Category Archives: Signs of the Times

Finland, Sweden, NATO, Mud, Macron & Putin?

Ukraine might yet repel the Putin invasion. Or it may be ground under by Russian forces, then snuffed out as a nation and culture.

Either way, the Ukraine war appears to be redrawing the strategic map of northern Europe, with implications reverberating far beyond Scandinavia.

A double strategic earthquake is underway, without a shot having been fired  (yet), in long-neutral Sweden and Russian-tilted Finland. This Nordic pair now appear poised to dump generations of policy and join NATO.

The Guardian’s  Patrick Wintour examines this sudden, seismic switch, and weighs its potential impact.

Meantime, we hear also from Gwynne Dyer. An independent Canadian reporter/analyst, Dyer is now based in London. He has a doctorate in military & strategic history, and has served in several military forces, and I have long admired his work.

Here he considers the pause in the war due to the spring thaw (aka Mud Season),  and another possible European earthquake, if French president Macron is defeated by a nakedly pro-Putin challenger in next weekend’s electoral runoff.


The Guardian: Putin thought Ukraine war was a missile to Nato. It may be a boomerang

Analysis: To turn stolidly non-aligned Finland and Sweden into members would join pantheon of great strategic blunders
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor — Friday, 15 April 2022

It is conceivable that by the end of the year Nato’s land mass, GDP and territorial borders with Russia may expand by nearly as much as they would have if Ukraine had achieved its distant goal of eventual membership of the western defence alliance – if not more.

The brutal manner in which Vladimir Putin has tried to foreclose Ukraine’s security options has led to a sudden change in thinking in Finland and Sweden that has been all the more powerful since it seems to have come from below, as opposed to from the political elites.

It is not yet a done deal. Opinion so volatile, and previously so settled in its opposition to Nato membership, could swing back towards the comforts of semi-neutrality. Russian nuclear threats, already starting, may intimidate voters into having second thoughts.

The process may be fraught. Many brands of Nato membership exist, and have yet to be fully explored by the Finns and the Swedes.

But by Nato’s Madrid summit in June, Nato will be on course to expand its population by 16 million, its GDP by €800bn and its land mass by 780,000 sq km. Ukraine, by contrast, has a population of 41 million, a land mass of 603,000 sq km and a GDP of €155bn. A new 1,300km border with Nato could be formed, the precise opposite of what Putin set out to achieve in the treaties designed to shrink Nato that he ordered the west to accept last year. What is worse for Moscow, Nato could have strengthened itself in the Baltic Sea, right next to Kaliningrad enclave, the strategic Russian naval base.

By invading Ukraine, Putin thought he had hurled a missile at the west. It has emerged to be a precision-guided boomerang. To have turned two stolidly non-aligned countries into Nato members would join the pantheon of great strategic blunders of wartime.

It is all the more extraordinary since the turnaround has been so rapid. Finland, with its brand of semi-neutrality for the past 70 years and emphasis on consensus-building, tends to shift foreign policy with glacial speed. Finland’s tolerance of Putin was so embedded that some on the left claimed it strayed close to collaboration as the Finnish political elite shunned the Russian opposition.

In the government’s annual survey in December, Finnish support for Nato membership stood at 24%.

Four months later, Finnish politics has somersaulted. Support for Nato membership stood at 68%. Surveys now show more than half of the 200 parliamentarians back Nato membership. In the 2015 Finnish parliamentary elections, 91% of SDP candidates were opposed to Nato membership. The Finnish SDP prime minister, Sanna Marin, said everything had changed. Russia is “not the neighbour we thought it was”, she said.

Alexander Stubb, a former Finnish prime minister, said Finland’s membership is based on rational fear, created on the day of the Russian invasion. He predicts the Finnish application will be with Nato HQ by the end of May. “The train has left the station.”

In a speech earlier this month to the council of the largely agrarian Centre party, Annika Saarikko explained that sometimes history moved fast, measured in weeks rather than years: “In the foreseeable future we cannot rely on a mutually agreed to international order or a functioning relationship with Russia for our security.” She added that Nato membership came with obligations. “Finland would not just be buying some fire insurance. It would be joining the central fire brigade.”

Such has been the Finnish turnaround, it has adopted the unusual role of exemplar to the larger Sweden. That requires the two countries respecting the relationship, sensitivities, and different political cultures. The ideal from Nato’s perspective is that the two countries join simultaneously, and polls show support for this. But Finnish diplomats say they cannot be seen to be interfering in sovereign Swedish decisions. Marin stressed at her joint press conference in Stockholm with the Swedish prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, that coordination with Sweden “is sought but is not a prerequisite”, adding: “Finland does not dictate schedules or conclusions to Sweden nor does Sweden dictate to Finland.”

Left: Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson; and Finland PM Sanna Marin, talking about NATO.

It is vital for the ruling Social Democrats, now launching an internal policy review, to be seen to be in charge of its own destiny. After all, last November the party had clearly affirmed its position that it opposed a foreign policy of alliances. Yet four centre-right parties now support Nato membership and two parties to the left are opposed to membership, claiming joining Nato implies coming to the defence of the authoritarians running Turkey and Hungary. With parliamentary elections looming in September, the SDP will want the review completed without the party descending into left-right splits.

One of the difficulties is that given Russia’s behaviour, no plan B such as greater Swedish-Finnish defence cooperation, or the Nato partnership for peace, looks as concrete as full membership. Most Nato countries see Sweden and Finland as huge military and intelligence assets. “It would complete a missing piece of the puzzle of Nato strategic planning”, said Mika Aaltola, the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

But Finland would have to apply for Nato membership not knowing the precise future relationship. In its security document published this week, Finland insisted: “Membership would not oblige Finland to accept nuclear weapons, permanent bases or troops in its territory.

For example, in the early stages of their membership, founding members Norway and Denmark imposed unilateral restrictions on their membership and have not permitted permanent troops, bases or nuclear weapons of the alliance in their territory during peacetime. Nato’s enlargement policy, which took shape in the latter half of the 1990s, has been based on the principle that it will not place nuclear weapons, permanent troops or permanent bases in the territory of any new member country.

But if Finland, or indeed Sweden, did set a mass of limiting preconditions concerning nuclear weapons, permanent bases or forces, the application process might be extended.

A lengthy accession process in turn carries risks since Russia, using the full spectrum of war’s grey zone, will seek to harass, and even paralyse. On the day the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, spoke to the Finnish parliament, Russia was accused of cyber-attacks and invasions of its airspace. Finland has already canvassed Nato members for security guarantees in the four months to a year that it was in the Nato ante-chamber awaiting full acceptance.

So there is an incentive to speed the application without delegitimising the domestic consultation.

For those who fear Nato escalating the conflict inside Ukraine, a sudden extension of article 5 obligations in the north remains alarming, and may make Putin even more convinced he was right to confront a Nato policy of encirclement.

But for all its talk of red lines and the stationing of nuclear weapons, can Russia really open a second front to the north when the primary front to its south-west is proving so costly in lost lives, reputation and treasure?

Gwynne Dyer, First on Russia’s second Ukraine offensive: Will Putin wait for the “mud season” to pass or take a dangerous gamble — April 15, 2022

Ukraine wants more tanks, self-propelled artillery and combat aircraft from NATO countries for its war with the Russian invaders, but it won’t be getting them in the tranche of military aid that is being decided in Washington right now. There is a good reason for that.

Kyiv will be getting bigger and better drones, lightly armoured vehicles like Humvees, and maybe some anti-ship missiles, but Joe Biden’s administration is still playing Mother May I?/Grandmother’s Footsteps with Moscow. He moves one cautious step up on the list of weapons he gives Ukraine, watches for the Russian response, then takes another step.

It doesn’t matter at the moment, because this is the “rasputitsa,” the season of rain and mud in eastern Ukraine when off-road travel for heavy vehicles varies from difficult to impossible. The Ukrainian forces won’t be attempting any grand offensives and the Russians are very likely to get bogged down.

The mud season will probably last for another six weeks. Strict military logic would argue for postponing the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine until then, but Putin probably can’t wait that long. The defeats and losses he suffered in his first attacks in northern Ukraine will gradually but inevitably leak out to the Russian public, so he needs a quick victory.

He might get lucky, but there is unlikely to be a decisive Russian victory for two reasons. First, the Russians in the east will be attacking the best-trained, most experienced part of the Ukrainian army, well dug into defences that have grown every year since 2014. It can probably stand its ground and inflict heavy casualties on the Russians.

That would not save the main Ukrainian army if other Russian forces can make a “pincer movement” behind it and cut it off, which is precisely what they will now try to do.

The Russian troops now besieging Mariupol on the south coast will advance to the north as soon as it finally falls. Other Russian troops are already attacking south from around Kharkiv.

If they succeed, Ukraine will have to seek a ceasefire, ceding all the lost territory to Russia, and Putin will have his victory. But first, the Russians will have to advance about 150 kilometres on a single, two-lane road that passes through villages ideal for ambushes. And it’s the rasputitsa, so you can’t go around the villages.

This is precisely the task that the Russian army spectacularly bungled in its attempt to seize Kyiv last month. What are the odds that it will do better this time?

Assume that it’s late June, the ground is drying out, and the Russian troops are exhausted, overextended and demoralized. In Kyiv, they will be thinking about taking back their lost territory — at least the territory they have lost since February, but some will also be thinking about recapturing the territories that Russia conquered in 2014.

That’s when the extra tanks and self-propelled artillery that the United States is not giving Ukraine now would come in very useful. But it would also be the moment of utmost humiliation for Vladimir Putin, and it is always wiser to leave your defeated enemy an avenue of retreat.

Perhaps this entire article is an exercise in counting one’s chickens before they hatch, but you may be sure that they are also being counted in Washington and in NATO right now. Nobody will admit out loud that Ukraine is being kept on a leash, but of course it is.

Six weeks ago it had not occurred to anybody that doing that would be necessary, because they all expected Ukraine to lose. You can sympathize with its desire to take revenge if it wins, but for the sake of peace in the future it cannot be allowed to do that.

Gwynne Dyer

 

GWYNNE DYER on the French Election —  April 14 2022:
French President Emmanuel Macron won the first round of the presidential election last Sunday, but he’s still in trouble. He knew he would be. Here’s what he said on Saturday.

“Don’t believe the pundits and the pollsters who tell you that it’s impossible (that the far right will win in the second round of the election). Look at Brexit and so many elections, all that seemed improbable and yet came to pass. Nothing is impossible.”

In fact, it’s not even unlikely. Strategies have consequences, as Macron is now learning.

The strategy that made Macron president last time (2017) has succeeded so well that it may cost him the election in the second round this time, on April 24.

Macron’s strategy has always been to exaggerate the difference between the centre and the rest. If the left was too far left and the right was too far right, then the politician representing the centre (him) was the only rational choice.

It worked for him in 2017, when he waltzed into the presidency with a 66 per cent majority of the vote, despite the fact that he had never held elective office before. Fast forward five years, however, and the fantasy has become the fact.

The traditional moderate left-wing party, the Socialists, has been devoured by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s extreme left La France Insoumise (Rebel France), which advocates withdrawal from NATO and also, in effect, from the European Union.
The Socialists only got 4.8 per cent in the first round of voting on Sunday, which means they don’t even get their election expenses reimbursed. The party may actually declare bankruptcy and disappear.

The traditional centre-right party, the Republicans, is suffering exactly the same fate. It too has fallen short of the five per cent threshold and may go broke. Its place as standard-holder of the right has been taken by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which remains ultra-nationalist, racist and anti-immigrant, despite a cosmetic makeover that downplays its uglier policies.

Le Pen also benefited from the fact that an even harder-right candidate, xenophobic television pundit Éric Zemmour, made her look moderate, if only by comparison. She will inherit all his votes in the second round of voting, naturally, but Macron’s problem is that she may also inherit some of Melenchon’s hard-left supporters on April 24.

That sounds crazy, but it’s Macron’s own fault. By occupying so much of the centre ground and driving the moderate parties of the centre-left and centre-right to extinction, he left all those who wanted something more than his pragmatic, unexciting centrism no options except the extremes.

And the two extremes have some things in common.

They have a shared hostility to the European Union, for example, and most left-wing voters can remember that, even though Le Pen has been downplaying it recently. They both have a strong populist tone: Le Pen may be a woman of the right, but she’s promising that people under 30 won’t have to pay income tax and everybody can retire on full pension at 60.

Fully half of France’s voting population has just voted for extremist parties, and according to the polls Le Pen is heading into the run-off still holding most of those votes. The latest numbers say Macron 51 per cent, Le Pen 49 per cent, which is effectively neck-and-neck.

She is much more than Donald Trump in a skirt. She is far more intelligent than he is and not at all corrupt. She is racist and Islamophobic, but much better at dog-whistling her true convictions.
This does not bode well for Macron, especially because it has always been hard for French presidents to win a second term. And, while the other losing parties told their supporters to back Macron in the second round, Mélenchon just told his supporters “You must not give a single vote to Marine Le Pen.” (But you could abstain, if you like.)

Despite Covid, France is actually in good shape after five years of Macron. Investment is up, inflation is low, jobs are plentiful, the country is even opening more factories than it closes. But the French do not feel good about their lot and Le Pen could actually win.

If she does, a great deal will change, and not just in France.

The newfound unity of The West in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will vanish: Le Pen’s campaign pamphlets feature a picture of her with Vladimir Putin, another hard-right icon.

Le Pen & Putin: enchanté

She has stopped talking aloud about Frexit, but it’s still there in the background somewhere, as is the anti-immigrant racism her party has always peddled.

She is much more than Donald Trump in a skirt. She is far more intelligent than he is and not at all corrupt. She is racist and Islamophobic, but much better at dog-whistling her true convictions.

If the League of Authoritarian Leaders ever needs an honorary president, she would be the best candidate for the job.

Despite all this, I think Macron will win, because the French aren’t fools. But it may be a near-run thing.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War.

Ukraine: Cut the Crowing: It’s Far From Over

There’s been way too much cork-popping among American pundits about the stunning Ukrainian resistance to the Putin invasion.

Yes, the Russian forces have performed badly, while the Ukrainians have come through horrors to push them back again and again. Their  campaign thus far has been the stuff of epic and will be a gold mine for historians and storytellers.

But will it save Ukraine? Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria is here to put a damper on the premature rhetorical parades. He says there’s much horror yet to come in this war, the doughty Ukraine defenders still face steep odds, and the country is still in mortal peril. Let him explain.

Opinion: Putin’s Plan A in Ukraine has failed. We can’t let his Plan B succeed.




Opinion by Fareed Zakaria
 April 14, 2022

Ukraine’s brave and brilliant response to Russia’s attack is rightly being celebrated across the world. But it might be obscuring a growing danger. While the assault on Kyiv and the surrounding region has failed, Moscow’s strategy in the south and east of Ukraine could well succeed. If it does, Russia will have turned Ukraine into an economically crippled rump state, landlocked and threatened on three sides by Russian military power, always vulnerable to another incursion from Moscow. It will take much more military assistance from the West to ensure that this catastrophic outcome does not come to pass.


. . .[T]here are two distinct wars taking place in Ukraine, one in the north and one in the south, and the latter has been “radically more successful” for Moscow. Russia has been able to move forces and supplies out of its bases in Crimea and capture the cities of Melitopol and Kherson. Mariupol is now encircled and invaded by Russian troops, and Ukrainian forces trapped there cannot be resupplied. Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov has been blocked, . . . Russian forces have a contiguous land corridor from Crimea deep into Donbas. They are also trying to move west, from Kherson to Odessa.


Odessa is the prize. As the main port from which Ukraine trades with the world, it is the most important city for Ukraine economically. It is also a city replete with symbolic significance. It was here in 1905 that a mutiny on the battleship Potemkin (made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s movie) marked the beginning of the troubles of czarist Russia. Were Odessa to fall, Ukraine would be practically landlocked, and the Black Sea would essentially become a Russian lake — which would almost certainly tempt Moscow to extend its military power into Moldova, which has its own breakaway region filled with many Russian speakers (Transnistria).

Russian President Vladimir Putin could present this outcome as a grand victory, liberating Russian speakers, gaining crucial cities and ports, and turning Ukraine into a nonviable vassal state.



This must not happen, and the Ukrainians are fighting ferociously to prevent it. In Ukraine’s east, the Russians are trying to advance from Kherson, through the city of Mykolaiv, but they are being stymied by the extraordinary courage of the city’s inhabitants, who have reportedly blown up the bridge that connects the city to Odessa and blocked the railway tracks. This week, Ukrainian forces claimed they were able to deploy their never-before-used Neptune missiles and sink the Russian missile cruiser Moskva.

Still, it’s important to remember that, before the invasion, Russia had a 10-to-1 advantage in defense spending over Ukraine — and Putin seems determined to press on, no matter the costs.


What can the United States and the West do? Much more of everything they are already doing. Ukraine needs more arms, especially those that give it massive asymmetric fighting power.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who has been farsighted in diagnosing Russia’s weaknesses and Ukraine’s strengths, explained to me that Ukraine needs more equipment that allows it to maneuver quickly around Russia’s rigid forces. That means helicopters, armed Humvees, multiple-launch rocket systems and drones of every kind. Turkish drones have proved to be an amazingly effective weapon in this conflict. Hertling urges that Ukraine be given more of those, as well as American “kamikaze” drones and intelligence drones.


The Russian navy, which has been massing in the Black Sea, continues to pose a great danger to Odessa, threatening either to lay siege to it or to launch an amphibious landing behind Ukrainian lines. Despite the purported success of the Neptune missiles, Ukraine does not have the capacity to stop the Russian navy. NATO should consider doing something similar to what it did during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. It should enforce an embargo around those waters, preventing Russian troops from entering to attack Ukraine’s cities or resupply Russian forces. NATO ships would operate from international waters, issuing any approaching ships a “notice to mariners” that NATO forces are active in the area and warning them not to enter.


Retired Adm. James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of NATO, supports the actions the Biden administration has taken but urges a more aggressive response from the West on all fronts. Give Ukraine fighter planes and air defense systems, he tweeted, and help it with cyberattacks and give it antiship missiles to “sink Russian ships in [the] Black Sea.”


The United States has dedicated about $16 billion in aid to Ukraine since the invasion. Meanwhile, the world is expected to pay $320 billion to Russia this year for its energy. Economic sanctions will not force Putin to end the war as long as this gaping loophole exists. The only pressure that will force Russia to the negotiating table is military defeat — in the south.

Putin’s Plan A failed, but we cannot let his Plan B succeed.




Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for the Atlantic.

Ukraine’s Cossack Roots & It Sinks A Russian Navy Cruiser

Two from The Economist: “

Ukraine claims to have sunk a Russian warship

It is the biggest naval loss since the second world war


Three years ago The Economist’s defence correspondent was sailing back to Odessa on the Hetman Sahaidachny, then the flagship of Ukraine’s navy. A plaque in its wardroom honoured its former captains. Two names were scratched out—they had defected to Russia when it seized Crimea in 2014. In late February this year, as Russian forces approached once more, the Hetman Sahaidachny was scuttled in Mykolaiv, complete with its 1943-vintage gun.

Now Ukraine seems to have had its revenge. On April 14th Ukrainian officials said they had used Neptune anti-ship missiles to hit the Moskva, a 10,000-tonne Slava-class cruiser which was 60-65 nautical miles (111-120km) south of Odessa. The Moskva, commissioned in 1982, is—or, perhaps, was—the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which has its headquarters in occupied Crimea. Itwas a “venerable, battle hardened, major surface combatant” which participated in Russian wars in Georgia in 2008 and Syria in 2015, notes Alessio Patalano, a naval expert at King’s College London. “This is one of the most severe naval losses since the Falklands war” of 1982, he adds.

Russia’s defence ministry first acknowledged that the Moskva was “seriously damaged”, claiming that a fire had caused ammunition to detonate, but that the ship stayed afloat—a fact corroborated by the Pentagon. But magazine explosions tend to be devastating. Later it admitted that the Moskva had sunk. A Western official was unable to corroborate Ukraine’s claim, but described it as credible: “I am not aware previously of a fire on board a capital warship, which would lead to the ammunition magazine exploding.”

The strike is rich with symbolism. The ship was built in Mykolaiv, then a Soviet city but now a Ukrainian one which has repelled Russian ground assaults over the past month. It was also one of two warships that attacked Snake Island, west of Crimea, on February 24th, the first day of the war. When it ordered the tiny garrison there to surrender, the alleged reply—“Russian warship, go fuck yourself”—became an icon of national resistance, emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps. The Moskva’s apparent loss was “a massively important military event”, said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, on social media. He cast it as the Russian navy’s biggest defeat since the second world war.

Of particular note was the weapon the Ukrainians used. The Neptune, though modelled on the Russian Kh-35 (or Kayak) anti-ship missile, was designed and built in Ukraine. It is not the first time that Neptune has been fired in anger. Oleksandr Turchynov, a former Ukrainian national security council chief, says that the missile was first used to hit the Admiral Essen, a Russian frigate, on April 3rd. The rockets entered the navy’s inventory only in January this year, after corruption scandals delayed their introduction. That the Moskva was parked so close to Odessa, well within the known range of the Neptune, suggests that Russia might have seriously under-estimated its threat. It is not the only example of home-made kit on the battlefield: local innovations in passive radar and helicopter technologies have also surprised the Russians, says Hanna Shelest, a security expert in Odessa.

The strike on the Moskva is more than just a symbolic act of revenge or a demonstration of indigenous prowess. It fits a pattern of bold Ukrainian attacks beyond the frontlines, known as deep strikes. On March 29th an ammunition depot in Belgorod, a key staging point in Russia, was blown up. Belgorod is vital to Russia’s effort to build up forces for an attack on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, now the focus of its war. A day later Ukrainian helicopters reportedly attacked a fuel depot there and, on April 12th, a railway bridge was destroyed. On April 14th Russia said that more Ukrainian helicopters had attacked its Bryansk region, which neighbours Belarus, causing seven injuries.

Such attacks—by helicopters, missiles and special forces—tie down Russian units that must defend rear areas. They also “add additional short-term strain to Russia’s already stretched logistic chains”, according to British defence intelligence. Russia’s defence ministry is evidently fed up: on April 13th it warned that it would target command centres in Kyiv if Ukraine continued to attack its rear areas.

Though the war’s decisive battles have played out on land, around Kyiv and other cities, the apparent loss of the Moskva is also an important moment in the naval contest. By and large, on the water Russia has had the upper hand. It has cut Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov and maintained a blockade of its Black Sea coastline. That has devastated Ukraine’s economy and choked off grain exports, with wider consequences for global food prices. But Russia’s control of the sea is not absolute. Ukraine has now struck at least four Russian warships, including the Orsk, a landing ship which was hit by ballistic missiles and sunk in the port of Berdyansk on March 24th.

Ukraine’s ability to put Russian warships at risk changes the dynamics of the war at sea, says Ms Shelest. Russia has three Slava-class cruisers but the Moskva was the only one in the Black Sea. Russia cannot replace it because of Turkey’s decision to close the Bosporus strait to warships not already in the Black Sea or based there.

Moreover, the Moskva was not just an offensive platform, but also provided command and control, and air-defence, for a number of other ships. They will now be more vulnerable to Ukrainian missiles or drones; several Russian ships moved away from Ukraine’s coast in the aftermath of the incident on the Moskva, according to an American defence official. The threat of anti-ship missiles already appears to have forced Russia to delay or abandon plans for an amphibious assault on Odessa, which was widely expected in the first phase of the war.

Ukraine only has a division’s worth of Neptunes, says Ms Shelest, probably a dozen or so missiles. The factories where its components are made have been subject to heavy Russian attack. Fortunately for Ukraine, more such missiles may be on the way. After Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, visited Mr Zelensky in Kyiv on April 9th, the British government said it would send anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. British officials will not say which ones, nor how many, but one possibility would be to improvise a coastal version of a ship-based missile—something that Argentina did, with success, with the French Exocet missile in the Falklands war 40 years ago. That would take time, training and ingenuity. But improvisation, it seems, is Ukraine’s strong suit.

It’s a Cossack thing
Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukraine is defined by self-organisation

Coming together is what Ukrainians do


All main roads in Kyiv lead to Maidan, the open space at the heart of the city—even if, at the moment, some of them are blocked by concrete barriers and tank traps. The central space is, most of the time, a busy urban miscellany. The metro station and a labyrinthine shopping centre wrestle for space below ground; the Stalinist buildings on the perimeter boast franchises like McDonald’s and one-offs like the jellyfish museum. And sometimes it is the heart of the nation.

It has had many names over the years: Dumskaya Ploshchad (Parliament Square), Sovetskaya Ploshchad (Soviet Square), Ploshchad Kalinina (Kalinin Square). When student protests demanding independence were first held there in 1990 it was still Ploshchad Oktyabrskoi Revolutsyi (October Revolution Square). It was only the year after, in the post-Soviet age, that it took its current name. No longer a Russian ploshchad, or a Ukrainian ploscha, it became a maidan—a Persian term introduced by way of the Tatars of Crimea which enriches the architectural notion of a square with the connotations of a communal meeting place. Specifically, it became Maidan Nezalezhnosti: Independence Square.

But nobody in Ukraine bothers with the qualifier. Since becoming the focal site of the Orange revolution, in 2004, and the revolution of dignity, in 2014, Maidan has not needed it. In the winter of 2013-14 it became a city within the city as diverse as the country itself, a place where tens of thousands of people cooked together on open fires, lived in tents, built barricades, pried loose cobblestones and died when fired on from the surrounding buildings. Today the name Maidan stands for independence in and of itself.

The identification of independence with a place for coming together gets to the heart of something very Ukrainian. Being Ukrainian is not rooted in a particular territorial claim, or a certain ethnic background, or an allegiance to a particular state and its institutions, or the profession of a given faith. It is instead about an ability to come together when you feel that you need to and to get things done. It is a way of depending on each other, rather than on institutions or hierarchies, whether over cold nights of winter protest or when pelting tanks with Molotov cocktails.

When Roman Romaniuk, a journalist for Ukrainska Pravda, declared that “This war against Putin is our final Maidan,” he was saying that, after two previous Maidans against Mr Putin’s placeman, Viktor Yanukovych, a battle against Mr Putin himself provided a fitting boss-level conclusion to the country’s struggle for sovereignty and democracy. But he was also saying that the self-organising spirit of those revolutions is animating Ukraine’s defence of itself. It goes a long way to explaining why a country which, when invaded, was widely expected to fold like a cheap suit has instead fought the aggressors to a temporary standstill.

Andrei Zorin, a professor at Oxford University, says that the unifying myth behind today’s resistance, the two Maidans and much more is that of the Cossacks of the Zaporozhskaya Sich. The Cossacks were, as Andrew Wilson, a professor at ucl, in London, writes in his book “The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation”, “‘Free men’ who took advantage of the ‘wild field’, the no-man’s-land in the open steppe, to establish autonomous farming and raiding communities beyond the reach of the formal authority of the main regional powers—Poland, Muscovy and the Ottomans.”

The Sich was the self-organised military democracy through which some Cossacks asserted their autonomy in the early modern era. Its capacities have been romanticised and lionised ever since. “[The Zaporozhian Cossacks] were not a standing army,” Nikolai Gogol wrote in “Taras Bulba”, a 19th-century novella. “But in case of war and general uprising, it required a week, and no more, for every man to appear on horseback, fully armed, and in two weeks such a force had assembled as no recruiting officers would ever have been able to collect.” In the 1920s Nestor Makhno, an anarchist who found common ground with peasants who hated all kinds of state control, created a similar army to resist all those who sought to claim the wild field between Donbas and Kryvyi Rih where the Zaporozhskaya Sich had once held sway.

Decentralised does not mean divided

Last year Arena, a project based at Johns Hopkins University and the London School of Economics, reported on what united Ukrainians after 30 years of independence. The researchers concluded that the most important things were not attitudes or values, but “shared, near-unconscious behaviours that have been shaped by the many centuries of Ukraine’s pluralistic history.” In his book “The Gates of Europe”, which has become a standard text in Ukraine since its publication in 2015, Serhii Plokhy describes a nation defined not by its people’s pre-existing identities as by its willingness to negotiate them, crossing and recrossing the “inner and outer frontiers” between regions, faiths and ways of life.

As well as distrusting states imposed on them by others, the Ukrainians have not been very keen on states dominated by any one faction within the country. Mr Plokhy, who teaches history at Harvard, points to the way that, after the fall of the Russian empire in 1917, the primacy some nationalists placed on the Ukrainian language and its associated culture lost them allies among Jewish and Polish minorities worried by such ethno-nationalism. In 1991, on the other hand, Ukrainian sovereignty was supported by all the country’s people. Soviet repression had forged an alliance between Ukrainian nationalists and Jewish dissidents, among others.

Attempts to make capital out of the country’s regional and ethnic differences since then have ultimately proved fruitless, whether encouraged by Russian provocateurs or by factions in Ukraine itself. When Viktor Yushchenko, the president who was brought to power by the Orange revolution, hailed the mid-20th-century nationalist, anti-Semite and sometime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera as a Ukrainian hero he alienated not just the Russian-speaking east but also the liberal intelligentsia across the country.

The war is laying all thought of division to rest: as Sergei Rakhmanin, a journalist and politician, wrote recently, it “has stitched us together without any anaesthetic”. Russian-speakers, Jews, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian-speakers are fighting as one for survival and their right to be who they want to be on their own land. It is Russian speakers in the south and east who, stalwart in resistance, are paying the heaviest price. The war which Mr Putin launched on the basis of a belief that Ukraine does not exist and should not exist is proving the opposite.

Military improvisation has always been part of Ukrainian self defence. The tachankas—machineguns on horse-drawn carriages—fielded by Makhno’s army were the forerunners of the armed Toyota pick-ups, or “technicals”, now seen in low-intensity conflicts around the world. In a Facebook post Anton Kolumbet, a fighter in Ukraine’s territorial defence force, described the self organisation of the defenders in today’s “wild field”:

In one small forest next to a village being fought over you can see the following: the Ukrainian army, the national guard, territorial defence units, the police, a few glorious patriotic fighters, military intelligence, the secret services, some other strange military professionals and some dodgy types jumping about with weapons…Whenever the enemy tries to enter the village, he is obliterated. When he is obliterated, dodgy-looking guys run under the shelling to get their hands on trophies drenched in blood. Some kick Russian helmets. Some take photos of the corpses. Others write combat reports. Suddenly, a tank appears and goes after three Russian armoured personnel carriers. It destroys them, and then trundles off somewhere else….Where are all these people coming from? How are they armed? Where are they headed? The people don’t know themselves…No military academy anywhere in the world can teach you how to fight such a thing.

“We are a very chaotic nation,” says Andriy Khlyvnyuk, “A nation of musicians and warriors.” The lead singer of a group called BoomBox, which is hugely popular in Russia as well as Ukraine, Mr Khlyvnyuk was on tour in America on February 24th. He immediately cancelled the rest of the tour and returned to Kyiv to join the territorial defence force. A viral video of him singing “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow”, a protest song from 1914, in front of Kyiv’s St Sofia cathedral, rifle slung over his shoulder, has been embellished in mash-ups by Lithuanian opera singers, a South African producer and satirist called The Kiffness and, in their first new song for 28 years, Pink Floyd.

Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comedian before he was elected president in 2018, fits the same “you do what you can” picture. “The first thing that I understood,” he said in a recent interview with The Economist, was “that we the people have agency. People are leaders and political leaders are losers, some of them.” (The Arena research found that politicians were the group Ukrainians like least.) As with everyone else, his wartime role has been to do what he does best—communicate with his people and with the world. He is not trying to run the country so much as letting the country run itself.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the army, where Valery Zaluzhnyi, a charismatic 48-year-old, enjoys free rein as commander-in-chief. Unlike older officers, General Zaluzhnyi never served in the Soviet army; on taking over last year he told his officers to “turn your face to the people, to your subordinates.” He has allowed local commanders to take a lot more initiative than is normal in post-Soviet armies; he listens to the advice of his senior officers.

How the self-organising spirit will fare after the war’s end will depend a great deal on what sort of end it is. If Mr Zelensky survives in office he is likely to be the most powerful politician for generations. The machinations of the country’s oligarchs, which have held the country back for 30 years, will matter much less. Giving in to the predilection to just let things sort themselves out once the crisis is over will look more culpable. That all argues for the possibility of reform.

But there will be a risk of backsliding on democracy and liberalism in a country which will be focused on its security as never before. “It is unlikely that Ukraine will have political elections in the next few years,” one observer of Ukrainian politics says. That may make eventual integration into the Europe of the eu harder. “Absolutely liberal, European—it will not be like that,” Mr Zelensky told journalists on April 5th. “It will definitely come from the strength of every house, every building, every person…We will become a ‘big Israel’ with its own face.”

The tank traps that have replaced occasional uprisings and everyday bustle on Maidan will in time be taken away. What the Ukrainian people will put in their place remains to be seen.

Sayonara to FGC and The Gathering?

From the reports I see, the pandemic was bad for most churches: attendance is off, and (more important) ka-ching in the collection plates is down.

The possible exceptions are clustered among the most shamelessly antivaxx megabucks preachers. Theirs was a win-win setup: if they died, they were martyrs gone home to Jesus; if they lived, they could brag about beating the pagan socialist groomers with the poison vaxx needles, burn their masks and feel bulletproof (at least til the next spike).

And what about Quakers? I haven’t seen recent overall attendance numbers (and Quaker attendance figures are mostly baloney anyway); but a few significant bits of hard data have turned up. Among them are four numbers that sketch in the pandemic impact in an important sector, and the sum is not good.

The first two big numbers aren’t public, but their impact is: in early April, Friends General Conference announced that its 2022 summer Gathering, which had been set to be held in-person at Radford University in southwest Virginia, was off; in its place would be another all-online gathering (the third in a row).

Plans for the 2022 online Gathering program are, as of April 13, still “under discernment.” (Usually, by mid-April a detailed Gathering program schedule is ready, and registration is open.)

Next year, FGC pledged, the Gathering would be back, live & in-person, in Oregon.

We’ll see about that.

The first two of the key numbers behind the cancellation came from extensive surveys of former and potential attenders. The first showed that likely attendance this year would be way below that of the last in-person Gathering, at Iowa’s Grinnell College, in 2019.

Second, the surveys showed a similar decline in attender volunteers to staff out the very labor intensive run-up to the very labor intensive Gathering week itself.

The attendance/volunteer projections underlie the third key Gathering number, denominated in dollars, namely: income. The Gathering costs a lot of money, and over time, it has to break even.

This pay-as-you-gather policy has served FGC and its constituency well. Bottom line, it has meant that for more than 120 years, enough living Friends actually wanted the FGC community experience enough to pay what it costs, either in cash, in volunteer labor, or a mix.

Sure, FGC raises and gives out substantial financial aid and work grants. And there’s always uncertainty when fees are set and attendance is projected months ahead of time: in some lucky years, the Gathering comes out a bit ahead. In others, it falls short.
But “projections” are predictions, and the  prophet Yogi Berra said truly that predictions are tough, especially about the future.
Yogi Berra, a true seer

Will it rain tomorrow? What about a market or economic crash six months from now? A war or an oil shock? A pandemic?  Or, you know, the collapse of democracy? (Hey I’m just asking questions . . . .)

FGC does not have anything like the endowment needed to underwrite the whole event.

Besides, breakeven paid attendance yields a measurable authentication that the Gathering maintains a place in the lives of enough living Friends to stay viable.

But foreseeing a big drop in likely attendance/volunteers, the planners’ calculations for 2022 also projected a deficit of around $70,000.

Some shrugged off that number: FGC could raise the difference with a special fundraiser.

But others held fast to the breakeven tradition: finances were, and had been, uncertain for FGC since even before the pandemic; and while COVID was currently declining, there was still plenty of other uncertainties to grapple with.

Further, beyond short-term volatility, which is unsettling enough, FGC faces the biggest challenge in the fourth big number, which comes down to three fateful digits: Eight zero zero.

What’s that?

Let’s set the scene for the answer: run the Calendar app backward almost twenty-two years, to early July, 2000. I was with some family in Rochester, New York: a few miles north was the rippling blue expanse of Lake Ontario. Closer in were landmarks including historic houses where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass had lived.
“Let’s have tea.” (And plot a revolution.) A memorial to Susan B. Anthony & Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY.

We were on the campus of the University of Rochester, at the FGC Gathering.

It was to be a special one, because FGC picked that year to mark its centennial (mistakenly, in fact; FGC was actually about twenty years older. But no one on the planning committee really knew much FGC history, so never mind.)

I was on that planning committee, and we had all sorts of special events scheduled. A highlight was an all-attender panoramic photo: I squeezed in for it, crouched on the grass next to a granddaughter. As a memento, I ordered a print of the photo. It cost $25, a lot; but worth it (though sadly it was lost somewhere, likely in one of the decluttering attacks).

I remember looking it over later, before it was mislaid: so many Quakers together, packed like sardines, but all smiles.

I recalled the tally of those dozen-plus long rows: we had hoped and worked hard to get at least 2000 attenders. We came very close, about 1960, but didn’t quite make it.

It wasn’t unusual in those years for attendance to top 2000. More than once the Gathering filled every available bed on a host campus, and a few frantic late callers were reluctantly turned away. (What did the registrar say when a tardy Friend choked up on the phone and sobbed, “But God TOLD me to be there . . .”?)

So — Rochester in 2000, with almost 2000 Quakers. A new century. Heck, a new millennium. A lot to celebrate.

Yet since then, year by year, a graph of the Gathering attendance figures would be jagged, but the trend line was unmistakable; and it’s not a rumor. Which brings us back to that fourth big number, 800.

It was the attendance at the last in-person Gathering,  2019 in Iowa, the final summer of what many of us now think of as The Before Time.

FGC has been struggling with this attendance decline, with only fitful, temporary upticks.

There have been several surveys, and some recurrent complaints: the Gathering was becoming too expensive; it lasts too long; it’s become a Nanny State; etc. (I think FGC has made some big mistakes; but that’s not what this post is about, though some are listed here FYI.) Tweaks were made; yet the slide continued.

At a certain point, continued decline will push the Gathering to the brink of being no longer financially feasible.

Personally, that’s what I think it faces now. Besides finances, the email about the decision to go online includes a report on intense and unresolved struggles among planners over such matters as mask-wearing and Covid protocols. (WHAT?? Polarization among liberal Quakers too?? Is NO ONE safe? Evidently not.)

At this point, in most Quaker commentaries like this one, it is a rhetorical expectation — nay demand — for the writer, especially if they’ve been critical, to present what I dub the “Fix It List”. That’s a number of actions, usually about five, for Friends to take at once, to either solve a problem, or at least provide a sense of Having Done Something. (The ability to DO SOMETHING NOW seems to be one of the presumed keystones of our Quaker spiritual birthright and entitlement.)

Such lists almost always include, near the top, a mandate to Write to Congress, and Call for Action. Next is to Make a Donation to some do-good group or cause. And if the readership includes those from the programmed branches, a third will be a Summons to Pray. The other two will vary.

In this case, a Fix It List is something of a conundrum. For instance, while there are many good reasons to write Congress now (e.g., to save democracy), bailing out the FGC Gathering is not one of them. And while donations to the FGC (or relief for Ukrainian war refugees) are always welcome, the organization is not facing a temporary cash crunch, and we’ll all be dunned soon enough anyway. Still, if it’s your practice, one could Pray for All Of The Above.

But to be plain, as far as I can tell, the Fix It List mantra doesn’t really apply here.

Instead, what I increasingly suspect we may be witnessing is the natural sunset of an event and an organization: a life cycle, like that of a tree or a creature, or fossil-fuel powered automobiles. Or thee and me.

After all, the first Friends General Conference was organized in the early 1880s, more than 140 years ago. That’s a pretty good run; how many U. S. businesses have continued since then with their original name and ownership & mission? (Some churches have; but many have not.)

If the Gathering and FGC were to be laid down, would that be the end of Friends? I strongly doubt it. Other committees had come and gone. Quakerism had muddled through 200 years before they were started.

But what of those of us for whom the Gathering was one of the high points of our year?

That was me, for a couple of decades. And there will be a time to grieve. But I’m also one for whom the Gathering thrill is gone; its appeal has faded and wrinkled. Could that be, not something To Be Fixed, but just how it goes — more like leaves turning brown in the fall?

It feels more that way to me. And the 800 number, along with the latest projections, reinforce this impression.

So this summer, if I’m able to Zoom in and join in the online Gathering, as I have in a limited way the past two years, that may well be enough. It sounds like it will be for many others too.

And if the Gathering or FGC soon thereafter quietly folds its tents, my prediction is that before long some other concern or leading or event could take its place.

In any case, I’m now reminded of what one Friend said in jest, but might now be a promise of renewal:

“Our kind of Quakers don’t believe in Hell; that’s because we’ve got committees.”
Oh yes. Oh yes we still have.