The Unlikely Hero and the Charlatan
The Ukraine War, Chris Christie, and Vivek Ramaswamy. Part I.
1. Russia’s Return of the Repressed
In psychoanalytic theory, repetition compulsions represent an unconscious longing to repeat, symbolically or literally, a traumatic event or its circumstances. Some have suggested these occur because repressed instincts always seek an outlet; others have proposed that in recreating the original trauma, those in the grip of the compulsion seek belatedly to master it.
In 1937, Stalin’s government murdered an average of a thousand of its own citizens every single day. In the words of one contemporary report,
gangs drove the dekulakized naked in the streets, beat them, organized drinking bouts in their houses, shot over their heads, forced them to dig their own graves, undressed women and searched them, stole valuables, money, etc.1
Russia’s “intentional policy of national forgetting” the horror of Stalin’s era, writes Izabella Tabarovsky, “could be viewed as a society-wide social experiment not unlike those undertaken in Soviet times.”
“When we Russians talk among ourselves,” Tabarovsky writes,
we tend to agree that the suspicion and fear that pervade Russian society—including, notoriously, Russian diasporas across the globe—are connected to the unexamined issues of the past: the fact that the millions of betrayals of colleagues, neighbors, and family members have gone unacknowledged and uncondemned; the realization that descendants of victims and perpetrators often continue to live side by side; the felt sense that we have internalized the fear of the previous generations and that it can’t but guide some of the choices we make in our lives.
Re-Stalinization, Dina Khapaeva has argued, is a mass movement whose origins lie in the unresolved memory of Soviet atrocities. To read the news from Russia is to see this at work: Russians now appear determined to act out, scene by scene, as if sleepwalking, the rituals we most associate with Stalin’s cruelty. Orwell understood the only purpose of these rituals. As O’Brien explains to Winston Smith, in 1984,
Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?
Example number one. Not satisfied with imprisoning, poisoning, and murdering their political opponents, the Kremlin has accelerated the persecution of their families.
Chechen human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbaev fled the Russian Federation in 2021. He now lives in exile in Georgia. Unable to punish him, Chechen authorities arrested his mother. He offered to give himself up in exchange for her release. They replied by arresting his uncle and cousins and sending them to the frontline in Ukraine.
Example number two. The young women you see in the video below worked at a waterpark in Crimea. They were denounced to the authorities for dancing to a Ukrainian song.
As the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported on Telegram,
Employees of the Center for Combating Extremism of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the Republic of Crimea, with the assistance of employees of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs for the city of Alushta and the regional department of the FSB, identified and detained three girls suspected of committing illegal acts aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
Among the offending lyrics of the song: “Ukraine has not yet died.”
A local court found them guilty of “discrediting the Russian armed forces.” They were not imprisoned, merely fined 15,000 rubles—probably a bit less than a month’s wages. The Stalinist touch is the confession, below. They apologize to “every citizen of the Russian Federation.” And they sing.
Vladimir Putin is a great guy. A politician, a leader and a fighter. The president has lifted up the country. Putin has not betrayed Russia.
Example number three. Russian authorities have unveiled a new history textbook for high school students, written by a Kremlin aide. The Moscow Times reports that Russian History, 1945—Early 21st Century contains a “completely revised interpretation of the fall of the Soviet Union, the Putin era and the causes of the Ukraine war.”
It portrays the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy and a humiliation orchestrated by the eternally perfidious West. It credits Putin for Russia’s “rebirth.” The war in Ukraine, it says, is essential to save Russia from the West, which is fixated upon Russia’s destabilization. Ukraine, according to the text, is not a country. It is something the West invented Ukraine to spite Russia and use it like a “battering ram.”
And why would we do that? “The aim was not even hidden: to dismember Russia and to get control over its resources.”
Example number four. This article by Ben Cohen treats the danger to Russia’s Jews. To my knowledge, this hasn’t received any attention in any other publication:
As Russia retreats further into the ultranationalist politics that have underpinned its invasion of Ukraine, the country’s centuries-long tradition of antisemitic agitation has been reactivated, according to a Russian Jewish historian, who is openly wondering whether those Jews who remain there may once again face deadly persecution. … “It’s not yet on the scale of [Stalin’s repression during] the 1930s, but they have emptied the prisons and the penal colonies [to enable convicted criminals to fight for the Russian army or one of its paramilitaries], so now there is plenty of room in those places. I really don’t see what’s stopping them.”
… Distorted notions concerning Jewish “chosenness” alongside tired accusations of Jewish “dual loyalty,” the supposedly Jewish predilection for avoiding military service, and the Stalinist caricature of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” with dangerously liberal tendencies have all surfaced around the issue of emigration. All this has been boosted by a political climate which emphasizes that Russia is locked in a zero-sum game with its western adversaries, a situation reminiscent of the vilification of Soviet Jewish “refuseniks” during the Cold War.2
2. The War
Slowly, agonizingly, Ukraine is clawing back its land. Ukraine has retaken a key village in Donetsk, forcing Russian troops to abandon their positions and retreat. Urozhaine is a strategically significant village in the southeast, and Ukraine has been trying to recapture it for days.
The recapture of Urozhaine puts Ukraine in a good position to take Staromlynivka, just in front of the first Surovikin trench line. It is a key logistics hub for the Russian Air Force, If Staromlynivka falls, the lines to the east and west of it may follow suit. With Staromlynivka, Ukraine would be within HIMARS range of the main supply road between Mariupol and Berdyansk.
Ukrainian forces, I’m reading on social media—unconfirmed, obviously, but it sounds very plausible—turned the main route out of Urozhaine, to the south, into a catastrophic choke point. The cluster munitions apparently did what they were meant to do. Kyiv claims panic is setting in among the Russian forces and the rate of desertions is increasing.
This is from a Russian military blogger on Telegram:
Two days ago, Ukrainian troops launched a surprise raid across the Dnipro, breaking through Russia’s defenses. They say they’ve recaptured the heights over Bakhmut and encircled Russia’s troops, denying them the ability to move freely. They also launched the first daylight missile attack on Kerch Bridge yesterday. The bridge was shut down today for reasons Russian authorities did not care to explain.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, Ukraine has made “tactically significant” advances in western Zaporizhia Oblast. Geolocated footage shows that Ukrainians have reached the outskirts of Robotyne, where for weeks Ukrainian forces have been conducting ground attacks to degrade Russian defenses. Given the effort, time, and resources Russia has dedicated to defending Robotyne, ISW describes Ukraine’s success as “significant.” (Robotyne is en route to Melitopol, which is also a transport hub of huge strategic value.)
Ukraine seems to be forcing the Russians to redeploy from the west of Zaporizhia Oblast, which to the ISW suggests that “the Ukrainian effort there may be significantly degrading Russian defenses.”
The 7th VDV Division [7th Guards Airborne] is now split across at least two and possibly three axes of the front. … These likely lateral redeployments suggest that Ukrainian counteroffensive operations have significantly degraded existing defending Russian forces in the area … The lack of Russian operational reserves means that the Russian command will have to conduct more lateral redeployments if they wish to reinforce certain sectors of the front in the future.
Russia’s practice of conducting lateral redeployments to key sectors of the front will likely further weaken Russian defensive lines in aggregate, as both Russian and Ukrainian operations are fixing Russian units to certain sectors of the front. [Their emphasis.] … Russia currently does not appear to possess significant available forces that it could draw on for reinforcements without endangering other sectors of the front. Ukrainian counteroffensive operations drew elite Russian formations and units to the Bakhmut area and continue to fix them there.
Ukrainian forces on the other hand maintain reserves that allow them to rotate units instead of relying on redeploying units conducting defensive and offensive operations to other sectors of the line without rest. ... The further degradation of defending Russian forces thus creates opportunities for any Ukrainian breakthrough to be potentially decisive. [Their emphasis.]3
British intelligence bulletins similarly stress these redeployments and the opportunities they might afford:
3. Bottled Up
Most interesting of all, Ukraine has gained the upper hand at sea—despite having no navy. Through its ingenious use of drones,4 Ukraine has sunk Russia’s Black Sea flagship and hit its intelligence ships. Last week, it attacked a Russian landing craft and a Russian oil tanker.
This proves that any Russian ship in the Black Sea is under threat. So are the bridges Russia needs to resupply its troops. So the world’s second-largest navy has been forced to withdraw its kilo-class submarines from Sevastopol and bring the better part of its Black Sea Fleet home, to (relative) safety.
The message Ukraine means to send is that if Russia wants to keep trading from Black Sea ports, they’ll have to let Ukraine get its grain out of Odessa. This negotiating tactic, I suspect, will be more effective than waiting for the international community to hammer out another grain deal.
All of this has enormous potential repercussions, as our man Peter Zeihan explains below.5 He reckons someone must be helping Ukraine with their targeting, and his money’s on Turkey. (Could be! I wouldn’t rule it out.)
But the much more important point is that if Russia loses the ability to get its navy out of the Black Sea, it loses its ability to project power globally—along with its ability to export grain and oil, because all of Russia’s other ports, along with its rail system, are at capacity.
But that’s not all. If Russian crude gets locked in, Zeihan remarks, the wells are apt to freeze in the winter. (Zeihan really knows his oil, so I trust him on this.) This could put them offline for years. The beneficiary of this disruption would be the US. The loser would be China:
… You want to talk about reordering the international strategic environment? If you take the majority of this three million barrels of disruption and lay it on China while the Europeans just kind of, you know, hold their nose and take American crude, that really reorders a lot of things in the international economic system, especially since the Chinese are already experiencing what can be best described as something between an economic slowdown and a sharp break, because they’re no longer capable of generating their own demand at all. At the same time, they’re entering into an ever more bitter trade war with the rest of the world.
So we’re looking at the Russians losing their strategic position in the water at the same time they lose their strategic position in terms of economic penetration. They lose the ability to project power through the wider world. And we get a reordering of international energy, which really hurts the Chinese and the Russians.
This is getting really interesting, really fast .
Indeed. These attacks, according to the British Ministry of Defense, have crippled Russian operations in Syria by cutting Russian forces off from essential supplies.
Meanwhile, the Russian media is reporting that the Kremlin is considering the closure of Moscow’s airports out of fear of Ukrainian drone attacks.
And the Russian Central Bank is rushing to issue a new digital currency. “The digital ruble is a new and convenient way of control by the Russian authorities,” writes Ukrainian government advisor Anton Gerashchenko:
It will make them able to restrict financial transactions, encourage the purchase of certain goods and forbid others with a single button. Such a rapid introduction of the digital ruble might suggest that the Central Bank is preparing for a shortage of cash.
In short: I won’t make any predictions for fear of jinxing things, but these are encouraging signs. (Imagine how much better it might go if we gave Ukraine all the weapons it needs.)
4. The Right Direction
It’s admirable that despite the overwhelming pressure of the war—which would be a very good excuse if Ukrainians wanted one—Zelensky’s government has been cracking down on corruption like a sack of hammers. Of course this is partly because Ukrainians know all too well that Western publics have been informed that Ukrainians are not only Nazis, but “incredibly corrupt.” They’re eager to counter this impression.
But their main motivation is this: They’re fed up with corruption. This is exactly why Ukraine wanted to join the EU and thus the impetus to the Maidan Revolution. They (correctly) saw Russia as wildly corrupt and corrupting, whereas the EU, in their view, was developed and clean.
In the television show that made him famous, Zelensky played a high-school teacher who, in an obscenity-laden rant, condemned the corruption of Ukrainian officials. In the show, a student’s video of the speech goes viral, and next thing you know, our hero is elected president. Ukrainians elected Zelensky because they found the character he played so convincing—that is to say, he was elected, explicitly, on the promise that he would end the corruption.
Two days ago, Zelensky sacked the heads of Ukraine’s regional military recruitment centers for taking bribes from men who wanted to avoid being sent to the frontlines. In June, the security services launched an investigation into a former deputy minister of defense and a former head of the department of state procurement who, they suspect, bought low-quality winter clothing and pocketed the difference. (They both deny it.)
In his nightly video address, Zelensky reminded viewers that such corruption not only hindered Ukraine’s efforts to be admitted to the EU and NATO, but simply enraged ordinary Ukrainians. “Let me warn all members of parliament, officials and everyone working as a civil servant,” he said,
When you spend days on end looking for weapons for the country, when everyone’s attention is fixed on whether there is artillery, missiles and drones, you feel the moral strength our soldiers have given Ukraine. No one will forgive [corrupt] members of parliament, judges, military officials, or any other officials ... Ukraine has no more time for that.
This too is going in the right direction.
Yet the human toll of this war is unbearable. The Ukraine prosecutor general’s office, which keeps count of Russia’s war crimes, counted another 81 crimes this week, bringing the tally to 102,849.
Last week, missile attacks on Zaporizhzhia killed two young women, musicians who organized street performances. “Yesterday they were singing and playing together for people, and today none of them are there.” A child was killed two days ago. Volodia, age eight, died after Russian troops fired missiles at the the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. Yesterday, Russia shelled two villages in Kherson, killing a 23-day-old baby, a twelve-year-old boy, and their parents, along with three other adults.
Global Rights Compliance is a well-respected non-profit that investigates war crimes in Ukraine as part of the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group, an initiative funded by the UK, EU, and US. Since the liberation of a large part of the Kherson Oblast in October 2022, they’ve been working with Ukraine’s prosecutor to investigate and document the detention and torture of Ukrainians during the occupation.
They just put out a press release to draw attention to new evidence of systematic torture and rape in Kherson. The detainees, they write, included current and former members of the military. They also included doctors, teachers, community leaders, ordinary people. Nearly half were tortured or subjected to horrific crimes, including suffocation, severe beatings, genital electrocution, threats of genital mutilation, threats of rape, and rape itself. The Russians forced detainees to watch while they raped the other detainees.
More than 35 torture chambers have been identified in the liberated parts of Kherson. The NGO believes the pattern shows a premeditated plan to use rape, systematically, in a “cynical and calculated plan to humiliate and terrorize millions of Ukrainian citizens in order to subjugate them to the diktat of the Kremlin.” Taken together, the evidence suggests genocide—a deliberate effort to extinguish Ukrainian identity.
The senior legal adviser to the project remarked,
The true scale of Russia’s war crimes remains unknown, but what we can say for certain is that the psychological consequences of these cruel crimes on Ukrainian people will be engrained in their minds for years to come. What we are witnessing in Kherson is just the tip of the iceberg in Putin’s barbaric plan to obliterate an entire population. Justice will be served for Ukrainian survivors as we continue our mission to identify and hold perpetrators accountable. Impunity is not an option.
Similar crimes—and worse—were documented by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine established by the UN, whose report was published in March. I’m going to reproduce a few pages of that report; keep this in mind when I discuss what the GOP candidates have been saying about Ukraine:
To remind you: These were normal people living their normal lives in a normal European country. They did nothing to provoke it. To the contrary: At its independence, Ukraine was the third largest nuclear power in the world, with about a third of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems, along with detailed knowledge of their design and production. Ukrainians demonstrated their desire to leave in peace with their neighbors, to be good international citizens, by surrendering it all and signing the NPT.
To continue with the Commission’s report:
The crimes Russians are committing are of a depravity Europe has not seen since the Nazis. In one case, two Russian soldiers gang-raped a four-year-old girl and her mother at gunpoint in front of the four-year-old’s father. “The father was beaten with a metal pot then forced to kneel while his wife was gang raped. One of the soldiers told the four-year-old girl he ‘will make her a woman’ before she was abused.”
This—and the kidnapping of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children, whose parents are as desperate as any parent would be under these circumstances—is why no one in Ukraine is willing to cede an inch to Russia, no matter how terrible the cost of the war. To leave Ukrainians behind Russian lines is to abandon them to the whims of blood-soaked cannibals .
Earlier today, Mykhailo Podolyak. adviser to the Head of the Office of President of Ukraine, posted this on Twitter:6
How can any sane person argue with this?
6. Chris Christie
This brings us to Chris Christie. I won’t ever forget that Christie was one of Trump’s first and biggest boosters and sycophants. Even after watching every minute of his four-year disgrace of a presidency—and even after Trump nearly killed him by knowingly giving him Covid—he still endorsed Trump in 2020.
He says that everything changed for him after January 6. I don’t believe him. January 6 was hardly a surprise to anyone who’d been paying the slightest bit of attention to Trump’s character; in fact, I predicted it well before Trump was elected in 2016, never mind 2020.
Nonetheless, something has changed for Christie. Suddenly, he’s willing to say the obvious about Trump—that he is completely unfit for any job, no less the presidency. Now, if Christie did not realize this all along, he lacks the judgment of character required to be president. But I don’t believe. He knew. So why did he do it? Was his desire to remain relevant that powerful?
Conventional wisdom holds that he’s now on a kamikaze mission. He knows he can’t win, but he’s hoping he can do enough damage to Trump to atone for his role in bringing him to power and deny him the nomination.
So perhaps Christie has had a true attack of conscience, or perhaps he genuinely thinks he has a shot and will say or do anything to take it. All I know is that to my surprise, Christie is now behaving the way someone who is serious about being the President of the United States would behave, and he’s pretty much the only one who is, including the current president.
I say this because he did the very first thing anyone serious about leading the country would want do: He visited to Ukraine. Astonishingly, only two candidates so far have done this, Christie and Mike Pence. Ron DeSantis went on a fancy foreign tour, presumably in an effort to look presidential, but didn’t set foot in Ukraine.
The most significant responsibility of the president is his role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The president holds the primary responsibility for the conduct of the United States in foreign relations. The war in Europe is the most dangerous crisis the United States has faced since the Second World War. From his first day, the next US president will be making decisions that will shape the world for the rest of the century and perhaps well beyond.
The US President is in control of our nuclear arsenal. He has the power to launch on command. Ahead of him will lie the most complex and difficult foreign policy decisions any American president has ever faced, and the fate of all eight billion human beings on this planet—and their descendants—will be determined by the quality of those decisions.
So yes, at a minimum, every presidential aspirant should be going to Ukraine to see what’s happening there with his or her own eyes. Americans should consider a failure to do that disqualifying. No issue is more important. We should choose the next president with this and only this question in mind: Does he have the character, wisdom, experience, maturity, knowledge, and judgment to get the world through this?
I don’t know if Christie will have any luck in persuading Republicans that no, Donald Trump didn’t win the 2020 election, and no, he shouldn’t be his party’s 2024 nomination. But it can only be a good thing that Christie has taken it on himself to make the case for Ukraine to the part of the American public that’s drowning in Tucker Carlson’s and Elon Musk’s lies.
Christie is right to assail Biden as indecisive, hesitant, and vacillating about arming Ukraine. He’s also right to say that Biden appears incapable of explaining the situation in Ukraine to Americans and telling them why this is of critical importance them. If Christie is volunteering to fill the void, I can only be grateful, because someone must. And Lo, he’s doing a good job of making the moral and strategic case for supporting Ukraine—and he’s doing it everywhere he goes.
This is what a US president should be doing. And if by some miracle the polls, the pundits, and the conventional wisdom prove completely wrong and Christie, somehow, manages to win the primary, I believe he’d win the presidency. If only I were capable of deleting my memories of him sucking up to Donald Trump, I’d sleep just fine at night knowing he was in office.
Having listened to him speak this past week, he sounds as if he was genuinely shaken by what he saw in Ukraine. But even if he’s completely cynical and merely pretending to be because he thinks this is the path to the presidency, I don’t care: If it results in his saying and doing the right thing, that’s good enough.
I’ve watched every clip I could find of Christie discussing Ukraine on YouTube. To my surprise, he hasn’t said anything to which I object. He hasn’t lied. He hasn’t revealed himself to be abject ignorant or a moral cretin. He’s said the things I would expect an American president to say about the most dangerous crisis we’ve seen in a century—everything Joe Biden ought to be saying.
It’s been so long since I’ve heard a politician sound normal that it comes as a shock. Listen for yourself: Complete sentences, a functional moral compass, a sense of America’s strategic interests, and an appreciation of the unique role the United States’ plays in the world? Odd, no? Like being in a time machine?
So: Good job, Chunky C! I wish you’d done this five years ago. I don’t know why you didn’t, and I’ll never fully trust you because of it. But if you want to make it right, this is the way to do it—and I sincerely wish you the best. Keep it up, and I may even vote for you.
7. The Charlatan
And then we have Vivek Ramaswamy.
… to be continued, tomorrow.
Stalin, of course, called the kulaks “the enemy of the people.” Charitably, we can assume Donald Trump does not know this. But there is no charitable way to explain why he finds the phrase so pleasing and compelling. These are words that should never, ever be used to describe other citizens of your country. In a civilized society with better mechanisms for transmitting history, someone who said things like this would be immediately shunned as a weirdo and a creep.
According to Netanyahu’s new coalition partners, most of these Jews should not be given refuge in Israel. Israel’s law of return is based on the principle that anyone Jewish enough to have been sent to Auschwitz—anyone with a Jewish grandparent—may consider the state of Israel their home. The religious and haredi parties want to replace this definition with one based on halachic law.
A quick note on the ISW: I’ve been citing them since the start of the war, which has given me ample time to cross-check their assessments and predictions against other reporting and subsequent developments. I’ve concluded they’re very, very good. I’ve found no errors of fact or judgement significant enough for me to say that their assessments should be taken cum grano salis. So when they say this, I think we can take it very seriously.
He also explains why it’s so hard to defend against attacks like these. All of this had best be prompting intense study at the Pentagon, because obviously this has massive ramifications for any naval power.