Loose Cannons and Ukrainian Casualties

So now the number of dead Ukrainian soldiers is 722. The number of wounded is 2,625. The Ukrainian army keeps on making slow but steady advances; the pro-Russian terrorists appear to have suffered heavy losses; Russian regular forces are openly engaged in the fighting; Russia’s “humanitarian convoy” apparently looted some Ukrainian armaments factories on its way back home; and, on August 25th, Russian tanks crossed into Ukraine just north of the Sea of Azov.

All is definitely not quiet on the eastern front.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Kyiv on August 23rd, where she expressed support of Ukraine. Some Ukrainians were unhappy that her support wasn’t stronger, but they should remember that her very presence in Ukraine on the eve of its Independence Day celebrations was a powerful message to Russia’s unconstitutionally elected president, Vladimir Putin.

Whether or not Putin chooses to heed that message is another matter. If he’s smart, he will. No country can take on the whole world. The United States, when it was still a “hyper-power,” tried, and you know how that ended. A “Belgium with the bomb” and lots of gas to sell is acting stupidly if it thinks it can get away with playing the world’s bully.

Putin, unfortunately, looks more and more like a loose cannon, an irrational leader who responds to his own internal demons and not to anything resembling logic or national interest. Significantly, when a German interviewer asked Merkel to explain just “what Putin wants,” she couldn’t answer, providing instead an elaborate argument for the need for a political solution.

Take that “humanitarian convoy.” Just what did it prove? That Russia can intervene in Ukraine? But it’s been doing that for two months, and everyone knows it. That Russia is humanitarian? But if it is, why all the subterfuge? That Russia is tough? But if it is, then why all the humanitarian rigmarole? The one thing the convoy didn’t prove is that Russia is reliable. Instead, the whole convoy business made Russia and Putin look like conniving SOBs.

The Russian terrorists in Ukraine look more and more like Putin, too. On Sunday, August 24th, they marched a column of Ukrainian prisoners down the main street in Donetsk.  The amateur video I saw (subsequently “removed by the user”) showed a crowd of several hundred or several thousand people avidly jeering. “On your knees!” was one constant refrain. Well, marching the soldiers through this “corridor of shame,” as the terrorists call it, was bad enough (Human Rights Watch suggested it was a violation of the Geneva Convention), but heck, they’re showing off their booty. They’re trying to project strength. That’s quasi-understandable.

What was unforgivable—and terrifying—was what happened after the column passed. Several sanitation trucks followed in their wake, spraying water on the street. The loudspeaker announced that they were cleaning up after “the filth.” The crowd cheered. Obviously, it occurred to no one that the terrorists had adopted Nazi practices, having transformed the captured Ukrainians into “dirty Jews.” Nor did it occur to the terrorists or their admirers in Donetsk that they had just engaged in a weird inversion: the Nazis had the dirty Jews clean the sidewalks; the terrorists in eastern Ukraine cleaned the streets after the dirty Ukrainians had passed.

So what does Putin want? No one knows. How do you negotiate with someone who won’t tell you what he wants and keeps on acting as if he wants to destroy you? Merkel is right to want a political solution to the war. But politics, as she practices it, is about give-and-take, while politics, as Putin practices it, is about domination. For Merkel, other Western leaders, as well as President Poroshenko of Ukraine, politics is a positive-sum game, in which all can be winners. For Putin, it’s a zero-sum game, in which there can only be one winner: him. Worse, it’s not even clear what Putin sees as victory.

All we really know is that Putin and his forces are doing two things: killing Ukrainians, both armed and unarmed, both ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, and destroying the infrastructure and economy of the Donbas— not as collateral damage, but intentionally. Since his original goal—stated way back in late February, remember?—was to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, all one can say is that Putin’s got a strange way of showing his love.

Speaking of Ukrainian deaths, I must mention one soldier in particular: the Ukrainian-American Mark Paslawsky. The 55-year-old West Point graduate and former investment banker had joined the volunteer Donbas Battalion and been killed on August 19th in a battle near Donetsk. I mention Paslawsky for two reasons.

I actually met him in mid-June when I had the privilege of visiting the camp outside Kyiv where the Donbas Battalion was in training. None of the soldiers introduced themselves with their real names, so I had no idea who he was. We spoke briefly, and I asked him how he came to speak such excellent English. He said he was Ukrainian, but had lived in New Jersey for many years. In a subsequent column, I noted that I felt odd talking to soldiers who might soon be dead: “What does one say to volunteer soldiers who will soon be deployed to eastern Ukraine and could be killed in a few days? I was tongue-tied, moved, and confused.” I meant that in the abstract. I never imagined that the genial, gray-haired man with the loping stride would be one of them.

The second reason I mention Paslawsky is that he was, after all, a Ukrainian American. In killing him—and make no mistake about it: Putin killed him—Putin has taken on, in addition to the entire world, the Ukrainian American diaspora. He probably thinks it’s a joke. But in killing a Ukrainian American, he’s made the war in Ukraine personal for Ukrainian Americans. Their intellectual, material, and political resources are far greater than Putin can imagine. Be forewarned, Vlad: diasporas have long memories. And this one will give you and your apologists in Russia and the West no rest.

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