The Cosmopolitan Globalist
The Cosmopolicast
The Claire and Vladislav Cosmopolicast

The Claire and Vladislav Cosmopolicast

We talk about, Prigozhin's demise, Vlad's new book, the word on the street in Kyiv, the weird leaks from DC, Montgomery and COBRA, the Odessa Film Festival, Niger, the Bomb, and so much more. Join us.

Jewish-Ukrainian Relations and the Birth of a Political Nation

Claire—I think you’ll find this was an especially interesting conversation. I’ve included a transcript for those of you who don’t like listening to podcasts, but I particularly recommend listening to this one.

CB: This is the Cosmopolitan Globalist and I’m Claire Berlinski, the host, and Vladislav Davidzon is my dear friend, neighbor as well, who is now Ukrainian. He is married to a Ukrainian woman. He was born in Tashkent, emigrated to the United States at the age of seven. So he is an authentic Cosmopolitan Globalist and he has been going back and forth from Paris to Ukraine since the beginning of the major war. We’ve had many, many podcasts with him, but we have a lot of new subscribers, so I’d like to introduce you a little bit more thoroughly for their benefit. Perhaps you could say a little bit about who you are, Vlad.

VD: Claire, so lovely to be back on with you. You are a wonderful journalist and a great thinker and a great writer and a very good Substacker. And I value our friendship. And it’s always nice when one of your friends is your neighbor. So many of the people that I like are not my neighbors. And some of the people that I do not like are my neighbors. So it’s always good when someone I like and want to spend time with is a neighbor. That is the case with you and me. So I am glad to be on, I think, for my fifth or sixth appearance on this august podcast.

And I am a writer. I’m a journalist. I’m an artist. I do many things. I wear many hats, as they say. I cannot sit still. And so that is why I do four or five or six or twelve things—not always perfectly, but I do them often competently, and often, I think, even in an interesting fashion. Some people think so. Some people don’t. Interest is subjective.

I have been writing about Ukraine for a very long time, more than a decade. I’m about to publish my second book on Ukraine. It’s called The Birth of a Political Nation, Jews and Ukrainians, 2013-2023. It’s a decade worth of my pieces on Ukrainians and Jews, which is a perennially fascinating theme and topic, and of course, now very topical because it is a very important theme to understand if one wants to understand the origins of this war.

CB: When is the pub date?

VD: What did the Pope do?

CB: The pub date.

VD: Oh, the pub date. The Pope said some very silly things today. That’s what the Pope did. The pub date is ... the joke about the Pope is that he just made some very imperialist, Third World-ist comments today in the news about Ukraine and the Russians being the inheritors of the patrimony of Catherine the Great and Peter the Great. And, of course, Ukrainians don’t think Catherine the Great is so great. They call her Catherine the Second because she repressed Ukrainian culture. Understandably. The pub date of my book is in about two months.

CB: Are we going to have a party?

VD: I would love that. Would you throw me a party?

CB: I would absolutely throw you a party. I would be delighted to throw you a pub party.

VD: We need a pub party. One in New York, one in Kyiv, one in London, one in Paris—

CB: Is my place big enough for you?

VD: I mean, yeah, let’s see. Yeah, I mean, we can have a little reading, I think, you know, thirty of our best people. What do you think?

CB: Well, we want everyone who might buy the book to come. Do you think we can fit them all in my apartment?

VD: I’m not sure, but you do have a nice courtyard.

CB: That’s true! We can do it in the courtyard if the weather’s—I mean, if it’s pouring, that won’t be any fun, but it would be an awfully nice place to do it, in the courtyard.

VD: We should definitely do it.

CB: We’ll either do it in my apartment or perhaps I could ask my father if we can borrow his apartment. But before that, you should also mention that you’ve written a book about Odessa, a collection of essays about Odessa, which is both beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking because we now know—this was all written before the war and every word is now pregnant with with horror and irony, because of course the life, the city, that you’re describing is—

VD: —being bombed. I have a big piece in Tablet, 4,000 words, which I think is long-form now, on the future of Odessa. It came out on Independence Day, August 24th, which is already about four days ago. It is a very long piece if one wants to understand what is happening to Odessa, before, of course, buying my book. It’s on Tablet Magazine.

CB: I’m so sorry, I didn’t see it and I didn’t know about it, even though I of course follow you on Twitter. And I ascribe this to the complete mess Elon Musk has made of Twitter. I would have very much liked to have read that before speaking to you. I’m really indignant that I didn’t.

VD: Well, it’s alright. There’s a lot there. I haven’t been to Odessa in a month. I just came back from Kyiv and Chernivtsi, so I have more to say generally about the counteroffensive, the political situation in Kyiv, the political thinking of normal people in Kyiv, than I have about Odessa, than I have about Odessa, which I haven’t seen in about a month, which I won’t be able to get to for another two weeks. So in two weeks we can talk about Odessa if you want.

CB: I want to talk about everything you just mentioned. They’re all on my list of things that I wanted to ask you about, as well as about the thinking of elites in Washington.

VD: Sure.

CB: So let’s go one by one. Tell me what you’ve seen. Tell me what you’ve seen and the impression you have and what you think it means.

VD: So … I spent just now ten days in Ukraine. I go in and out and I’m based in Paris, and when I have big pieces to write I go into Ukraine and I’m often in Poland, I’m often in other places, I’m often traveling. I popped into Kyiv for a week, not having been there for a month and a half, to see what the political situation is. Kyiv is continuously evolving and the political situation is in flux. Except also very stoic and stable in many ways. It’s very interesting. A lot is changing and a lot is happening, except also not a lot. Things are very much the same as they were six months ago, in some ways, and in other ways not at all. Ukraine is culturally changing very quickly, and in a lot of ways it’s hard to predict where those changes are taking us.

CB: In what ways?

VD: Regional identities—like the internal debates between Ukrainians about various things, various issues, what people think the outcome of regional identity issues will be—the Ukrainization is taking place quicker in some places than others, you know—

CB: I feel like this is a bit euphemistic, can you explain in really simple terms what this means?

VD: What Ukrainianization taking place in different—so basically, my beloved Odessa was very ambivalent about the war, because they were deeply embedded in Russian culture and they didn’t particularly like the center, so they didn’t particularly try very hard to Ukrainianize, in either the linguistic or the cultural sense, but once the Russians started hitting the center of town with rockets—

CB: —Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.

VD: Correct. And I have a line, which I think is kind of amusing, in my piece where I say that there were many people who were ambivalent and remained ambivalent about Ukrainianization or their fidelity to the centralized Ukrainian state … even if they did not particularly agree with the Kremlin’s view that their apartments should be destroyed with cruise missiles.

CB: Right. So the debate in Kyiv about the pace of Ukrainianization, you say that it’s changed quickly—

VD: In Kyiv, it’s been the case that there have been no innovations in that debate in about a year. There are innovations in the way people are living in Kyiv, which is very interesting. They have two American patriot systems with anti-missile defense over the city, and so, unlike the rest of the country, missile defense is more or less not a problem in Kyiv, because obviously, it’s the capital and where all the ministries and everything are. They have almost total control of the airways there. unlike the rest of the country where you can get killed anytime, in Kyiv, people have more or less internalized the fact that the Russians can’t hit the city with anything except Kinzhal rockets, and even those can be sort of shot down two-thirds of the time now. So they party like it’s Tel Aviv, you know? It’s very much the part of Israelization, or the Israelification, or whatever you want to call it, of Ukraine. That the people in the capital have internalized the fact that they can go to discos and restaurants. The restaurants are full. You know, it’s really interesting.

CB: Yeah, I’ve heard that from other people too, who have been surprised by it, but of course anyone who’s been to Israel isn’t surprised by it, because that’s the classic dynamic—that people want with especial vigor to be part of life when death is so close by.

VD: Oh, absolutely. There’s a really vital element, but it’s really vital. I mean, there’s a stoicism, and a hedonism, and a camaraderie; it’s below the surface, but they know that at any moment this can be frustrated, or ruptured, by a rocket from the sky. It’s very interesting. It’s not, in any case, a form of evasion or anything of that sort. They know what’s going on. It’s not like they’re ignoring the obvious. But it’s very much like, okay, we’re gonna—

CB: —It’s completely to be expected, and of course there’s these idiotic propaganda memes on the internet to the effect of, “Look what they’re doing with our money, they’re going to discos.” Obviously anyone who has ever been anywhere near a conflict zone understands perfectly well the psychological dynamic at work … and the propaganda machine is in overdrive.

VD: People have to drink just to deal with it. People are in so much post-traumatic stress. Just three examples, I walked past a guy with a big dog and the dog was just all over the place. And it was a big fat dog. And the dog, I was trying to walk around the dog and I just, I kind of skipped and danced around the dog, but the dog was so either silly or stupid or fat that it just walked into me. And the guy just almost yelled at me, “Hey, watch my dog!” … Okay.

And then the next day, I see just a girl just walking around, poor thing, walking and just talking to herself, and just—her hands are trembling, and she was obviously mentally unstable. And my wife says to me, “There will be a lot more people like that, who are mentally fragile, who’ve been pushed over the edge.” This is just a girl in the middle of Kiev, you know?

CB: Of course, of course.

VD: So it’s a lot more mentally fragile people.

CB: It’s so goddamned unfair. People just lived their lives—and this catastrophe visits them. This catastrophe. They didn’t start, they didn’t want, they did nothing to deserve it—and these vulnerable people are attacked by this monster and it’s so goddamned unfair.

VD: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. And they’re so strong and so resilient and it’s so noble and they’re so amazing. I got there on the first night, and then I was supposed to see my friend Rebecca Harms, who’s a former German MP in the European Parliament, and we made plans to have breakfast around there in the hotel, and we embraced, and then at 3.30 in the morning the rocket alarm came—and you know, I usually ignore it, but you know it was the first time back in Kyiv for a long time so I went down into the basement of this four-star hotel.

CB: I saw the photo—

VD: There’s a photo of me lying in a parking lot and they set up these nice plush beds, really plush—

CB: Yeah, it looked very comfortable.

VD: It was very comfortable, but you’re in the middle of a very cold, freezing parking lot—

CB:—with a lot of strangers—

VD: —with a lot of strangers, and they put cookies out, and water out, and it was a very VIP way to live in a bomb shelter. I’ve been in many worse bomb shelters, much more uncomfortable. But, you know—

CB: It’s still a bomb shelter.

VD: It was still a bomb shelter. And all my Kyiv friends are like, “Oh, that’s so chic! Maybe I’ll go to the Radisson next time.” I was like, “Yeah, you should.” And people are writing me, “Oh, do they have mints on the pillows?” And then my friend, Rebecca Harms, the MP—I was thirty minutes late for breakfast because obviously I slept in the cold. And she said to me, “I saw you and I were the last ones who didn’t go up.” After they called off the alarm, I just decided to just roll over and sleep for the rest of the night in the parking lot. And she said, “I think you and I were the last ones in the parking lot.”

CB: Well, I mean, among other things, everyone’s been suffering from interrupted sleep for months and months, and that will do a number on your brain.

VD: That’s actually why the Russians shoot the rockets at three in the morning and not three in the afternoon.

CB: I mean, that’s no joke. It’s extremely difficult to retain your emotional stability if you’re not getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, basically, most nights. And I can only imagine how many people are feeling as if they’re just losing it because of that.

VD: But again, the Russians know that very well, and they’re doing that because they’re torturing the population into fleeing and surrendering, obviously.

CB: It’s become impossible to think of the Russians as anything but monsters.

VD: I mean, there’s this viciousness to what they’re doing. It’s just absolutely brutal, and brutalist, and it’s just really hard to understand for people who are not from the region.

CB: I don’t want to dehumanize any people. And I do feel that the conscripts who are being plucked up from the boonies and sent there as punishment, who are completely unwilling, are to be pitied, but—

VD: Some of them.

CB: Some of them. But the people making these decisions, and the Russians who are perfectly aware that this is happening, and celebrate it, I can’t feel anything for them but utter rage and contempt.

VD: Contempt, yeah. Contempt, yeah. Contempt is the only correct emotion.

CB: And rage. Rage.

VD: Rage and contempt. Yeah. That’s right.

CB: And I don’t like feeling this way, but I feel it all the time.

VD: Well let’s talk about the politics.

CB: Okay. First of all, Prigozhin.

VD: Oh, Prigozhin. So I left Ukraine, sadly, the day he died. And so I didn’t get to talk to Ukrainian MPs and watch their glee on the day he died. I would have preferred to have seen the glee and to have been there for the party when he died. And of course, he died on Ukrainian Independence Day.

CB: Well that’s fitting.

VD: Yeah, it was great.

CB: It’s kind of surprising, though, because, you know, Putin really likes anniversaries and you wouldn’t think he would choose that one.

VD: Well, it was the two-month anniversary of his putsch and mutiny. It wasn't the two-month anniversary of ... It wasn’t the year-long anniversary.

CB: Usually, though, he likes to give himself an assassination on his birthday or something like that. So to do it on Ukrainian Independence Day is a little bit atypical. Who the hell was stupid enough to get into a plane with him?

VD: Well, I mean, the Wall Street Journal has excellent reporting today on him returning back to Russia, frantically trying to run around and retain control of the militia as the MOD, the Ministry of Defense, was closing in and taking over. I mean, they were competing missions, he had to run around Africa talking to the same Arab and African warlords and dictators and presidents assuring them that he was still in charge just as the Deputy Minister of Defense [Yunus-Bek] Evkurov, or whatever his name is, was flying around saying from now on, this is a military-to-military, state-to-state operation and you have to stop talking to these people. So [Prigozhin] flew in just the day before from Africa and he was trying very hard to keep his corporation from being swallowed up by the states.

CB: It sounds as if he sincerely believed the promise that he would be left alone. I mean, he’d have never returned anywhere near if he didn’t.

VD: He miscalculated. I think he miscalculated. He freaked out and he was given, I think, rock-hard assurances. There were two meetings in the Kremlin with Putin, apparently. And I just think he thought that he was too important to Russian needs in Africa, obviously. This isn’t going to change anything in Niger, where I’m told by my people it was the Russian intelligence services. The GRU military intelligence guys who fomented that coup and took over that country, like in Mali.

CB: That’s worth a podcast in itself. I would love to talk to you more about that. But—

VD: Let’s put that aside. Obviously, you’re in the middle of a world-historical pivot in Africa from post-European, post-colonial stewardship. Let’s call it that.

CB: What the demise of Wagner means for Africa is such an important story and so under-covered. But I want to try to organize this podcast in a logical way. So let’s put this toward the end of it, because I want to just run through some more obvious things. What does his death mean for the war in Ukraine?

VD: The death … on the war in Ukraine, in the short term, nothing, because the Wagner guys have already been pushed off the front. They’re not fighting there anyway. So it seems that the Ministry of Defense in Russia has made a choice that the Wagner guys who participated in the coup will not be allowed to take contracts with the Defense Ministry. So, like, the 2,000 to 4,000 who actually marched on the Kremlin will probably not be allowed back into the Ministry of Defense unless that means that they can only join the newly-formed Russian mercenary units. That might mean that they can only join mercenary units and not the army proper.

CB: But is there anyone else who has ever had any success fighting there?

VD: Where? In Ukraine?

CB: Yeah.

VD: Yeah, well I mean look, not all the Russian battalions are bad. Some of them are really bad and some of them are really competent or moderately competent. The Naval Infantry is good. The Spetsnaz is fine. I think the 76th is fine. They have very competent units and then they have very green units full of mobilized men. The Kadyrovites fight fine, even though they’re more interested in taking selfies of themselves than fighting.

CB: How many Kadyrovites are there now?

VD: I mean, it’s below 20,000, I suppose. I mean, totally. I think there must be 5,000 to 7,000 now in Ukraine, from what I hear. They get taken in and out, and they often get into, like, screaming matches, fistfights, and shooting matches with Russian guys. So nobody actually wants to serve with them from the Russian army. And a lot of their job is actually to stand behind mobilized Russian conscripts and shoot them in the back if they run, so like, no one likes them—and in fact, I’ve been told over and over again by by Ukrainian officers, that are like, you know, committed to not shooting their enemies, that one of their issues is keeping their soldiers from executing Kadyrovites instead of taking them POW. So … you know, it’s an understandable problem, when someone behaves very badly.

CB: Is there any concern among the Kadyrovites that leaving home might not be a good idea because there’s no one to repress them back home?

VD: Well, I don’t talk to many Kadyrovites. The Chechens I talk to are typically on the Ukrainian side, so I have no special insight into what the Kadyrovites are thinking. It’s an interesting expansion, extension of the Chechen Civil War, but you have Chechens on both sides. And they like killing each other.

CB: Yeah, I’m sure.

VD: Often the Ukrainian Chechens ask to be on the spots on the front line where they’re killing Russian Chechens. They really like shooting at each other. It’s a great pleasure.

CB: Well, I mean, Chechnya is being held together by sheer terror, and if these are the best forces, and if they’re all out of town, doesn’t that present interesting opportunities for people who want to get rid of them?

VD: I mean, I don’t think that there is any kind of possibility at this point to get rid of him by using force. I don’t know who, internally, would be doing that. But I’m not sure that that is plausible at this point.

CB: My next question is—it’s a combination question, two questions. What is actually going on in the war? And why are we seeing these bizarre leaks from the US Defense Department? To what end are we seeing them? And what do they mean?

VD: Okay, more great questions. Okay, so obviously the counteroffensive was just not going as quickly as people want it to go, and the Ukrainians both overhyped it to themselves and to the Americans, because they needed support, and then the Americans and the media overhyped it, and then the Ukrainians felt pressure because they wanted to get gains and the gains weren’t happening quickly enough, and then the Americans started pushing them to get gains quicker, and they said, “No, we don’t want to mincemeat our soldiers, because unlike the Russians we don’t have reserves of men.” So there’s this really kind of unpleasant cycle of over-expectation, bartering for expectation, pushing for more results, resentment, followed by bad leaks from the Pentagon, followed by unpleasant resentments. You understand. You understand, I think.

CB: Yeah. I’m wondering, though, is there any truth to the planted stories that the Ukrainians are disregarding specific advice from the US and the UK and from NATO for a decisive maneuver operation, you know, sort of a Schwerpunkt initiative, in favor of smaller unit actions to attrit Russian forces—is this—do we know for sure that this was the advice they were given?

VD: This was the advice that was given. This has been widely reported and I believe it’s probably true. And also from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, and even from what I’ve heard from American trainers of these guys, volunteers, all— obviously there’s no on-the-ground American troops—was that the Ukrainians were just not good at combined arms maneuvers. They just couldn’t get that right. And so it was the case that at a certain point, the Ukrainians were being given the wrong kinds of strategic advice and actually—

CB: Especially because we were refusing to give them F-16s and ATACMs.

VD: Yeah, exactly. I mean, what NATO general would expect results with that kind of Iraq War I or even Iraq War II—

CB: I mean, how do you pierce their main defensive lines if you can’t hit the logistics and the supply depots?

VD: That’s right. It’s just too hard. And so the Ukrainians are like, “Let’s just go back to what we’re good at, which is using long-range attacks to attrit armor and to attrit the artillery and destroy logistics, to attrit logistical hubs, to make logistics harder, to make Russian repair and reconstruction more difficult, to get troops to collapse.” You know, these are these are very difficult choices that they have to make. These are really difficult choices—

CB: No kidding.

VD: And you know, in some ways these are roughly equal forces, in some ways, one side has morale, the other one doesn’t. One has Western intelligence, one doesn’t. One has more numbers, which is the Russians, one has the capacity to send their men to their certain death, without caring about them. One is able to replenish quicker than the other. I mean, obviously, Russia has three-and-a-half times the population. So in some ways, the Ukrainians have the upper hand, they’re fighting on their own territory; in other ways the Russians have upper hand. And so by some criteria the Ukrainians should be doing better, by other criteria, they’re fighting a really tough war—

CB: But it is not, as reported, a stalemate. The Ukrainians are making steady but slow progress.

VD: They are making steady and slow progress, and they may very well just break out somewhere in the South. And hit the Azov Sea by September, at which point they’ll be able to target Crimea with long-range artillery, right?

CB: You think that’s still plausible?

VD: It is plausible. It’s becoming less plausible, but I think it’s possible at this point that they’ll still reach the Azov Sea by the end of September. It’s not outside of the range of possibility.

CB: Did you—we republished a terrific article by one of our writers, Thomas Gregg, [also] one of our readers, comparing the situation to the one faced by the German and Allied armies in Normandy after the consolidation of the Allied bridgehead. Did you read that piece? Because I thought it was super-insightful.

VD: No, I did not. Well, tell me what he said in a few brief words and I can tell you.

CB: I can actually read the key paragraph. D-Day was 6 June 1944, and by early July that bridgehead extended from the vicinity of Caen in the east to the Atlantic Ocean south of the Cotentin Peninsula. From that point forward, the Allied objective was to break out of the bridgehead. The German objective was to prevent a breakout, or more realistically, to delay it as long as possible. The Overlord Plan had called for the early capture of the city of Caen in the high ground beyond the city, to ensure that the British Second Army sector of the bridgehead was sufficiently deep to accommodate follow-on forces in preparation for a breakout. The Germans, for their part, realized that an Allied breakout in the Caen sector would open the way to Paris and trigger the collapse of their whole line, so they fought hard to prevent that.

On D-Day and for weeks afterwards, the defenders managed to repel every British attempt to take the city. Even when Caen itself was finally captured, the Germans still clung to the high ground beyond. And you can see all these parallels here. Now this was under Montgomery, who was the primary author of Overlord, and the failure to take Caen compelled him to modify his plans. So, in his view, from then on, the British would continue to act offensively on the Allied left flank, threatening a breakout and attracting German reserves to that sector, in order to facilitate a breakout by the US First Army on the opposite flank.

The American attack was codenamed COBRA. It would go south, then east, and it would unhinge the German left flank, and if all went well, it would encircle and destroy the German defenders of Normandy, the Seventh Army facing the Americans and the Fifth Panzer Army facing the British.

VD: Yeah, that’s great. That’s absolutely great because it gives you a flavor of just the kinds of strategic choices that the Ukrainians have to make. Like, do you put half your army at Zaporizhia in order to keep the Russians from pushing into Zaporizhia while not putting enough troops on the south? Do you put all of your troops into one combined push and then you put them into a Russian kill zone? Or do you put more troops than you need to in Bakhmut in order to keep the Russians there?

CB: Exactly. It’s a really good analogy. It’s one that hadn’t occurred to me and I thought it was extremely, extremely shrewd of him to point it out. And he also points out at the time that Montgomery was taking incessant criticism He was infuriating the Americans because he was saying, “Everything’s going to plan,” and the Americans, who saw that the original scheme had failed, were beside themselves. And Churchill was just as irritated. He wanted to see [Montgomery] sacked.

But behind the scenes, as Gregg points out, the military situation was developing as Montgomery intended, and the threat in Caen forced the Germans to commit most of their Panzer divisions there, and the German strength against the Americans gradually dwindled away.

Now here’s the point of difference: The Allied air superiority was effective in isolating the battlefield by interdicting the movement of German reinforcements and supplies. So when COBRA was launched, on July 25th, the Americans soon scored a deep breakthrough, leading to the collapse of the German line. So the encirclement of the defending forces didn’t come off, but the German army in northern France was shattered. And the retreat of its remnants only came to a halt on the western border of the Reich.

Can this be done without the kind of air power brought to bear in that situation?

VD: I mean—whoops, so my computer fell on the ground. That’s okay. That happens. See, this is what happens.

CB: I didn’t even hear it.

VD: That’s good. Obviously, it’s a very similar situation, in that you have to make very, very, very complex judgments. And then also you have to lie to your allies as well as to your enemies. And the Americans and the British are micromanaging the war in a kind of uncomfortable way—but they are giving the rockets and the intelligence coordinates. So in a sense they do get a they get a veto on where the shooting takes place. I wish—I wish they would just be more patient. I wish there’d be less of these articles continuously attacking Ukraine—

CB: Alright, yeah. What the hell is that all about? That is the last thing the world—

VD: Yeah, it’s so bad. But also the casualties are so stunningly bad and so crippling to the Ukrainians that the morale in Kyiv is, kind of, a sense of understanding that every week the Ukrainian army is losing a thousand to a thousand five hundred KIA, and they can’t take those kinds of casualties for very long. So, you know, you don’t get to do this again. The Ukrainians do not have the manpower. And the West does not have the tech, the guns, the ammunition, the planes. Well, I mean, we do have the planes and the tanks, but we just don’t have the capacity to give them another shot at it.

CB: I mean, these leaks themselves are a disaster. They’re a disastrous example of the administration’s—well, I mean, there was an article about this in, I think it was The Bulwark; it was written by Eric Edelman and I can’t remember who his co-author was.1 Did you see it? He said—

VD: No, I didn’t. I wrote for them at the start of the war, I haven’t seen what they’ve been covering.

CB: He just published it, and it’s excellent. And they write, it’s a disastrous example of the administration—the Biden administration’s “seeming inability to understand the information environment in which the war is taking place and the requirements for sustaining public support for US engagement commitment over the long haul.”

And they’re absolutely right. They’re just handing ammunition to detractors in Congress, for allocating supplemental funding. And it’s an already parlous legislative environment, as they point out. Members from both parties are balking at approving additional support. And now they’re giving their opponents their talking points! Right? I mean, they’re saying, “Why throw good money after bad? The counter-offensive is failing.” And this is going to be endlessly repeated on Tucker Carlson and by Vivek Ramaswamy. And why are they allowing this to happen?

VD: Because they’re allowing this to happen because they want this to go away before the election. They’re allowing this to happen because they’d really like the Ukrainians either to win something big and for the Russians to sue for an armistice so this goes away before the election—

CB: If they want them to win, give them the fucking—I’m sorry, excuse me—if you want them to win, give them the weapons they need!

VD: I couldn’t agree with you more, Claire, but I’m explaining how they think. I don’t work for the administration, thankfully. I mean, they don’t want the Ukrainians to lose, but neither do they particularly want them to win.

CB: I don’t understand this. I mean, winning would be great for the election.

VD: I don’t think that in their hearts of hearts, they do think that the Ukrainians are capable of winning before the election. I just don’t think that ... You know, there’s a great comment from Professor

CB: Yeah, I admire him very much.

VD: He’s good, yeah. He writes, “After the last two weeks, I think Pentagon anonymous sources need a proper holiday. Not just a long weekend, but two weeks at the beach. No phone. Would be better for everybody.”

CB: These “anonymous sources” are causing real damage to American national security. Can’t they control them? Because—

VD: I think they are controlling. I think they’re doing it to shape operational and strategic expectations.

CB: But why? Why are they acting against American interests?

VD: I just think that their interest is to get re-elected. I don’t think that they think that the Ukrainians can win this.

CB: How does this get them re-elected? I mean, how does making it sound as if this is just another Afghanistan get them re-elected?

VD: It shouldn’t, but it doesn’t look great, honestly.

CB: What do you think is the narrative they’re trying to create?

VD: I think that they want to allow the public to think that they did this very well and then just have a kind of armistice somewhere around spring of 2024 before the elections really get going, so you could say, “Look, we’ve brought an honorable peace to this.” They can’t allow this to go on and on. And they know that at a certain point, Republicans will run with this and the public will get tired—

CB: An armistice? An armistice? You think they really just want an armistice that allows Russia to rearm and then take this up again as soon as they’re rested and ready?

VD: I think at a certain point, if you’re someone like Mr. Jake Sullivan or his people, you start to think, “Well, even if that is the case, we’ve destroyed 50 percent of Russian military capacity. And even if they take three, four years to rearm, by the time we’re back in office in ‘25, we’ll be able to deal with this better.” I think in their heart of hearts, they think like that.

CB: I cannot imagine thinking like that. I can’t imagine being so unpatriotic that you would think that this is going to be something that Americans will be in a position to face better then than they are now.

VD: For them this is a distraction from what they really want to focus on, China and going back to the JCPOA. The deal with the Iranians.

CB: Well, as for the latter, I have a lot to say about that. But if this is supposed to be a distraction from China—anyone with a brain can see that China is watching this.

VD: Of course.

CB: And if we fail to support an ally who is an actual country, a UN member, appropriately—with whom we signed the Budapest Memorandum—the Chinese are really going to believe that we’re going to sacrifice American blood for Taiwan? Come on.

VD: Yeah.

CB: I mean, it’s just … I can’t imagine that people who have been around as long as they have, and who have as much experience as they have, and seen as much of the world as they have, and who have—in Sullivan’s case—a background in national security, who’ve read quite deeply in the field, and are being advised by some pretty smart people, I suppose, could really think this. It’s inconceivable.

VD: Yeah. It’s inconceivable. My sense of talking to people in Kyiv at the MP level, and elite bureaucrats, and strategic people is that they don’t want to look ungrateful, and they’re still thinking that things could be okay, and that they got enough—but they really, really, really want those F-16s. And if this goes badly, the population isn’t going to turn on the army. I asked a couple of MPs, “If this goes badly, will the population turn on the Army?” And they said no, but they could become very, very, very aggrieved in ways that would not be great for American standing the world.

CB: Yeah.

VD: Can you imagine what the commentary in the international media would make Americans look like if Ukrainians were saying, “Well, look, we got screwed over, we got stabbed in the back, you didn’t give us what we needed to win, now we’ve had to make this armistice with the Russians”—

CB: They don’t even need to say it, it’s just obvious! They wouldn’t even need to say it, but I mean … do you think that Ukrainians... I don’t know whether anyone would talk about this openly, but of course my first thought is, if I’m Ukrainian: “I want the Bomb.”

VD: Yeah, there was a lot of talk about restarting the Ukrainian nuclear missile program after they didn’t get what they wanted at the Vilnius NATO conference, which was some sort of rhetorical elucidation of—

CB: A lot of talk among whom?

VD: Ukrainian Twittersphere—

CB: Yeah.

VD: —Ukrainian elites mouthing off on Facebook for about 48 hours. There was a lot of talk about, “We need our own nuclear arms, blah, blah, blah.” But it was it was obviously serious, in that these are elite people. These are people in the ministries. These are high-level civil society people. These are MPs—

CB: How could they be thinking otherwise? This is another thing where I just don’t understand what the US security establishment is thinking, because it’s so obvious that this is what’s going to happen if we don’t get our fingers out of our asses—and that is it for the NPT. Poland would be next, obviously.

VD: Sure, sure.

CB: And you have an arms race.

VD: Sure, sure. I get that from Poland. I have to tell you, this example, there will never be another country ever again that willingly gives up its nuclear weapons Never.

CB: Never. Never. We now have Libya and Ukraine as the examples of what happens if you do.

VD: And to some extent South Africa.

CB: South Africa actually is the counter-example, I would say. But South Africa wasn’t facing the same security environment.

VD: Yeah, not at all. Just to say, there are three or four examples of countries who had the technical capacity to break through but did not go all the way with their nuclear program.

CB: And under these circumstances we’re trying to negotiate with Iran?

VD: Right, it’s laughable. I spent a lot of time just explaining to Ukrainian MPs and foreign MPs over the last week and a half what the effect of the Obama JCPOA was on Iran and on Israel, and they nodded gravely, and I had to explain to them—even the very smart ones who just didn’t understand how the dots linked together—that the Syrians and the Ukrainians were just collateral damage to the JCPOA.

CB: Exactly.

VD: But once I explained it to them, no one argued against me. They were like, “Yeah, yeah, that sounds right.” I had that conversation with one former and two or three current MPs over the last week and a half. And it was interesting because they’re like, “Oh, okay, that sounds right. Oh, fuck.”

CB: Fuck. You know, the problem is, I just don’t see how the United States is capable, in its current condition, of pursuing an intelligible foreign policy that’s in the American and global interest, from administration to administration, given its level of not only total dysfunction and polarization, but the level of complete ignorance of the rest of the world. I mean, the rise of Vivek Ramaswamy is the most depressing thing I’ve seen since the rise of Donald Trump.

VD: Well, yeah. And in some ways he makes Donald Trump almost look noble. It’s insane.

CB: Well, at least Donald Trump is stupid enough that you can’t blame him for being stupid—he isn’t capable of understanding anything more sophisticated than what he says.

VD: And Donald Trump also has some, like, old-man, set-in-his-ways policies that he first stumbled his way into in the ‘80s. Like, you can almost kind of understand. With this Vivek guy, it’s like …. what the hell. You know?

CB: I’m not going to defend Donald Trump. But Vivek Ramaswamy is someone who is pure fraud. I mean, whatever we may say about Harvard, you don’t get to graduate cum laude from Harvard and be an idiot. And he also graduated from Yale.

VD: So you think he’s not an idiot?

CB: He’s not an idiot at all. He’s highly intelligent. And he is a complete charlatan who has seen what Trump was capable of achieving and decided he wants to do the same. And he will say whatever it takes.

VD: Well, I’m sorry that the Republican Party is in that space. But let’s talk more about Ukraine. I also just went to the Chernivtsi, the Odessa Film Festival in exile in Chernivtsi. I spent three days watching contemporary Ukrainian film and writing, and I’m putting out a piece on the state of Ukrainian film in the world now. That was interesting.

CB: What did you see?

VD: I saw, like, six documentaries. I saw three fiction films and a couple of—three or four fiction films. The Ukrainians are now screening the last of the major fiction films and non-fiction films, which were made right before the war started. So in fact I’m actually in two of them as a minor bit player. My friend has a film called Do You Love Me? Tonia Noyabrova, a Kyiv-based Ukrainian filmmaker, nice Jewish girl by the way, I’m in the film playing myself as Drunken Intellectual Number Two.

CB: Yeah, you mentioned that on the last [podcast], are any of these films—

VD: Good? Yes.

CB: —of the kind that could be shown in Europe and in the United States, and make it clear what the situation is?

VD: Well, so here’s the thing, the Ukrainians are stopping to make, if I can use that phraseology, are ceasing to make, fiction. But they’re making tons of documentaries, all of them noble, all of them well-intentioned, some of them good, some of them well-made, some of them not as great, some of them utterly brilliant, all of them very noble and well-intentioned. One that I saw was particularly melodramatic. And manipulative, actually. In the Q&A, some people accused it of being manipulative, rightly. So there are the reenactment melodrama versions of the war which are, you know, very cheap documentaries. But there are a lot of remarkable documentaries coming out of Ukraine, they will be all over the film festivals, and there will just be many many many more of them —

CB: Are they going to be widely screened in the US?

VD: I don’t know, I’m going to write about them in Tablet in my column—

CB: Are there deals with Netflix, for example?

VD: Some of them are like made-for-Ukrainian-TV quality? One was 42 minutes long and it was shown on evening Ukrainian television—all of Ukraine watches the same television because the six major TV stations joined forces for one marathon, and every Ukrainian watches the same news, which is good for stitching the population together.

CB: It’s actually, it’s really important. Because I was thinking about this. I was thinking Americans learned about the Second World War—those who didn’t fight it—from the movies. And that’s why Americans knew, have always known, that Hitler was the bad guy. And they’ve always understood the general contours of the conflict, what happened. And one of the reasons is because Jews did control Hollywood, and we did

VD: —Claire, we’re not going to be talking about the Jews controlling Hollywood.

CB: No, it’s just a fact. They were just severely, you know—they were, wildly overrepresented in Hollywood. And this ensured that a reasonably accurate portrayal of the Second World War was common to the average American. Now, of course, you don’t get all Americans sitting in front of the same film anymore It’s completely, the film environment is completely …. How would you describe it? It used to be that once upon a time, everyone went to see the same movie. Well, I guess they sort of did just now, with Oppenheimer and Barbie, but it used to be for all movies, there was this kind of simultaneous release, and then everyone was talking about the same movie.

VD: There was one culture as opposed to many.

CB: Yeah, exactly. So everyone would see The Bridge Over the River Kwai at the same time and everyone saw Schindler’s List at the same time. But this is the way to communicate with Americans in a way that they might understand the stakes a lot better than some article in Foreign Policy.

VD: Some of these documentaries are, like, not bad—Ukrainian-evening-news quality—and some of these are Oscar-level works of art. They’re really interesting. And there will be a lot more of them.

CB: Will they be accessible to Americans?

VD: I think some of them will be forgotten by time, and some of them will get lucky and will get good distribution deals. And I hope maybe my article will help with that a little bit. We’ll see.

CB: I feel such a sense of desperation at trying to counter the onslaught of Russian and fellow-traveler propaganda in the United States, which is so powerful. And you know, I don’t think Americans are bad people. I really don’t think these people in the heartland who have come to believe that Ukraine is a Nazi country that’s totally corrupt, and the Russians are the good guys, I don’t think they believe this because they’re evil people. I think they’ve just been systematically misled.

VD: Well, I mean, look, there are a lot of issues with the fact that Ukraine was just in all sorts of bad ways on the wrong side of the Trump political thing, in the last three years. Some Ukrainians behaved badly during the 2016 elections, some Ukrainians tried to intervene on behalf of—

CB: Yeah, but it’s also a massive information operation onslaught, just massive.

VD: Sure. Correct. But also, not to defend them, but I understand the National Conservatives are thinking, “Well, what’s in it for me? No one’s taking care of me. Why are we taking care of these Ukrainians?”

CB: I could sit down with any one of those national conservatives and explain what’s in it for them, and if they were—

VD: Sadly, I don’t have 50,000 Claire Berlinskis to send to every town in America.

CB: That’s the problem.

VD: If I did, the world would be a better place, but I don’t.

CB: This is what I’m preoccupied by. How can it be the case, especially because God knows why, but not one of our politicians is capable of explaining it. And I have no idea why it is that our politicians are incapable of sitting down with the American people—I mean, Biden hasn’t given one single damn speech—incapable of sitting down and explaining, “Look, here’s how the world works. Here’s what happened in the wake of the Second World War. And this is why we are prosperous and we are powerful. And it comes with certain responsibilities and obligations, and it is very much in our interest to keep up our side of the bargain, because if not, we’re going to be like any other American country, which is to say, like Mexico, or like Brazil, or like Peru. We’ll be that irrelevant and that poor. This is the world we made and we benefited from, and not only did we make it and benefit from it, so did everyone else—because you know, otherwise, the Code Pink narrative has completely infected the National Conservative side, where they’re completely willing to believe that to the extent this is true it’s because we’ve created a system of imperialism that benefits only us. And when you consider the amount of wealth and peace that the world has been blessed with since the Pax Americana, and consider going back to the world before that …. it is so horrifying. It’s so horrifying. It makes me utterly sick to think that so many Americans do not understand this. And I don’t know how to get it across to them.

VD: Yeah, I don’t either. I really don’t either. I’m hoping that, I’m hoping that this film that I worked on, that Sean Penn made, about Zelensky, which will be out on September 18—

CB: In America on September 18?

VD: The superpower film, the Sean Penn documentary about Zelensky, on which I was a producer, that is out in two weeks.

CB: In America.

VD: Yes, in America. It’s been bought by Universal, it is going to be out on Universal Plus or whatever it’s called. I forget the name of the streaming that Universal owns. I believe it’s called … it’s called … it’s called Paramount Plus. It will be streaming on September 18th. The film is done. It’s going to be great. We premiered it in Berlin. I’m in the film hanging out with Zelensky the night before with Sean Penn, right as he goes to see Zelensky. I’m with Sean Penn the night before the war having dinner with some journalists and some writers and we’re arguing—

CB: How did the audience react to it?

VD: I think the audience really enjoyed it, because it’s a really powerful film. I was at the premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. There are a couple of scenes where people laugh. He really got a great sense of civil society. He got really good people into the film and it was very compelling, this film. And I think people will think the same.

CB: Chris Christie has been doing a good job. I mean, he wasn’t great in the debate, but he has been doing a good job of going to—

VD: Fine, yeah. I’d vote for him.

CB: I’d vote for him. He’s been doing a good job with—well, I can’t really forgive him for his four years of kissing Trump’s ass, but—

VD: A lot of other people did, also.

CB: It doesn’t make it right. But he would certainly be a more powerful spokesman for the global order that Americans created than Biden seems to be capable of being.

VD: Yeah, Haley and Chris Christie are the reasonable, sane, competent foreign policy wing of the of the Republican Party—

CB: Yeah, and Pence, but you know, they hate them.

VD: Well, what can you do? I mean the party will right itself. This is a Thermidorian reaction to the neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party This is a backlash. They’re trying something else. The Republican Party—

CB: What happens to Ukraine? What are people in Ukraine saying about what happens if Trump is reelected?

VD: I’m gonna put this in my piece. I went to see a bunch of MPs and I talked to a lot of them, and I went to see one of Poroshenko’s top guys. Poroshenko only has 27 MPs in parliament now. His faction is not huge, but it’s still influential. He’s in the opposition and the fact that he was winnowed down from 125 MPs to 27, he kept his best top 20 percent of his party in the slots that he got.

CB: He’s behaved well, he’s behaved honorably.

VD: Yeah, he’s fine. Yeah, he’s done very well. And I think he would have done just as well as Zelensky, although probably he wouldn’t have been as successful at channeling the country and the world into helping—

CB: Zelensky has a world historical talent for—

VD: Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

CB: In some places, yeah.

VD: And Poroshenko has only kept 20 percent of his MPs, so he kept the best top 27. So his 27 MPs are, you know, they’re talented people, right? The less talented, the less intelligent, the less powerful thinkers and orators, they were not given party seats on the list because obviously, he got wiped out in 2019.

But I talked to a bunch of his MPs. And I went to see one of his top guys, who’s very bright, and I’ve had a relationship [with him] for many years. And I said, “Are you concerned about Trump? Is everyone concerned? And he said to me, “Everybody. Everybody. Everybody.” And then emphatically one last time, the fourth time he said, “Everybody is concerned about Trump.” He said it four times.

CB: Well, rightly so. Rightly so.

VD: He said “everybody” four times, like he was crossing himself, you know?

CB: And that’s true throughout Europe. It’s true throughout Europe. I mean, do you think that if the US basically drops off the map, that there’s any possibility of Europe being able to unite itself, get itself together, and continue to provide Ukraine with what it needs?

VD: Europe simply does not have what is necessary in terms of arms production. We’re not—we’ve, by “we,” I mean the Americans, kept the Europeans from having enough arms production and military industrial plant—

CB: But there is no plan in Europe to begin producing. That’s what appalls me.

VD: Right, yeah, but there’s no plant. Even if they were going to do it, it’s not possible. With the exception of the Brits and the French. The Brits have the capacity and they’re doing stuff and they’re doing a lot of stuff secretly and they’re recalibrating their factories to make the kinds of things that the Ukrainians need. But again, it’s just not enough.

CB: You can’t tell me that an advanced technological society like Europe is incapable, if the will were there, of embarking upon a massive rearmament program.

VD: Yeah, but it’s not going to be soon enough for the Ukrainians to win the war. That’ll take two years or three years minimum. They’re buying up what they need from the South Koreans because the South Koreans make a lot, a lot of shells.

CB: And the South Koreans sure understand what’s at stake.

VD: The South Koreans are being very helpful, but it’s not enough. The amount of shells that the Ukrainians need is just gargantuan. And if the Americans fall off, it’s not apparent that the Estonians or—you know, the Latvians, who are giving like 2 percent of their GDP to the Ukrainian army. Even if you get 50 percent of the Latvian GDP to the Ukrainian army, then what? It’s still not enough.

CB: If the EU was capable of coming together for the Covid fund, and capable of coming together, not particularly well, but capable of coming together to deal with the refugee crisis and the financial crisis, surely they should be capable of coming together for something that’s about a hundred times more important.

VD: You’d think so, wouldn’t you? You’d think so.

CB: I don’t understand why they aren’t.

VD: Well, they’ve done about as well as could be expected. Some countries are worse. The Italians and, well the Germans are okay now. The Hungarians are, of course, a problem.

CB: So the Germans are not really okay. Are you looking at the statistics on the AfD?

VD: Well, I mean, that is real. But I mean, they’ve started giving a lot of weapons and a lot of support. I mean, it’s not anywhere where it should be. And it took a year longer than necessary. But, you know, again, the closer you are to the Russian border, the more you’re willing to give up one or two percent of your GDP to the Ukrainian army. That’s obvious. But again, it’s about the Americans. It’s just not there. The capacity is not there. It’s an American fight, you know.

CB: But I don’t understand why. I don’t understand why there’s not absolute panic. Why there’s not a realistic understanding that Trump could win. Why they don’t see this as a life and death issue—which it is.

VD: It is, yes.

CB: Most people, when someone mugs them in a dark alley and puts a knife against their throats, have a fight-or-flight reaction. Where’s the fight-or-flight reaction? Where’s the adrenaline dump?

VD: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know, noble Claire, I just don’t know.

CB: Who would know? Who could explain this to us?

VD: I mean, you really have to go country by country to talk to different Europeans. I think that a lot of European bureaucracy is starting to understand in a way that they didn’t a year ago. Even Macron really, I think, based on my conversations with people who talked to him and his people, they really understand that the Russians need to lose now. I think Macron really changed.

CB: Yeah, Macron has, you know, he has come around with the vigor of a convert.

VD: Yeah, that’s really interesting. That was not the case three months into the war.

CB: No, it sure wasn’t.It sure wasn’t.

CB: He has just ... he’s had a come to Jesus moment. I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but he gets it now.

VD: He does get it, and I think if you’d been the one ...

CB Maybe from Africa?

VD: Yeah, and too little too late. I mean, the French really screwed that up. I mean, it’s a really big problem, for the French especially, because this is their backyard and it’s their nuclear energy—for the resources that they need was coming from Africa.

CB: Yeah, well, they’ve lost Françafrique. And that’s, I mean, that is a stunning loss. It’s a stunning loss and part of it is entirely their fault. But another part of it is Russia’s fault.

VD. Well, I mean, they were told. By French intelligence. “You should just rush the gendarmes, the special forces to surround the palace,” you know, and they didn’t do it.

CB: Were they? I thought the controversy was they weren’t told by the intelligence.

VD: There’s different views on that, but I think they made the wrong decision at the wrong moment. They could have stepped in. And, you know, there are American bases there. I mean, the Americans use that country to fight terrorism all over the region.

CB: I know.

VD: Also, very badly. Terrorist attacks are up like 30,000 percent since the American bases opened up.

CB: Yeah, I mean, causation isn’t correlation, but certainly whatever the West has been trying is not working. And this is a huge problem. It’s never, ever reported anywhere in the US. I mean, it’s ISIS redux all over a, again, a completely innocent population is being brutalized. Brutalized isn’t even strong enough. It’s being massacred, it’s being tortured, and no one cares. No one cares. And now we’ve lost a very significant military base. And I don’t think Biden’s calling attention to it because, you know, it’s not the sort of thing you want to advertise, but it’s a foreign policy setback on the order of losing Afghanistan.

VD: Yeah, it’s like the closing of the third American embassy in the course of a year and a half, you know? Like Kabul, then Kyiv, which obviously is thankfully working again, on a voluntary basis—nobody’s working there who doesn’t want to be there, and they’re working really hard, and they’re really, you know, overpowered—but they’re doing their best. And now they’ve lost in just a year and a half, what is it, three American embassies had to be shut down? That’s kind of a catastrophe in terms of running foreign policy.

CB: It is a catastrophe. And this is the moment, with Wagner’s fate up in the air, to be trying to recoup those losses.

VD: Yeah, I think it’s a bit too late. I think the Russians have made inroads. And also, just like—I think the Africans—well, there isn’t one African polity or group, but I think a lot of—

CB: Well, there is almost like a single African when it comes to France. They just hate France.

VD: Yeah, I guess that’s right. Yeah, you look at you look at Libya where the Russians are doing very well, you look at Mali, you look at Central African Republic, you look, major Russian inroads everywhere, the Egyptians are are back on board with the Russians … it’s just a catastrophe. We’re just losing. It really is like a domino effect—

CB: Yeah.

VD: —like the Vietnam-era domino effect, all over again. In some ways it’s like the Soviet Union minus communism, you know—

CB: And I just don’t think we are fully appreciating the effect of the information operations. I mean, the French certainly have screwed themselves. And also there’s, you know—the colonial past has an infinite power over people’s minds. But it doesn’t help that Macron has been just stupid in the way he’s approached them. I mean, Macron has a particular gift for alienating people and for not understanding the sensitivities of a situation. So, I mean, in part you can blame the French for their own fate, but the bulk of Russian information operations are being directed toward Africa, and they work. They work.

VD: They’re doing fine, yeah. They’re doing very well. I mean, this was a coordinated operation. Niger, I’m told, by people who know a lot about it, took six months.

CB: What else did you hear?

VD: That the French were caught flat-footed, that the French were being squeezed out. I mean, they got rid of the French ambassador, they got rid of the American ambassador very quickly. The African countries around who were willing to send in a force were told by Nigeria to stand down. It’s just—I know that the word “shitshow” was popularized and made bourgeois by one Barack Hussein Obama, but let’s call it a shitshow.

CB: Yeah. Well, the ECOWAS intervention idea was lunacy from the beginning. But the signs were there beforehand and people weren’t paying attention to them. They weren’t taking them seriously. And why they weren’t taking them seriously after everything that's happened, I do not know.

VD: I don’t know. Maybe Ukraine, Russia, distracted a lot of people. I just don't know. Maybe we really can’t chew—

CB: —can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?

VD: Yeah. Maybe we can only look at one part of the world at the same time.

CB: But we have—different parts of our bureaucracy are dedicated to this. We have Africa Desks in the intelligence agencies, in the Defense Department, in the State Department, we have—

VD: —sure, but then you have to get the army and the civilian command to make decisions based on that information. You could have perfect information on the Africa Desk and then no one does anything about it because the political elite just doesn’t have enough bandwidth to concentrate or isn’t smart enough to know what they should be doing somewhere.

CB: But I mean, we used to be able to do this. Nixon would not have allowed this to fly under the radar.

VD: Totally. And that’s right. I mean, and even in many ways, Reagan wouldn’t have.

CB: No, not at all.

VD: Even Clinton probably wouldn’t have dropped the ball on something like this either.

CB: Yeah, I don’t think he would have. And certainly Bush wouldn’t have. The first Bush wouldn’t have.

VD: First Bush was not the kind of man who would not have been able to concentrate on four or five different policy areas at once. Yeah. Let’s start wrapping up because it’s getting late here. Anything else you want to ask?

CB: Checking my list of questions so that I haven’t forgotten something important. I have on my list, “Can Ukraine do this without the materiel they need?” Do they have—is it theoretically possible for them to push Russia out with what they have?

VD: I think it’s very difficult. I think they could push them out of particular areas and make Crimea unlivable, and make the Russians, in certain instances, come to their senses and make a deal. But obviously they need some sort of pervasive victory. Otherwise, the Russians are just not going to take the lessons that they need to and decommunize and de-imperialize, or whatever … de-de … using all the “de-” words. Obviously, it will be a Black Swan event that brings this to an end. That cannot be predicted by anybody. I’m sure it’s not going to be a coup d’état or a revolt of Russian elites as people keep—

CB: Who did you speak to in Ukraine?

VD: Sorry?

CB: Who did you speak to in Ukraine?

VD: I talked to a lot of people. I talked to ... I tried to talk to ordinary people, also. I went and I saw some old male friends I hadn't seen in a while, just regular guys who I like. One of them was telling me what he was doing to avoid conscription. Just a nice coffee with an ordinary pal I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. He lost his job in logistics and he had to work shucking oysters and he was just telling me that he was just really concerned about conscription. He didn’t want to go to fight. There’s a lot of guys like that.

I talked to intellectuals. I talked to a well-known philosopher. I talked to policy people. I talked to some diplomats. I saw six to eight former and current MPs in a week. I saw a former finance minister. I saw a former minister for foreign affairs, I saw some government people, think tank people. You know, I make the rounds.

CB: Among the higher-level people, the people who might actually know what's going on and be in charge of making policy, what five adjectives would you say describe their state of mind?

VD: Oh, that’s such a great question. … One, befuddlement. Two, stoicism. Three, resignation. Four, leniency, with the army and American elites and even with me, the way I was talking to them.

CB: Leniency, you mean like indulgence?

VD: Yeah, just like understanding. Like, okay, you know—I asked a former national security advisor who had also been a finance minister—it’s actually entirely obvious to Ukraine hands who this is—I said to him, “So, are you resentful of the Americans?” And he had to think for a second, and he was like, “Actually, not really.” He said, “Ultimately, they could be doing more, but you know, they’re doing enough, and we’re doing our best.” He was actually wearing fatigues. He was in the middle of—you know, he was actually wearing fatigues and fighting. I ran into him in my hotel and we sat down, we had lunch, and whatever … he was taking calls, buying up drones, between talking to me and doing deals for drones. So he had left civilian life and political life in order to go into the army.

Among Zelensky’s opponents, there’s a lot of frustration. Politics is about to start up again. Politics was submerged for a long time and it was taboo. But the taboo on politics is about to come off.

CB: How so?

VD: There’s a lot of the beginnings of maneuvering. It’s been two, three months where Ukrainian internal politics has begun to rekindle. You can’t really go out and criticize the president or the foreign minister or Yermak or any of these people yet. But you can—

CB: What’s the gravamen of the complaint?

VD: Well, the Poroshenko people have sort of hysterical complaints about this being a dictatorship and blah blah blah. And they have a point that, you know, they’re not being really consulted with. But you do have martial law, and Zelensky does have a supermajority in parliament, so you don’t really need to consult with an opposition that has 27 seats, you know? Or 15 seats, in another party.

And that, you know, there’s internal ... I’m almost skeptical about relaying these things because it’s a lot of the usual bitching, but they will have rather overblown and overwrought versions of reasonable complaints.

CB: But are they complaining about the way the war has been prosecuted?

VD: No, no, no, they’re not. No, no one is.

CB: Right.

VD: No one is. No, no one is criticizing the army. No one is criticizing Zelensky’s decisions. It’s entirely about internal stuff, like corruption, or—and Zelensky is trying to fight corruption.

CB: He is coming out swinging against it.

VD: Well, yeah, Burns went in there, the CIA guy, telling him you have to go hard against corruption, because for a long time the West was looking the other way, because we didn’t want to delegitimize the Ukrainian state in the middle of a war. It’s a really difficult thing—are you going to criticize the Ukrainians about corruption in the middle of a war? Obviously, Zelensky’s not corrupt. And Ukraine being what it is, there is corruption and they’re doing what they can. They’re trying to make corruption treasonous in the middle of a war.

CB: Yeah, I just read that this morning.

VD: And it’s very controversial, because if you call it treason, that’s something that goes not to the anti-corruption court, but to the security services which are controlled by the executive branch, so that is a checks-and-balances issue. I mean, obviously, I think corruption is treasonous in the middle of a war, but if you give it to the internal intelligence services to decide what that means as opposed to the anti—

CB: Well, it’s definitely treasonous, because it’s treasonous inherently, because it’s detracting from the war effort, but it’s also being used as propaganda—

VD: Totally. Yeah, totally. It is treasonous. I mean, I agree. And Zelensky saw that a lot of young men on the front were resentful of other young men who were not on the front paying US$6,000 to get out.

CB: Imagine that, yeah, of course, of course.

VD: Of course they were. Like, you’re fighting and dying and giving up your health in the trenches and some kid from a wealthier family than yours gives up US$10,000 to an army recruiter—

CB: Yeah, that’s outrageous.

VD: And Zelensky fired, unilaterally, every head of recruitment—-

CB: Yeah, yeah. Head of the regional recruitment offices, yeah, I saw that.

VD: And that was very popular, but that was that was an internal move that wasn’t for external consumption. That was to make people internally understand that they were fighting corruption. It was a good move.

CB: It was a good move externally too, though.

VD: I don’t know, you tell me.

CB: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know whether anyone in the US pays the slightest bit of attention to the actual news from Ukraine or whether they just get it all from, you know, Gateway Pundit. All right, before we wrap up, what would you—what are the five things you would like our listeners to understand about the situation that you think they might not know?

VD: Five things. Oh, like five more adjectives. Okay, one, the Ukrainians will not blame themselves or blame their troops or their generals for things going wrong. Things could still go wrong. The Russians famously do very bad at the beginning of the wars and then they get their stuff together, and then they beat back the French or the Germans.

CB: Or the Finns. Exactly.

VD: They’re famously haphazardly organized and really bad at the beginning of a conflict and then they get it together. So you just have to keep with the Ukrainians for another year and a half.

Two, any conversation about a ceasefire outside of the Ukrainians’ timetable puts lives at risk, because it makes the generals have to rush battles when the civilian elites tell them, “Look, you really have to deliver something or else the Americans, or Trump, or whoever, are going to stop delivering weapons.”

CB: And it encourages Putin.

VD: Yeah, it encourages Putin. So all the stuff about a ceasefire and putting pressure on the Ukrainians to negotiate, that is almost sadistically terrible. It’s almost horrible.

CB: Yeah.

VD: Three, the Ukrainians are running out of men. They’re really running out of men who are willing to fight. Everyone who wanted to go fight is already out the front and many of them are already dead. Ukraine does not have reserves of manpower. It just does not. The Russians do. The Russians are capable of full mobilization, of war mobilization, of conscription, of sending more ethnic minorities to fight. They are willing to grind this out. The Ukrainians are going to run out of men, men and women, sooner rather than later. So that’s where we are. That’s number three. Number four …. You know, this really … well, I wanna say something cliche about changing the world historical order, blah blah blah … Let’s skip that.

CB: No, let’s not. This is a pivot point. It is the most important story in the world. And the next century, at least, will be determined by the outcome. And if Americans do the wrong thing, the consequences will be so dark, so unfathomably dark for so many millions of people, for so long, that—61 percent of the people listening are Americans, according to my stats, and I just want them to understand that this is so much more important than any other issue that’s being discussed in the US right now.

VD: Yeah, it really—I mean, I don’t know. I really am a one-issue voter at this point—

CB: Me too.

VD: —so maybe my perspective’s being, you know, I have skin in the game, I have family in the game—

CB: I don’t. But I feel the same way.

VD: I’m glad to hear that. Aren’t I your family, Claire, in a way?

CB: Yes, but that doesn’t mean that, you know, if you told me the most important issue in the world right now was—I don’t know—fusion power, I would say, “Yeah, that’s a nice hobby horse and maybe it’ll happen,” but I wouldn’t get as excited—well, fusion power would be a really big deal. And that’s a bad example.

VD: Let’s try alien invasion. The alien invasion really puts this Ukrainian-Russian thing to—

CB: Okay, no, no these are bad examples. Let’s choose a good example. If you told me the most important issue was transgender bathrooms, okay, I mean—I’d say “Yeah, with you with the transgender bathrooms, but it just doesn’t matter compared to this.”

VD: Correct. Transgender bathrooms matter somewhat to some people in some places and it’s—

CB: —we’ll get that sorted sooner or later, but the world does not depend on getting it right.

VD: I do want to figure that out, in some way, but it’s not, it will not determine the course of our civilization, liberty and all that, in the way … This war really is good against evil. I despise when people use that rhetoric, but—

CB: —But this is the clearest case of it we’ve seen since Hitler.

VD: Correct. In every other conflict, everyone has a point. The Russians have no point in this situation.

CB: I want to caution Americans that anyone who tells them otherwise is never to be listened to or trusted again.

VD: Yeah, Mr. Tucker Carlson has a lot to answer for.

CB: And Vivek Ramaswamy. And yeah, I mean, it’s a bright line.

VD: They’re opportunists, they’re grifters and opportunists. Last question, what do you think? Last point, last question?

CB: No, I want your view about what is the last point that you don’t think they know.

VD: Last point that they don’t think they know.

CB: That you don’t think they already know. The thing you want to communicate. that you think they might not know, about what’s going on.

VD: You know, the traumatic stress that is on a society, I think, will spread into Europe, and I think will demoralize Europe.

CB: You mean literally, in terms of the refugees? Or—

VD: Yeah, I mean there are eight, there are like six to eight million Ukrainians, or five million, or whatever, I mean that’s between 1-2 percent, that’s not nothing. They’re obviously grouped in some countries, not others; they’re obviously in Romania and Poland, and Germany. There’s a million, there’s a million Ukrainians in Germany, and half of them have been honest to pollsters that they’re not going back.

CB: Or in a larger sense that Europeans, even if they don’t consciously admit it to themselves, understand that if Ukraine falls, they’re next?

VD: Well, I think it could very well in a couple of years, if Ukraine falls, make NATO obsolete. And, I mean, the Russians will try some salami-style tactics on Latvia or Lithuania or Estonia or whatever.

CB: Oh, absolutely.

VD: But I just think that that kind of trauma, with six to eight million people, and if the Ukrainian state falls, there will be, obviously, millions more refugees into Europe. I think it will just do something to demoralize the European project.

CB: Well, you know that shudder of horror that you always feel when you read First World War poetry?

VD: Yes.

CB: When you read, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” those lines,2 and you think about it, and you think about the trenches, and you think about the gas masks, and how it gives you that shiver, that kind of sense of a hand coming from the grave around your neck. That’s happening for real, right now.

VD: It’s happening for real, it's happening to my friends, to my family, to everybody that I know. And again, if this war is fought successfully from the Russian side, this is just going to be a crippling add-on effect to a really bad ten years for the European Union. You have 2015, Syrian refugee crisis, then you have the Germans and the Greeks, then you have Brexit, then you have Trump and NATO. It’s like body blow after body blow after body blow every couple of years, right? And how many of these body blows can an institutional idea which is based on an optimistic, humane, idealistic view of the future—how many such body blows can it take? I think this will just maybe tip the European project over. You think I’m wrong?

CB: And I want to interject here. There is a large cohort of Americans who will say, “Well, so what? Why do we care about Europe? We pulled their chestnuts out of the fire twice in the last century. It’s time for them to go it alone. Why is this our business?” And I would answer—

VD: —Why is it our business, Claire?

CB: —Because it’s the West. Because this is us.

VD: This is us. Yes. Americans are descendants of the European project.

CB: This is our people. And the difference between America and Europe is—any belief that there’s a difference is the narcissism of small differences. This is the Western tradition. This is where we come from. This is where what we believe comes from.

VD: Like the Latin Empire protecting the Greeks because that was their patrimony and their historical—

CB: Exactly. And, you know, with our allies, we are mighty. With American allies, we do not need to worry about China and Russia. Together, we are so much more powerful. But if they break us up, they win, and the world belongs to despots, tyrants, and authoritarians. And the whole thing is ever so much more sinister, as Churchill said, by the lights of perverted science.

VD: Amen, Claire. Amen. And I think I cannot possibly say anything more honest or correct or germane or articulate. So I’m going to say thank you so much for having me on again. I hope I’ve said something of interest and I’ll see you Sunday, yeah?

CB: Yeah, yeah. I’ll see you Sunday and bring anyone you want.

VD: I’ll only bring nice people.

CB: Okay. Here’s a hug for you.

VD: Thank you to all our listeners for listening to us. Bye bye.

CB: Bye bye.

If you enjoyed listening to this Cosmopolicast, you might also enjoy these earlier conversations between Claire and Vladislav:


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It was Franklin C. Miller. My paraphrase of their comments was inexact in places, as was my paraphrase of Thomas Gregg.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

—Wilfred Owen
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