An apology to our readers
We tried to write about Ukraine and didn't get it quite right. But here are a few notes.
It must seem strange that precisely as the world enters the most significant geopolitical crisis of our generation, the Cosmopolitan Globalist has gone silent.
When we set out to define the point of this publication, we insisted we would not chase breaking news. (Our motto: “It breaks, we shrug.”) But like everyone, we’ve been caught up in the storm of news from Russia and Ukraine, and in trying to report it, we flubbed it.
Yesterday evening we recorded a podcast with Toomas Hendrik Ilves and the intelligence analyst Michael Pregent. They were excellent interlocutors who made important points that I’m not seeing elsewhere, or not seeing properly emphasized.
But when I listened to the recording this morning, I realized that I’d done a poor job of moderating and that it would be incomprehensible to listeners unless I edited and annotated it extensively. I’m new to hosting podcasts, and I didn’t plan this one well. I allowed the spirit of conversation to override the discipline of argument. There’s too much cross-talk; we make references to Twitter exchanges that our readers haven’t read; and we mention, without clarification, too many events, people, and places our audience can’t be expected to know.
Vivek and I both concluded we couldn’t just slap this up on YouTube and say, “done.” That’s for the second-raters; it's not good enough for the Cosmopolitan Globalist.
I nonetheless felt the points our guests made were important. So I spent the day trying to convert the transcript into a properly reported article. It proved more difficult than I expected, and by this evening, it was clear that what I’d written had been overtaken by events.
Tomorrow, when I’ve had a good night’s sleep and can see the problem fresh, I’ll try again. For now, I apologize to our readers, and especially to Michael and to Toomas. I just didn’t do that well. But your time was not wasted. I’m sure I can bring what you said to life effectively with just a bit more work.
The most important point
We also invited Vladislav last night, but he couldn’t join us last night because he was entertaining Sean Penn:
He has, however, written a piece for Tablet, “Waiting for the Rus,” describing the mood in Ukraine:
Over the last few weeks, Kyiv has served as the stage for a rather absurd and increasingly grim production of Waiting for Godot, with perhaps a dash of Ionesco for good measure. Only in this case Godot has been less a metaphor for existentialist freedom, modernism, God, or redemption than the very nonmetaphorical Russian army. Life here in the capital has been a farcical, post-modern production that we journalists and political analysts have been at once both observing and acting in, and which only had its denouement last night when a visibly bitter and possibly mad Vladimir Putin went on Russian television to recognize the so-called “Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics,” and to send Russian “peacekeepers” into the eastern Ukrainian territories.
Events are now happening so quickly that we’re being flooded with journalism, opinion pieces, and expert commentary about this crisis—some of it outstanding, some from people who, strangely, were only last month specialists in virology.
I’ll use the little bit of your attention we still command to stress the news item that is, I think, more important than any other. I fear its significance will otherwise be lost in the lava of leaks and takes.
On Saturday, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reminded the audience of the Budapest Memorandum. The Cosmopolitan Globalist has written about the Budapest Memorandum before. To refresh your memory: In 1994, the United States persuaded Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons—the world’s third-largest stockpile—in exchange for an explicit and unambiguous promise to “provide assistance” to Ukraine should it be a victim of “an act of aggression.” Similar promises were made in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, as well as the UN Charter and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty itself. You may read the memorandum in full here.
The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;
The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. [our emphasis]
It is true that this memorandum is not a treaty. But it is a promise, and a significant one, very much like the Taiwan Relations Act, its strategic sibling. If we fail to uphold the memorandum in letter and spirit, some may—or may not—conclude that Americans are not serious people. This could be quite dangerous, because they might be wrong: We might be serious about Taiwan. Or perhaps we might not be. But uncertainties like these are a time-tested recipe for miscalculation and disaster.
Here is Zelensky’s speech. He points out that intolerably, Russia has shelled Ukrainian kindergartens. He asks, rightly,
Has the world forgotten its mistakes of the twentieth century? What do attempts at appeasement lead to? As the question ‘Why die for Danzig’ turned into the need to die for Dunkirk and dozens of other cities in Europe and the world. At the cost of tens of millions of lives. These are terrible lessons of history. I just want to make sure you and I read the same books.
How did we come to this impasse, he asks? “The architecture of world security is fragile,” he says.
The security system is slow. It crashes again. Because of different things: selfishness, self-confidence, irresponsibility of states at the global level. As a result, we have crimes of some and indifference of others. Indifference that makes you an accomplice. It is symbolic that I am talking about this right here. It was here 15 years ago that Russia announced its intention to challenge global security. What did the world say? Appeasement. Result? At least—the annexation of Crimea and aggression against my state.
This is a speech to be read in full. “Our soldiers and civilians are being killed and wounded,” he says, “and civilian infrastructure is being destroyed. The last days have become especially illustrative. Hundreds of massive shelling occasions with weapons prohibited by the Minsk agreements.”
He adds, with no little asperity: “I want to believe that the North Atlantic Treaty and Article 5 will be more effective than the Budapest Memorandum.”
He does not add: “But I don’t believe this.”
Do you, at this point?
Now, read this carefully:
Ukraine has received security guarantees for abandoning the world’s third nuclear capability. We don’t have that weapon. We also have no security. We also do not have part of the territory of our state that is larger in area than Switzerland, the Netherlands or Belgium. And most importantly—we don’t have millions of our citizens. We don’t have all this.
Therefore, we have something. The right to demand a shift from a policy of appeasement to ensuring security and peace guarantees.
Since 2014, Ukraine has tried three times to convene consultations with the guarantor states of the Budapest Memorandum. Three times without success. Today Ukraine will do it for the fourth time. I, as President, will do this for the first time. But both Ukraine and I are doing this for the last time. I am initiating consultations in the framework of the Budapest Memorandum. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was commissioned to convene them. If they do not happen again or their results do not guarantee security for our country, Ukraine will have every right to believe that the Budapest Memorandum is not working and all the package decisions of 1994 are in doubt. [Our emphasis]
All the package decisions. If Americans don’t understand what this means, Putin certainly does. He immediately replied:
Ukraine intends to develop its own nuclear weapons, and it is not an empty bravado. Ukraine indeed has Soviet nuclear technologies and delivery systems for such weapons, including aviation and Tochka-U tactical missiles, developed back in the Soviet; their range is over 100 km, but they will develop even longer-range ones, it is only a matter of time. There is groundwork from Soviet era.
Is it empty bravado? I don’t know. But we know this: For years, leaders around the world in Japan, Germany, South Korea, even Taiwan—have asked themselves this question: Which is safer? If we build the Bomb, we will enter an arms race that encourages our adversaries to obliterate us in a first strike. But if instead we shelter under the American nuclear umbrella, the Americans may not have our back. The NPT has held, more or less, because countries with the technical ability and resources to build the Bomb have considered this question and concluded that on balance, it’s best to trust us.
This is what we really mean when we talk about the “international order” and the “rules-based security system.” (It’s a damned shame we don’t speak of it plainly, because high school intellects the world around will always pipe up, “What international order?” “What rules-based security system?” They are always pleased with themselves; they always think it a clever thing to say.)
The balance is very fine. France, Israel, India, and Pakistan all considered the matter closely and concluded that however often Americans declared our fealty to the rules-based international order, when push came to shove, we’d forget we’d ever heard of them.
Fair? Unfair? Our record is mixed.
If we allow Ukraine to be gobbled up, in pieces or in whole, it may not change the world. But conversations in defence ministries the world around will surely take this into account. No one wants to be invaded by a bigger, stronger, rapacious neighbor.
There are only two solutions to the problem of a bigger, stronger, rapacious neighbor: a big, strong ally, or Shiva, destroyer of worlds.
The miserable, needless human tragedy engulfing Ukraine matters in its own right. It should matter to any sentient human even if American national security interests weren’t at play. But American national security interests—the security of the whole “rules based international order”—are very much at play, and Putin proposes to destroy that order, which will, ultimately, destroy everything.
We’ll write more about this over the course of the coming week. Again, I’m sorry that we didn’t have an incisive podcast or the perfectly-balanced analysis for you about the issue on everyone’s mind, but we’d prefer to write one thing very well, even if we can only do it once a week, than to publish something mediocre daily.
And today, we just weren’t good enough. We’re sorry.
One final remark; If you’ve not read the Putin’s full address, you should. As the retired naval officer CDR Salamander of the highly recommended eponymous military blog writes, “Mother Russia Wants Her Children Home.”
As he writes,
If you are only reading commentary about Russian President Putin's speech of 21 Feb 2022 or watching short clips, you are doing yourself a disservice.
While some reporting is good, there is a lot of spin, narrative shaping, and just plain lazy reporting.
If you want to try to understand if not what is in Putin's head, but what he wants the Russian people to think is in his head, you need to read and watch the speech yourself.
When someone tells you what they're thinking, listen to them.
Putin isn't trying to bring back the Soviet Union, he’s focused on something much deeper and meaningful, the Russian Empire ... build back better, as it were.
Do read and watch it: Nothing about this makes sense if you haven’t.