I took a vacation in late August and early September 2001. One stop was Tallinn in Estonia. During the Cold War, Estonia was the most informed of the Soviet republics because of its location, just 90 miles away from the West in the manifestation of Finland. Radio and television broadcasts could be received, so the lies of the Soviets were apparent.
I took a tour to orient myself. The tour guide, a woman, told us that the very first bananas she had ever seen were during the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the ones that Jimmy Carter foolishly prevented U.S. athletes from attending. The bananas disappeared immediately after the Olympics ended and were only present in an attempt to show the world that the Soviet Union was equal to the West.
Tallinn's old town was filled with restaurants of every description filled with scrumptious food. A number of beers were available, but a local one, Saku Original, was the most appetizing.
Riga in Latvia and Vilnius in Lithuania were similar. Vilnius had restaurants filled with food as tasty as found in restaurants in the Lithuanian suburbs of Chicago. I readily found tasty local beer in both capitals. In Riga I signed up for a tour to see Rundāle Palace, a Baroque and Rococo masterpiece designed by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli who designed some of the Russian tzars' palaces.
Next up was Moscow. I remember my Russian textbook had a photo of people lined up for blocks waiting to see the preserved corpse of Lenin. I found my way to Red Square via the metro and noticed that there was no line at all to see the Lenin mausoleum. A woman approached me and asked me if I wanted to see Lenin. She was clearly an experienced tour guide and spoke very good English. The rules stated that no cameras could be brought in to the building, but she was crafty enough to place my camera inside her bag which the security guard did not check. Lenin looked exactly like the photos found in books, with one hand clenched and the other straightened.
At the end of a long day touring the city, I stopped in a store with a matrix of televisions showing a daylight New York view with smoke rising from the base of one of the buildings, or so it appeared. The camera was probably situated in New Jersey, as we could see a large part of Manhattan. I was unfamiliar with the New York skyline and did not realize any buildings were missing. I could have pointed out the Sears Tower or John Hancock Center in Chicago, but the World Trade Center was not known to me. I stayed there for ten minutes, but the scene never changed. I assumed it was another truck bomb in the basement of a building similar to what happened in February 1993. The sound coming from the televisions was in Russian and too fast for me to understand. I did not realize then that many of the younger people would have spoken English and I hesitated to ask one of them what had happened. So I left.
I walked down Old Arbat Street as that was the way to my hotel. A busker with a British accent mentioned something along the lines of, "It's okay, it wasn't our country that was attacked." So much for that special relationship.
In my hotel room in a Russian hotel, i.e. one where non-Russians generally do not stay, there was only Russian television. One station kept showing the same scene over and over, a 40-ish story building collapsing in a heap. I assumed that a truck bomb had caused it to collapse, but since the footage was taken at night it had probably been evacuated. Interspersed with the images of the collapse was an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. I tried my best, but I could only glean phrases here and there. It seemed to me that Putin was sympathetic with the tragedy that had occurred to the U.S., but perhaps I was leaning too heavily upon my inadequate knowledge of Russian. The other stations were useless for news.
The next morning I left my room to eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant. On my door was an obviously custom printed note along the lines of, "The hotel management would like to take this opportunity to express its deepest condolences." I had a really bad feeling about what I had seen the previous night.
I asked at the front desk for the location of an Internet cafe. I walked there and paid the fee. The young woman working there asked me a question in Russian and I replied in my pathetic Russian. She switched to English and when I replied in English, she realized I was an American and blurted out something along the lines of, "I'm so sorry for what happened to your country."
I sat down and started reading CNN and other news web sites. I was possibly the very last American to learn of the four airliner attack by Islamists and subsequent collapse of WTC 1 and 2.
I bought some flowers and found my way to the U.S. embassy, which in those days was not a fortress. I was not the first one to bring flowers as there were too many to count. One man appeared to be reflecting upon the tragic events.
I had read what happened in St. Petersburg shortly after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Americans were not terribly welcome then because Serbs and Russians are very close. A few ugly Americans had food thrown at them in McDonald's and other places. In contrast, on this trip not a single Russian was anything less than nice to me after they realized I was an American. There was a genuine outpouring of support for a country which had been attacked by savages.
I was scheduled to leave Moscow on Saturday via Swissair, which was really lucky for me because all flights out of Russia via U.S. carriers had been canceled, a perfect example of the U.S. government missing the forest for the trees. I flew out of Zurich on Sunday, which was only the second day flights were allowed within the U.S. The security line that morning was the longest I have ever seen, but there were a few attractive Swiss women working the lines so it was not all bad.
On the flight to Atlanta, my seat mate was a Delta pilot. He predicted that there would never be another hijacking in the U.S. again. If he was flying, he would simply get on the intercom and announce that he was going to land the plane at the nearest airport -- and the passengers should just beat the hijacker senseless any way they could. His prediction came true when the shoe and underwear bombers tried to blow up their planes.
When we flew over New York, I looked down below as the smoke rose from the remains of the WTC, along with my seat mate and other people . It became very quiet for about ten minutes.
When we arrived in Atlanta, immediately after passport control there was a line of Delta Airlines employees with signs reading "Welcome home!" It wasn't until I overheard some conversations that I learned that most people in the airport had been forced to stay in Canada for the past few days. They were weary and just wanted to get home. My flight from Atlanta to Denver was almost empty, with the flight attendants telling us to sit anywhere we liked.
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Bush famously looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and "saw his soul'' just three months before 9/11. After 9/11, Bush announced his Texan policy -- "You are either with us or against us" -- and turned his back on the world.
When I first heard George W. Bush's declaration that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea constituted the "Axis of Evil" in January 2002, I had a feeling that something was wrong. Iraq and Iran had fought a war in the 1980s, with the U.S. supporting Iraq because of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80. Iraq and Iran were still deadly enemies so how could they constitute any kind of axis?
Bush and Dick Cheney tried very hard to derail the 9/11 Commission's investigations. At first Bush named Henry Kissinger to lead the commission, with him being world-class at keeping secrets, but luckily his nomination fell through. Bush refused to fund the commission for a time, tried to influence the commission's findings, and denied access to many White House officials. And worst of all, Cheney and others played the patriotism card to paint those who wanted to investigate 9/11 as traitors.
The wicked witch of the right, Ann Coulter, said regarding women who lost husbands on 9/11, "I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much." She said this because, in her role as a Republican groupie, she was defending Bush And Cheney's incompetence. New York Republican Governor George Pataki said regarding Coulter's odious cheap-shot, "I was really stunned and I don't think it's at all fair or accurate."
In February 2003, Colin Powell made his infamous speech at the U.N. I was watching live because I was taking a sick day. As soon as he mentioned that the now-famous aluminum tubes were anodized, I knew the Bush administration was lying to the world. The analyst on CNN explained this, revealing that anodizing is actually not suitable for centrifuges. And since removing it is non-trivial, these tubes were definitely not going to be used for centrifuges.
Damn the facts, full speed ahead!
The school massacre in Beslan in early September 2004 may have been the turning point for relations between the U.S. and Russia. Beslan was the perfect opportunity for Bush to declare that the U.S. and Russia were fighting a common enemy, Islamists who kill for pleasure. However, he didn't travel to Beslan to show solidarity with Russia in its 9/11 moment.
Both the U.S. and Russia suffered further Islamist murders after 9/11 besides Beslan, including but not limited to:
- Moscow theater siege in October 2002,
- Red Square bombing in December 2003,
- Russian aircraft bombings in August 2004,
- Fort Hood shootings in November 2009, with Nidal Malik Hasan's mass-murder of soldiers being classified by the Obama administration as an act of workplace violence due to political correctness,
- Nevsky Express train bombing in November 2009,
- Moscow Metro bombing in March 2010,
- Domodedovo Airport bombing in January 2011,
- Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, after the Russian FSB warned the FBI in early 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was an Islamist, with the Tsarnaev family having visited the U.S. on a 90-day tourist visa in April 2002 and immediately applying for asylum,
- Volgograd bus bombing in October 2013, and
- a large number of bombings in Stavropol, Vladikavkaz, and other cities in Southern Russia and the Northern Caucasus.
Beslan was not a shining example of Russian military prowess. There was evidence that the bloodbath was triggered by a Russian incendiary grenade and that Russian security forces fired inappropriate weapons into the school where 334 children, parents, and teachers died. Russian tactics are brutal and often grossly incompetent, e.g. almost all of the hostages who died during the Moscow theater siege did so because they were gassed, laid on their backs, and drowned in their own vomit.
We will never know if Putin would have stolen two regions of Georgia and invaded Ukraine if Bush had partnered with Putin to kill Islamists. It's probably naive to think so, but perhaps Putin's KGB instincts and pining for his lost Soviet Union could have been tempered, or at least delayed, even though he told Bush at the 2008 NATO summit, "You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us." He was referring to the fact that Ukraine's borders were moved to the west after WWII in an attempt to quell Stalin's paranoia. Poland is another country which had its borders moved to the west, with Polish-Russian relations often being strained. Putin may have felt that Bush would be sympathetic to misadventures in Ukraine after Bush's ones in Iraq. Putin may have seen a kindred spirit in Bush as Kathleen Turner's character saw in William Hurt's character in Body Heat, especially given that Russia today has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world, with just 110 Russian citizens now controlling 35% of total household wealth.
Bush threw away a great deal of sympathy from Russia and the world when he invaded Iraq to satisfy his personal agenda and that of the "swivel eyed neo-cons and ultra-nationalists" who yearned to settle old scores. Funny how we invaded Iraq, the fourth-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran, which was suspected to have WMD, yet we did not invade North Korea when we learned it had developed nuclear weapons a few years after the Iraq invasion.
* * * * *
As Jack Matlock wrote in his book Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union:
When the independence referendum and vote for president were held in Ukraine on December 1, 1991, it was no surprise that a majority voted for independence and for Leonid Kravchuk. The proportions and distributions of the vote, however, astonished observers. Eighty-four percent of eligible voters went to the polls, and more than 90 percent of those voted for independence. Even in the oblasts in east Ukraine and in the [sic] Crimea and Odessa, which had large Russian populations, comfortable majorities voted for independence.
Matlock continued five pages later referring to the agreement between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus on December 8 to create a Commonwealth of Independent States, the Belavezha Accords, as crafted by Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich:
A commitment to "recognize and respect one another's territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders within the Commonwealth" was also important, because as recently as August and September, some Russian spokesmen had talked of the need to revise borders to bring areas with a large Russian-speaking population into Russia. The eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan were most vulnerable in this respect, and this provision was the price the Russian leadership paid the other republics for their adherence to the Commonwealth. Though it would remain controversial in Russia for years to come, it was potentially of historic significance, since it represented a renunciation of territory that Russia had claimed for centuries.
The Supreme Soviets (parliaments) of the three countries quickly ratified the agreement. On December 21, the three original countries, along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, signed the Alma-Ata Protocol which added them to the CIS. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his post on December 25, effectively ending the Soviet Union.
The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, was signed three years almost to the day after the creation of the CIS. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine promised to remove all Soviet-era nuclear weapons from their territory and sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. These three countries kept their promise. Russia and the Western signatory countries promised to forever respect Ukraine's territorial integrity. Russia did not keep its promise.
In early 2013, it was announced that the original Belavezha Accords document is missing.
* * * * *
Russia has been very busy attempting to intimidate its neighbors this year, with Barack Obama's "leading from behind" philosophy presenting not even a speed bump.
In April, Russian naval vessels, while in Lithuania's special economic zone in the Baltic Sea, ordered civilian ships to clear the way for a Russian missile test.
In August, Finnish airspace was violated three times in six days.
In September, Russia kidnapped an Estonian official on Estonian soil, jamming Estonian radio communications and using smoke grenades in the process. Russia refuses to allow Estonian officials to see him.
Also in September, Russia announced that Russia intends to prosecute Lithuanians who refused to serve in the Soviet military during the time period between Lithuania's declaration of independence in March 1990 and the breakup of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare independence.
Also in September, a Lithuanian fishing boat, the Juros Vilkas, was seized along with its crew of 30 in international waters. The ship and crew await a court ruling in the Russian port of Murmansk.
Also in September, Russian military aircraft violated both U.S. and Canadian Air Defense Identification Zones near Alaska. Sweden announced a similar incursion, with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt saying that the incident was "a major violation." He added that it was the worst he had seen since he became foreign minister in 2006.
Not to mention never having taken responsibility for killing 298 people on MH17 while taking Crimea.
The current peace treaty has been broken many times by Russian separatists. The latest incident is the attack on the airport of Donetsk. This was not a case of a few men firing automatic rifles at an outpost. Separatists are using drones and Grad rockets to hammer Ukrainian positions. The Donetsk airport and the one in Luhansk are essential for the transport of weapons, supplies, and soldiers directly into the cauldron. Russia understands this and is willing to break the ceasefire to do so.
The attacks during the cease-fire remind us of the attacks on Lithuanian border posts in 1991 by Soviet OMON troops, with the worst incident being a slaughter of seven Lithuanian border guards. Another incident was the brutal takeover of the Vilnius radio and television center in January 1991, where OMON tank troops mowed down bystanders, crushing them with tank treads, killing 13 and injuring 140. These incidents occurred during the death rattles of the Soviet Union when Russian nationalists attempted to maintain their empire by any means available.
The Polish foreign minister is not the only one to suspect that Putin's end game is to establish a land bridge to Crimea, in other words, he wants to usurp southeast Ukrainian territory so that Russian military vehicles and tourists can drive unimpeded from Russian territory to Crimea. Putin knows only too well that Kaliningrad, the territory it seized from Germany, formerly called Königsberg, at the end of WWII, has no land access from Russia proper. During the Cold War, this presented no problem, as travel via Lithuania-Latvia or Lithuania-Belarus was within the Soviet Union. But now that Lithuania and Latvia are EU and NATO countries, access to Kaliningrad is only via the Baltic Sea or air. The same is true of Crimea which is currently only accessible via ferries from Russia or air.
An extension of the land bridge could also connect Russia to Transdniester, a sliver of Moldova which broke away in 1992 and is being administered by Russia. Before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which divided Eastern Europe between the Nazis and the Soviets, Moldova was called Bessarabia and was territory Stalin demanded.
And just to introduce an element of Slavic farce into the proceedings, Russia's Constitutional Court head Valery Zorkin announced that that the abolition of serfdom exacerbated "social tensions" between the tzar and the peasantry by eliminating the "main shock absorber" between them: the nobility. "This became one of the basic reasons for the growth of 'rebellions' and then organized revolutionary processes in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries," wrote Zorkin.
Some things never change. Today the nobility in Russia is well-represented by the oligarchs. Literary critic Vissarion Belinsky wrote to Nikolai Gogol in 1847 that Russia is "a country where there are not only no guarantees for individuality, honor, and property, but even no police order, and where there is nothing but vast corporations of official thieves and robbers of various descriptions." That could describe the U.S. today with its convergence of corporate and government interests as manifested in Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United.
The majority of cyber-thefts for money are committed by Russians, though China is the world leader at stealing intellectual property. Whether the Russian government directly plays a part in this is unknown, but it is clear that Russian nationalists are involved. The Russian government always refuses to extradite its cyber-thieves, but ethnic Russians are usually extradited from Eastern European countries, e.g. Estonia. Credit card data stolen from Home Depot is being sold on Russian underground forums in categories labeled "American Sanctions" and "European Sanctions."
Putin has boasted that Russian forces could take Warsaw or Baltic state capitals within days. NATO has publicly dismissed such talk as bravado, but it is well within the realm of possibilities. One strategy would be to warn Putin that all submarines at sea will be immediately sunk if NATO countries are invaded, with U.S. submarines being the ones to implement such a policy.
The surge in Iraq failed not because of a shortcoming on the part of the U.S. military, but because the responsibility was then handed over to Iraqi soldiers who ran away like little girls when Islamic State attacked. Not to mention the fact that Islamists are relentless, cruel, brutal, and eager to rape, torture, slaughter, enslave, and behead non-Muslims. As usual, Obama was slow to react when Yazidi girls were treated as spoils of war, with many of them being kept as sex slaves or given away as gifts to Islamic State commanders.
A surge in Ukraine would be very different. It would consist of a pincer movement to reclaim the Ukrainian border to prevent any more soldiers, small arms, ammunition, Grads, tanks, and Buks from entering the country. Retaking any airports in the region would prevent Russia from bypassing the border. When Russia was no longer able to resupply the separatists, they would slowly run out of food, supplies, and weapons, forcing them to surrender. The Ukrainian military could afford to wait patiently until that happened.
Ukraine has asked both the U.S. and NATO for weapons. This request should be honored immediately. This is not another Islamic country where today's rebels will emerge as tomorrow's terrorists. This is a country on the doorstep of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania which are all NATO countries. The issue of whether Ukraine joins the EU can wait, especially given its high level of corruption, but a peaceful and stable Ukraine would benefit Europe in many ways.