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The developments on the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been coming fast and furious this week, especially on Tuesday. First, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov belied prior statements that Russia might use nuclear weapons if it felt an existential threat, telling PBS that “no one is thinking … of using a nuclear weapon.” To emphasize the point, he added that the Ukrainian conflict has “nothing to do with” any threat to Russian existence.
A few hours later, Russia’s ministry of defense stated it would “reduce military activity” in order to “create the necessary conditions for further negotiations,” after Ukrainian and Russian apparently made progress in their first face-to-face talks in weeks. Emerging from the meetings in Istanbul, Russia’s lead negotiator indicated that “the possibility of making peace will become closer.”
The comments were welcomed with hope across the world. However, almost immediately, President Biden and western leaders expressed skepticism that Russia’s words would translate to action. Russia’s continued bombardment of Ukraine has so far proven that skepticism was warranted. The two pictures below of CNN’s coverage, taken a few seconds apart on Tuesday morning, indicated how Russian forces were not following through with what the Kremlin promised, begging the question of whether Russian leaders believed that the rest of the world was just plain stupid.
Later Tuesday, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Russia had begun repositioning some troops from areas around Kyiv to other parts of Ukraine. He cautioned that it is “not a real withdrawal,” and that Russia may simply be changing strategy to “prioritize the east.” He has since added that the Pentagon hasn’t seen evidence Russia is deescalating. On CNN, I heard former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO Wesley Clark sound even more pessimistic, warning that Russia could simply be regrouping to then further continue its aggression against its neighbor.
None of this surprises me, as I confess to having a deeply held bias when it comes to the Kremlin. I believe that skepticism, if not outright cynicism, is warranted when it comes to Russia’s statements and promises.
I was born in Cuba in December of 1957, barely a year before Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army marched triumphantly into Havana on New Year’s Day, 1959, hours after dictator Fulgencio Batista fled to the Dominican Republic.
Castro’s forces entered the capital to the cheers of most Cubans, including my parents. My father, a banker, even took a job with the new government.
However, by July of 1960, we had become voluntary refugees from a Castro regime that had turned increasingly authoritarian and aligned itself with the Soviet Union.
Working with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Castro tried to conceal the deployment of strategic nuclear missiles on the island in 1962, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of most dangerous confrontations of the Cold War.
Castro’s lies reflected the Marxist-Leninist belief in Machiavelli’s argument that the ends justify the means, that falsehoods and other ethical misbehavior are perfectly legitimate in advancing the communist cause.
Leon Trotsky, one of the main figures of the Russian Revolution and one of Bolshevism’s leading political theorists, was blunt about it, arguing that “The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.”
As Robert Conquest wrote in The Guardian, Stalin used “not only terror and ruthlessness, but -- even more -- deception. Not only in such things as the faked public trials, the disappearance of leading figures, of writers, of physicists, even of astronomers, but in the invention of a factually non-existent society.” That extended to fraudulent or non-competitive elections and fake claims about the USSR’s economy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a product of the KGB, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1991. According to the Washington Post, he continued defending the KGB long after that, even seeming “to excuse its role in dictator Joseph Stalin's brutal purges, saying it would be ‘insincere’ for him to assail the agency where he worked for so many years.”
So, if you believe anything Putin says, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell to you. Inna Sovsun, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, put it succinctly in a tweet when she reminded us that “a week before the war he was saying that he wasn’t going to attack Ukraine.”
“Trust, but verify,” Ronald Reagan told us. That may not be enough when it comes to Putin.
Already, according to the UN, Russia’s invasion has forced more than 10 million people to flee their homes (almost 4 million have left the country and some 6.5 million others are internally displaced). The Russian assault has rendered major Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv and Mariupol, essentially unlivable. While estimates vary, thousands of Ukrainian civilians and military forces have been killed, and many thousands of others wounded.
I hope and pray, for Ukraine’s sake and that of the whole world, which remains threatened by Putin’s possible use of nuclear, chemical, biological, and cyber weapons, that Russia will come to its senses and stop its savagery.
However, even if a peace deal is reached, NATO and the West must face a new reality in Eastern Europe and not let their guards down while the former KGB operative is in power.
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Cover photo: A protester holds a placard calling Vladimir Putin a "war criminal, monstrous liar and deranged czar" during the 'London Stands With Ukraine' rally in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Thousands of people marched from Park Lane to Trafalgar Square in solidarity with Ukraine as Russia continues its attack. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)