Saturday, February 24, 2024

A Letter to Putin

Dear President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,

I am certain that you are too busy to read a critical letter from a nobody in a foreign country, but I hope my viewpoint will be useful and unique enough to warrant your attention. I write from a place of respect, though I am alarmed at the turn your policies are taking recently. There is much that I respect about your leadership of Russia and your foreign policies in general, however, there are a couple of problematic areas that I think could use your attention and deliberation: Specifically, how you are waging war in Ukraine since the negotiations in Istanbul, and your criticism of Israel. I believe that both of these issues stem from the same problem: That you are too soft. I realize how preposterous and brazen this sounds, not only to you but also to the Western world. Please allow me to explain:

When you launched your special military operation in Ukraine in February of 2022, like many others, I was surprised at this turn of events due to my ignorance of what had been going on in the area. I listened to your stated reasons and goals when you said you intend to denazify and demilitarize Ukraine, and saw how the Western world declared you a lunatic for describing an imaginary Nazi problem in Ukraine, accusing you of using this claim to mask expansionist goals. Knowing that you are an intelligent man and not prone to lunacy, I looked it up for myself, and very easily and quickly found information regarding your claim.

Let us summarize the necessary background of which you are obviously well aware. I include this here only because I know you are a stickler for historical context: I found documentary after documentary, article after article, all clearly describing the Nazi and ultra-nationalist problem in Ukraine, and these reports came from distinguished Western news outlets, not from Russian sources. Some examples follow: Andriy Biletsky said Ukraine’s national purpose was to "lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen" and he was elected to Ukrainian parliament in 2014. I also read about Stepan Bandera, and the many dozens of monuments erected in Ukraine for this Nazi collaborator, as well as many other commemorations, and the granting of hero status to Bandera by the government itself.

I read about NATO's aggressive military expansion on Russia's borders for many decades. I studied the violent coup d'état of 2014 in Ukraine, read about the rejection of this violent coup by eight million Russians in Ukraine, about the new 2014 Ukrainian law forbidding use of the Russian language in many public spheres, the ensuing Donbas War, where Russians decided to fight back against this oppressive illegal government, a war where 14,000 people died over eight years. I saw ultra-nationalists train Ukrainian children to see Russians as less than human, and to shoot to kill all Russians. I saw a Western reporter document eight years of Ukraine bombing its Russian civilians in Eastern Ukraine. And so on.

All this and more led me to the inevitable conclusion that, even if ultra-nationalists are a minority in Ukraine, they are in power. As opposed to the common Nazi problem in every other country, Ukraine was erecting monuments and naming streets after Nazis, establishing numerous training camps for children around the country with women wearing "White Pride" tattoos on their thighs and training children. Ultra-nationalists had established their own military with the approval of and incorporation into the Ukrainian government, as a reward for their success in fighting Russian separatists. This is why, as we see in the above documentaries, neo-Nazis from around the world flocked to Ukraine to join this movement which was government-sponsored and growing in power. Ukraine was obviously offering something different to these Nazis, and it was not only affecting Ukraine, but was spreading throughout the world (in 2018, four white supremacists trained by the Azov Battalion were arrested in California).

While the vast majority of Ukrainians probably saw this as a harmless nationalist movement, much like in Germany, the citizens were probably not fully exposed to the war crimes happening in eastern Ukraine and the battalions' actual attitude towards Russians and Jews. I heard that Ukrainian oligarchs funded these Nazi brigades merely because they didn't want Russians to take over and compromise their power. The claim by the Western world that the ultra-nationalists in Ukraine are an unimportant minority does not correspond with all of this evidence. How could they achieve all of this without extensive control? It's about who is in power, who controls the military and police, and who influences government policies, not who is the majority. The fact that the vast majority of Ukrainians are innocent does not contradict this, nor does it solve the Nazi problem.

(We both know that anyone that has not done their research or already subscribed to this viewpoint will dismiss me as a Russian propagandist, but these people may find my case slightly difficult since I am also criticizing you.)

All this took a while for me to absorb, but, eventually, I not only saw your invasion of Ukraine as inevitable and justified, but saw how you tried to solve the problem through non-violent means repeatedly, and used war as a last resort. This included numerous attempts at negotiating cease-fires for eight years, repeated attempts at implementing the Minsk Agreements, and even a last ditch attempt to force Ukrainians to the negotiating table at Istanbul in 2022 after the invasion. I was flabbergasted at the media's portrayal of the Ukraine war, contradicting their own narratives about Nazis in Ukraine while portraying what was actually a coup in 2014 as a triumph of democracy.

I now hold that the West owes you and Russia a debt of gratitude for this operation to denazify Ukraine. This is a crucial task to perform now before the problem grows to perilous proportions. If someone had done this in the 1930s in Germany, who knows how the world may have turned out. Once again, as with WWII, Russia is the primary bastion against Nazism.

So far so good. Since Istanbul, however, I have growing concerns about your strategies in Ukraine. On the one hand, your extensive efforts to reduce civilian casualties as much as is practically possible, and your open-door policies in terms of negotiations for agreements are admirable. On the other hand, your slow, careful war has caused suffering for two long years with no end in sight and, despite your careful approach, it has taken a very heavy toll of an estimated half a million dead Ukrainian soldiers.

Let me put it this way to drive the point home: Imagine Yuri and Anna, two civilians living in Kiev. In 2022, you restricted your bombings to military infrastructure, sent a show of force with many tanks but tried to come in soft (militarily speaking), tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid fighting in civilian areas, warned civilians to stay out of the war, pressured Ukraine to an agreement and retreated from Kiev,  then, when they broke this agreement, proceeded to wage a very slow, careful war in Eastern Ukraine where civilians were evacuated from cities before the cities were razed to the ground. All this spared the lives of Yuri and Anna. But, now in 2024, Yuri and Anna were forced into the army by aggressive Ukrainian conscription, pushed to the battlefield in uniform after minimal training, and promptly shot to pieces by the Russian army.

My point is that a long, careful war does not necessarily mean less suffering and death. Like the proverbial band-aid, sometimes it is necessary to pull it off in one go, causing damage and intense pain, but also reducing damage and suffering in the long-term. Your slow war has given Ukrainians too much time to regroup repeatedly, given time to the West to repeatedly re-arm Ukrainians, every slow victory has merely allowed a new fierce battle to start a few kilometers further down, and increasing numbers of Ukrainian civilians have not only suffered for a longer time due to the war, but have also been killed due to the fact that Ukraine constantly needs new soldiers to fuel this slow war and has been given ample time to do this.

So, while killing 'Anna the soldier' is legal according to international law in contrast to killing 'Anna the civilian', it is no less tragic. Some may have willingly chosen to join the army to fight Russians and are facing the consequences of their own choices, others did not join voluntarily, or were misled by propaganda. Each and every soldier was a civilian once and has a family. This call for humanitarian consideration also includes the many Russian soldiers that died during this war. Therefore, as we see, attempting to reduce civilian deaths does not always result in a reduction of civilian deaths.

What would have happened had you gone in strong, caused much more damage to civilians and cities, but gotten it over and done with in months rather than years? Wouldn't the amount of suffering and deaths been lower in the long run? I would agree that this is a debatable point and would depend on military realities, but it is something to consider depending on the nature of the war.

In addition, Ukrainian-Russian civilians in Donetsk are continuously being bombed during this war and, for two years, the war has failed to protect them because it is moving too slow.

Granted, much of this criticism derives from hindsight and is therefore unfair. I admit that this would have been hard to predict earlier on. The amount of support that Ukraine received from the West was unprecedented, and this alone extended the war until today. Similarly, the scale of Ukrainian resistance and stubbornness was unexpected, as was the extreme effectiveness of propaganda. But this does not mean that lessons could not have been learned a year ago, and it is not too late to change course.

Which brings us to Israel and the war in Gaza...

Once again, I see your sincere concern for avoiding civilian death and suffering both before and after the Gaza operation was launched. As opposed to others that thought you were comparing Israel to Nazis in Leningrad, I presumed you merely meant that the siege of 2 million civilians in a dense area would be similar in its catastrophic outcome, not in its intention. I see and admire your open-door policy of always preferring negotiations over war and doing everything possible to reach a practical agreement. Your demands for a ceasefire stem from this approach, and I respect that. As opposed to criticisms from the government of Israel, I also understand that you approached Hamas for negotiating hostage release and ceasefire, not in order to condone terrorism.

However, you are making the same mistakes with Israel as you made with Ukraine. Your utmost concern for civilians, and your naiveté that the other side will eventually follow the law and fulfill agreements, both have a dark side and severe consequences, as I will further expand.

You have repeatedly emphasized Israel's right to defend itself and a right to demand security as part of any agreement, but how is Israel supposed to do this if you refuse to accept civilian casualties? Obviously you don't mean that a war should magically result in zero casualties, but that all avenues for peace should be explored beforehand.

Therefore, from your words, I hear your general support for Israel but see two separate criticisms: 1. That earlier peace attempts in the Middle-East were not serious or well thought through by either the USA or Israel, and: 2. That Israel is using 'cruel methods' to defend itself in Gaza, presumably methods that you have not used in Ukraine.

I considered that you may be criticizing Israel as revenge for Israel not fully supporting you in your Ukraine war. Although somewhat petty, this is something I could understand. If one criticizes a country diplomatically, then one should be prepared to receive in kind. However, my feeling from your consistent speeches is that this isn't merely a diplomatic facade on your part, but a criticism to which you lend your rational and moral support. Therefore, I will be countering your criticisms:

Regarding the first point: Your repeated criticism of the US and its attempts at peace in the Middle-East indicates that you think you could have done better. I can understand this impulse, but have you considered that perhaps, like Ukraine, Palestinians have broken their agreements repeatedly and it wasn't the agreement that was bad but the people that have bad intentions? Was Minsk a bad agreement? Or, perhaps, Ukraine and the USA had no intention to keep their agreements and only had militant intentions towards Russia? You have said so yourself. In which case, have you considered that your repeated endeavors for peace agreements with an uncompromisingly belligerent people, after a while, can only cause more death and destruction, as they did in Ukraine? At some point, one must conclude that one's potential peace partners are not honest or reliable and have evil intentions, and that one must fight them accordingly. This requires a harder approach, rather than more damaging calls for ceasefires, QED.

If this is the case in Ukraine, and you have argued yourself that this is the case, then it is arguably even more extreme in Israel-Palestine: This would be an appropriate place to point out one critical difference between Ukraine and Gaza: While most Ukrainians want peace, most Palestinians do not. In polls, 90% support terrorism and 75% want Israel to be destroyed. In addition, the PLO have officially declared their intention not to honor agreements and to use them as a basis for destroying Israel, repeatedly. And this is the PLO, not Hamas. Hamas, officially, have always declared their intention never to negotiate with Israel, and the majority of Palestinians support them. This effectively destroys your idea that peace is possible in the Middle-East if we only appeased their demands for self-determination. Do you think a peace plan would work when 75% of the civilian population want Israel destroyed and have wanted this for the past 100 years? Or is it possible that the US-brokered peace plans failed because of this reality and not because the US is incompetent (at least in this case)? 

If you failed to achieve peace in Ukraine several times despite the fact that it has peaceful citizens, is it so hard to believe that peace would fail with Palestine which has belligerent citizens? I realize you think you can do better and you think the reason it has failed was because Palestinians didn't get what they needed. But you forget your history: Palestinians had an opportunity to build a state in 1947 and attacked Israel instead. Israel did not occupy the West Bank and Gaza in 1948-1967 and still, Palestinians attacked Israel. Israel did not exist before 1947 and still Palestinians massacred Jews repeatedly between 1920-1947. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and Palestinians still voted for Hamas. I submit that your idealism is misplaced and projected unto an incompatible and belligerent people. Your well-meaning attempts at peace would not only have failed, they would have caused more death and destruction (as the catastrophic Oslo peace attempts have demonstrated).

Sergey Lavrov at Doha criticized the US for 'canceling' the context of the Gazan and Ukrainian wars, ignoring the history that led to these wars. But aren't you doing the same by canceling the above historical facts?

Under such circumstances, as with Ukraine, once all reasonable attempts at brokering agreements have failed, I'm sure you would agree that war is necessary. You have proven this to be true by invading Ukraine in 2022. Similarly, this is why Israel had no choice but to invade Gaza. Eventually, all well-meaning calls for ceasefire can only cause more death.

Regarding your second criticism that Israel is using unwarranted cruel methods while waging war on Hamas:

First, please consider the many parallels that exist between the two wars:

  • Ukraine and Gaza have both been firing missiles at civilians for years.
  • In Ukraine, at least during the first few months, Ukrainians have also used civilians as human shields.
  • Both you and Netanyahu have been accused of being war-hungry, expansionist, cruel monsters.
  • Both Russia and Israel have been accused of multiple war crimes by enemies as part of a  propaganda war. (The ICC has even issued a warrant for your arrest).
  • Both Russia and Israel are involved in a case at the ICJ involving genocide (though the details are different).
  • Russia, too, has claimed self-defense in the case against it and this has been ridiculed. But ICJ has gone further in the case of Russia and ruled that Russia must "immediately suspend the military operations in Ukraine", a ruling that Russia has dismissed as invalid.

Considering all of this experience with aggressive 'lawfare' and propaganda against Russia due to Russophobia, I find it very surprising that you would not be more understanding and discerning when the same is applied to Israel as part of an antisemitic war. Your ambassador at the UN even accused Israel of intending to wipe out the population of Gaza, assuming the ability to read Israeli minds, and using a wild and completely unsubstantiated claim that has also been directed at you several times. I understand that you have strong allies in the Arab world, but surely you have considered that the information they are showing you may be greatly biased and exaggerated just like the West did to Russia? How can you be oblivious to the distortions caused by propaganda after everything you saw in Ukraine?

After several branches of the UN have been used against you for propaganda purposes and you have declared their rulings invalid and ignored their arrest warrant, and Lavrov has accused the UN of being bribed or pressured into their decisions, how can you still criticize Israel based on UN rulings without being deeply hypocritical? For example:

  • You use the UN resolution against settlements as proof that Israel is an obstacle to peace despite the fact that this is a highly contested ruling disputed by legal experts around the world.

  • Your ambassador at the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, notwithstanding repeatedly saying that Israel has the right to protect its own citizens and ensure its security, infamously used a UN ruling from 2004 to claim that Israel has no right to self-defense as an occupier (1:32). However, this ruling was made only in the context of building a wall, and even the UN said in that same ruling that despite legal problems with Palestine not being a State, and problems with building a wall, as long as Israel acts in conformity with the law: "The fact remains that Israel has to face numerous indiscriminate and deadly acts of violence against its civilian population. It has the right, and indeed the duty, to respond in order to protect the life of its citizens.". Nebenzia, therefore, has not only invoked a ruling by an organization that you regularly delegitimize, he has even applied the ruling wrongly.

On the other hand, I understand that the images coming out of Gaza are disturbing and of great concern. Truly, I take your point seriously when you say that the suffering in Gaza does not compare to Ukraine. I take this to mean that the number of dead civilians including children within a short amount of time, especially when considering the size and density of Gaza, are not comparable to Ukraine. However, consider the following counter-points:

  • During the first few months of the special military operation in Ukraine, Russia found itself fighting within civilian areas with numerous civilian casualties, and many accusations of war crimes and brutality were directed against Russia. Must I remind you of Bucha? How, exactly, is the Israeli war in Gaza any different? You may claim that the number of deaths still aren't comparable even after taking into account this early stage of the war. To this I add three critical differences between the wars that offset and explain the harsher images coming out of Gaza:

  • The first difference is that Hamas uses populated civilian buildings much more extensively than Ukraine did, launching missiles and attacks from civilian homes and populated areas. Not only this, but Hamas has repeatedly used hospitals, ambulances and schools for storing weapons, for building tunnels, and for launching RPG rockets and missiles. If Russia had to defend itself by attacking thousands of homes, hospitals and schools, do you really think the casualty rate would have been lower than the rate in Gaza? And how would the optics of the war look then?

  • The second difference is that, eventually in 2023, Ukraine started evacuating its own civilians from cities where battles were taking place, leaving Russia free to destroy that city as necessary while taking control. Hamas, on the other hand, not only does not evacuate its own civilians, it keeps them in the city by using propaganda and force, even with guns at checkpoints. How many women and children would have died in your battles for the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka if those cities had hundreds of thousands of civilians? Wouldn't the images coming out of the war in Ukraine been as bad or worse than the images coming out of Gaza if Ukraine's government had behaved like Hamas?

  • Another difference is that you have yet to attack most of the major cities in Ukraine. How many casualties and displacements would occur when and if you try to take Kiev?

  • Finally, my primary contention in this letter, as I have said, is that you are waging war too softly, causing more damage in the long run. In some cases, increased civilian deaths in the short term could actually mean fewer deaths in the long run. If, as I have argued, we were to count soldiers as civilians (which they are/were), and if we took half a million dead Ukrainians as our number, that would constitute 1+% of Ukraine's population. In Gaza, the number of deaths (both soldiers and civilian) relative to the population of Gaza also stands at around 1+%. So how is Gaza worse than Ukraine?

In summary, I repeat my criticism that are you applying soft tactics in specific cases where harder ones are required. If you were a harder man and knew your history of the Middle-East, you wouldn't be criticizing Israel and should concede that the more aggressive war in Gaza may be the correct solution in this specific case. Granted, adjustments can be made and it's possible that some actions taken by Israel may have been a tad aggressive, but, overall, given your concern for civilians, surely you wouldn't want Gaza and Israel to suffer the same consequences as the ten-year war in Ukraine?

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