrayal.

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The Bridge on the Neretva (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“To look at it is good; to stand on it is as good.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

THE COVER OF nearly every edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon prominently features the same extraordinary architectural, cultural, and pontine monument found in Mostar, Herzegovina (see page banner above).  Rebecca West called it “one of the most beautiful bridges in the world,” which to me only suggests she hadn’t seen every bridge in the world.  Elegant in its simplicity, its centrality on the Neretva river, dramatically emphasized by its towering height over the deep and narrow culvert, and its rustic setting, all contribute to the aesthetic effect of the bridge.  It is virtually impossible to take a bad picture of the Stari Most (“Old Bridge”) and it is hard to imagine the city without its signature span.  (Although the words Mostar and Stari Most are clearly related, they do not mean the same thing.  Mostar is derived from mostari, “bridge-keeper”.)

Stari Most (cc) National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, date unknown.

It may have been this bridge on the cover, more than anything else, that drew my attention to the book initially and eventually to the tortured history of Yugoslavia.  It appeared to me ancient, alien and alluring, staggeringly beautiful, unreachable.  It was a goal for years to see it and stand on it myself.

Stari Most is a pedestrian bridge in both senses of the word: it simply joins the two sides of the city straddling the Neretva and was designed for foot traffic.  Motor bridges came later.  Walking it can be a challenge especially if you are, like me, prone to vertigo.  (I had the same heart-pounding experience walking the Stari Most as I have driving the high, narrow Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland.)  The Stari Most deck itself is graded at a steep 10 degrees, cobbled and ribbed.  The walk feels precarious (at 6’4”, my center of gravity towers over the low parapet) but is worth the experience.

1999 study by Prof.dr. Milan Gojkovic, Belgrade.

The bridge’s signature feature—what accentuates its height, position, and weightless feeling—is also its central structural element: the pointed arch.  On first glance, the arch may appear to be a true semi-circle, a commonplace of Roman architecture. It is created, in fact, by the superimposition of a smaller circle at the top of the arc of a larger circle.  As a result, the deviation of the curve from a true circle is extremely subtle

While a familiar architectural feature today, the pointed arch – sometimes called an ogive arch – is an Islamic engineering innovation first exhibited at Qusayr ‘Amra in present-day Jordan in the early 8th Century CE and most famously known from the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.  The pointed arch distributes load more efficiently and allows for the construction of tall, lightweight, open structures.  Although the precise means and time of transmission are unclear, there is no doubt that the European gothic arch, the hallmark of Christian medieval engineering, is derived directly from the pointed arch of Islamic provenance.

Goat’s Bridge, Sarajevo. (cc) Julian Nyca

As unique as the Stari Most is, its basic elements are common throughout the former Ottoman lands.  While visiting Sarajevo in 2010, I walked to the “Goat’s Bridge” upriver on the Miljacka: simple, utilitarian, sturdy (see above).  The Mehmet Pasha Sokolovic bridge (below) in Visegrad, Bosnia – arguably more famous than the Stari Most as the centerpiece of Nobel Prize-winning Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina – exhibits the same feature over ten arches.

The Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the Drina River, ca. 1900. Library of Congress

The history of the Stari Most is straightforward.  Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent commissioned the bridge, attributed to Mimar Hayruddin, in 1557 CE.  Replacing a wooden span, it was completed by 1567 CE.  (Legend has it Hayruddin was so apprehensive of the arch’s structural integrity that he planned his own funeral in advance of what he was sure would be a complete collapse of the span.)  There it remained a lovely architectural jewel to be encountered by adventurers from Evliya Çelebi and Joseph Hammer to Rebecca West.

During the wars of succession of the former Yugoslavia, Mostar became the battleground of two consecutive conflicts: the Croat/Bosnian war against Serb-dominated federal Yugoslavia and, following Croat gains from that battle, the siege of Mostar by Croatian national forces and local irregulars.  As a symbol that also physically linked the Catholic Croatian right bank to the Muslim Bosnian left bank of the Neretva, the bridge became a primary target for Croatian gunners on November 8, 1993.

You can see its destruction here:

It is hard to watch something so beautiful destroyed.  There is some satisfaction, to me at least, that something that looks so light and delicate withstood such pounding as long as it did.

The Croatian-Bosnian war ended with a ceasefire in 1994.  Yugoslavia broke up into sovereign constituent republics and plans were immediately made to rebuild the bridge.  A multinational and multilateral coalition raised the money and recovered original building materials from the riverbed for reconstruction that started in 2001.  The new bridge was inaugurated on July 24, 2004.  It was this span that I visited and crossed in 2010.

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Working Titles (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“I write books to find out about things.” (Paris Review, 1981)

FOR THIS PROJECT I have four individual editions of Black Lamb separated in publication by 80 years. More than 25 years ago I started reading the 1994 Penguin Books single-volume paperback. It was published without an introduction. I don’t recall purchasing this book, but I had likely read Balkan Ghosts (1993) around this time. This was author Robert Kaplan’s paean to “Dame Rebecca” and her life-defining tome, which he considered more valuable than his passport. That same year my first article for the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, was about European attempts to end the war in the former Yugoslavia.

My working volume published by Penguin in 1994.

I started reading this edition in 1997 with my coffee at five o’clock in the morning. I got about 300 pages into it (according to the book darts I left in the pages, I appear to have gotten as far as Sarajevo) before abandoning the effort. I really was not equipped to make sense of the book. A mere undergraduate education (more than what Dame Rebecca managed, which is all the more telling) and an undisciplined interest in Yugoslavia were insufficient. I knew none of the region’s histories, languages, or literature. I didn’t even know anyone from Yugoslavia. Consequently, each page I turned was an isometric effort: laborious but unproductive.

After graduate school – where I watched Allied aircraft pummel Serbia in 1999, televised havoc I would later see with my own eyes visiting Belgrade as a NATO official – I moved to Europe and eventually to Brussels and the North Atlantic Alliance itself.  When I joined in 2005, Kosovo was NATO’s largest out-of-area deployment with about 15,000 troops.  Catching up on this important Allied theater of operations, I schooled myself on the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia and began visiting the region as the new republics aligned themselves with NATO and the European Union.  As a result, I met people across the region trying to build a new regional politics, liberal, internationalist, and Western-leaning

My Penguin paperback with a homemade cardstock cover protecting it accompanied me during my trips. I found it easier to approach the book by sections that corresponded to where I was visiting. West described places and history I could visit and see and touch. The more I read, and the more I traveled, the more I could connect the parts of the books into a coherent regional narrative. It was a productive re-introduction to the book.

That led to criticism and commentary of West, including Geoff Dyer, Brian Hall, and Larry Wolff. Richard Holbrooke and Lord David Owen, policy-makers, followed. Holbrooke coined the pejorative “bad history, or the Rebecca West Factor” – a line Christopher Hitchens would parrot – and piled on Hall’s allegations that West was a pro-Serb crypto-nationalist and Islamophobe. That verdict perfectly but inaccurately explained what had just happened in Bosnia as Serb-dominated Yugoslav federal forces reinforcing Bosnian Serb irregulars “cleansed” Muslim-majority cities through siege and massacre. Never mind that West’s intended destination was Macedonia, not Serbia, and she visited Montenegro, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Herzegovina as part of her research. Only in retrospect – actually a narrative heuristic similar to post hoc fallacy – does Kaplan and, by extension, West appear to be prophetic. Robert Kaplan felt the need to defend himself and his West-derived “bad history” in later editions of Balkan Ghosts (in Yugoslavia, he visited only Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia and spent the other three-quarters of his book in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania). His main thesis was the best way to understand contemporary politics is through history, which Rebecca West well understood. The past is prologue to what follows but it is not necessarily the provocateur.

There began my initial intuition that these critics, writers and statesmen (they were all men), with the exception of Kaplan, had got something fundamentally wrong about Dame Rebecca. My sporadic reading of Black Lamb, while incomplete, did not fit the accusation of an ethnic polemic. Racist screeds usually burn themselves out well before 1,100 pages. So I returned to the book looking for bias with an eye toward writing an apologia in the old style.

That opportunity came in 2016 as the 75th anniversary of the publication approached. West originally serialized what became the book in The Atlantic and Harper’s Bazaar in early 1941. The first two-volume editions were published by The Viking Press in the United States and Macmillan in the United Kingdom later that same year. To my surprise nobody noted the anniversary date given how much-discussed the book had been just 20 years earlier. NATO was still on the ground in Kosovo and so was a European Union peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

The 2007 Kindle edition with Christopher Hitchens’ emetic foreword

Augmenting my research was a Kindle version of the Penguin 2007 edition published with Christopher Hitchens’ introduction, which he unsurprisingly handled like an dull mattock. Irritation aside, the Kindle edition features searchable text, bookmarking, highlighting, and a dictionary. This facilitated certain research. For example, the easy exenteration of Hitchens’ claim that “the most repeatedly pejorative word in [West’s] lexicon is ‘impotent’”—a word that appears just six times in the entire book. Likewise “Greater Serbia”—which, like Hall, Hitchens uses to bind West in a chain of causality leading to Serb ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina and specifically the Srebrenica genocide in 1995—West mentions twice. (More Hitchens gralloch in a future post.)

I published my article in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July 2017.   It had an immediate and thoroughly unexpected result: the executor of West’s literary estate read my article and ordered up a new edition in time for the book’s 80th anniversary.  Coincidentally, the global COVID19 pandemic gave claustrophobic adventurers reason to travel virtually the old-fashioned way.  So Black Lamb has enjoyed a minor renaissance as more readers with more time rediscover it for an ambitious long read.

Viking Press US 1st Edition 1941

With this turn of events, I had to possess the alpha and the omega. Working with Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C., I bought the two-volume US first edition. These volumes include photographs and maps. The endleaves feature a visual log of West’s travels. The photos are not terribly good, not even qualifying as postcards. Occasionally, however, they provide insight, such as illustrating West’s astonished description of covered Muslim women’s dress in Mostar “consist[ing] of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it.” The photo confirms her power of description.

Finally, I ordered the new Canongate edition which at this time is only available for sale from the UK.  It was delivered with the satisfaction of seeing my original LARB article prominently blurbed in the front leaf.

Canongate’s 2020 edition.

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“What Forever Stirs in the Human Heart”

I have been critical of President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on matters of war and peace, here and in my recent book. I respect and admire his ease, eloquence, and ability to communicate on virtually all other issues (“Between Two Ferns” was risky and unintuitive, but it is now clearly a contemporary masterstroke of political communications), but when it comes to matters of warfare, force and power he clearly struggles to articulate himself.

Not so in Belgium. Speaking first in Flanders, he captured the tragedy of the First World War while affirming European unity and transatlantic fidelity. Then, in this speech in Brussels, he rallied our allies again in the “battle of ideas” against the aggression of Russia in Crimea by taking on directly the sophistic arguments Moscow has made during recent weeks: that Crimea is no different from Iraq, or Kosovo, or Libya. No, he said, they are different, and here’s why: We actually stand for something. Russia is acting out of naked political interest. It was important not just for somebody to say that out loud, but for the President of the United States to say it. We used to say with more conviction that the office was the leader of the free world. It means something again given the sharp cynical shift in the Kremlin.

It is easy to overlook the symbolic importance of the speech’s location. Belgium is a small, bilingual country historically coveted and overrun by its neighbors. Its own domestic situation has been scrambled by the inability of the language communities (three if you count the German minority in the south) to get along. And yet Brussels hosts both NATO and the European Union, two of the most successful experiments in international comity ever attempted. The President’s themes, heightened in this capital, are subtly broadcast to Europe’s most recent bilingual hot-spot, now pawed by a covetous larger neighbor that once possessed it.

Given this context, we cannot deny the political nature of this speech. It was not simply a statement of abstract principles. It was designed to rally NATO Allies and partner countries to the United States in order to isolate and weaken the current leadership in Russia. In that, the speech uses the power of dozens of states in lieu of force as a bulwark against the violence, real or implied, threatened and applied, by Russia. Given the situation Russia is in — no longer the Soviet Union or leader of the Warsaw Pact, and surrounded by the cowed and abject neighbors of its near abroad — the country faces perhaps its most serious political and economic situation since the end of the Cold War.

It has been argued better by others that NATO’s military position remains strong against Russia. The flip side of the other coin of that argument is that NATO’s expansion has provoked Russia’s reaction. But that ignores how the West has included Russia in the G8, NATO, the OSCE, the WTO and other international organizations, accorded Russia the respect as an equal, all the while preserving peace, security and prosperity among a growing community of democratic nations.

Moreover, we must understand the choice that Russia — or any other country inside or outside the membership of NATO and the European Union — must make about war and peace.  The United States has fought many of its former Allies, with Russia, and yet the idea of fighting our friends today and war in Europe is considered an absurdity. The expansion of NATO and the European Union is an unmitigated good. It constantly pushes out the boundary of peace, security and prosperity. That community is for Russia’s taking if only its leadership made the choice to accept it.

Matters of war and peace are inherently political decisions like these. As the president made plain, they are not inevitable, driven by historical exigency, immutable racial hatred, or power dynamics.  As I have argued before, political decisions are moral choices, which means we are in control, always.

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Religion, politics, and public diplomacy

Today my interview with the Public Diplomacy Council — the association of retired US Information Agency and Foreign Service Officers involved in public diplomacy activities — was published online. I talked to Donald Bishop about my recent book and some other subjects of recent import in the arena of public diplomacy. I was especially pleased to be able to talk about religion and faith.

Once again I am happy to extend my sincere and great thanks to Don Bishop and the Public Diplomacy Council for publishing this interview.

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Thinking Through Ukraine

(via The DailyKos)

I was at NATO when Russia invaded its neighbor, Georgia, in August 2008. The action caught anyone not paying attention by surprise. The experts knew it was long in coming. I’m sure the same is for the unfurling crisis in Ukraine, which nonetheless doesn’t help us steer a course away from general war on the Black Sea, the doorstep of the European Union.

At the time of that short, brutal war I remember there were many calls for NATO to intervene and a tremendous amount of frustration that the Allies did not. But a French colleague pointed out to those of us assembled in my division — we were short-staffed during the August holidays — that NATO’s contribution at that point was not to inflame the situation but to defuse it. The European Union, led by French President Nicholas Sarkozy, led the political charge to end the war within a week.

I remember a little-noted post scriptum to that war — NATO’s inadvertent (I think) contribution — that may be useful to keep in mind in this crisis. That was the introduction of the NATO Standing Maritime Group 1 into the Black Sea after fighting had ended. SMG1 entered the Black Sea on a planned and routine patrol — either it was deliberately allowed into this highly primed theater or nobody thought to turn it back — and the Russian reaction was hysterical. After the Russians sank the small Georgian fleet and basically did what they wanted across the country, SMG1 fundamentally altered the force dynamic in the theater. SMG1 really got the Russians’ attention, and it suggests to me that Moscow will never pick a fight with an equal or superior adversary if it can avoid it.

It’s probably obvious, but an excellent commentary by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty noted that the territorial grab in Crimea is not an isolated action but opens a second political front for Moscow. The revolution in Kiev was a green light to similarly minded activists in Moscow that thuggish regimes have their weaknesses, especially if the military can be sidelined. By mobilizing the armed forces against Ukraine, Russia both moved to crush the nascent west-leaning government in Kiev and communicated clearly to the domestic Russian opposition what consequences would follow for attempting to duplicate what happened there in Moscow.

This action also plays into the Kremlin’s interests by forcing our eyes off of other crises where it has waning influence, like Syria and Iran. Moscow can continue to back its client state and Damascus can destroy its internal opposition and rebellion (and weaken its neighbors with refugees) while we are diverted by Ukraine and Crimea. But we are powerful enough not to be distracted and must continue to pressure Syria and Iran while also resolving the crisis in Ukraine.

While Russia may look strong at the moment, it’s important to recognize that the country is acting from a position of weakness — and that the country’s action in Crimea is a fundamental and tremendous risk. If the Kremlin fails in Crimea or Ukraine, the weakness of the regime will be virtually impossible to ignore. No amount of propaganda about fighting fascists and the intransigent enemies of Russia will be able to cover for a failure of this kind. And with this failure, the domestic Russian opposition to the Kremlin will feel emboldened to move against the regime just as the opposition did in Kiev. So instead of being in a position of strength, in reality the Kremlin is extremely exposed. When Vladimir Putin fails, he will lose everything. So he can’t afford to fail, which is what makes this crisis so particularly dangerous.

Another reality I learned from the war with Georgia was the entangling nature of Russia’s relationship with the West. I think we were far more worried about this state of affairs than the Kremlin, but it was important and interesting (if not a little infuriating) to stop and deliberate on all the ways that NATO (and more broadly, the United States and the European Union) cooperated with Russia on issues and initiatives of mutual interest. We on the NATO staff literally cataloged all the ways we were working together with Russia, which still has a diplomatic mission on the same compound at NATO Headquarters. At that time, we were working together on overflight rights for resupply to to Afghanistan, nuclear disarmament (both START and the more concrete aspects of securing fissile material), ballistic missile defense, anti-piracy, anti-terrorism, energy security, and the High North. We’re still working with Russia on all those things, more or less — not least or more recent of which was the successful execution of a safe and secure Winter Olympics. All of these issues of mutual interest (and undoubtedly more) are on the table if we escalate this crisis.

It’s important to consider that the political situation in Ukraine may not be as polarized or volatile as it appears. Consider the map at the top of this post. Much as been made about how the country is split between western Ukrainian speakers and eastern Russian speakers. But a view of a linguistic map (and the CIA World Factbook) demonstrates the picture is far more complex than that. First, Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers blend fairly evenly throughout most of the country, especially in Kiev. The exceptions are the extreme west and extreme east. Second, Ukrainian-speakers are the outright majority in the entire country. Only in the south and the far east do Russian-speakers hold something close to an absolute majority, which explains in part why the Kremlin seized Crimea (which includes Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet), first.

So the larger lesson is: don’t take the linguistic or ethnic divide as concrete or immutable. Nobody has polled the Ukrainians about this situation. Nobody knows how much Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers have intermingled and inter-married. Nobody has even bothered to ask them much about what’s going on in their country. Only the most radical elements are speaking out. Do we want to make decisions about war and peace and secession and rebellion based on what we see on television or have read on the Internet just in the last few days?

What can we do? Other observers, not least of which include individual Allies, have been maddened by the endless emergency sessions of the UN, OSCE, EU and NATO, which have issued a stream of statements but taken no tangible action. Here is what we could do, almost immediately, for Ukraine in its time of need that doesn’t involve military provocation:

  • Deliver $15 billion in loan guarantees to secure the country financially.
  • Grant Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, fast-tracking the countries for NATO membership.
  • Finalize the Eastern Partnership with the European Union.
  • Prepare to ship LNG to Ukraine (and Romania and Bulgaria).
  • Prepare to airlift humanitarian, medical and food supplies to Ukraine.
  • Impose sanctions on Russia’s leadership.
  • Prepare to close off European trade with Russia.

It’s important to know that the force differential favors Ukraine in the East-West face-off. While Ukraine may be at a disadvantage right now facing Russia, Ukrainians are fighting on their own territory and with the support of the West. A variety of military options are available to NATO and Ukraine’s European backers. I hesitate to offer them here because I am not an operational or regional expert. But suffice to say NATO controls access to the Black Sea and the North Atlantic, and could control at will the airspace over the Black Sea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is made up mostly of anti-submarine ships, which are vulnerable to surface combatants and aircraft, and as one observer noted, “The Italian navy alone could easily destroy it.” Any action taken by NATO or even by any individual Ally would fundamentally alter the military balance in this nascent conflict to Russia’s detriment.

But getting to a point I made earlier, that’s what makes this conflict so potentially dangerous. Putin can’t afford to lose. And the escalation ladder goes right up to the nuclear trigger. While I think cooler heads will prevail, and I think it’s possible for everyone to fight without drawing in that option, those are the stakes involved. Indeed, that has to be in the back of everyone’s mind, if for no other reason than that was how one proxy war was brought to a close. The 1973 Yom Kippur War ended when the United States put its nuclear weapons on worldwide alert following a Soviet resupply to the embattled Arab armies. The alert got Moscow’s attention, and, not willing to escalate the crisis, both superpowers forced their proxies to the negotiation table. But in this situation, can we be sure the bluff won’t be called?

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Some Dreamers of the Impossible Dream

The Church of St. John, Ohrid, Macedonia (via The Guardian)

With nods to George KennanJoan Didion, and Cervantes, enjoy this excerpt from my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy about an extraordinary visit I made to Macedonia in 2006 published in The Foreign Service Journal.

Although I wrote this many months (even years) ago, the article is particularly apropos given very recent events in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It documents the activities many young people in the region are making to turn toward each other and articulate a new future for themselves and their countries.

Once again I send my sincere thanks to the editors of The Foreign Service Journal for agreeing to publish this article.

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Plenums and Power (Power v. Force III)

A plenum convened in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on February 9, 2014 (via Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso)

The past two weeks have been astounding to witness in Ukraine and Bosnia- Herzegovina. While I haven’t been able to follow quite as intimately what has happened in Ukraine, media reporting from that country has been very good. In Bosnia I have several friends, and I heard my colleague and friend Jasmin Mujanovic, a New York-based academic (and apparently inexhaustible tweeter), speak on a panel yesterday to a packed house at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs about the dynamic events in that country.

It’s been very interesting to note the similarities, as Jasmin’s co-panelist Janusz Bugajski did yesterday, between the two countries. In both countries, citizens took to the streets to protest a sclerotic and unresponsive political system, widespread and petty corruption, and a sluggish economy. In Ukraine and Bosnia, people want closer ties to Europe and the West (if not necessarily the European Union).  I would note, as Gene Sharp has noted, that initial protests were sparked — or helped organizers to consolidate demonstrations — around a singular provocative event. In Ukraine, it was President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to proceed with closer ties with the European Union that brought thousands of people onto the street. In Bosnia, it was the federal parliament’s inability to issue identity papers and passports, effectively rendering a new generation of children identityless, that brought thousands of mothers out to demonstrate.

And critically, in both countries peaceful demonstrations were set upon by overreactive security services to which the protesters reacted violently. In Bosnia, protesters attacked municipal buildings in almost every major city in the country. In Ukraine, protesters stood their ground and fought back against the security services. In both cases, there were echoes of the first response against Egyptian security in Tahrir Square, when the people had just enough power to counter the force of the government to prevail. This is an important, if unsettling, development. Because in both cases, the government may still have the monopoly of force. It depends entirely on whether the military will side with the government or stay off the domestic battlefield.

But here the two countries diverge. In Bosnia, the initial violence almost immediately abated. It’s clear from those I’ve heard from that seeing the burning buildings reminded too many of the war from 20 years ago and peace was quickly restored. This is an extraordinary development. The Bosnian army or, for that matter, the small European Union force contingent in the country, was never called up.

In Ukraine, it appears that Western pressure — public calls by US civilian and military officials and their counterparts in the European Union and NATO, all of which have worked diligently during the past 20 years to build strong institutional and personal relationships with Ukraine’s military establishment — paid off by keeping the Ukrainian army (for now) out of the political power struggle. That kept bloodshed to a minimum, at least, and avoided the precedent we’ve seen in Egypt of making the military establishment a political kingmaker or outright ruler in the country.

Unfortunately, while the Ukrainians figured out a way to counter the initially violent response of the state, and in such a dramatic way, this essentially means there is no rulebook for the way forward in the country. The opposition, now in control of Kiev and, presumably, the western part of the country, could reach out to the Russian-leaning east  and Crimea. But if divisions in the country become acute there is no precedent for the peaceful sharing of power across the entire country. If Crimea wants to join Russia or parts of the country want to break away or become autonomous, it may require the army to enforce union. And why not? Kiev was defended with force and won fairly the same way — that is to say, violently.

But in Bosnia something more astonishing took place and continues to take place. People have abandoned violence entirely to assemble spontaneously in municipal “plenums” and issue collective demands to their own local authorities. This has led to the resignation of at least five cantonal governments. Bosnia’s “federal” government structure, imposed by the Dayton peace accords, is Byzantine and bloated to an extreme. Exhausted and exasperated by this internationally imposed, ethnically dominated, and thoroughly corrupt system, Bosnians are now asserting their own, direct, democratic axis of power to demand that their government respond to them and their needs.

It is important to note, particularly in the context of the regional and linguistic divide in Ukraine, that the protests in Bosnia have asserted themselves as Bosnian rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic. This is a critical development. While limited to the Federation, Bosniaks and Croats have reached out to Serbs in the Republika Serpska and have been rewarded by several individuals and organizations rallying to them in reaction to a political system that helps none of them and punishes all of them equally. While I’m sure there are some who are trying to make the same argument in Ukraine, I think the dividing line is far more stark in that country.

While the concept of the assembly is as old as democracy, it is amazing that the Bosnian plenum is so fresh and new to this wave of popular uprisings against thuggish and sclerotic regimes. De Tocqueville wrote admiringly of American civil society and our town hall culture. Hannah Arendt wrote about citizens’ assemblies (she unfortunately wrote about the early “soviets”) as a unique expression of democratic power and direct governance. She also wrote about the concept of politics as an open space where people could gather to discuss issues of common concern — the more open, the more free and dynamic a political space is. That is exactly what we are witnessing in the Bosnian plenums.

What makes them more extraordinary is that the plenums themselves are opening a political space between the people and their own, nominally democratic and elected governments. The Dayton constitution, exacerbated by ethnic chauvinism and sheer political myopia, had simply closed off politics to most Bosnians. The plenums have very effectively crowbarred open the political space again. Where once we saw Solidarity seated on one side of the round table from the Communist Party in Warsaw — forcing the political space open between the people and their government — today we see the Bosnian plenums assembling down the street from the governments that purport to represent them in Sarajevo, Tuzla,  Zenica and elsewhere.

As a result, I am more optimistic about events in Bosnia than I am in Ukraine. I am not fatalistic about what will happen on the Black Sea, but I am concerned that the recourse to violence there will beget more violence. The protesters in Bosnia recognize their power in the plenum.  That is an extraordinary, unique and genuine contribution to political and democratic development that, if successful, should be a model for us all to emulate.

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A Centenary’s Legacy Beneath Our Feet

The battlefield at Verdun, France (Wikimedia Commons)

The new year brings the centenary commemoration of World War I in Europe, whose legacy reverberates through our history, policy and literature. From the peace experiments of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations to the tendentious borders of southeastern Europe and the Middle East, World War One continues to affect us in our every day. In its fratricidal horror it has become, in some sense, Europe’s civil war. To me its sound down the decades makes William Faulkner’s adage — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — all the more resonant and poignant.

While living in Belgium I was immediately struck how the legacy of the combat from that war, and the wars that followed, continued to lurk just beneath the topsoil.  I visited Verdun, the site of a year-long Franco-German engagement in 1916 resulting in a million deaths. (Such casualty figures are almost impossible to imagine today, but just look at the Congo.) To achieve this death toll, the belligerents fired at least as many artillery rounds, and probably many more. The result is still plain on the battlefield, etched by communication trenches (see picture above): the landscape looks like a snapshot of the ocean during a storm, roiled by waves. The churned earth, now smooth, conceals the bodies of the dead and untold number of unexploded artillery rounds. Visitors are strongly advised to keep to the cleared and marked trails.

The village of Fleury-devant-Douamont was completely destroyed during the fighting. The cliche of wiping something “off the map” is too often bandied about in global affairs today. But in the case of Fleury and for many French communities during World War One, it is important to remember that the map is the only physical record left of them.

Back in Brussels, a bomb from World War II was excavated during the construction of the new NATO Headquarters complex across Boulevard Leopold III. (We were instructed to remain indoors while the bomb was detonated.) This was alarming but hardly surprising. The entire area had been commandeered by the Nazis as a military airfield during the war, so unexploded ordnance (UXO) — Allied and German — were bound to be left behind.

In fact, Belgium and Germany have some of the most active UXO disposal teams in the world working on their own soil. I’ve seen reported Belgium responds to more than 3,000 reported UXO cases a year. Germany has had four deaths in recent years trying to clear UXO from World War II. Japan is also very active disposing of UXO from the Pacific campaign. This is an awful legacy of both world wars just among our Allies. UXO from more recent conflicts, or conflicts among belligerents involving our proxies, or among countries that don’t involve us at all, implicate a far greater legacy.

I am deliberately avoiding the subject of landmines, which has attracted its own attention for all the appropriate reasons. I’ve also written previously about the legacy of chemical weapons dumped at sea. It seems to me, in the centenary of World War I — in a vastly changed world, with all the belligerents from that conflicts now partners, Allies and friends — that there is something important to be understood about the century-long legacy of that conflict, which is buried right at our feet. And that is: we shouldn’t have to cope with the same legacy, with our new friends, more than one hundred years hence.

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