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Unquiet Flows the Don

Putin at a podium

To the editor,

After Vladimir Putin seized the Crimea in 2014, he tried to shift blame for its woes on to Ukraine. He made the case that, by virtue of long occupation—Crimea was taken from the Ottomans in 1783 by Catharine the Great and defended by Nicholas the First in the Crimean War—the temperate peninsula was as Russian as Tolstoy or Red Square.

His PR campaign began not with kind words to Crimea’s Ukrainians, but by making Tatar Crimea’s official second Language. Because, in 1941, in a prequel to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars. A quarter of them died on the road to Uzbekistan and the survivors were kept in exile for a generation.

Could Ukrainians in the recently occupied territories also end up as strangers in their own land? Putin speaks of Russians Great, White, and Little, but his Soviet nostalgia hardly extends to many of its “Autonomous Republics.” The ethnic solidarity of Tatarstan, not far east of Moscow, is signaled by apartment towers with brick prayer rug facades facing Mecca. In 2014 Putin acknowledged the second language of the back streets of Sevastopol, but not the nationhood of its speakers.

The Russo-Ukrainian divide runs deeper than dialect. Rivers are two-way streets, and in the first millennium river trade connected the Kievan Rus to Northern Russia’s principalities. But proximity to Byzantium led to Kyiv’s conversion to Greek Orthodoxy long before the Baltic North. Not until 1253 were all the Russias united in the person of Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev.

Putin turned his nation into a natural gas station with a growing line of anxious customers, Ukraine among them—the closer to Russia, the colder the winter and the greater the political leverage the supply of Russian gas affords. Nor is this the Ukraine’s commodity exchange debut. The rich chernozem soil of its plains long made it the breadbasket of Europe. The flow of wheat barges down the Dnieper modulated the price of bread in 19th century Paris much as trans-Ukrainian gas pipeline flow rates move energy futures today.

There is also more to Ukraine’s energy story than fossil fuel. Just as America tried to build its way out of the Great Depression with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam, Soviet planners tried to use hydropower to leverage post-revolutionary economic growth. In 1927, Stalin broke ground near Kiev, for a series of massive dams descending the Dnieper to the Black Sea in a five-step cascade that still dwarfs the TVA.

A satellite image of the Ukraine plainly shows the results. A thousand-mile stretch of the Dnieper now consists of broad reservoirs rising behind hydroelectric dams so high that should one fail, a virtual tsunami could roll downriver to the Black Sea.

Ukraine the Dnieper War
Ukraine map
To paraphrase what an American Congressman once said about the water wars of the Wild West, Ukraine can be a place where vodka is for drinking and water is for fighting over. Kyiv reacted to Putin’s 2014 annexation by building a dam across the Crimean Canal, cutting off much of the peninsula’s water supply. Russia reversed that move this past February 26th by blowing up the dam, an act that recalls what Putin’s predecessors did in 1941.

On August 14 of that year, Stalin reacted to the Nazi blitzkrieg roaring across the Ukrainian steppe by ordering the KGB’s predecessor, the NKVD, to dynamite the greatest dam on the Dnieper. This did more than interrupt the German advance. An unannounced wall of water swept down the valley, drowning tens of thousands of Ukrainians and some 2,000 Soviet troops in the Dnieper delta. The dam was swiftly rebuilt, and just as swiftly blown up again by the retreating Germans in 1943.

Zaporizhzhya Dam

Zaporizhzhya Dam after its 1941 demolition by the NKVB.

Like the TVA hydropower plants on the Ohio, the Dnieper dams were joined in the postwar decades by nuclear power plants cooled by the river. The Cossack country that starts at the river runs all the way east to Rostov on Don, and the huge Zaporizhzhya nuclear station is eponymous with the Sint once led by Taras Bulba.

Zaporizhzhya’s six reactors have just been captured intact by a column of Russian tanks and mobile artillery following a flare-illuminated night attack. As a result, Putin acquired a six-pack of up and running gigawatt reactors—a bookable 25-billion-dollar asset with an even higher replacement cost.

A more acute economic risk may dampen the invasion’s bottom line. One reason the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in 1989 was the skyrocketing cost of lost aircraft. At the invasion’s height, the Soviets were justly proud of their air superiority—they had the world’s most formidable attack helicopters and knew how to use them. Their titanium armored helicopter gunships and attack aircraft could shrug off anything from AK-47 bullets to garnets shot as musket balls from antique jezails.

Asymmetrical warfare can be as much economic as tactical, and Putin is being reminded that now as in 1986, the world’s best combat aircraft come with staggering price tags–upwards of seventy million dollars for the top-of-the-line Sukoi 35 fighter bombers now attacking Kyiv.

In the Reagan years I advocated giving the Afghan resistance three things. Simple video gear to make the invaders as liable for on-camera atrocities as bad cops with body cameras, cheap but bullet proof Kevlar cloth, and America’s latest surface-to-air missile. With both ultraviolet and infrared imaging detectors, the Stinger of that era was not easily distracted by countermeasures and as often as not chased down its acquired target and blew a hole in its engine.

The downside was that this lethal weapon cost a hundred thousand dollars a shot. Many in Congress thought it as dangerous as it was expensive, for in the wrong hands it could down a civilian airliner as easily as a military helicopter. That view was overridden by Texas Democrat Charlie Wilson.

In 1983 he boosted the black budget of the CIA’s Operation Cyclone, earmarking $17 million for MK72 Stingers to shoot down Mi-24 Hind helicopters. In 1984 the agency asked for and got a further $50 million, and $300 million of unused Pentagon money was transmuted into enough to rival the number of Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan. As those aircraft had inflicted heavy civilian casualties, the Mujaheddin began to use the Stingers with a literal vengeance – Soviet air losses trebled in three years. An invasion intended to pay for itself via Afghan resource exports started hemorrhaging billions of rubles as aircraft losses rose.

A replay is in the offing in Ukraine, which has received more new MK73E7 Stingers than the Russians have attack helicopters. The AI-tinged microprocessors of this third-generation hardware reportedly deliver 90% lock-on lethality. Just as American Javelin and British NLAW anti-armor missiles slowed the invasion’s tempo by clogging its arteries with the carcasses of 200 tanks and uncounted trucks and armored personnel carriers, the up to date Stingers, together with Polish (and Russian!) portable surface-to-air missiles have forced the revision of the invaders’ operational air war.

Putin’s territorial ambitions have some basis in the universal desire for strategic depth. European borders defined by features of the landscape have trumped straight lines drawn on maps since the days of the Roman limes, and, as with post-colonial Africa, Russia knows the risks posed by arbitrary and physically undefined borders.

Like the Rio Grande or the Rhine, the Dnieper has a place in cultural history as a signifier not just of division, but regional integration. Rivers have bridges on both banks, and mental and political maps may gain stability from permanent features of reference. For four thousand years Kherson has stood at the Dnieper’s mouth. The Chersonese coast is literally the stuff of legend–a place the Argonauts sailed by. It’s down east from Constanta, where Ovid was exiled, and downstream from where the Varangian Vikings first knit together the economies of Moscow, Kiev, and Constantinople. If Putin wants to declare victory before he gets too many legions killed, he’s already picked up enough territory to claim a triumph.

With Cherson, the harbor cities of the Sea of Azov, and Sevastopol’s naval base already in hand, Putin has scant need for another strategic port like Odessa. Having consolidated Russia’s place as a European energy hegemon—his new coastal conquests come with vast offshore gas and oil reserves—he could declare victory and leave a divided Kiev standing, still the capital of a nation large as Germany. The re-partition of Ukraine along the Dnieper by Putin might not register in Russian annals as a restoration of Empire, but it would leave the KGB’s favorite son free to imagine himself astride an equestrian statue or two, riding into the sunset and a safe place in Russia’s schoolbooks. which is a lot better than Feliks Dzerzhinsky ever did.

His Black Seaboard gambit makes more sense considered as a game of go rather than chess. The 2014 annexation of Crimea was the first stepping-stone up the Dnieper. He’s already turned the Sea of Azov back into a Russian lake and seized the river’s most important renewable energy assets. What more could he want? The Great Steppe is a profoundly Russian landform, and the Dnieper demarcates its western edge. If Moscow once again controls it, the partition of Kyiv could become a likelier outcome than its wanton destruction. It wouldn’t take a Berlin Wall to divide the Ukrainian capital. A river runs through it.

The Dnieper flows quiet as the Don and wide as the Hudson though downtown Kyiv. With his forces already controlling much of the East Bank, seizing the rest is, like it or not, something Putin might get away with, for nature created a strategic divide by carving the Dnieper into the Ukrainian landscape at the end of the last Ice Age.

Nothing so substantial stood in the way of the Warsaw Pact when Germany reunited, but that event failed to send tanks rolling, or ICBM’s flying. Such is the force of nuclear deterrence that, great as it looms as a human tragedy, the prospective loss of half the Ukraine is not a plausible casus belli. John Mearsheimer has noted that Crimea’s re-annexation was spearheaded by troops from a Russian base in Sevastopol, held, rather like Guantanamo Bay, under a very long-term lease. It follows that seizing the Ukraine east of the Dnieper would not move Russia’s border any closer to a NATO member than it already is. That dubious sub-strategic distinction already belongs to the short stretch of the Black Sea separating Rumania from the Crimea, whose Russian reconquest in 2014 failed to trigger Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

This leaves a dilemma. Well-justified as the anger of the Ukrainians and the indignation of the world at this murderous incursion may be, starting a land war in Asia against a nuclear power is not a fiduciary option.

So, what is to be done? The protective services surrounding Putin and Zelensky are as vigilant as the lines of headhunters queued up behind Senator Graham and the Wagner Organization are long, but nobody has the back of the millions of Ukrainian men, women and children literally driven underground as the first drops of hypersonic rain streak down from the skies of the first war of the future.

Russell Seitz
Fort Lauderdale, FL
March 2022

“The wheels of justice grind slowly….”

To the Editor,

The House Select Committee on the January 6th attack on the Capitol was formed on July 1, 2021, almost 6 months after the insurrection took place. The DOJ and Attorney General Merrick Garland began their investigations much earlier, yet we are still waiting to learn if the instigators and planners of the attack will be charged and indicted and, just as important, that the events preceding the election and subsequent to it, amounting to federal offenses (interfering with election-results), are also investigated by the DOJ. This assault on our democracy did not take place in a vacuum, it was demonstrably and meticulously coordinated by Trump and his cohorts, and they must be held accountable.

It is commendable that finally – on January 13 – indictments were handed down on charges of seditious conspiracy against 11 of the attackers (mostly members of the Oathkeepers). This development changes the dimensions of the offense – but where are the indictments against Trump, and those members of Congress and the military who were involved as instigators and planners of the attack, as well as the perpetrators of other federal crimes such as the coercion of State election officials and the submission of falsified voting records?

It is also encouraging to note that the Atlanta prosecutor was recently granted her request to seat a special grand jury to review charges that Trump attempted to interfere with the election results in Georgia.

And in Michigan, the Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, has now provided Bennie Thompson, Chair of the House Select Committee, with more potential election fraud incidents in that state, equipping the committee with additional material to further investigate and share with the Justice Department.

These crimes cannot go unpunished, it is essential that we signal to the perpetrators and those who would follow in their footsteps that they cannot break our laws, violate our constitution and threaten our democracy with impunity; and it is therefore just as essential that the investigations and ensuing indictments should be executed in an expeditious manner in order to have guardrails in place before the next election.

Ursula Lahat
Los Angeles, CA

 


 

To the Editor,

I recently read the article “Changes in the Electorate Signal Close Florida Race” by Karen Houppert.  She repeatedly used the term “Latinx” to, I assume, describe people of Latin American heritage.  I understand that she wants to be as “woke” as possible, but to use a meaningless word is unacceptable. The proper English  word is Latin or Latin American. Spanish is a gender based language (as are all romance languages), so if you are going to use the language then use it properly. My wife is a Venezuelan-American and can’t stand how “woke” people abuse her native language.

Frederick Dennstedt
Flagstaff, AZ

 


 

To the Editor,

This afternoon I’ve been listening to the impeachment trial with tears in my eyes for several reasons. The first is because of the thorough and deeply researched history lesson that the Democratic House managers are providing in the proceedings. It is not fine oratory but it is compelling and you can hear the passion in their voices. What an example for our offspring, in place of the pathetic administration currently in power.

Further while listening one realizes how much our country has sunk into a quagmire of corruption and venality. It takes a very large hit to the stomach to make this tough old broad tear up, but this whole presidency has been just that: a very large kick in the belly. Many, many people whose opinions and thoughts I appreciate and value, feel the same. It isn’t a simple case of I don’t like the man, it is the totality and coalescing of every facet of him and his administration into a malignant whole.

If you aren’t binge watching on TV (I’ve been listening via WCAI) – please try to catch at least some of the proceedings. You can probably also catch the whole thing on your own version of NPR as well. Go to npr.org.  It is well worth the time and effort to find even just a small portion. It is a demonstration of democracy and an explication of the Constitution at its best, compared to the dismissive GOP responses, which are an exhibition of partisan politics at their worst. Even if you do not share that opinion, you must at least agree that the way that Mitch McConman is structuring the proceedings is shocking.

Virginia Jones
West Tisbury,  MA

 


 

To the Editor,

I am not sure why Steve Pressman wrote, and you published, such a lame set of arguments against a wealth tax (Sep 1 issue, p 6).  The article claims “Perhaps the biggest negative is that the wealth tax does not have a very distinguished history.” The main historical fact reported is that some wealth taxes were repealed, or reduced, or were unpopular as evidenced by their decline. So what?  In general, many progressive policies have been rolled back recently: fewer OECD countries had wealth taxes in 2000 than in 1990. Should we conclude the policies were a bad idea? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to conclude that the coincidence of the repeals and increasing wealth concentration shows they were a good idea?

Despite the reference to the historical record, and the flat assertion that the “an annual tax on wealth has far too many drawbacks to be effective” at the conclusion, the only empirical part of the article
is the dubious interpretation of history discussed above.  The bulk of it consists of speculative arguments about possible drawbacks of a wealth tax. The author seems to want us to confuse his speculation with fact.

The article fails to note the US has wealth taxes right now, namely property taxes. I wonder how that’s possible if wealth taxes are unpopular and unworkable?

The article also omits most arguments for a wealth tax.  I’d like to suggest one: we are in a period of massive transfer of wealth upward. There are many culprits: government policies that weakened most worker’s negotiating position by weakening labor law and maintaining unemployment to fight inflation; patents and monopolies (drugs, software, media); direct government subsidies such as the Fed’s giving banks cash for their nearly worthless securities in the last financial crisis; energy companies that paid nothing for wrecking our planet.

Further back, the labor and wealth of Africans has been systematically looted. We sit on land conquered from native people or Mexicans. Ordinarily the remedy for a  crime would be to undo it and return the money. But little of what happened is amenable to such a remedy. A wealth tax is the next best way to right the wrongs.

Ross Boylan, Ph.D.
San Francisco, CA

 


 

Pressman responds:

First, and maybe most important, property taxes are not wealth taxes. The property tax is a tax on the assessed value of a home and the land it sits on. It is not a tax on the equity that one has in one’s home, which would make it a wealth tax. The same property tax applies to someone underwater on their mortgage and someone who owns their home outright — when the two homes are of equal value in the same neighborhood. Rather than a tax on the wealthy, property taxes fall primarily on the middle class. As Edward Wolff (the expert on this issue) has documented, these are the people who have the largest majority of their wealth in home ownership. The rich have the vast majority of their wealth in the form of financial assets, which escape the property tax. If we want to tax the rich, a financial transactions tax would be a much better alternative (for more on this, see my article in the October Washington Spectator).

Second, I don’t disagree that wealth and income inequality have increased greatly in the US over the past 4 decades. This is supported by a great deal of empirical evidence. And, as some of my own work documents, things are even worse than what the standard data shows. However, the lack of a wealth tax is not responsible for this, as the US has not abandoned (or lowered) its wealth tax while inequality began its steep ascent (as we have no wealth taxes). You did mention one important cause of rising inequality in your comment — the reduced power of labor. Missing from your list of causes are two extremely important things — lower top income tax rates and the even lower tax rates for income received from owning wealth (beginning in 1980, when the great rise in inequality began).

Finally, while I agree that the inequality problem needs to be solved, and that we need to tax the rich; but we need to do it in the right manner. There is no point in focusing on options (like the wealth tax) that are neither a cause of the problem nor likely to solve the problem, given centuries of historical experience with wealth tax (including the window taxes in England, which I discussed in my September Washington Spectator piece). The right response to rising inequality seems to me to go back to where we were before Republicans began slashing income taxes for the wealthy. And we can deal with the accumulation of wealth by taxing the transfer of wealth (at death), either with an revived estate tax or with an inheritance tax. I will be discussing these issues in greater detail in the Washington Spectator soon.

Steven Pressman