Vladimir Putin

David Warsh: On Putin, think of a high-tech Russian 'nesting doll'

Russian nesting dolls; Vladimir Putin is the one on the far left.

Russian nesting dolls; Vladimir Putin is the one on the far left.

Scary Vladimir Putin, Bogeyman to the World, has been on full display in U.S. newspapers this month, most conspicuously on the front page of The New York Times,  in a misleading photograph suitable for the cover of a new edition of Nineteen Eight-Four.  “Putin Says He Has ‘Invincible’ Nuclear Missile,” was the headline. The hypersonic zig-zag cruise missiles and torpedoes of which he boasted might be a bluff for now, The Times noted. Fully operational, however, such weapons would “travel low, stealthily, far and fast – too fast for defenders to react.”

A week later, The Times reported on the attempted assassination using nerve gas of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, who in the 1990s had become a double agent for the British intelligence service MI6. The Brits all but charged the Russian government with making the attempt. The Russian government denied responsibility and took umbrage.

It was then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev who pardoned Skripal in 2010 and swapped him for a batch of Russian spies. Former KGB officer Vladimir Putin was then serving as prime minister. The business newspaper Kommersant recently reported that Russian authorities considered the damage done by Skripal comparable to that of Oleg Penkovsky, another military intelligence double agent who was caught and tried in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962. Penkovsky was reportedly rolled alive into a crematorium oven in 1963.

What wasn’t on display last week was an analytic account of what else Putin said in what was, after all, his state of the nation address, three weeks before the election in which he is seeking a fourth presidential term. For that I turned to Alexander Baunov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. I get my Russia news from Johnson’s Russia List — 191 items last week, of which I read perhaps 25  — and from Jonathan Haslam’s blog, "Through Russian Eyes''.  Haslam is Kennan professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Bloomberg’s Andrey Biryukov and Evgenia Pismennaya set the stage for Putin’s hour-long speech. Simon Shuster conveyed its atmospherics in Time, and Mary Dejevsky, of London’s Independent, its production values. But it was Baunov who made sense of it, in A Hi-Tech Russian {"nesting"} Doll: Putin’s Fourth-Term Reboot, on the Carnegie.ru Web site:

"Putin’s goal is now neither to recreate the USSR, nor to become part of the West. Rather, the ambition is to build an economic and technological “West” inside Russia, while continuing an aggressive posture towards the West on the outside….

"Putin’s speech depicts his vision of Russia as a kind of Matryoshka, a Russian {"nesting"} doll. The inside of the doll—the domestic part—is digital, wears hipster glasses and a short trendy jacket. The outside foreign part is dressed in military camouflage fatigues.''

That sounds like something the Chinese are well on their way to achieving: to be like the West, but with a diluted version of its values. But where China has the luxury of a geographic theater with natural boundaries – the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” as it was envisaged by Japan – Russia faces much greater difficulties identifying and protecting the boundaries of a natural sphere of influence. Its ambivalent relationship with Western Europe is more than three centuries old and shows no signs of flagging. No wonder, then, that, the day after his speech, Putin told a press conference that he regretted the break-up of the former Soviet Union.

The problems of the Russian economy, interesting though they may be, are for the most part orthogonal to those of the U.S., which at the moment have to do with the prospect of trade wars with its allies.  Vladimir Putin is there to stay in a way that Donald Trump probably isn’t. As Princeton University Prof. Stephen Kotkin told The Wall Street Journal last week, 18 years after Boris Yeltsin chose him as successor, Putin is no longer the “arbiter over a scrum of competing interests” but has become instead “the leader of a single faction that controls all the power and all the wealth.”

But Kotkin is simply mistaken when he says that, while Putin didn’t highjack the U.S. election itself, “he high jacked American public discourse.” It is the major newspapers — The Times, The Washington Post, and at least the editorial pages of The Wall Street  Journal – as well as The New Yorker magazine that are holding U.S. Russia policy hostage to their disdain for Donald Trump.  This proposition wants a separate column. I will write it soon.

David Warsh, an economic historian and long-time columnist on economic, political and media matters, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this columnist first ran.

The Green Party's Dr. Stein; the Russians, and Michael Flynn

Jill Stein, M.D.

Jill Stein, M.D.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in GoLocal24.com:

It was pleasant to read that the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating Jill Stein, M.D., the leader of the leftist Green Party and its 2016 presidential candidate, for possible “collusion’’ with Russia before the election last year.

Among other things, Dr. Stein, who lives in Lexington, Mass., attended a  December 2015 tenth anniversary dinner in honor of RT (formerly called in English Russia Today), the Kremlin’s international propaganda TV network. Intriguingly, at the same table that festive night was Michael Flynn, Trump’s former (very briefly) national security adviser, and none other than Vladimir Putin.

The whole thing makes one speculate on whether the Trump campaign, and the Russians, had anything to with propping up the campaign of  Stein, who took votes away from Hillary Clinton, who won the overall national popular vote by a substantial margin but lost it narrowly in three states that handed the Electoral College victory to Trump. In any event, Stein and Flynn should be ashamed of themselves for in effect honoring the murderous thug Putin and his most important international propaganda outlet. The GOP-controlled committee also is digging into reports that Clinton’s campaign paid for research in report with allegations about Trump’s behavior during a 2013 business trip to Moscow. That’s generally called “opposition research’’ and is virtually universal in American political campaigns for major offices.

The Kremlin.

The Kremlin.


Llewellyn King: Putin regime uses vast lie machine to try to undermine European democracies

 Putin's Kremlin -- a cesspool of corruption and brutality.

 Putin's Kremlin -- a cesspool of corruption and brutality.

VILNIUS, Lithuania

"Fake news" in Europe is a clear-and-present danger from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

That was the message loud and clear at the annual congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) in the country’s capital last week. The rubric of “fake news” covers a parcel of Russian subversion, from phony news to staged events with surrogate players and stunts, such as sending in Russians posing as skinheads to imply the presence of fascists when none are there.

To Europe – especially to those countries near or bordering Russia — the threat is most keenly felt. At the AEJ congress, speaker after speaker spoke of it not in abstract terms, but as part of a continuing struggle.

Russia is waging its war with Europe, using new tools, such as social media, but with old KGB tactics, according to Marius Laurinavicius, senior expert at the Vilnius Institute of Policy Analysis. “We are at war with Russia. It’s a different war: There are no tanks or fighters. It’s their perception, not mine,” he said.

The three Baltic nations — Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia — are under relentless attack by Russian disinformation and dirty tricks.

Whereas much of the world is indifferent to Russia’s seizing of Crimea, the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and Russian troops in Georgia, to the Baltics, those acts are a scenario for their re-occupation.

When the Baltics were part of the Soviet Union, they suffered in ways not fully comprehended elsewhere. In Vilnius, for example, the former KGB headquarters is a museum of horror, open to the public. Here are the torture chambers and the execution cell. Those who were not killed in this building, right in the center of town, were shipped to Siberia — an incredible 300,000 Lithuanians out of a population of just under 3 million.

Putin has said that Russia is entitled to come to the aid of any Russian-speaking minority which is (he asserts) being maltreated: his rationale for invading Crimea. All three Baltic states have Russian-speaking minority populations listening to and watching Russian radio and television broadcasting ceaselessly fake news to stir them up and denigrate their host countries.

At the AEJ congress there were tales of Russian subversion across Europe, from the French and German elections to the attempted Catalonian secession from Spain. Russia has a huge apparatus for fomenting trouble in the democracies, according to Brian Whitmore of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Thousands of people working on fake news in dozens of languages, factories of lies.

Why does Russia do it? One reason is that Russia is deeply unhappy at having NATO on its borders, fanning an old Russian paranoia about the countries to its west. Another, according to Whitmore, is that “Russia is doing to the West what it believes the West is doing to it: It believes the West is trying to undermine it.”

At the AEJ congress a year ago, in Kilkenny, Ireland, the buzz was all about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and his likely impact in Europe. This year in Vilnius, less so. The big issue is Russia and how the media can deal with the Russian propaganda onslaught, sorting out the real from the fake. It is a daily challenge for Europe’s journalists: Is it a scoop or a state-sponsored lie?

Delegates heard from Laurinavicius that the Putin administration in Moscow is a kind of C-suite of corruption, built around the old KGB (where Putin was No. 2 in East Germany), mixed with the Russian Mafia and collaborating oligarchs. Taken together a potency of evil, seeking to make mischief and possibly to conquer weak and unprepared democracies by lies and fakery.

On Twitter: @llewellynking2
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of
White House Chronicle, on PBS.

An exciting tour of Trump's deep ties with Putin's mobster empire

"Avarice,'' by Jesus Solana.

"Avarice,'' by Jesus Solana.


For a fascinating if alarming look at Donald Trump's connections to murderous Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and the ruthless fellow kleptocrats around him,  read this investigative piece in the magazine The American Interest by hitting this link. The text below is from  journalist David Cay Johnson's introduction:

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidential campaign he expressed glowing admiration for Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Many of Trump’s adoring comments were utterly gratuitous. After his Electoral College victory, Trump continued praising the former head of the KGB while dismissing the findings of all 17 American national security agencies that Putin directed Russian government interference to help Trump in the 2016 American presidential election.

As veteran investigative economist and journalist Jim Henry shows below, a robust public record helps explain the fealty of Trump and his family to this murderous autocrat and the network of Russian oligarchs. Putin and his billionaire friends have plundered the wealth of their own people. They have also run numerous schemes to defraud governments and investors in the United States and Europe. From public records, using his renowned analytical skills, Henry shows what the mainstream news media in the United States have failed to report in any meaningful way: For three decades Donald Trump has profited from his connections to the Russian oligarchs, whose own fortunes depend on their continued fealty to Putin.

We don’t know the full relationship between Donald Trump, the Trump family and their enterprises with the network of world-class criminals known as the Russian oligarchs. Henry acknowledges that his article poses more questions than answers, establishes more connections than full explanations. But what Henry does show should prompt every American to rise up in defense of their country to demand a thorough, out-in-the-open congressional investigation with no holds barred. The national security of the United States of America and of peace around the world, especially in Europe, may well depend on how thoroughly we understand the rich network of relationships between the 45th President and the Russian oligarchy....





Trump and treason; longing for Jim Webb and John Kasich

Our great leader.

Our great leader.


Given Donald Trump’s pathological lying, record of personal and business corruption, narcissistic rapaciousness, and his hiding of the sort of financial information that previous presidents have provided to the public, we may never know the full extent of his ties to Russian murderer and kleptocrat–in-chief Vladimir Putin. (Some estimates put Putin's fortune as high as $100 billion.)

But given the extent of Putin’s relentless and successful effort to throw the presidential election to his fan Mr. Trump, we must start asking whether Mr. Trump is a traitor, perhaps because his organization has received massive loans from Russian figures close to the dictator. How much coordination was there between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin? How much will there be when our new maximum leader takes over?

One hint might be Donald Trump Jr.’s remark in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.’’

And then there is Mr. Trump's sleazy and very close associate Paul Manafort, with his very tight ties with the Kremlin. Much of the Trump entourage, including some members of his family, makes one want to take a bath in disinfectant. A creepy, immoral bunch.

John Shattuck, a lawyer and an assistant secretary of state (1993-98) in the Clinton administration and now at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, wrote for the Dec. 17  Boston Globe a column headlined “Trump raises specter of treason, '' about the Russian hacking to get Donald Trump elected. Among his comments:

“Why does Trump publicly reject these intelligence agency conclusions {on the Russian assault on our electoral system} and the bipartisan proposal for a congressional investigation? As president-elect, he should have a strong interest in presenting a united front against Russia’s interference with the electoral process at the core of American democracy.

“There are several possible explanations for Trump’s position. They are not mutually exclusive. First, he may be trying to shore up his political standing before the Electoral College vote on Monday. Second, he may be attempting to undermine the credibility of US intelligence agencies in advance of his taking office so that he can intimidate them and have a freer hand in reshaping the intelligence product to suit his objectives. Third, he may be testing his ability to go over the heads of intelligence professionals and congressional critics and persuade the American public to follow his version of the truth about national security threats. And finally, he may be seeking to cover up evidence of involvement or prior knowledge by members of his campaign team or himself in the Russian cyberattack.

“In each case the president-elect is inviting an interpretation that his behavior is treasonous. The federal crime of treason is committed by a person ‘owing allegiance to the United States who . . . adheres to their enemies, giving them aid or comfort,’ and misprision of treason is committed by a person ‘having knowledge of the commission of any treason [who] conceals and does not disclose’  the crime. By denigrating or seeking to prevent an investigation of the Russian cyberattack Trump is giving aid or comfort to an enemy of the United States, a crime that is enhanced if the fourth explanation applies — that he is in fact seeking to cover up his staff’s or his own involvement in or prior knowledge of the attack.’’


Meanwhile, many of us say: “If only the Democrats had nominated someone like Jim Webb as their presidential candidate and the Republicans John Kasich!’’ Honorable and able men with remarkably little bad baggage.

For a trip down Memory (or is it Amnesia) Lane, take a look at this show. http://trumpthemovie.com/

-- Robert Whitcomb

Llewellyn King: In desperate search of sartorial dignity



Robert Whitcomb afterword at end.

Men’s hats bit the dust in the time of Jack Kennedy. Oh, sure, there are baseball caps and various ersatz chapeaux to keep the top of a man cool or warm. But they aren’t grand symbols of taste on the head: boaters, derbies, fedoras, homburgs, panamas, trilbies and — forgotten glory — silk top hats.

More recently, the bell has tolled for the necktie — that useless but delightful fashion option for men. Who ever complimented a man on his unadorned neck?

I blame Hollywood and the whole state of California for suppressing fashion by promoting the idea that casual dressing is superior. The Golden State has upended the decent order of all things sartorial for men; reduced us to looking like bums in shapeless clothes emblazoned with the manufacturer’s name.

What became of the well-fitting — bespoke, if possible — suit or blazer, craftily cut to minimize bulge around the waist and maximize size at the shoulder? What of the fine shirt in linen, poplin, French twill, silk or even broadcloth? What has replaced the sense of social perfection of a man showing his cuffs in a double-breasted Melton blazer?

This decline in the male wardrobe I’ve borne with fortitude. But I believe that wardrobe disassembling has hit its nadir: men wearing suits without socks. Enough, enough, enough!

A senior executive of a California company, of course, showed up sans socks for a taping of my television program. I’ll give the man his due: he wore a decent suit, a passable shirt and a power tie. His feet supported quality loafers. But why no socks? Does anyone admire the male ankle? Is it a thing of beauty? Have I missed out on the charm of this lovely body part?

That horror wasn’t an isolated event: Recently, I dined at a French restaurant in Boston with a distinguished citizen — an ambassador plenipotentiary to a European country, no less — who wasn’t wearing socks. Does the State Department know? Is there a protocol for ambassadorial dress? Can down-dressers be rebuked? Is this matter addressed in Hillary Clinton’s copious emails?

We should be told in the president’s Saturday broadcast whether the nation is going to be allowed to go down the sartorial drain.

I’ve been checking out Chinese dignitaries. Every last one of them, as far as I can determine, wears socks. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin transgresses international standards of statesmanship only from the waist up. Shoes and socks prevail for this improbable Tarzan.

The passion to be casual is causing actual hardship. Nobody knows what to wear at important events. Some years ago, I participated in a U.S.-Japan business forum in Hawaii. The U.S. delegation head decided that polo shirts would be appropriate attire for men. But his dress decision didn’t reach the Japanese delegates, and they all wore suits. After lunch, though, the Japanese went casual and the Americans donned suits. Mutual red faces.

Does anyone really think a partner or associate in a big law firm feels good with his tummy rolls accentuated by a knit shirt advertising a crocodile? For women, this casual thing is a refined cruelty. You work like hell: law school, junior legal slave, and finally — hosanna — partner. Time for a fabulous Chanel suit, patent leather-toed slingbacks and heaps of pearls.

Not so fast. The managers have decreed it’s time to go casual, to bring out the jeans. The law-school look for work.

We have to make America look as if it cares again. Therefore, I won’t vote for any presidential aspirant who, if male, doesn’t wear a tie or plunges his feet into loafers without socks; or who, if female, wears flats and eschews leg and foot coverage. I’m saving my vote for a sartorially principled candidate.

Llewellyn King (lking@kingpublishing.com), an occasional contributor to New England Diary, is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle on PBS. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.


Afterword from Robert Whitcomb, New England Diary overseer:

I have generally found that I get better service while traveling wearing a jacket and tie than without. (It’s also often helpful to wear pants.) The sartorial dignity tends to elicit more respect.

But there are times when being relatively formal can cause you trouble.

Two incidents come to mind:

In May 1974 I took the ferry from Ostend, Belgium, to Folkstone, England. I wore a summer suit and a tie. I was the only one so attired of the hundreds on the boat. It was the tail end of the Hippie age and most of the other passengers wore T-shirts, cut-off jeans and so on. It looked like Woodstock-sur-le-mer.

So I stood out. For my pains, I was asked upon entry in England to enter a stuffy room in the immigration center in Folkstone, where I was interrogated for an hour on where I planned to go in England and whom I would be seeing. I had to provide numerous phone numbers and addresses connected with my itinerary before my release.

Clearly they thought that someone of such traditional appearance had to be up to no good. Perhaps I was a spy or an international business con man? (If only that had been the case,  I wouldn't have worried so much about the cost of that trip to Europe, which was mostly to see old friends on the Continent and in England.)

The next incident came in the fall of 2001, soon after 9/11. I was returning from Athens via Amsterdam to Boston, again wearing a suit and tie. Everyone else was a slob, of varying degrees, and some young men look liked the popular vision of Islamic terrorists. I look like, I’m afraid to admit, (almost a parody of?) a WASP – dishwater-blond hair, thin and so on.

Anyway, because I looked like I was covering up something nefarious by wearing business clothes, and/or because political correctness directed them to make me an example of how they did not unfairly single out the scruffy or the ethnically or religiously suspicious-looking, I was interrogated at great length by two inspectors about where I was going.

Finally, I asked them, politely: “Why the grilling?’’ One of the inspectors responded with no explanation and a slight smile: “You can’t be too careful about people going to Boston.’’

That is of course from where two of the planes used by the 9/11 terrorists took off on their flights to mass murder.

But everyone else was going to Boston too. My old-fashioned conventional appearance elicited the inquiry, either out of real suspiciousness or to make a display of their lack of bigotry in front of a couple of hundred other passengers.


Llewellyn King: A look ahead at my presidency

Some of you were expecting me to announce my candidacy for president of the United States along with those other two who got all the headlines. There have been a few problems. There are solutions, too. (How's that for a campaign zinger?)

There is the problem of my birth. I was, er, born in a foreign country with, er, un-American parents. I have to check with the Ted Cruz camp on that problem.

There is a money problem. At the moment, I have $138 in my current account. But that amount will swell when my Social Security check comes in next week.

In the long term, I have a crafty, two-pronged approach to raise the billion or so dollars I will need for my campaign. My wife will set up a foundation, called the Foreign Governments' Friends Committee, which will raise money like a Fourth of July flag.

Unlike one of my opponents, I will not beat about the bush on foreign campaign donations. I will take them all, see that they are properly laundered, and promise the donors all sorts of favorable treatment. I can renege later. Not a word, please.

Then there is crowd-sourcing. When my message gets out, I expect a Niagara Falls of money. I will be after the disaffected, unhappy people who hate all candidates. The nutters of the left and the nutters of the right have lots of dough.

Here is a peak at other aspects of my program:

Bring back manufacturing (back story, by lowering the minimum wage), so that our labor is cheap.

Get tough with Iran. Any Iranian waiter found passing himself off as an Italian at a New York restaurant will get summary deportation.

Give China an ultimatum: Double the value of your currency or millions of Americans will be forbidden to shop at Walmart.

In the Middle East, trust the dictators. We will support the most awful monsters in the time-honored way. If we could get Saddam Hussein out of the grave, I would go for it. Likewise Muammar al-Qaddafi. Call it the strongman policy: No messing about with uprisings.

I will be a tough guy supporting other tough guys. I will say to Vladimir Putin, when we are shirtless, “I don't give a hoot about Ukraine. Take it. But want you to invade China -- just a little way. And crush ISIS. You know, the way you did Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the glory days.

That should take care of the world.

At  home I will have the most flexible of policies, based on the latest polling. If you are in favor of abortion, tell Gallup and you will get them.

Want the Ten Commandments on the wall of the Capitol? No problem if you can produce a convincing poll, preferably written on stone tablets.

What is democracy but a craven pursuit of votes through polling? Go democratic all the way, I say.

Wait until you hear some of my appointments. How do you fancy Donald Trump for secretary of state? Here is someone who will appreciate my tough- guys-are-always-right policy.

Before I announce, I will perfect my Israel strategy. I am leaning toward giving honorary citizenship to Benjamin Netanyahu, so I can make him my national-security adviser. Why should Congress claim Bibi as their own? I will have goodies to offer him that will beat whatever John Boehner and Mitch McConnell can do. How about a hard pass to the White House and a regular chance to be on the Sunday talk shows, for starters?

Darrell Issa is my choice for ambassador to Libya, in recognition of his Benghazi studies.

Finally, my coup de grace: immigration. Simple, no one will want to live here when I am in the White House.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle,” on PBS. His e-mail is lking@kingpublishing.com.

David Warsh: 'The Putin Show' is scarier than you think


The confrontation with Russia is becoming more alarming. Kathrin Hille, reporting from Moscow for the Financial Times, describes how cellphone operators are offering free ringtones of patriotic war songs, intended to evoke the defense of Moscow in 1941.

"The government-led drive, named Hurray for Victory!, comes as Moscow enters the homestretch in an impassioned and increasingly shrill campaign to commemorate the end of the Second World War.''

Meanwhile, The New York Times, as part of the rollout of its redesigned magazine, commissioned Soviet-born Russian novelist Gary Shteyngart to hole up for seven days at the Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street in Manhattan with the main Russian television networks on three screens. In “‘Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth:’ What I learned from watching a week of Russian TV ‘” Shteyngart concludes,

''When you watch the Putin Show, you live in a superpower. You are a rebel in Ukraine bravely leveling the once-state-of-the-art Donetsk airport with Russian-supplied weaponry. You are a Russian-speaking grandmother standing by her destroyed home in Lugansk shouting at the fascist Nazis, much as her mother probably did when the Germans invaded more than 70 years ago. You are a priest sprinkling blessings on a photogenic convoy of Russian humanitarian aid headed for the front line. To suffer and to survive: This must be the meaning of being Russian. It was in the past and will be forever. This is the fantasy being served up each night on Channel 1, on Rossiya 1, on NTV.''

And The Wall Street Journal has an essay by Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, an aide in various capacities in the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Weiss writes,

''[T]he Ukraine showdown is even scarier than you think: Mr. Putin is making it up as he goes along….  Almost single-handedly, [he] seems to be dragging much of the West into a New Cold War.  He’s winging it, and when things get difficult, he tends to double down.''

Weiss describes an “extreme personalization of power” following Putin’s return as president, in 2012. As the Ukraine crisis intensified in late 2013 and 2014, Putin narrowed his circle of advisers and placed them on a war-footing, valuing loyalty over worldliness.

Blindsided when events in Kiev spun out of control last February and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow, Weiss says, Putin had only himself to blame for having backed a leader who simply panicked when the going got tough.”  So, on the “spur-of-the-moment,” Putin annexed Crimea.

''Why on earth would Moscow want to take over a money pit like Crimea at a time of slowing economic growth and plunging oil prices?  On the fly, Kremlin propagandists came up with a mantra that they invoke to this day: the new authorities who replaced Mr. Yanukovych in Kiev were illegitimate because they had staged a coup d’état with Western backing,''

Putin followed his invasion – “the most audacious land-grab since World War II” – with a “sham popular referendum” and formal annexation. Then came more “damn-the-consequences, trial-and-error improvisation” to sow unrest in  southeastern Ukraine: seizures of government buildings by Russian-speaking separatists, led by Russian “facilitators.” And after the situation escalated to outright war, Putin sought a ceasefire, obtained it on advantageous terms, and then violated it with an unexpected surge of fighting around Donetsk and Lugansk.

''Mr. Putin’s highly personalized, profoundly erratic approach to government tmay be even more dangerous than most Western governments are comfortable admitting.  How can the Ukrainians or dogged western leaders such as {German Chancellor Angela} Merkel possibly search for a diplomatic solution if they are dealing with a leader who is making it all up on the fly?  … Kiev doesn’t know what Mr. Putin wants; even Mr. Putin doesn’t know what he wants.''

Notice anything funny about this narrative? Putin is always the impulsive actor, never the one who is acted upon.  He is never reacting to anything that NATO or the Americans do.

There is nothing here about NATO expansion. Nothing about the brief 2008 war with Georgia. Nothing about the continuing controversy about who fired the shots on Kiev’s  Maidan Square, nothing about the phone call by U.S.  Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, taped by the Russians at the height of the crisis; nothing about the Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea.  Nothing about the sanctions imposed on the Russians since the crisis began. Nothing about the Ukrainian army offensives in the southeast. Nothing about the Ukrainian vote to join NATO that may have triggered the January offensive. Nothing to note that all this is happening on Russia’s doorstep.  Is it any wonder Putin is “doubling down”?

The scariest thing of all is that it may be Putin who has been telling the fundamental truth all along:  NATO expansion in Georgia Ukraine is unacceptable to him and Russia is willing to go to war to rule it out. He’s been improvising, all right, but often in response to probes – Ukrainian, European, U.S.  For a fuller argument along these lines, see Gordon Hahn’s illuminating commentary on ''The American Education of Vladimir Putin, ''by Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill, which appears in The Atlantic for February.

Meanwhile, a friend, who knows the territory well, writes,

''I think it was Napoleon who said your adversary gets a vote in all battles. Putin is a complex, dangerous, possibly paranoid man. We in the West act in ways consciously or unconsciously that can affect his actions. Could he still be winging it? At times, he could.  I agree with Weiss that Yanukovich surprised, possibly astounded, Putin when he caved. I also think the oil price collapse and ruble meltdown caught him completely unaware. His finance people were not prepared and he fired them. Same for many of his agricultural  folks. Was that winging it or just having to react to tough times? We in the US did not have to fire Bernanke to right the ship in 2009.  There seems to be a purge mentality in Putin that comes from “Soviet man.”

Whoever started it, Putin is now thoroughly buttoned-up in a defensive posture. What’s more dangerous than a Russian bear?  A wounded Russian bear.


David Warsh, a long-time economic historian and business columnist, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com.

David Warsh: Ukraine and 'Planning Armageddon'


So German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande succeeded.   They traveled to Moscow and persuaded Vladimir Putin to pledge to pause and perhaps eventually end Russia’s military support for the Russian-speakers in the Ukrainian civil war – more than 5,000 dead and 1 million refugees so far.

So the pressure on President Obama from U.S.  hawks to begin a proxy war with Russia by supplying weapons to the Ukrainians will ease, at least not now. For a sensible opinion, see Bloomberg View in the days before the bargain

''[T[he law that president Petro Poroshenko signed in December  to end Ukraine’s neutral status and set a course for membership in NATO has created a diplomatic obstacle to peace.  The US and its allies should make clear to Ukraine that its NATO ambitions are unrealistic.  Right or wrong, the alliance doesn’t want Ukraine, and Russia sees its membership in NATO as a red line.''

The Washington Post afterwards took a more pugnacious view

''[T]he deal brokered by German and French leaders with Russia’s Vladimir Putin does little to restrain his ambition to create a puppet state in eastern Ukraine that could be used to sabotage the rest of the country…. By going along with the Europeans’ desperate diplomatic gambit, [Mr. Putin] ensured that not even minor sanctions would be adopted at a European Union summit Thursday. He also provided President Obama with reason to overrule those in his administration seeking to supply arms to Ukraine. Mr. Putin can resume military aggression at will, while the push for new sanctions or weapons could take weeks or months to regain momentum.''

So did the The Wall Street Journal:

''[W]hat better time for Vladimir Putin to agree to another cease-fire that consolidates his military gains, extracts additional political concessions from Kiev, puts off further Western sanctions, and gives President Obama another diplomatic alibi not to supply Ukraine’s demoralized and ill-equipped military with desperately needed defensive weapons?… Mr. Putin will consolidate his latest victory, survey the European landscape for weak spots, and make another move before America gets a new President who might do more to resist his conquests.''

But it was The Economist, in its first major outing under new editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes, that went over the top. On the cover, a sinister Putin manipulates strings attached to gullible European marionettes, figures who are not shown. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande?  No, only Europe’s emergent populist parties, including Syriza in Greece, at least if you believe the sidebar. The editorial, “The View from the Kremlin: Russia’s War on the West,” begins:

''He is ridiculed for his mendacity and ostracized by his peers. He presides over a free-falling currency and a rapidly shrinking economy. International sanctions stop his kleptocratic friends from holidaying in their ill-gotten Mediterranean villas. Judged against the objectives Vladimir Putin purported to set on inheriting Russia’s presidency 15 years ago – prosperity, the rule of law, westward integration – regarding him as a success might seem bleakly comical.  But those are no longer his goals, if they ever really were. Look at the world from his perspective, and Mr. Putin is winning….His overarching aim is to divide and neuter that alliance [NATO], fracture its collective approach to security, and resist and roll back its advances.''

Then in a long essay, “What Russia Wants:  From Cold War to Hot War.”

''Nearly a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West faces a greater threat from the East than at any point during the cold war. Even during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Soviet leaders were constrained by the Politburo and memories of the Second World War. Now, according to Russia’s chief propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, even a decision about the use of nuclear arms 'will be taken personally by Mr Putin, who has the undoubted support of the Russian people'. Bluff or not, this reflects the Russian elite’s perception of the West as a threat to the very existence of the Russian state

''In this view Russia did not start the war in Ukraine, but responded to Western aggression. The Maiden uprising and ousting of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president were engineered by American special services to move NATO closer to Russia’s borders. Once Mr Yanukovych had gone, American envoys offered Ukraine’s interim government $25 billion to place missile defenses on the Russian border, in order to shift the balance of nuclear power towards America. Russia had no choice but to accept.''

In fact, many sophisticated Europeans and Americans share the basic Russian view of the situation.  They see the campaign to expand NATO to Russia’s southern borders as the fundamental cause of Ukrainian civil war.  Essentially this seems to be the Bloomberg View. Subsequent editorials (you have to know where to look)  here, here, and here take a sterner but still sensible view. )

Whence the dissonance between Bloomberg and The Economist?

As it happens, I have been reading Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War, by Nicholas A Lambert (Harvard, 2012). Towards the end of the book, an idea tumbled out.

Planning Armageddon has been making the rounds in national security circles since it appeared, for obvious reasons:  If plans for an economic blitzkrieg were first developed a hundred years ago, based on British recognition that that international trade had become so important it might be possible to cripple and collapse as rival’s financial system by a series of swift moves in the event off war, how much greater must be the field for mischief in the present age?

It turns out such plans were developed – and even put into action.  Historians have long known that all sides expected a war in 1914 to end quickly.  Lambert shows why.  The Germans had their Schlieffen Plan, led off by a quick march through the neutral Low Countries to capture Paris, based on Prussia’s earlier triumph in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870.  The Brits, it turns out, had the Desart Committee’s plan for all-out economic war.

Worked out in considerable detail by the Admiralty between 1905 and 1908, the British plan involved using all possible means to disrupt Germany’s trade, chiefly its  food supply, including instigating a banking panic.  A Committee on Imperial Defense refined the plan.  In 1913, the government approved it.  And on Aug. 4,  1914, two weeks after Austrian government  made  an unprecedented threat to government of Serbia, it was put into action.

Immediately the economic war plan began to crumble, The panic touched off by the news that was imminent was worse than had been expected.  The ban on trading with the enemy affected not just but neutral nations, especially the United States, but powerful groups in Britain, too.  The British Board of Trade and the Foreign Office turned immediately against the government’s plan.

By the end of August the British cabinet had begun to dilute it in favor of a very different policy they called “blockade” – and sent an expeditionary force to the Continent instead.

Protected by wartime censorship and secrecy until official histories could render it all but invisibility, the aborted economic blitzkrieg disappeared from view – until Lambert, with access to previously secret archival materials, brought it to modern attention.    Here are three expert reviews of his book, and a response from the author.  It’s as good a story as Erskine Childers’s 1903 classic novel, The Riddle of the Sands, with the added virtue that it’s true.  .

One thing I took away from Planning Armageddon is that military strategists in capitals around the world can be counted on to be doing with computers and present-day financial communication systems what their Edwardian counterparts were doing a hundred years ago – laying plans to disrupt their foes’ economies as thoroughly as possible if it comes to war,.  When Russia’s Kiselev says Putin  will use nuclear weapons if the existence of the Russian state is threatened, economic Armageddon is the kind of thing he’s got in mind – an all-out attempt to starve the Russian government into submission.

The other thing I took away is that, just as market interests swamped the British plan for all-out economic war in 1914, probably they will disrupt the clamor for U.S.  proxy war with Russia in 2015.  There’s a reason that Bloomberg View takes a calmer stance towards the Russian bullying of Ukraine than does The Economist. Its subscribers have more skin in the game.

David Warsh, a long-time financial journalist and economic historian, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com.

A morning on this and that

A few Boxing Day observations:  

New Englanders are always complaining about their high electricity  rates even as they let frenzied and often well financed  and affluent not-in-my-backyard folks keep out the additional natural-gas pipelines, hydro-power, wind power, nuclear and even solar power that would bring down those rates and diversify their power sources so they aren't so vulnerable to one power source's price and supply gyrations.


As a nifty series in The Wall Street Journal implies,  you could expand healthcare if you really went after the physicians and other providers who are defrauding Medicare by many billions of dollars a year.



Donald Hall's latest book, Essays After Eighty, is well worth buying. The New Hampshire-based poet/essayist's take on aging is good medicine for all of us rapidly heading toward, or already in, old age.

As for me, I'll repeat the observation of other old people that the best thing about being  elderly is being able to easily say no to requests to do something you really don't want to do but may have felt compelled  to do by a sense of duty or the desire to be liked, or at least not disliked. Those concerns fall off like a snake shedding its skin.

And both those who liked you and disliked you disappear from the scene at an accelerating rate.




It's sad to know that  Turkish  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now a  kleptocratic, narcissistic, bigoted and anti-women dictator who is installing a police state. Turkey is a member of NATO but it's hard to know how long that can continue, since, in principle anyway, NATO members are supposed to be democracies. Erdogan is also cozying up to fellow dictator Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan, increasingly pathological in his lies, will presumably continue to use state apparatus to squelch dissent, and, like, Putin play the xenophobia card, as would any good demagogue.


--- R0bert Whitcomb



Frozen polls



Photo in Krasnoskamensk, Russia,  March 2006, by SERGEY MAXIMISHIN, in the show "Siberia Imagined and Reimagined,'' at the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Mass., through Jan. 10.


News stories frequently report that Russian President Vladimir Putin has about an 80 percent approval rating in polls. But what do public-opinion polls means in a police state?

Too much force and then too little

American voters, responding  in part to what they saw as George W. Bush's and John McCain's excessively muscular foreign policies,  decided to elect  and then re-elect Barack Obama their president. Now they seem him as excessively passive, too slow to act and too easily suckered by  the machinations of such tyrants as Vladimir Putin. Thus the electorate displays the mass of  shifting confusions that make up each individual.

Putin intensifies his invasion

  Mary McCarthy once famously said about Lillian Hellman:


"Every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'."


The same thing could be said about  the promises and assertions of Russia's cold, corrupt and narcissistic dictator, Vladimir Putin, whose forces continue to invade a sovereign country -- Ukraine.

We hope that U.S. and its NATO allies recognize the danger that this poses to all of eastern and central Europe and  swiftly make weapons available to the Ukrainians.

Meanwhile, Russian hackers, at the behest of Putin, have been hard at work invading account information in U.S. banks.




Robert Whitcomb: Trying to corner time

As our electronic “communication” devices spin us around, we sometimes feel that we’re losing what little grasp we had of our individual pasts as they recede ever more rapidly behind us. The attention-deficit disorder intensified by mobile devices, wishful thinking about multitasking and our fear of what self-reflection can dredge up have led to a growing feeling that we’re going through life in a daze, with less and less understanding of how we came to be the people we are. (And psychoanalysis is far too expensive.)

Life is brief enough without so much of it disappearing into a false-urgency fog of text messages, and we too often confuse mere activity with achievement and progress.

In the early 20th century, Marcel Proust, in a fraught but much slower era than ours, strove to recapture, through literature, emotions, sensory perceptions and thoughts as they were experienced in the past. It was a way of justifying his life and fending off a sense of waste. It wasn’t exactly a search for immortality, but a first cousin.

And consider the new movie “Boyhood,” by director Richard Linklater, filmed in “real time” from when a boy named Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) is 6 until he’s 18. The movie is about how time changes and doesn’t change us.

Then there’s Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s long autobiographical novel “My Struggle” (“Min Kamp” in Norwegian). As Simon Prosser wrote in The Guardian, Mr. Knausgaard’s book collapses “the wall between author and writer as you live his life alongside him” since his youth. He is trying to corral the horses of memory before they run off and disappear. After all, we are our memories. (That “My Struggle” is also the English name of Hitler’s hideous book, “Mein Kampf,” has aroused anger; Mr. Knausgaard seems to have merely sought to grab readers’ attention with the title.)

Another notable attempt to recapture time is the work of W.G. Sebald, the late German writer, with its eerily oblique references to World War II and the Holocaust.

Are many people pushing back against the accelerating speed and hyper-complication of modern life as they feel their histories evaporating? Will they try to live more fully in the present moment so that they have richer pasts to remember? Text me your answer ... .

A new book called “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” by Greg McKeown, might help us push back.


“You have been given the choice between war and dishonor. You have chosen dishonor, and you will have war.”

So said Winston Churchill, in 1938, referring to British and French attempts to appease Hitler at the Munich Conference.

The West may finally be seriously confronting revanchist Russia, run by a brutal, cynical and kleptocratic dictator. Vladimir Putin, by seizing Crimea — part of Ukraine, a large and sovereign European nation! — and continuing to attack this neighbor, has even more clearly shown himself to be a duplicitous tyrant. Ignore his regime’s Joseph Goebbels-style propaganda.

Myopic and rather decadent Western Europe, tied far too tightly to Russia’s largest industry, fossil fuel, would suffer a bit (though far less than the Kremlin) by taking strong measures against Russian aggression. But it would suffer much more if it continued its appeasement, based to no small degree on wishful thinking.

Slash trade with Russia and give all practical military and intelligence aid to Ukraine (no, not troops on the ground) so it can properly defend itself. Or wait until Putin starts terrorizing Poland and the Baltic Republics.

I’ll bet Ukrainians wish they had joined NATO.


The suburban office parks that started to go up in the 1950s in the golden age of the automobile and cheap gasoline, are, like suburban malls and big-box stores, generally boring and sterile places, with forgettable knock-off Modernist or Post-Modernist architecture and vast parking lots. Most have not aged well.

But as part of a growing desire, especially among young adults and Baby Boomers, to live in places with a greater sense of community and more convenience than suburban tracts, developers are turning some old office parks into mixed-used complexes with housing, retail, office and even (in few places) light manufacturing. In other words, turning them into new villages. I thought of this when driving around the Boston area lately and reading Jay Fitzgerald’s July 27 Boston Globe story, “Developers take steps to reinvent suburban office parks.”

Some of the office parks’ buildings can be fairly easily retrofitted for new uses, and some of the parking lots replaced by buildings and green space. Much of the success of this reinvention will depend on getting more public transportation, more space for bikes — and golf carts.

Robert Whitcomb oversees New England Diary.

Still trying to appease Putin

  Russian dictator Vladimir Putin continues to send Russian troops, intelligence operatives and heavy weaponry into the eastern Ukraine to try to take it over.  It's not proving quite as easy as his theft of Crimea from Ukraine, a sovereign nation, but he is patient.

The West has responded to this brazen aggression by doing virtually nothing, Meanwhile, the Germans remain profoundly cynical and corrupt as they try to work out more business and other deals with this thug.  This recalls  the Hitler-Stalin pact, although of course the main players are nowhere that evil!

In any case,  we'll pay for this appeasement.


Triumph for the Taliban

It seems clear now that President Obama made a very bad deal in swapping five Taliban people for Bowe Bergdahl.  Some or all of them will probably end up back in Afghanistan or Pakistan t0 resume their fanatical violence, and the swap will incentivize more kidnapping. We don't yet know all the circumstances of how Sergeant Bergdahl ended up in Taliban hands. Did he defect or just desert? Or a combination thereof?

President Obama's strongest moral argument, if he used it, for doing this bad deal is that Sergeant Bergdahl was and is mentally ill and was not acting out of rational volition in Afghanistan. But that is far from an adequate reason to do a deal that  so strongly favors the Taliban and signals weakness to it and the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and its Western allies continue to  signal weakness to Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of eastern Ukraine continues and who is eying stealing other Eastern European real estate to further strengthen the Kremlin kleptocracy.




Moment of truth for the West

russianart At the Museum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, Mass., in the show "The Tsars' Cabinet,'' which highlights 200 years of decorative arts under the Romanov dynasty. Russian oligarchs around Vladimir Putin also love to collect these items.

(Respond via rwhitcomb51@gmail.com)

In September 1938, at the Munich Conference, Adolf Hitler promised French and British leaders, who felt compelled to appease him, that Czechoslovakia’s mostly German-speaking Sudetenland region would be ”my last territorial demand in Europe.’’ Within a few months, of course, the Nazis occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and then invaded Poland.

Vladimir Putin is a power-mad political mobster of extreme cynicism and considerable paranoia, albeit not the world-historical sociopath that Hitler was. I have little doubt that the Russian dictator  plans to try to seize more land in eastern Europe, perhaps part of Moldova and all of Ukraine and not just the eastern part, where, he and his associates like to say, they might need to “rescue’’ Russian speakers from virtually nonexistent “mistreatment’’.  In the same way, Hitler often cited the need to “rescue’’ German speakers who lived in countries that Hitler wanted to seize in the pursuit of his “Thousand Year Reich’’.

Putin, like Hitler, seems obsessed with “encirclement’’ by perceived foes. Of course, most people in neighboring nations, who see close-up what goes on in Putin’s kleptocratic police state, would certainly not want to be absorbed by it. Meanwhile, why don’t more journalists and others note that Russia is far and away the largest country by square mileage.  Without the powerful vector of Russian imperialism (which includes Soviet imperialism), it might seem passing strange that Russia would want/need to get even bigger.

But for a thug, no power or money or acreage is enough. Thus former KGB official Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.’’ He’s talking about a regime that murdered tens of millions of people and that for a couple of years was a Nazi ally.

But a regime as nasty as Putin’s is not exactly good for business investment, and so Russia, for all its size, remains remarkably weak, if aggressive. Of course, the Chinese regime is also corrupt and brutal, but China has an entrepreneurial and disciplined people who have made the country an economic powerhouse anyway. The Russians, burdened by bad government and the associated alcoholism, despair and fatalism, and thus without a vibrant, diversified entrepreneurial culture, don’t have it. Without copious supplies of oil and gas, they would hardly have an economy at all.

Those fossil fuels give Russia a lot of power to get temporizing Europeans to tolerate Russian imperialism. It’s yet another reason to move faster to home-grown renewable energy – and gas exports from the U.S. What will it take to get the Germans, etc., to accept some short-term pain in return for the long-term security that would come from the demise of Putin’s dictatorship? That short-term European pain could include a cutoff of Russian gas supplies in response to sanctions on the Putin regime.

Many of Putin’s cronies and maybe the dictator himself have Riviera real estate, bank accounts, money-laundering operations and other assets in the West. Indeed, something that the West has going for it now that it didn’t have in Soviet days is that the Russian regime and the former Soviet functionaries who stole state assets under the drunken Boris Yeltsin have so much property abroad.  And Russian oligarchs like to travel in and indeed live in the West. They should be squeezed very hard.

The Russians have far more to fear from tough Western sanctions than the West has to fear from the Putin regime. The question is whether the West has gone too soft and complacent to act firmly.

The sanctions by the Obama administration to squeeze some of Putin’s fellow mobsters are a start but far from enough.  And the Europeans have not yet shown much backbone. Rhetoric is cheap. Western security demands that everything possible be done to weaken Putin’s regime. Now.

When George W. Bush did little when the Russians invaded  tiny Georgia, a democracy, and stole some of its land,  it emboldened Putin, who, like most bullies, is quick to sense weakness. He probably laughed his cynical laugh when Bush said early in his presidency that he had “looked into his {Putin’s} soul’’ and saw a man he could trust.

NATO must step up its military assistance to members Poland and the Baltic Republics and provide arms, air-defense technology, military intelligence and other defensive military support to Ukraine to make Putin think twice before marching on Kiev.

In 1956, President Eisenhower did virtually nothing when the Russians moved in to quash the Hungarian Revolution, killing tens of thousands of people. In 1968, President Johnson did nothing when the Russians quashed Czech attempts to wrest themselves from Soviet/Russian dictatorship. In 2008 President G.W. Bush did virtually nothing when the Russians invaded Georgia and stole some of that democracy's land. But these days, we do have potent weapons to discourage further Russian expansionism. But they require our will and patience.

Meanwhile, many Ukrainian leaders must profoundly regret that their nation gave up its nuclear arms in 1994 in return for security guarantees from the U.S., Britain and Russia. The hope then was that Russia would not go back to its traditional oriental despotism. One of Russia’s fellow tyrannies, Iran, which is hurrying to make nuclear bombs, will take a lesson from the Ukrainian crisis.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a former editor of these pages and a Providence-based editor and writer. He runs the www.newenglanddiary.com site. He is a former editor at the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal.



The granny pod in the backyard


(Please comment via rwhitcomb51@gmail.com)

Real-estate trends say a lot about America’s wider economy and society — about citizens’ ambitions and insecurities and their evolving sense of place in our hurly-burly nation. So I read with great interest the Jan. 26 New York Times stories “The Gadfly of Greenwich Real Estate: Amid dozens of unsold mega-mansions, a real estate agent sees a glut of greed” and “Big Is Back (and Don’t Forget the Extras).”

The stories reminded me of how much more showy house ownership is now among the rich and near-rich than, say, 50 years ago. What mix of insecurity, exhibitionism, “irrational exuberance,” love of place, healthy confidence and speculation in all this? (Reminder: A real-estate boom caused the Crash of 2008.)

Billionaire Warren Buffett, by the way, lives in a modest house in Omaha.

But what really caught my eye was a Times story that ran back on May 1, 2012 headlined, “In the Backyard, Grandma’s New Apartment.” It’s about a mini-house called the MEDCottage — a prefab 12-by-24-foot, one-floor “bedroom-bathroom-kitchenette unit that can be set up as a free-standing structure.”

Given the aging of the population, we might be seeing far more of these dwellings than McMansions in the next couple of decades. They’re a fine idea, letting old people retain a sense of independence (albeit partly bogus) while not encumbering them with the duty of taking care of a “real” house.

But it’s doubtful that many residents of these tiny houses will build the powerful memories associated with childhood homes. For one thing, their ability to remember is fading.

Some of mine might be too, but my recollections of the house “I grew up in” on a hill near Massachusetts Bay remain powerful. The smell of the cedar closet, the dusty heat of the third floor in summer, the freezing drafts in the west-facing rooms in the winter, the troubling sound of glasses being clinked downstairs. My parents owned the house for about 20 years but because a young person’s sense of time passing is much slower than an adult’s — more of that below — it seems to me that I spent half my 66 years there. A childhood home has a powerful personality, creating a haunting and lifelong sense of place.

But now, jettisoning most of our stuff and moving into something like the MEDCottage has a growing attraction. I wonder if the buyers of our modest house would mind if we bought a corner of the (albeit small) backyard and put one of these tiny dwellings there to move into. We like the neighborhood.


The demonstrations in Ukraine against dictatorial and (with his family) kleptocratic President Viktor Yanukovych, pal and/or lackey of Russia’s quasi-fascist dictator Vladimir Putin, recall that given honest information, most people would choose to live in Western-style liberal democracies. While such potentates as Putin strive to ever expand their power and to quash their opposition, most Ukrainians look west for hope. The thuggery of a Putin or the Taliban can only suppress for a time people’s drive to live in the sort of society whose fullest expression is in nations dominated by Western ideals.

That’s because those ideals when implemented, however incompletely, address the deepest desires of people for dignity, for protection from arbitrary, larcenous and violent rule and for self- and civic improvement. The brute force of authoritarian regimes cannot work forever to block these desires.

Most Ukrainians want to be part of “Europe” (which really means Western and Central Europe) and not an autocratic empire — even one run by fellow Slavs.


We’ve had a tough winter in the Northeast so far this year. The jet stream has been screwed up, bringing us extended deep freezes, and Out West, including Alaska, record warmth.

When you’re a kid, snowstorm predictions bring joy; you don’t worry about going outside without a hat, nor about your dog not wearing a coat. (We thought that dogs were impervious to the extremes of nature.) But as you age, the inconveniences of snow and ice look more daunting; indeed, new snow can seem a layer of death. You feel the cold more and (rightly) anthropomorphize the dog’s feelings.

Still, as I wrote in my blog during last Saturday’s morning-long “January thaw,” how adults process time helps get them through winter. We know far better than the young how fast the seasons come and go. A happy reminder comes when you have the habit of walking the dog early in the morning and sometime in the middle of January you start to really notice it getting brighter earlier. Rejoice! Rejoice! However, with the caution and empathy of age, you make sure that you’re wearing a hat and the dog a coat.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com and www.newenglanddiary.com) is a Providence-based writer and editor and a former editor of The Providence Journal's Commentary pages.