Russia's invasion of Ukraine, an act of criminal aggression that has been denounced across the globe, was unleashed by Vladimir Putin amid an outpouring of delusional historical revisionism.
In an impassioned speech to the Russian nation last Monday, Putin set the stage for Russia's assault on Ukraine by arguing that Ukrainian statehood was nothing but a fiction, a historical blunder committed by the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. In the wake of Russia's 1917 Communist revolution, Putin claimed, Lenin wrongly treated Ukraine as an entity separate from Russia, endowing it with autonomy that it did not deserve. In so doing, he said, Lenin treated Russia "in the sloppiest way" and ended up "dividing, tearing from her pieces of her own historical territory."
That was sheer ahistorical drivel.
Ukraine's identity dates back a thousand years before the appearance of Lenin and his Bolsheviks. Its origin is in Kyivan Rus, a medieval Slavic state founded in the 9th century. Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, was established centuries before Moscow. The two countries share the same Orthodox Christian religion, their languages and national cuisines are related, and some of the territory of modern-day Ukraine fell within the boundaries of tsarist Russia. But other sections of the country fell under the authority of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Poland, or Lithuania.
In any case, Putin's complaint that Lenin somehow bestowed upon Ukraine in the 20th century a sovereignty it wasn't entitled to is absurd. The totalitarian dictatorship created by Lenin, far from respecting Ukraine's independence, crushed it. "During the Soviet era," observed The New York Times, "the Ukrainian language was banished from schools and its culture was permitted to exist only as a cartoonish caricature of dancing Cossacks in puffy pants." In the 1930s, Moscow deliberately engineered a famine, starving as many as 4 million Ukrainians to death for political reasons — the greatest crime against humanity between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust.
Putin blamed the last ruler of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, for allowing Ukraine to escape from Russian control in 1991. He inveighed against the breakup of the USSR, which he attributed to "strategic mistakes on the part of the Bolshevik leaders." It is "absolutely wrong," he seethed, for anyone to say that Ukraine secured its independence at the end of the Cold War. Ukraine didn't secure anything, said Putin; it was manipulated by crooks and opportunists "who formulated and pushed through decisions that suited only themselves."
Putin went on and on in this vein, his speech, as the Times put it, "awash with hard-line Russian nationalism, angry paranoia toward the West, baseless claims of Ukrainian aggression, a sense of lost imperial pride on the verge of reclamation and, most of all, invocations of history, much of it distorted or fabricated." At no point did he acknowledge that Ukraine is an independent country because Ukraine's people overwhelmingly chose independence — first by a vote of the Ukrainian parliament in August 1991, and then, four months later, in a national referendum that left no doubt about Ukraine's wish to break with Moscow.
Railing against imaginary historical injustices is Putin's stock in trade. In 2005, he notoriously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. (It was, in fact, one of the greatest geopolitical blessings of the last century, bringing liberty and democracy to tens of millions of Eastern Europeans.) Like other European tyrants, he has spun groundless historical grievances to justify grave crimes, such as the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin's propagandists have insisted that Russia's forcible annexation of the Baltic states in 1940 was not an act of violent aggression but a unification "carried out by mutual agreement." He has fabricated a historical fantasy in which the United States solemnly promised that NATO would not be enlarged to include the former Soviet captive nations of Eastern Europe — a phony allegation that became his initial excuse for the massive troop buildup on Ukraine's borders.
Wherever he gazes, Putin purports to see historical injustices that can only be rectified by attacking Russia's neighbors, trampling international legal norms, and reassembling pieces of the old Soviet Empire. His resentments are dishonest, a dictator's pretexts for aggression.
And yet there is a historical injustice on the map of Eastern Europe that cries out for rectification: the occupation of Kaliningrad by Russia at the end of the Second World War.
That occupation was an act of imperial conquest, one that Western leaders long accepted without complaint. That might have been unavoidable during the Cold War, but it should have ended when the Iron Curtain came down. Now, given Russia's brutal and unprovoked attack on Ukraine, Moscow should belatedly be forced to relinquish Kaliningrad.
The Baltic Sea is surrounded by democratic nations — plus a dangerous Russian exclave.
Look at the nearby map of Baltic Europe. Along the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea are Estonia, Lativa, and Lithuania — the three independent states that the Soviet Union occupied by force in 1940 and ruled for the next 50 years, and which regained their independence when the Soviet Union ended. To the southwest is Poland, with Germany further west. But those aren't the only countries in the region. Tucked in on the Baltic coast between Lithuania and Poland is the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, a region that was known for centuries as Königsberg — it became the capital of Prussia in the 1500s, and was later absorbed into the German Empire. Historically, nothing about Königsberg was Russian; its most famous resident, in fact, was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. But during World War II, Stalin made it a Soviet war aim to acquire the territory, and the Allies acceded to his demand at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. The following year, the city was shorn of its ancient name and restyled Kaliningrad.
In typical Soviet fashion, the region was immediately and ruthlessly Russified. Some 800,000 ethnic Germans were forcibly transported from western Russia to Siberia and Kazakhstan, recounted journalist Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, and most of the remaining Germans in Königsberg fled or were deported. At the war's end in 1945, only about 5,000 Soviet civilians lived in the region. Bu by 1948 that number had exploded to 400,000, as Moscow ordered the transfer of a massive wave of Soviet citizens into its new imperial possession. Today, Germans account for just 0.8 percent of Kaliningrad's population.
Russia's link to Kaliningrad, in other words, is artificial and wholly devoid of historical legitimacy. It was imposed through military force and the pitiless displacement of the native population. Putin should never have been indulged all these years in his rants about how Russia was entitled to great chunks of Ukraine — first Crimea, then Donbas, and now, if he gets his way, the rest of the country. Instead, the United States and Europe should have been making the case for removing Kaliningrad from Russian control — an act of liberation with far greater historical justification than any of Putin's bogus grievances.
In a tweet last week, I made a suggestion: "This would be a fine time for pro-freedom voices in #Kaliningrad — Russia's disconnected little province on the Baltic — to declare the region a 'breakaway republic' in need of 'peacekeeping' from its neighbors in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and their #NATO allies." That was an allusion to Putin's claim that he had interfered in Ukraine in response to a plea for help from beleaguered Russian communities within the country. Obviously Putin has dropped that fiction and is now engaged in an all-out attempt to destroy Ukraine's sovereignty entirely. That makes it all the more imperative to free Kaliningrad from Moscow's grip.
The question of Kaliningrad's status remains unsettled. Its native German population may have been driven out, and Moscow has pressed hard to strengthen the region's identification with Mother Russia, yet the territory has never fully embraced an identity as an integral part of the Russian homeland. Kaliningrad "has often been a hotbed of separatism," observes Paul Goble, an expert on Baltic affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. "Kaliningrad's population more often travels to Poland than to Moscow" and "its people, the descendants of peasants from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, are without strong ethnic attachments and have commonly styled themselves as "the people of Königsberg."
According to Goble, in the 1990s there was a strong campaign among Kaliningrad residents to become an independent fourth Baltic republic. Moscow quashed that campaign, but the sentiment revived in the 2010s. "Worsening economic conditions in the [region,] cutbacks in Moscow's subsidies to its government, and the contrast between life in the Russian exclave and life in [neighboring] Lithuania and Poland have increased separatist sentiment once again."
With Putin embarked now on a bloody attempt to reabsorb Ukraine into an expanded Russia, the question of Kaliningrad takes on more than mere historical or polemical importance. Ukrainians have mounted heroic resistance to Putin's invasion, and millions of people the world over pray that they can continue to hold the Russians off. But it is still far from clear that Ukraine, fighting alone, can win a war against a nuclear power that is one of the largest military forces on earth. If Putin succeeds in breaking Ukraine, NATO itself will be his next target. There will be a new front line of conflict between Russia and the West — with Kaliningrad aimed like a pistol at NATO's Baltic flank.
Though Kaliningrad — aka Königsberg — has been ruled by Moscow since the end of World War II, it clearly looks European, not Russian.
"Until now, Russian forces could deploy only as far as Ukraine's eastern border, several hundred miles from Poland and other NATO countries to Ukraine's west," explains Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institute.
When the Russians complete their operation, they will be able to station forces — land, air, and missile — in bases in western Ukraine as well as Belarus, which has effectively become a Russian satrapy.
Russian forces will thus be arrayed along Poland's entire 650-mile eastern border, as well as along the eastern borders of Slovakia and Hungary and the northern border of Romania. . . .
The most immediate threat will be to the Baltic states. Russia already borders Estonia and Latvia directly and touches Lithuania through Belarus and through its outpost in Kaliningrad. Even before the invasion, some questioned whether NATO could actually defend its Baltic members from a Russian attack. Once Russia has completed its conquest of Ukraine, that question will acquire new urgency.
One likely flash point will be Kaliningrad. The headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet, this city and its surrounding territory were cut off from the rest of Russia when the Soviet Union broke up. Since then, Russians have been able to access Kaliningrad only through Poland and Lithuania. Expect a Russian demand for a direct corridor that would put strips of the countries under Russian control. But even that would be just one piece of what is sure to be a new Russian strategy to delink the Baltics from NATO by demonstrating that the alliance cannot any longer hope to protect those countries.
A Russia that has swallowed Ukraine and effectively taken control of Belarus will have extended its military power sharply westward, right up to the borders of all three Baltic states, plus Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. President Biden has vowed to "defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power" — but that vow will be much harder to fulfill if Ukraine (and Belarus) are locked into a new Russian empire.
Kaliningrad, bristling with ballistic missiles that can deliver conventional or nuclear warheads, is on the point of becoming a deadly peril to the Baltic states and the wider NATO alliance. It was a grievous mistake to allow Russia to retain the territory — which it should never have been permitted to occupy in the first place — after the Soviet Union imploded. It would be even more grievous to allow Russia to retain it now. For all intents and purposes, Moscow has declared war on the entire postwar architecture of Euro-Atlantic security. It has become a deadly menace to peace on the continent. After what Putin has unleashed in Ukraine, to expect him to abide by international law or to exercise military restraint would amount to strategic and diplomatic negligence. Already there are signs that Russia is preparing Kaliningrad for a wider role in its conflict with the West. To repeat: A Russian defeat of Ukraine will transform Kaliningrad into a pistol aimed at NATO's Baltic border. The United States and its allies must find a way to keep Putin from cocking and firing that pistol. Liberate Kaliningrad — before it is too late.
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Giving incumbents the boot gives your country a boost
One of my standing principles, not absolutely inviolate but pretty close, is that I don't vote for incumbents.
Why? To begin with, I have spent most of my adult life in Massachusetts, and disdain the worship of incumbency that runs so deep here. To be sure, incumbents in this state are politicians whose views I usually don't share anyway, but my vote-the-bums-out policy is bipartisan. In my view, the most significant political division in America is not between Republicans and Democrats, but between the political class and everyone else, and I don't want to keep empowering the political class.
I have other reasons. I believe it's accurate not only that power corrupts, but that it does so fairly quickly. I resent the way election laws have been written to give incumbents powerful advantages, and voting against them is one way to push back against insider power. And I agree with those of the Founding Fathers who feared that unless incumbents were regularly turned out of office by their constituents — their term for it was "rotation" — American democracy would descend into ill-governed oligarchy. In the words of George Mason, who drafted both the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Constitution of Virginia, "Nothing is so essential to the preservation of a republican government as a periodic rotation."
These are the explanations I have given over the years when people have asked me to explain my anti-incumbent rule of thumb. I think they add up to a strong argument but now, thanks to scholars Vincent Rollet of MIT, Vincent Pons of Harvard, and Benjamin Marx of Sciences Po (the French Institute of Political Studies), the argument has gotten even stronger.
In a National Bureau of Economic Research paper published this month, the three economists document a striking trend: Around the world over the past 75 years, national elections in which the party in power was turned out of office generally made things better. What the authors call "turnover" elections correlated with gains in the countries' well-being. Again and again, they found, electoral turnovers led to improvement in economic performance. The most notable effects were "a large decrease in both inflation and unemployment," but there were also measurable advances in GDP growth, international trade, human development, and peace.
"While other studies have focused on the benefits of democracy, which gives citizens the opportunity to remove incumbents from office," write Rollet, Pons, and Marx, "we focus on a different question: what happens when citizens seize this opportunity." They analyzed nearly 2,500 national elections (both legislative and executive) since the end of World War II. This was their concluxion:
Overall, we find that voting for change matters: electoral turnovers deliver improvements in country-level performance along many dimensions. This finding is both novel and surprising, since there are many reasons to expect that turnovers could be detrimental to economic performance. We also observe large effects on indices of corruption and on policy change. We hypothesize that the main force driving the positive effects of turnovers is the role they play in terms of renewing a country's political leadership, and in allowing new leaders facing stronger reputation concerns to rise to power. Over the long term, this finding provides reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the prospects of electoral democracy. In our analysis, turnovers are most beneficial when leaders face few constraints on their executive power. This suggests, in turn, that regimes sliding into autocracy, in which such constraints are typically weak, have most to gain from allowing mechanisms of electoral transition.
In other words, giving incumbents the boot as often as possible is more likely to generate fresh and constructive approaches to public policy and to reduce the influence of corruption on the workings of government. And, perhaps unexpectedly, the benefits are most pronounced in countries whose political leaders are strongest.
A popular argument against term limits is that regularly replacing incumbents empowers the permanent political class of legislative aides and bureaucrats at the expense of the people's elected representatives. That was James Madison's case against limiting congressional terms. He maintained that it would be dangerous to have too many inexperienced legislators, since they would be so easily misled by insiders who would manipulate them. "The greater the proportion of new members of Congress, and the less the information of the bulk of the members," he wrote in Federalist No. 53, "the more apt they [will] be to fall into the snares that may be laid before them."
Thomas Jefferson disagreed. "I apprehend that the total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of president and senator," he wrote to Edward Rutledge in 1788, "will end in abuse." Similar concern was voiced by Melancton Smith, who represented New York in the Continental Congress and was a leading Antifederalist during the debate over ratifying the Constitution. If members of Congress were allowed to run for reelection as often as they wished, Smith warned in one essay, the results would not be healthy:
[I]n a government consisting of but a few members, elected for long periods, and far removed from the observation of the people . . . they become in some measure a fixed body, and often inattentive to the public good, callous, selfish, and the fountain of corruption. To prevent these evils . . . we ought to establish among others the principle of rotation. Even good men in office, in time, imperceptibly lose sight of the people, and gradually fall into measures prejudicial to them.
From today's perspective, it seems clear that Jefferson and Smith had the better argument. And the data assembled by Rollet, Pons, and Marx show that the effect is not limited to Washington, DC. Throwing the bums out tends to be a good thing, and it doesn't much matter if the bums are Republicans or Democrats. When voters yank power from one party and transfer it to another one, they usually make things better. I'll stick to my policy of opposing incumbents, and continue to dream of the day when the state I live in isn't a wholly-owned subsidiary of one political party.
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What I Wrote Then
With around 2,500 Boston Globe columns now in my rear-view mirror (my byline first appeared on the op-ed page on Feb. 24, 1994), I thought it might be interesting to resurrect a few lines in Arguable from a column that ran in the same month 25 years earlier. I'll do so each week in "What I Wrote Then," a new feature.
From "A commercial jewel in PBS's crown" February 13, 1997:
Time and again, "Masterpiece Theatre" has been held out as the kind of programming that would not exist absent a federal subsidy. Yet the history of "Masterpiece Theatre" proves the reverse: that television of the highest caliber can be "made possible by" the private sector, with no government involvement at all. . . .
High-quality TV requires no government pipeline, and a government pipeline is no guarantee of high quality. The supposedly educational "Sesame Street" is produced by Children's Television Workshop, which gets a $7 million annual subsidy from the taxpayers. But what the taxpayers get in exchange is not smarter kids. Academic performance has plummeted since "Sesame Street" went on the air; a shelf of studies question its educational merit.
The last line
"Joe Wear gathered Bertha Truitt in his arms, and took her out of the bowling alley, out of Salford, out of Massachusetts, out of New England, so they could start again." — Elizabeth McCracken, Bowlaway (2019)
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(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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