Russia — and Nuclear Arms Racing

moscow-cathedral

Russia occupies a soft spot in my heart.

It grew out of the boundless enthusiasm for everything Slavic exuded by my Russian-major college roommate – or may have been seeded earlier by the cloth-covered storybooks full of babushkas, snow-covered cottages and deep forests that I so loved as a child. It expanded through and beyond the one time I was lucky enough to visit the country. I love the vastness of its countryside, the majesty of its ancient cathedrals, the intriguing complexity of its history, the wonder of its literature, the no-nonsense hospitality of its people.

I especially love every single one of those non-English-speaking Russians who helped me find the Dostoesvsky Museum in St. Petersberg one day, as I wandered a very long boulevard, counting canals, clutching my map and repeatedly smiling at perfect strangers, pointing to the spot and saying “Dostoevsky Musee?” More than a dozen of them patiently took turns guiding me along. The last took me by the arm and walked me several blocks and down the steps to the obscure doorway through which I entered the last apartment inhabited by one of my literary heroes. (I would never have found it!)

Dostoevsky Museum.jpg

Many friends and strangers across the U.S. share this affection. Much travelled scientist/author Jo Anne Valentine Simson writes in her small, lovely new book Russia Revisited: Come Take a Tour with Me that it “is one of my favorite countries in the world – huge and beautiful, with a complex and tortured history and a culture to match.”

But we do not love Mr. Putin. From this vantage point, he is among a handful of dangerous tyrants determined to centralize power and increasingly restrict the freedom of ordinary citizens. Simson puts it this way: “Unfortunately, in 2016 the political power seems to be devolving once again into a form of aristocracy, with Vladimir Putin behaving like an autocrat.”

We also don’t like the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Or another dangerous arms race destined to increase the supply of nuclear weapons in the U.S., Russia and who knows where else. Which is why we find the “bring it on” tweets of our president-elect more than a little scary.

nuclear-bomb-explosion2.jpg
by Snoron.com

According to the good people of Ploughshares Fund, there are currently 15,375 nuclear weapons held by nine countries. The U.S. and Russia have 93 percent of them. That means each of us already has enough nukes to destroy the planet several times over. A small dispute between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, whom our president-elect admires but seems eager to challenge, could unleash a few and end life as we know it on this fragile planet.

A little less trash-tweeting and a little less talk about building nuclear stockpiles would be a nice Happy New Year gift for Russians and Americans alike.

Russia-Ukraine Conflict in One Fast Hour

Foreign Affairs 101:

Ukraine_Majority_Language_Map_2001
Ukraine Majority Language Map

If it’s possible to condense the incomprehensibly complex Russia/Ukraine conflict into one coherent hour, Matthew Rojansky can do it. Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on the region, proved that in a recent presentation at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. A listener who blinked could miss a paragraph, but Rojansky’s fast-paced illustrated lecture had most of his audience too engaged to blink. What follows is an abbreviated summary of the presentation.

Yanukovich estate
Yanukovych Estate

For openers, Rojansky explained that Ukraine, under now-deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych, was “a society absolutely primed for revolt. A few years ago,” Rojansky said, “I moved to Kiev with my family, (finding) Yanukovych one of the most corrupt politicians in history – and that’s saying something.” Illustrating his point, Rojansky showed slides taken during his time in Kiev including views of some of Yanukovych’s perks: a heli-pad; a palace with gold, jewel-encrusted design, 3-lane bowling alley, billiard room, private floating pirate-themed restaurant reported to have cost a few billion dollars – a rather definitive picture of excess. Rojansky also mentioned the stuffed lion guarding a corridor leading to the nail salon and spa, and a collection of exotic cars and animals. It was not just personal excess, he said, “there was government corruption on a grand scale.”

By the fall of 2013, Ukranian citizens were tiring of this. A peaceful protest known as the Euromaidan began in the square Rojansky and his family could see from their apartment window. “It was surreal.” Public sentiment favored closer connections to Europe, Rojansky said, but Yanukovych instead signed an agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Thus began the increasing protests fueled largely by social media, with help for the needs of Euromaidan solicited via constant Facebook postings.

Matthew Rojansky
Matthew Rojansky at the Commonwealth Club 3.6.15

Initially, Rojansky explained, the movement was not political. But also thanks to social media – Twitter users began receiving messages letting them know they were registered as protesters – things quickly changed. And on January 16, 2014, the dictatorship laws were passed: No protests, no groups, no gatherings. The movement against abstract corruption became ‘Yanukovych Must Go.’ Things came to a crisis when someone gave the order to fire and all-out shooting began. Despite the European Union intervening to broker a deal in late February, Yanukovych escaped – with boxcars of treasure – though leaving behind the exotic animals still being cared for on his former palatial estate outside Kiev.

Soon came the time of “the little green men” in Crimea, a significant chunk of Ukraine on the Black Sea. Rojanksy explained that there have always been Russians in Crimea; the little green men wore Russian military garb minus the insignia, carried Russian weaponry, but Putin at the time denied they were sent by Russia.

Donetsk airport
Donetsk Airport

By May of 2014, Rojansky said, regions of Ukraine that are heavily Russian-speaking began to hold referenda to break away – not to become independent, but to become part of Russia. Things accelerated significantly with the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane in July, 2014, and the ground war began. “This was not World War II,” Rojanksy explained, but guerilla warfare with terror tactics, firing on civilian buildings, the destruction of the once-beautiful Donetsk airport. “This is insane stuff.”

As to what Mr. Putin wants out of all this? Rojansky listed three main points;

1 – Domestic politics are life-or-death. If the idea that when regular people take to the streets life gets better catches on, Russians might say “What about us?”

2 – Putin has a major image issue. He’s the tsar. He is never wrong. There’s God, and then there’s the Tsar.

3 – Geopolitics are important. If Russia and Crimea get together, Putin’s bargaining power is greater.

Rojanksky characterizes Ukraine as being between a rock and a Russian hard place. The hard place is boosted by the fact that half the people in Ukraine speak Russian, and many more watch Russian TV with its decidedly nationalist fervor.

For now, Rojansky says the wise course is “Don’t show up giving out cookies. Get observers on the ground as fast as possible, and eyes on the ground on the borders. Watch to see if sanctions are working.

And in the very long term: “Ukraine matters. We have to help Ukraine defeat corruption. Things we can do include letting Ukrainians come here, and knowing about the region.” In the end:

“There are no easy answers.”

Disclaimer: This writer knows as little about Russia and Ukraine as a few long-ago college courses and one unforgettable trip from Moscow to St. Petersberg might suggest. But listening to Matthew Rojansky’s take on the current situation is enough to convince one to pay attention.

 

 

 

Russian orphan Artyom, & another orphan story

Artyom and Vasya came from the same part of the globe as adoptive Americans — but the similarities end right about there. This is a personal perspective on another, happier-ending orphan story.

Seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev found himself at the center of an international incident recently, after being put on a plane by himself, with a one-way ticket back to Moscow and a note from his adoptive mother, 33-year-old Torry Hansen. “I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself,” the letter said, “I no longer wish to parent this child. As he is a Russian national, I am returning him to your guardianship.”

She also said, “He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues”

Russian authorities were outraged, and suspended adoptions of Russian children. Some of the mom-for-a-year’s neighbors in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and many others who knew nothing more than what was reported in sound bites, were quick to condemn Torry Hansen and, in at least one instance, to say she deserved to go to jail. Investigations are ongoing.

Seventeen-year-old Vasya is the grandson of my friend Sally, who sent an e-mail today reminding everyone that there are not only two sides to every adoptive story, but some stories with hard-won happy endings. I’ve been following Vasya’s saga, via Sally’s e-mails, for over four years. There were two years (or perhaps a little more) of agonizing struggles with the red tape of the Ukranian government before Vasya finally arrived in the U.S. in 2007 at the age of 14, speaking no English and having an education at 5th grade level.

As reported today by his grandmother, Vasya is now fluent in English, finishing 9th grade in a private school, playing outstanding soccer, “an outgoing kid so proud of his newly-acquired driver’s license, a nice looking young man with a great personality. He is also an American citizen.”

All this, Vasya’s family emphasizes, “did not come about quickly, easily or smoothly.” They want others to know that adoptive families, as well as adopted children from abroad, can use a lot of support.

What about the future of adoptions of Russian children, currently on hold for U.S. citizens? The Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a membership-based advocacy organization, reported today,

The Department of State has received no information to confirm a suspension of adoptions from Russia to the United States.  Our Embassy in Moscow and other Department of State officials are talking with Russian officials to clarify this issue.

The Department of State is sending a high-level inter-agency team to Russia this weekend to meet with senior Russian officials, including officials from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Justice.  The U.S. delegation will emphasize the importance of this issue to the United States, and will discuss our mutual concerns about how to better protect the welfare and rights of children and all parties involved in intercountry adoptions.

Many thousands of Russian children have found loving, safe and permanent homes in the United States through intercountry adoption.   Families in the United States have adopted more than 50,000 children from Russia.

The good news is, despite governmental red tape and countless hurdles, there are far more Vasyas than Artyoms. Maybe Russia will remember that.

Guns as art and in the world

At my granddaughter’s art school, student work features what struck me as an awful lot of weapons: handguns, automatic rifles, daggers. “Well, Gran,” she replied to my comment on this high degree of angst, “we are teenagers.”

OK, I know it’s been two generations and at least 70 light years since I was a freshman art student myself, but I do miss the landscapes, still lifes and quiet figure studies. And I lament the angst.

I draw NO parallel, absolutely NO parallel between the excellent training and remarkable students at today’s art schools and the angst-level of terrorism. It is still both unsettling and heart-wrenching to pick up today’s New York Times and be greeted by a front page photo of a pretty,  baby-faced, all-innocence young girl pointing a gun upwards behind her head while in the casual embrace of her boyfriend, who is holding a larger handgun.

The boyfriend, as it happens, is a handsome young Russian who was killed by government forces a few months ago. The young woman, hardly more than a child, blew herself up in a Moscow subway on Monday, killing a lot of other innocent human beings. What is striking, among all the other ironies and tragedies of this picture, is the wealth of warmth and promise that seems to shine out of those two faces… if you cover up the guns. But those faces, and the bodies to which they were attached, are now dead.

I am holding onto my Brady Campaign membership.

Clinton defends human rights approach

Human rights supporters and advocates, a not insignificant chunk of the population that elected Barack Obama, have had some discomfort over the delays in getting Guantanamo closed and over the cozy relationships maintained with other governments who aren’t doing a stellar job in this area. That ‘other governments’ is meant to be an inclusive phrase, since the U.S., for its own part in protecting human rights, still lets uncounted millions die without proper health care.

The particular choice of words by Secretary of State Clinton, reported by Brian Knowlton in the New York Times, is a new cause for discomfort.

Rejecting bipartisan criticism, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday detailed an administration human-rights approach that she called ‘pragmatic and agile,’ meant to emphasize not just democracy but also development and to raise sensitive issues with countries like Russia and China behind closed doors.

Pragmatism is good, and probably a universal necessity. But ‘agility’? Somehow, the image of our government staying agile in its human-rights approach doesn’t inspire confidence. Rather, it conjures up images of crouching tigers and hidden dragons and all those other now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t fantasies put into play in the movie everyone seemed to think extraordinary but some of us found bizarre.

‘Sometimes we will have the most impact by publicly denouncing a government action, like the coup in Honduras or the violence in Guinea,’ she said in a speech at Georgetown University.

‘Other times we will be more likely to help the oppressed by engaging in tough negotiations behind closed doors, like pressing China and Russia as part of our broader agenda,’ she said. ‘In every instance, our aim will be to make a difference, not to prove a point.’

Her speech defended an administration approach that has been criticized by some rights advocates and by certain lawmakers as too gentle or undemanding.

The administration has pointed to what it said were the early results of its less-confrontational approach: signs of new Chinese cooperation on climate change and on pressing Iran over its nuclear program.

Further signs, especially for those of us who remain believers, will be eagerly welcomed.

via Clinton defends approach on human rights.