Thursday, August 28, 2014

Dear Mr. Putin: Some Thoughts on Russia and Ukraine

I had an experience some years ago that might be instructive for you.

As a lawyer, I represented some folks in a property dispute, along with another lawyer.  It was a family thing, which, as I am sure you know, can be some of the worst fights.

Our clients lived at the top of the hill, surrounded by the large farm of their cousin, whose father had long ago granted them a legal right-of-way over the farm for their driveway.

When the father died, his son, by then quite old himself, got it in his head that either (a) there was no right-of-way or (b) his cousins had somehow cheated his father out of the right-of-way, so there should be no right-of-way.  And he acted accordingly.

In his case, ‘accordingly’ meant that he took all kinds of increasingly hostile actions to prevent these folk, or anyone else for that matter, from going up and down the driveway.

He put jackrocks in the driveway to flatten their tires when they drove upon it.  He knocked their mail boxes over with a sledgehammer.  He graded the drive with his tractor so that an ordinary car could not traverse it.  He threatened meter readers and pizza delivery men.  He blocked the drive, which also provided access to the family cemetery on the day of the funeral for his cousins’ mother.  He dug up gas lines, leaving them with no heat in the dead of winter.  And then he started shooting at them.

That was their last straw, when they sought out the help of lawyers.  We got a court order.  He ignored it.  We got a trial date.  He laughed at it.  When the other lawyer went to survey the latest damage, he took his tractor and pushed the car over the side of the hill.

We went to trial.  He mocked it all while pretending to be law abiding.  And we took every cent he had, simply because he continued to show himself to be uninterested in anything except his own narrow view that he was right and the rest of the world was wrong.

He died some years later angry and bitter and still, I am confident, sure that he had been grievously wronged.

Interestingly, the cousins, our clients, during all of this gentleman’s shenanigans, never retaliated in kind.

What do you in your current situation have in common with these folks?

1. They were all related.

2. He insisted on rewriting history to suit his view of things because he found the present to be unacceptable.

3. He used force to try to get the outcome he wanted.

4. He felt betrayed by everyone around him.

5. He acted badly in order to try to get his way.

6. The court of public opinion rejected him.

Sound familiar?

So what?  And so what’s instructive in this small dispute between some country cousins in a far away land?

A few things, I might suggest:

1. Winning the battle is never the same as winning the war.  If more folks understood this simple fact, there might actually be fewer wars.  Something to think about.

2. Strong men can often build themselves a box from which they find it impossible to escape.  This man certainly did – he was so committed to his ‘cause’, that he left himself no way out save to go down fighting.  It is a foolish mistake.

3. A few inches or even many acres or hectares of ground, most of the time, just aren’t worth the fight.  Lines on maps will be drawn and redrawn into the swirls of time.  In the long haul, no one will even remember where the lines were.  They will remember the harm done to the people.  And that isn’t much of a legacy.

4. Because the rest of the world is so unstable now, you might calculate that the rest of the world will bemoan your actions but ultimately do nothing, as the man with the farm calculated (wrongly about his cousins).  This is a grave miscalculation on your part, for it never works that way and the truth is, you know that.  You’d actually have better luck if the rest of the world was stable, for in stable times, no one is much interested in someone else’s fight.  In unstable times, however, everyone’s battles take on larger and more epic proportions, becomimg more rather than less threatening, inciting more rather than less response.  I don’t know about you, but ‘Starter of World War III’ is not what I would want for my epitaph.

5. Nobody took anything from you in the first place.  The Soviet Union existed and now it does not.  Its satellite states were just that.  We had our civil war; you have had your own versions of that.  If the eastern Ukraine is truly Russian rather than Ukranian, in time it would simply come back.  It happens all over the world.

6. Patience is not merely a virtue; when it comes to the scales of history, it is actually something that is rewarded.  If you take eastern Ukraine by force, it will never truly be yours.  Unrest, subversion, sabotage, armed resistance, will all continue.  Who needs the headache?

7. Paranoia often arises out of the (usually mistaken) belief that everyone else thinks as you do.  The cousins had no interest in taking over the old man’s farm.  But he could never allow himself to believe that; consequently, a driveway became a threat to his entire existence – but only in his own mind.  Just so, from this distance, it seems highly unlikely that Europe, with all its own problems, has any interest in invading, taking over, annexing, or in any other way encroaching on Russia.  Annoying your neighbor is not the same thing as being a threat to your neighbor.  Just a thought.

I am no expert on the affairs of Russia or the former Soviet Union.  I do not know the intricacies of Ukraine’s relationship to your country.  I am given the luxury by birth of remaining far too ignorant of the complexities of your part of the world.

But I can tell you that from this distance, you are looking like a thug and a bully and a very scared little boy.  I can tell you that you are picking a fight with the world at a very bad time.  I can tell you that instability is contagious.  So keep encroaching, invading, destablilizing Ukraine at your own peril.  And I can tell you that adventuring seldom goes well either for the victor or the defeated.  The law of unintended consequences is alive and well and if you haven’t been paying attention to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Colombia, Syria, and all the other places of civil war and wars of encroachment around the world, you are more a fool than you have any right to be.

And whatever we in the West may think of you, until now, we have never thought you a fool.

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