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Saturday Q&A

Once again, we got a lot of Ukraine questions. So many that we will do a second all-Ukraine edition in a row. We're saving up a lot of excellent non-Ukraine questions that have been asked in the last two weeks; we'll get to them soon.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: The Russians

H.R. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: I find most of the content on the Guardian website quite palatable (I am proudly liberal and will identify myself as a "lefty" to anyone who dares ask). And yet, I find this screed by Ted Galen Carpenter, headlined "Many predicted NATO expansion would lead to war. Those warnings were ignored," to be quite offensive. While there may be more than a kernel of truth in questioning Bill Clinton's NATO expansion when Boris Yeltsin was President, is there any justification to putting the blame on Barack Obama for adding the Baltic States to NATO, particularly as they were begging to be protected from the Putin predator? Were their worst fears not realized when Putin dared to invade Ukraine, the only former Soviet republic that defied him and wasn't under the NATO umbrella?

Seems like Carpenter is suffering from the same cart-vs-horse delusion/obsession that leads Trumpists to oppose anything that Obama (and now Biden) did.

Please correct me if I am wrong.

V & Z answer: We are fond of the famous Sherlock Holmes line, from "A Scandal in Bohemia": "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." We have made reference to it many times.

Most people, particularly those who make their living dealing with writing, and words, and ideas, have some sort of interpretative perspective. However, a subset of those commit very strongly to a very distinct interpretative tradition. And, in our experience, folks like that tend to make the error Sherlock Holmes warned about: starting with a conclusion, and then massaging the facts such that they support the pre-ordained conclusion.

For this reason, we are leery of analyses produced by people, or by organizations, staunchly committed to a particular interpretative framework. We would not put much stock in anything produced, for example, by The Center for Communist Studies. Or, for that matter, anything produced by Nikole Hannah-Jones of Critical Race Theory fame. Or anything that comes from The Heritage Foundation. It is entirely possible that these folks could do good work, but each has shown a willingness to engage in behavior that is generally considered unethical in academia in order to support their conclusions.

Carpenter works for the ultra-libertarian Cato Institute. And he's been working for them since the Reagan years, which makes him a lifer. As a long-time, staunch libertarian, he is inherently opposed to most (or all) forms of international cooperation, particularly diplomatic alliances. And so, anytime he writes anything about a diplomatic agreement (whether NATO, or the U.N., or NAFTA) he is certain to write that it was wrong, wrong, wrong and bad, bad, bad.

Although Carpenter has different motivations than Vladimir Putin does, he nonetheless ends up repeating one of the Russian's main talking points, namely that but for the expansion of NATO, there would be no war in Ukraine right now. This ignores a number of important historical realities. The first is that the aggressors in a war always, always, always find a way to make it the other side's fault. And since Putin's #1 enemy is, always has been, and always will be the U.S., he was going to find a way to point the finger at the Americans.

The second is that small countries like Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia that are located next to a big, aggressive country Russia, are going to find themselves under the influence of some larger nation. Either they can choose the big, aggressive neighbor, or they can make nice with a more preferable friend/ally farther away. In this case, as you point out, the Baltic States chose the U.S., specifically forming the Vilnius Group (along with the nations of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, North Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia) to lobby for membership in NATO. It is interesting that libertarians like Carpenter are big fans of self-determination and freedom of choice right up to the point that people and nations make choices the libertarians don't like.

The third reality that Carpenter is ignoring is that the timeline for his analysis doesn't really work. The Baltic States, and the other Vilnius Group members, joined NATO in 2004 (when George W. Bush was president, incidentally, not Barack Obama). If that was really more provocation than Russia could tolerate, why did it take 10 years for that nation to invade Ukraine? And why did it take 18 years for them to invade Ukraine a second time?

In short, the facts don't actually fit Carpenter's conclusions. Sherlock Holmes would be so disappointed with him.

C.C. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: If Vladimir Putin crushes Ukraine and then goes after the Baltic states, as President Volodymyr Zelensky has predicted, is there any reason to believe that the U.S. and NATO would really risk nuclear war by honoring Article 5?

V & Z answer: Yes, because they would be taking an equal risk of nuclear war (perhaps even a larger risk) by not honoring Article 5.

To give a hypothetical example, if Mexico were to successfully invade the U.S. and to reconquer Texas, and the lands of the Mexican cession (California, Nevada, Utah, etc.), and the lands of the Gadsden Purchase (basically, southern Arizona) and then to announce that they were done, then that might be plausible, since all of those territories were once part of Mexico. But if the Mexicans were to grab just San Diego, and then to grab the rest of California 10 years later, and then to grab Arizona shortly after that, it would be hard to accept the notion that they had reached their stopping point. The Mexicans would be strongly signaling an intent to eventually come after New Mexico, Texas, Utah, etc.

In Putin's case, there is no logical reason to think that "Ukraine plus the Baltic States" is going to be the end of it. If Ukraine, why not Georgia or Moldova? If the Baltic States, why not Finland or Poland? Putin clearly covets all territory that was once in the Russian sphere of influence, and has shown that he will continue to move on to new and additional conquests as soon as is practicable.

If the U.S. and its allies were to look the other way as Putin took the Baltic States, then, there is every reason to believe that would not be the end of it and also that it would cause Putin to become more aggressive, thinking that the western nations lack the resolve to move beyond economic sanctions. At a certain point, a line in the sand has to be drawn. So it was after Adolf Hitler took Austria and Czechoslovakia. And so it would be, we think, if Putin tried to take any territory beyond Ukraine. Indeed, even the conquering of Ukraine by itself might just be enough to trigger a hot war; we'll have more on that subject soon.

S.S-L. in Norman, OK, asks: Any thoughts on how likely it is that Putin starts dropping nuclear bombs on us?

V & Z answer: We can conceive of two situations in the 21st century in which the launching of nuclear weapons is plausible (albeit still very, very unlikely). The first of those is when a leader has decided he or she has little to lose by launching a strike. The leader most likely to be in this circumstance is Kim Jong-Un of North Korea. Should he find his position hopelessly compromised, it would be difficult for him to flee and to live his life abroad as a well-heeled leader-in-exile. He's too big a target (literally and figuratively), and he has too few friends outside of North Korea. Meanwhile, his nation has few large cities that might be targeted by an enemy counterattack, has no real international trade to speak of, has terrible infrastructure, and is otherwise lacking in the sorts of things that might be targeted by an angry enemy (and that enemy's nuclear arsenal). So, if anyone was going to do the math, and conclude a desperation nuclear strike has more upsides than downsides, it's Kim.

We just cannot imagine Putin getting to that point. He's had an escape plan in place for decades, and if it got to that point, he'd use it. He could easily live a life of luxury in Cuba or Venezuela, at least until the fateful day that he drank the wrong cup of tea. Meanwhile, Russia would take a beating in a nuclear counter-strike. Putin would care about that if he's planning to stay, and he would probably also care if he's planning to run, since a devastated Russia means many angry oligarchs, and many angry oligarchs means more people looking to assassinate him.

That leaves us with the second situation, namely a deterrent nuclear strike. Basically, the idea here would be to fire off a few very small nuclear weapons (note that "very small" is relative; even the smallest nukes today have a yield exceeding that of the weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The implied threat would be "you better back down/negotiate with me/do what I want, or I'll unleash the big boys." Note that this would also be a desperation move, albeit of a different type than the Kim situation.

Anyhow, these are the two possibilities that we can see, but again recall that both are very, very unlikely.

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, asks: I've seen news reports that shortly after the Russians invaded Ukraine they took the Chernobyl nuclear site. The newscasters always expressed dismay about why Russia placed such a high priority on seizing the site. The reason is quite obvious. The Russians fear that the Ukrainians might use the highly radioactive materials to make "dirty bombs" or even cruder ways to deliver the material to Russian forces. The logistics for such a plan would be extremely difficult, but it is easy to see how Russian President Vladimir Putin would think of this as he is alleged to have order the use of radioactive polonium to poison opponents, even though concern that Ukrainians might use this tactic is likely paranoia. My question is are the newscasters who are dismayed being deliberately obtuse or do they not understand?

V & Z answer: You may be familiar with Hanlon's Razor, which is usually expressed thusly: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

The only "newscasters" we've ever seen and had the sense they were being deliberately obtuse work for Fox. And it's not generally the newscasters on the channel, it's the entertainers who host the "hot take" programs the channel airs in the morning and during primetime—Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Steve Doocy, Will Cain, etc. We would imagine that some of the personalities on OAN and Newsmax would also be guilty, but we've never seen those channels because what's the point?

With most newscasters (including the non-entertainment personalities on Fox), our general impression is that the issue is not malice (or being deliberately obtuse), it's ignorance (a slightly more accurate descriptor than Hanlon's "stupidity"). In contrast to print media, television newscasters are not primarily chosen based on the skill as journalists or their expertise in the areas they will be covering. Some newscasters do have these things on their résumés, but the primary qualifications are their physical appearance and their ability to read news with an authoritative and yet pleasant voice. Further, newscasts are produced on a tight schedule with firm deadlines. The 6:00 evening news starts at 6:00 p.m., and that is that. For those newscasters with expertise, there may not be time to do much research, or to find someone who actually knows what they are talking about. Finally, it is also unhelpful that TV news is meant to be fast-paced, with fairly brief amounts of time dedicated to each individual story, and also to be somewhat sensational. A "hot take," even if not accurate, tends to better satisfy those needs. The newscasters might not be aware that what they are saying is wrong, but they might also not care too much.

As to Chernobyl, Putin may have been worried about dirty bombs or other possible uses of the site by Ukraine. But speaking as a Civil War historian, (Z) can tell you that was not Putin's main concern. He wants Kyiv, and he wants the city so bad he can taste it. And to invade Kyiv, he pretty much has to go through Chernobyl:

Chernobyl is due north of Kyiv, there's
a major roadway connecting them, and any other alternative involves either a significant westward march or a significant eastward march.

That national border, just north of Chernobyl, is Belarus. And the Belarusians are letting Putin do as he sees fit. In terms of direct paths to Kyiv, there is none so clean and easy as Belarus -> Chernobyl -> Kyiv. It's just a bonus that Chernobyl is lightly guarded because of the nuclear radiation exclusion zone.

What does this have to do with the U.S. Civil War, you might ask? Well, the same situation applied at the end of the war. U.S. Grant simply had to have Petersburg if he wanted to be able to strike Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy:

The spots are flipped, with the access
city in the south and the target city in the north, whereas in Ukraine the target city is south and the access city is north.
Beyond that, however, there is a direct major roadway connecting Petersburg and Richmond, and there's no convenient alternative

The spots are flipped; in this case Grant needed a city to the south in order to conquer a more northerly city, but otherwise the tactical situation is quite similar.

K.C. in West Islip, NY, asks: At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, is there possibility that Vladimir Putin is specifically going after Ukraine at the behest of Donald Trump in order to punish Volodymyr Zelenskyy for his unwillingness to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden? It seems Putin could have invaded any former Soviet satellite, but going into Ukraine served both his desire to begin reunification of the U.S.S.R. while concurrently being in position to have someone assassinate Zelensky, whose only "crime" was not helping Putin's puppet win re-election.

V & Z answer: No way. Putin doesn't give two craps about Donald Trump, except to the extent that he can advance his interests through manipulating Trump. The former president is not likely to be the future president, and the Russian knows that. And even if Trump did become president again, he's unreliable. A tenuous future payoff like this just isn't valuable enough to influence Putin's thinking.

Putin chose Ukraine because it's on his border, it works well with his "we're just reclaiming Russia's historical territory" argument, and, most importantly, it's the most prosperous of the nations surrounding Russia. If the Brits were to decide to invade America and to retake their former colonies, they would begin with New York and would not pay much attention to South Carolina for much the same reason.

B.B. in St. Louis, MO, asks: With the current unpleasantness in the Ukraine, do you suppose anyone has thought to ask for advice from Mikhail Gorbachev, and do you think it would do any good if they did?

V & Z answer: We are not sure who you think might contact him. If you are thinking Vladimir Putin, that will not happen because Putin basically regards Gorbachev as a traitor. It would be like Joe Biden calling up Donald Trump for advice. And if you are thinking Biden, that will not happen because it's not so easy for an American (even the president) to place a person-to-person phone call to someone living in Russia right now, and because Gorbachev is a man in his nineties who has been out of power for decades and who served in a time when world geopolitics were very different. It would be like Putin calling up Jimmy Carter for advice.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: The Americans

H.C. in Santa Cruz, CA, asks: Why does it seem like Russia has this thing about attacking her European neighbors again and again? They've been doing this for a couple hundred years. What gives with this aggressive history? Is it actually any different than other great powers?

V & Z answer: Pop quiz: There are 193 countries in the world right now, at least according to the United Nations. How many of them have American soldiers stationed within their borders? We will get to that answer later.

Anyhow, (Z) has a lecture on the rise of the American Empire, which he delivered this week, as chance would have it. And in that lecture, he draws a distinction between what he calls "Empire v1.0" and "Empire v2.0." Empire v1.0 is the classical form of empire, wherein a nation establishes dominion over as much physical territory as possible. The Roman, Ottoman, Aztec, Malian, British, Spanish, Russian, Assyrian, Egyptian, and Mughal empires, among others, were this sort of empire. This is also the sort of empire that Americans aspired to (and achieved) 120 years ago.

However, Empire v1.0-style empires are broadly out of favor these days. The citizens of most nations don't support them, and the international community doesn't support them, either. And so, as the world's superpower, the U.S. has built an Empire v2.0-style empire. It directly controls little territory outside of its national borders, beyond the territory taken during the Empire v1.0 years over a century ago (Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawai'i, etc.). However, the country exerts enormous influence through its economic might, and through its deployment of soldiers and other military assets around the globe. The answer to the question we asked at the outset: The U.S. has troops stationed in 159 of the world's 193 countries. Sometimes the detachments are small, but they are detachments nonetheless. Most of the exceptions are countries that really hate the U.S. (e.g., Iran), or else that are too small (e.g., the Vatican) or too poorly organized (e.g., Somalia) for a U.S. military presence to make sense.

Anyhow, Putin in particular (and Russian leaders in general) seem to still be mired in Empire v1.0 thinking. There is an underlying, hypermasculine element of Russian culture that supports this mindset (the same was true in the U.S. 120 years ago). And when a nation's leaders think in this manner, and when their neighbors are smaller and weaker, and when some sizable portion of the citizenry believes that conquering one or more of those smaller, weaker nations will prove their individual/national "toughness," that is a situation ripe for lots of wars of conquest.

P.M. in Lausanne, Switzerland, asks: I have heard a few people make the following argument: "After all, as bad as Russia's invasion of Ukraine is, this is similar to what the U.S. has often been doing when it intervened in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, etc. The U.S. justifications (that a regime was harboring terrorists, or that they would liberate a people from an oppressor) are no more and no less valid than Russia's vague justifications today."

How valid is this argument? With the possible exception of Iraq, it does seem to me that Russia's actions this time reach another level of outrageousness, but is that so because I am biased? Is there a fair way to compare these different situations? What about the most controversial case of Iraq? Is that situation somehow less egregious than the Ukraine situation? If so, in what way? It would help if you could help provide a framework for comparing these invasions in a rational manner.

D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: Much of the Russian response to international criticism has been whataboutism. "America invaded Iraq/Afghanistan, how is this different from Russia invading Ukraine?"

Reflexively, I know that this situation is different. But I have been unable to successfully articulate a good explanation for why it is different. The best I have been able to come up with, is the unsatisfying excuse that, "Ours was bad, but yours is worse."

For some reason my lack of a rebuttal has bothered me more than I expected. It raises some troubling concerns that I might have a subconscious bias, deeming Ukraine more "worthy of sovereignty" than Iraq. As academics, I turn to you. Can you provide me with a good, dispassionate, debate-team quality answer to Putin's whataboutism? Why is Russia invading Ukraine different from America invading Iraq?

V & Z answer: The previous answer, about Empire v1.0 vs. Empire v2.0, is the framework with which we will answer this question. Putin thinks primarily in terms of the former, and the U.S. now thinks entirely in terms of the latter.

Putin's war in Ukraine is a war of conquest, pure and simple. He wants to absorb part or all of that country into Russia, and to put its citizens under his direct rule. If the Ukrainians desire him as their leader, then great. If the Ukrainians do not desire him as their leader, then also great. He really doesn't care.

The U.S. has certainly not been as pure as the driven snow as it has mucked around in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and other nations in the past 75 years. However, while expanding American influence, and promoting the American system of government and of economy, have been goals, the U.S. no longer undertakes wars of conquest. There was never any intention to turn those nations into a U.S. territory or protectorate or state.

Perhaps even more importantly, since World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, the U.S. really has tried to embrace the importance of self-determination for the world's citizens. In each of the nations listed here, and in the others where the U.S. has gotten heavily involved, the establishment of a democratic government elected by the citizenry really was a major goal. Sometimes, the CIA and other entities could not resist pulling the strings, such that the U.S. did not live up to its ideals. And sometimes, the democratic government did not prove to be viable (ahem, Afghanistan). And always, the U.S. expected that the democratic government would be "friendly" to America's needs/concerns. But despite all of these valid criticisms, the fact is that the principle of self-determination was always present. By contrast, Putin cares nothing for self-determination; he claims the Ukrainian people want him to take over, but it doesn't matter to him if they don't. He doesn't even care about the opinions of the Russian people, excepting a few oligarchs, so why should he care about the Ukrainians?

The last American war that was a direct parallel to Ukraine—e.g., undertaken to expand national borders—was the Mexican-American War, well more than 150 years ago (1846-48). The last American wars that were wars of conquest were the Spanish-American War and the Philippine War, well more than 100 years ago (1898, and 1899-1902).

Meanwhile, if you want to flip it around, the Russian equivalent to Iraq or Vietnam or Afghanistan would be their involvement in Afghanistan in the 1970s or their involvement in Syria today.

N.H.R. in London, England, UK, asks: (V) wrote an item headlined "State Of the Union Speech Will Make Biden A Wartime President." How so? America hasn't gotten involved in the Ukraine/Russia war militarily. There is always a conflict ot war going on somewhere in the world. For example, during the Trump years and still ongoing is the war in Yemen, I don't think anyone would have called Trump a wartime president.

V & Z answer: That was an assessment based on the significance of an ongoing war to the U.S. domestic agenda in general, and to the State of the Union address in particular. The fact that Biden led with Ukraine, and spent a quarter of his speech on the subject, would seem to validate our judgment. By contrast, none of Donald Trump's SOTUs led with Afghanistan (or any other war), and none gave Afghanistan (or any other war) much more than passing attention.

B.H. in Green Bay, WI, asks: Simple question: Why the reluctance to establish a no-fly zone over the Ukraine?

V & Z answer: It has emerged as something of a talking point that this would be a "middle position" between "boots on the ground" and "economic and diplomatic sanctions only." It is not a middle position; it would be an act of aggression and tantamount to a declaration of war.

A no-fly zone would, at very least, be based on the threat of force being used against the Russian Air Force. More likely, it would result in one or more Russian planes being fired upon or shot down. All of these things would be a direct assault on Russian sovereignty and would be interpreted as such.

Indeed, in some ways, NATO air superiority over Ukraine would be even more dangerous to Putin than superiority on the ground. Ground troops cannot generally launch rapid, substantive assaults on neighboring nations. It's more than 500 miles from Kyiv to Moscow, for example. Do you know how long it takes to move a ground force of any size over that great a distance? Especially considering that the ground force is going to be persnickety, and is going to insist on having enough food and gasoline? You just can't please some people.

On the other hand, it is way quicker to launch devastating military strikes from neighboring airspace. Anyone who has any questions on this point might want to read about the Bombing of Dresden. Or, for that matter, the devastation wrought by conventional bombs against Japanese cities like Tokyo, or by nuclear bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The planes that did those things did not take off from Germany or Japan (they launched primarily from London and from the Northern Mariana Islands, respectively).

Obviously, if a NATO plane left Ukrainian airspace for Russian airspace, the Russians would scramble fighter jets to intercept. However, it's about 300 miles from Moscow to the Ukrainian border. The fastest American fighter jet (the NASA/USAF X-15) can cover that in 4 minutes. The most common American fighter jet (the F-16 Fighting Falcon) can cover it in 10 minutes. Would you want to take your chances that 4-10 minutes is enough time, if you were Putin? We wouldn't.

B.C. in Farmingville, NY, asks: There is obviously a lot of hand wringing while the west watches Ukraine slowly lose the war. Despite them asking for help, NATO and the U.S. have understandably said no. However there still is much concern over the fall of Ukraine in terms of future European stability. Couldn't the powers that be convince some random third party country who does not have a dog in the fight—let's say Angola, for example—to go in and provide airspace coverage for them and perhaps provide direct military intervention? I know that Russia promises hellfire and brimstone on any country that assists, but would they really be able to do much against some small country on the other side of the world?

V & Z answer: There is such a thing as a proxy war, wherein two nations (like the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in Vietnam) fight with each other through their support for intermediaries.

What you're proposing, however, is a particularly... aggressive form of proxy war. Angola is not currently at war with Russia, Ukraine, or anyone else. If they suddenly did go to war, they would need planes, bombs, guns, etc. to have any hope of matching Russia. The Angolans would get those things from the U.S., of course. And if the Angolans declare a surprise war against Russia, and show up armed with a bunch of American equipment, we kinda suspect that Vladimir Putin (and the rest of the world) would regard that as a U.S. attack against Russia. In other words, it would technically be a proxy war, but would be so close to being a direct war that the U.S. might as well invade directly.

There is one other problem. The people of Angola (or whatever country) might chat with the Kurds in Syria, or the former government of Afghanistan, or any of a dozen other former allies of the U.S. about what happens when an American president comes along and decides that those allies will no longer be backed by America. And that might just give the Angolans pause...

G.A. in Berkeley, CA, asks: Some people have suggested that Russians should kill Vladimir Putin to stop the war in Ukraine. Others have reacted with horror to the dissemination of that idea. Why is it considered proper, even a duty, to kill countless 18-year-old soldiers, many of whom have been sent to war against their will, but horrifying to kill the leader who sent them into a war of aggression? Suppose, for example, that efforts to kill Adolf Hitler had been successful; perhaps millions of deaths might have been averted. Should such efforts have been opposed?

V & Z answer: We assume you are referring to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who got blasted by partisans on both sides when he called for a "Russian Brutus" to assassinate Vladimir Putin.

There are a few problems with what Graham said. To start, it is a violation of both American and international law to assassinate other nations' leaders in a time of war. The reason for that, and an additional problem with Graham's remarks, is that national leaders are generally civilians. And once you start blurring the line between "civilian" and "soldier" in a time of war, bad things start to happen.

Further, for someone as prominent as Graham to say that kinda makes "assassinate Vladimir Putin" the stated position of the U.S. government. Yes, anyone who knows how the U.S. system works knows that Graham really only speaks for himself. However, those folks who are not as well informed? Or those folks who, like Putin, know that Graham is just a windbag, but also could use some helpful PR/propaganda to justify their actions? It means that Graham was essentially declaring open season on the members of the U.S. government, including himself and, more obviously, Joe Biden.

After all, if a high-ranking member of the American government takes steps to get Putin assassinated, then why is it wrong for a high-ranking member of the Russian government to take steps to get Biden assassinated? And if the Russian plotting happens to work out better than the American plotting, does that really matter? It's not Putin who opened Pandora's Box, it's Graham. Oh, and Putin is way more experienced with assassinating foreigners than Biden is, and so is more likely to move forward along those lines, and is more likely to succeed.

In short, Graham's remarks were reckless and stupid, and he deserves the blowback he got. In fact, although it won't happen, he deserves to be censured by the Senate.

Also, don't assume that the death of a national leader in a time of war matters all that much. Yes, Putin appears to be operating mostly on his own initiative, so his demise might significantly change the course of events in Ukraine. But it might not. If Hitler had died, arrangements had already been made for Hermann Göring to assume leadership. The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945 did not change the course of World War II, and certainly did not save Japan from defeat. The death of Ho Chi Minh in September 1969 had relatively little impact on the Vietnam War.

T.M. in Downers Grove, IL, asks: A current Republican talking point is that completion of the Keystone Pipeline would have eliminated our need to import Russian oil, which funds the war in Ukraine. Is there any truth to this?

V & Z answer: No. First of all, the U.S. gets less than 5% of its oil from Russia. To the extent that petroleum purchases are "funding" the war, it's petroleum purchases made by other nations.

Beyond that, this is clearly just a desperate attempt to get a twofer, namely promoting the awesomeness of Keystone XL and at the same time the awfulness of Joe Biden. Keystone XL's purpose was to transport oil sands (also known as tar sands, crude bitumen, or bituminous sands) to the Gulf Coast. Take note of that destination, it's going to matter later.

Oil sands are a potentially rich source of petroleum, but they are also a very inefficient source of petroleum. The environmental impact of processing then is... significant. Some say horrifying. And so, they are not viable, long-term. Also, the domestic taxes on this type of oil are substantial, in part because the federal government is trying to discourage its use.

The most effective way to turn tar sands into usable petroleum is to produce diesel fuel, and to sell to non-American customers (thus avoiding the big-time taxes). Both of these things argue for export to South America and/or Europe. And if you're going to ship oil to those places, then the most logical point of origin for those shipments is... the Gulf Coast. And so, the Keystone XL oil was not meant for the American market, and would not have changed the equation when it comes to the purchase of Russian oil. Well, at least not in a positive direction. The most common way of processing oil sands involves tempering with other petroleum products. And so, Keystone XL might have actually taken some oil out of the U.S. economy, and (slightly) increased dependence on Russian oil.

In other words, the right-wing politicians/media figures who are saying this either don't know what they are talking about or are being willfully dishonest. We will wait while readers lay down on their fainting couches as they recover from the shock.

J.E. in Boone, NC, asks: With sanctions being placed on Russia, some are writing about the cost of oil, the possibility of Putin cutting off oil to the West, or the possibility of Western sanctions eventually including Russian oil, thus sending the price of oil even higher and exacerbating inflation.

My questions are: What exactly is the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve? Could President Biden use it to fight the "Russian effect" here in the U.S.? Would it be easy for him to do so? Is there enough in the Petroleum Reserve have a significant impact here?

V & Z answer: The SPR is roughly 700 million barrels' worth of oil that is stored in four underground salt cavern complexes located in Louisiana and Texas. Why salt caverns? Because they are dry, and so water doesn't get mixed in with the oil. Why Louisiana and Texas? Because that's where the processing and shipping infrastructure is located.

In 2021, which was a pretty average year, the U.S. imported 245,194,000 barrels of oil from Russia. So, the SPR would be enough to replace that for 2-3 years. That said, the primary pressures driving oil prices up right now are not related to Russia. After all, gas prices were already sky high before Ukraine was invaded. Further, the biggest problem with a Russian oil embargo, at least for the U.S., would not be the loss of Russian imports. It would be competition with other nations for oil from other countries, as nations like Germany or France scrambled to replace their Russian imports.

In short, the SPR could certainly replace the Russian oil for a good long time. But the SPR isn't going to do much to keep petroleum prices from increasing.

A.C. in Aachen, Germany, asks: Do you have any information about to what extend an in which form psychological analysis is used to predict the behavior of foreign leaders by the secret services? The predictions of U.S. intelligence agencies were quite accurate in the case of the Ukraine invasion. Do you believe there are some psychological specialists who have their say in predicting what will happen next?

V & Z answer: We have no inside information, and no connection to the CIA, of course. At least, that's our official position. Which reminds us; we have a special message for reader C.O. in Langley, VA: "The red dog howls at the pale moonlight. The very first is crust from a classic Romano cheese. Green Right X Shift to Viper Right 382 X Stick Lookie. As ever, Goldilocks."

Anyhow, the CIA most certainly does have people who specialize in putting together psychological profiles of foreign leaders. And we bet you won't guess what their assessment of Putin is. It's not the obvious conclusion, like "Narcissistic Personality Disorder." We'll put the answer at the very bottom of today's posting, so you can come up with your best guess without actually catching a glimpse of it.

When it comes to how much influence these analyses have, we would imagine it depends on the decider. If we had to guess, we would suspect that Joe Biden is less impressed by psychological profiles than, say, Donald Trump.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: The International Response

K.B. in Hartford, CT, asks: World War III seems unlikely a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But if it were to come about, who would be on Russia's side?

V & Z answer: There are allies and there are allies. We're going to suggest to you that there are really six basic levels of support, using World War II to try to make things clear:

  1. Equal Partner, Cooperating: This is when two relatively equal powers work closely with each other in order to accomplish their goals. It's not easy to manage the tensions involved, so it doesn't actually happen all that often. The obvious World War II example is the U.S. and the U.K. In the case of Ukraine, we see no nation that might partner with Russia in this way.

  2. Equal Partner, Non-Cooperating: This is when two relatively equal powers declare themselves to be allied, but otherwise work basically independently in service of their own goals. The World War II example is Germany and Japan, who were allies, but who did not work together in any meaningful way, as the Germans focused on European Theater and the Japanese focused on the Pacific Theater. Russia could form this sort of alliance with China, if China decides that this is a great time to annex Taiwan or to otherwise expand its influence in Asia.

  3. Junior Partner: This is when two nations work together, but one of them is clearly calling the shots. Germany's relationship with Italy worked this way during World War II, when Adolf Hitler said "Jump!," Benito Mussolini said "How high?" At the moment, this appears to be the nature of the relationship between Russia and Belarus. There are some other former Soviet republics that might sign up for the same arrangement, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

  4. Puppet: This is when a nation conquers another nation, and then puts a leader in place who is "native" but who takes their orders from the conquering country. Notable examples from World War II include the French Vichy Regime and the government of Vidkun Quisling in Norway. If Ukraine falls to Putin, it will likely be put under the leadership of a puppet regime.

  5. Neutral, but Supportive: Sometimes, nations are officially not involved in a war, but are helping one side or the other with money or weapons. The best-known World War II example is Spain, which was a "neutral" ally of Nazi Germany. At the moment, China is in this category, and Turkey, Pakistan, or Iran might get there.

  6. Supportive, but Not Helpful: Some nations are happy to declare their allegiance to one side or another, but are not actually in a position to do anything useful to contribute, either because of their location, or their lack of military/economic resources, or both. In World War II, Iran (pro-Axis) was in this category, as was the Vatican (pro-Allies). As regards Russia and Ukraine, the nations of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Myanmar are all in this category.

This is pretty comprehensive; beyond the nations listed here (and maybe a few more former Soviet republics), we don't see too many other nations likely to come down on the side of Russia.

R.B. in Cambridge, MN, asks: When looking at the U.N. resolution condemning Russia, why did so many nations abstain? I understand the big nations (China and India) but what about the other African and Middle Eastern nations (and Bolivia!)? Is it all about trade? Russian gas?

V & Z answer: There are four basic reasons that a nation might have declined to take a position. In many cases, the nation's leaders may be the only ones who know which it is:

  1. That nation fears economic, military, or other recriminations from one side or the other

  2. Taking one side or the other would be problematic in terms of domestic politics. Note that many of the abstainees are former targets/victims of colonialism. So, their citizens might not feel warmly about Putin, but also might not be too enthused about casting their lot with the nations of the West.

  3. The nation's leaders hope to be able to extract concessions from one side or the other in exchange for their support.

  4. The nation has a general policy of remaining neutral in international disputes.

Obviously, in some cases, it could be more than one of these.

D.H. in Boulder, CO, asks: Since the invasion, the sanctions and support for Ukraine, both corporate, individual and political, keep piling up. Today, for example, I just read that Sabre has removed Aeroflot from its booking system, making it more difficult to book flights on that carrier. Yachts are being seized, bank funds cut off, gas pipelines stopped, assets frozen, arms being supplied and more by countries all over the world. And I just heard that people are even booking and paying for AirbnB and VRBO places in Ukraine that they won't be using as a way to funnel money to the Ukrainian population at a local level.

I would assume that Vladimir Putin doesn't intend to back down at this point, that would be rational, and clearly he isn't. My question relates to whether he might not have invaded Ukraine in the first place if all of these sanctions had been laid out in front of him beforehand. There was speculation on what might occur, but nothing like what is really happening. Is that because they hadn't been pre-planned at the level they are now happening, or was it a strategic choice to keep them under wraps? I'm guessing that beyond some political planning among countries and a few major industries, there wasn't a managing entity that was pulling all of these sanctions together, they just took on a life of their own once the realities of Putin's actions sank in. Is it fair to criticize leaders who didn't put the full range of planned sanctions and outcomes on the table in advance?

V & Z answer: Putin certainly had a good, general sense of what would happen—Joe Biden and his administration made certain of that (in particular, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a number of nice, long chats with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov).

That said, nobody—not Putin, nor Biden, nor anyone else—could know how much enthusiasm would be behind the sanctions (a lot, as it turns out; surely more than expected), nor how effective they would be (quite effective so far; surely more than expected). Further, Putin undoubtedly went into this with the general idea of "short-term pain, long-term gain." And again, neither he nor anyone else knows how firmly the sanctions will hold, or how much damage they will do.

In short, there is nothing that Putin could have been told that he wasn't already told, and that would have changed his decision-making process.

E.F. in Baltimore, MD, asks: We hear a lot about how the Ukraine invasion never would have happened before Joe Biden—depending on one's political perspective, either because Donald Trump was so strong, or because he was such a puppet. But I haven't heard any speculation about how Angela Merkel's replacement by Olaf Scholz changed Putin's calculations. I did just read that Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder has lost his entire staff, owing to his cozy relationship with Putin. Your thoughts?

V & Z answer: Angela Merkel was fairly cozy with Putin, certainly, though it was clearly a marriage of convenience. Unlike, say, Donald Trump, she had the experience and the willingness to prioritize her nation's interests when necessary. Meanwhile, Scholz came to office with a reputation for being less friendly to Putin, but he's also less experienced and may have had less sense as to the best way to respond. Our guess is that "more friendly but also more experienced" and "less friendly but also less experienced" ended up being something of a wash when Putin was making his calculations.

That said, we are not experts in German politics, and our Teutonic Affairs consultant has once again fallen ill, this time due to overconsumption of Zwetschgenknödel, so if any readers in closer proximity to the situation have insights, we'll be happy to run them tomorrow.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: Other

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: Could you define a few terms that have been in the news lately? Oligarch. Kleptocrat. Plutocrat. I could look them up, but it's more fun to ask you and share the knowledge with the community. More questions. How come these terms only seem to be used with Russians? Judging from the context, could any of these terms apply to, say, the remaining Koch brother, Sheldon Adelson or Peter Thiel?

J.L.J. in San Francisco, CA, asks: I was asked a group of related questions by my much younger coworkers, and gave answers. But I'm not confident about them, especially since those answers were so well challenged. I therefore wish to pose the younglings questions to you: What is the difference between billionaire Western businessmen and Russian oligarchs? Why do the Russians get a special name—one with negative connotations—rather than referred simply as successful businessmen similar to their Western peers?

V & Z answer: Plutocrats are leaders whose political power derives primarily from their wealth. The term is sometimes used loosely to refer to anyone who has both wealth and power (even if they don't hold political office). However, it more precisely refers to people who occupy high political office, and whose office was not hereditary but also would not have been available to them but for their great wealth. The leaders of the Roman empire were generally plutocrats, as were the leaders of the Republic of Venice, among other examples. Some people, among them Jimmy Carter, claim that the U.S. presidency is becoming a plutocracy, as it is no longer possible for people of modest means to pursue political careers.

Kleptocrats are people who gain political power and then use that political power to plunder their polity's wealth and/or other resources. Quite often, these folks know that they're eventually going to get into hot water, and so stash resources offshore in anticipation of their eventual escape. There is a specific American term for this kind of officeholder, namely "spoilsman," though it's not often used today as that term is mostly associated with the political bosses of the Gilded Age.

Oligarchs, in the classic sense, are people who lead a polity as part of a team of leaders endowed with basically equal power. Many Greek city states were oligarchies, at least for part of their histories. The triumvirates that ruled Rome at various times are another form of oligarchy.

Wealthy people have, in nearly all times and all places, enjoyed a disproportionate amount of political power, whether they held office or not. That is why the meaning of "plutocrat" is a little fuzzy. And certainly, Koch, Adelson, and Thiel all have far more political influence than the average American citizen. That said, the line between them and "actual officeholder" is pretty clear, and there are many things they cannot do. By contrast, the line between the Russian billionaires and the actual political officeholders is much less clear, especially since many of the Russian billionaires have been appointed to some governmental or quasi-governmental office. The term "oligarch" emerged as a quick and easy way to communicate that these wealthy Russians have disproportionate political power, even by the usual standards of very wealthy people.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: You wrote: "There is a movement afoot to boot Russia off the Security Council, which is certainly justifiable given that nation's actions in Ukraine, not to mention the fact that they are clearly no longer one of the five most powerful nations in the world." Do you think that Russia is currently among the 10 most powerful nations in the world?

V & Z answer: We build our list based on economic might and military might. And when it comes to military might, we take particular notice of the number of nuclear warheads a nation commands.

Anyhow, the United States and China are clearly the two most powerful nations in the world. They rank #1 and #2 in GDP, they have the third and first largest militaries in the world, and they are #2 and #3 in terms of most nuclear warheads.

Next up are France, the U.K., and India. Each has enormous economic and military power, and all three are also nuclear.

The next tier after that is Japan, Germany, and Russia. The former two are economically powerful, but have no nukes and militaries that are on the smaller side; the latter has a large military and the world's largest nuclear stockpile, but a much weaker economy.

And then there is a tier with Pakistan, Israel, Iran, South Korea, Canada, Italy, and Brazil. The first two are nuclear, while all seven have some sizable amount of economic and military might, but not quite as much (when combined) as the nations above them on the list.

So, thanks to its not-top-tier economy, one built on resources that are in decline, Russia is no longer top five. But its military and its nukes are keeping it in the top ten, somewhere between #6 and #8, at least for now.

Putin Diagnosis: The assessment of the expert hired by the CIA is that Putin is autistic and, more specifically, has Asperger's Syndrome. If you want to about CIA profiles of some other prominent world leaders, click here.
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