Category Archives: International

A320 Down: Speculation

We all saw the news this morning. A 24 year old A320 flying for a Lufthansa-run budget airline flew straight into a mountainside in the French Alps.  It looks like, in the cryptic language of aviation, a CFIT event – Controlled Flight Into Terrain.

And of course, the overriding question is “why”.

Let’s speculate.

It could’ve been in-plane terrorism.

If Abu Jihad got into the cockpit, he could’ve flown the plane well enough to crash it. That’s not hard to do: anyone with a handful of hours on a flight sim could achieve that limited goal.  But why crash into a mountain – why not turn around and pull a 9/11 on any of the many cities along the Med coast?

It could’ve been terrorism from outside of the plane.

Perhaps as it overflew Marseilles, a person on the ground was able to damage (or take control of) the autopilot system and force it to initiate a descent.  This is where fantasy technology meets conspiracy theories, so I’ll leave it to the black helicopter crowd.

It could’ve been poor maintenance.

The plane came out of the shop yesterday. As we all know from experience with our cars, the best way to get something to break is to fix or replace a part connected to it. This was, after all, a 24 year old aircraft.  And Murphy’s law clearly states that if something can go wrong, it probably will.

So maybe it was just that – old plane, MX uncovered something marginal or broke something, which lead to sudden decompression with the predictable results.

It also could have been a software glitch.

This is much more interesting, and I think, more likely.  The A320 famously crashed when unveiled, as its “fly-by-wire” system ignored pilot inputs during a low pass over a French airfield, and calmly flew the aircraft straight into the tree tops.

Again, this is an old aircraft, and its software was developed in the 1980s. We’ve all experienced strange, impossible-to-duplicate (but nonetheless very real) events with our PCs, like when the machine suddenly decides to format a drive or delete a document or engage in some other unanticipated antics, apparently entirely at random. With all computers, but especially older computers, the bizarre is uncommon, but not impossible.

So, perhaps the avionics suddenly blue-screened, locked up the control systems by ignoring cockpit inputs, and left the pilots with no options other than riding out the inevitable.  Horrible scenario, but easily imagined.

My strange theory – unintended auto-land

I’ve got a theory, which is a variant of the “software glitch” scenario – that this airplane’s glitch caused it to initiate an “auto land” mode, and the crew was unable to override it in time.

I’m suggesting that the flight control computer decided, for an at the moment unknown reason, (but probably something in the electricals and avionics went sideways), that it was damaged and/or uncontrollable, so it chose to select its last-ditch backup option – attempt to auto-land at the nearest airfield.

Except that the avionics were damaged enough to be wrong about the location of that nearest airfield, so it flew into the mountainside that it didn’t know was there.

For me, that kind of an avionics-related event is the best explanation of why it descended, slowed to less than 200 kts, then leveled out and flew into a mountainside.

Now let’s get the facts.

I’m publishing this before 9 in the morning west coast time, and will not do any edits – not even to fix obvious typos, which is death to my inner editor.  Instead, I’ll just let it stand and see how this lines up with what those in the know will eventually tell us in the next few days.

Looking ahead, reluctantly

Recently, I was asked for “my take” on the future. After apologizing that my crystal ball was down for maintenance, I skirted away from the question – the surest way to look a fool is to try to paint an accurate picture of events that will be driven by the unpredictable actions of millions of individuals.

Yet there’s a paradoxical truth – although individual actions can’t be predicted, the movements of the herd in which they live can be.  So, I figure that if I stick to broad strokes and squint with as blurred a vision as an Impressionist, I might be able to paint a passable picture of the future.

But which future to discuss?  Technology?  Art?  Economics?  For me, the most interesting extracurricular topics generally revolve around religious philosophy and war.  But as we all know, religion is the third rail of the intelligentsia, a topic few today take seriously for fear of mockery, so let’s stick to war, mankind’s second-favorite obsession.

Wars…

ISIS will continue making steady progress, in part because of such fabulous marketing. They understand the cinematic power of their message. Especially in the eyes of a generation raised on hyper-violent gaming and movies.

I’m sure Tarantino would approve of their artistically-filmed beheadings and public immolations: maybe they’ll take a page from his playbook and start knocking off the heads of Christians with baseball bats or better yet, crucifixes.  That would play well among the downloaders.

Our society certainly loves its gory violence, a poison gulped down guiltlessly as mere entertainment, and that is precisely what ISIS is giving its audience of wide-eyed Internet junkies. By the bloodily overflowing bucketful. And all heralded as “news” with impeccable timing by their proxy press offices in CNN and Fox.

But it’s not just the (blood-) slick messaging that is working for the men holding the black banners and the bayonets. Their ranks will continue to grow because the west can’t figure out the counter argument.

There is no contradictory message, no hearts-and-minds campaign coming out of either Washington or Riyadh to inspire our generations raised on war games and slasher movies.  The young men who fall for ISIS aren’t just isolated Algerians in France, they are part of a generation ignoring their own nations’ political heritage of doing good in the world, because the western ideal of “all it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to fail to oppose it”, now sounds so old-fashioned in their millenial ears.

And that is a tragedy, because without that simple truth, the West has zero message to rally our own in opposition to the atrocities committed in the shadow of the Black Flag. Many watching online tonight in Holland or Italy probably think (and maybe without much guilt) that the ISIS message is appealing in a strangely retro way: Lawrence of Arabia meets Inglourious Basterds.

So, ISIS will grow, and they will eventually deliver their content to the West via more effective campaigns, much closer to home. They have already outgrown standing in a line to gun down their cowering co-religionists, and surely they will find something more repulsive than cutting off the heads of a few dozen Coptic Christians along the seashore, or live-roasting a captured pilot.

By “more effective campaigns” I mean that they will show up in Europe, or America, or a seaside resort in Indonesia filled with half-drunken Europeans on vacation, grinning behind their balaclavas, an AK in one hand and a cheap knife in the other.  Why the grins?  Because, like wolves, they know they’re ready for the slaughter,  while the sheep never are.  This predator/prey relationship is being established today, and will play out on tomorrow’s headlines if we remain frozen in the headlights of our indecision.

And rumors of war

But ISIS isn’t the real threat, not to more than our sense of well-being. In cold reality, they’re a sideshow, a chance for the Fox and CNN “analysts” to shout for 60 seconds and earn a thousand bucks pretending to think independently, while actually parroting their respective networks’ political agendas.

The greater threat in my mind is Russia, while in my Israeli friends’ minds, it is Iran.

And you know what?  We’re both right.

As I’ve written before, the Russians are a threat to regional stability in Europe, with their constant nibbling away at Ukraine, eating a slice of it each year, until eventually it will all be gone, and the West will have done nothing. Realistically, what’s to hold them back from continuing the banquet with other former members of the Soviet empire on next year’s menu?  More sanctions?  Once we stop selling them Chevys and iPads, what’s left in our arsenal of democracy?

Oh, but surely the sanctions will hurt the Russians.  That’s precisely the point we’re missing – there’s nothing a Russian does with greater instinctive fervor than suffering for Mother Russia.  Putin is exploiting nationalism while demonizing the West, because we, with our sanctions, play straight into his hands.  While we play checkers, the Russians are playing chess.

Yes, the Russians are a real threat, just not to us – they’re a threat to regional stability in the Mideast, as the Israelis know. With their support for Iran and enablement of the inevitable Iranian achievement of nuclear capability, they are helping to gently place a noose around Israel’s neck. Just as they have during centuries of pogroms.

So, the Israelis have to face facts – Iran will be a nuclear power in the next five years, there’s no negotiating a way around that one – and the only question remaining is whether the Israelis want to let the Mullahs build five bombs or five hundred, before someone gets impatient and pulls the trigger. Because the Iranian regime really wants to pull that trigger and usher in a brave new post-apocalyptic world.  And Israel’s best chance for survival is to fulfill its worst fear, by pulling it first.

But all of those threats pale in comparison to China. While we print paper debt, they are quietly stockpiling enormous quantities of gold. What is their end-game? Why invest so heavily in something that the West views as being antiquated, a symbol of wealth from another era? If the Chinese are wrong, the Bitcoin crowd will snicker, but if they’re not, the West will be the indentured servants of the Chinese in decades to come, after our own house of paper printed by the Fed and spent into oblivion by the Congress has finally collapsed under its own demographic and mathematical weight.

In a world beyond, or fated to rise from the ruins of, the next war

While we twitter and tweet and follow each other in spirals of momentary popularity, the Chinese are amassing the world’s greatest manufacturing capabilities: who builds, rules. They are steadily growing their military. They are reinforcing their economy against financial collapse. They are playing the long game, not just chess to our checkers as are the Russians, but a multi-century game for millennial domination.

What will the US’s role be in 50 years? If we’re lucky, peace will have broken out and the Chinese will be treating us with smirking tolerance like Sweden – a society of technically clever folks idling quietly on the fringes of history, a politically irrelevant nation of has-beens inventing electronic gadgets for the Chinese to sell to the rest of the planet. Hopefully they won’t demand too high of a percentage on our bail-out payments.

If we’re not lucky, we’ll be coming out of the tail-end of a world war that will have started in the Middle East after the Mullahs decided to trade Tehran for Tel-Aviv and hasten the return of the 12th Imam, a war whose conclusion might find  NATO staring down Russia over the smoking ruins.  That is, if the Chinese remain politely on the sidelines, instead of seizing the moment to join the winning side late in the game and spring to world dominance, just as the US did in Europe a century ago.

Either way, it’s a big “If”.  And that’s why my crystal ball will remain in the shop for the (un) forseeable future.  Except on the economic front, where I have a hard time seeing a way for us not to be spending a good chunk of the 21st century on a long hard slog out of national insolvency.

So, as above, I see this as a time of wars and rumors of war, yet laced with the chance that the storm might still miss us. Whatever comes, this will remain a time of accelerating change and increasingly greater reliance on ever-more complex technologies that we understand ever less.  We rely far too deeply on a national infrastructure inherited from generations in the past, and we are living through a time of the abandonment of the morals and philosophies that helped our ancestors hold the darkness at bay over the course of many centuries.

But those before us have overcome worse.  And we are their sons and daughters – we can do the same.

Yet on the fringes of my imagination, I still see the black flag fluttering defiantly: that banner of the death cult, that standard of violence as entertainment and inhumanity as virtue.  And in the shadows beneath the black flag, I see a reflection of our own darkest natures.

In other words, whether we want it or not, this is a conflict of good and evil, and if we can’t muster the willpower and moral certitude to stamp out evil now… well, there’s an old saying: those who ignore a small evil today, will surely face a greater evil tomorrow.

Half in light, half in darkness

I awoke before dawn this morning, and went outside with my coffee to watch the sky as it lightened. As is typical for this part of the world, it was a cloudless sky, a sheer and perfect continuum of subtle shades ranging from light orange in the east, to deep blue above, then down to midnight black in the west, where stars still shone.

Directly overhead, the moon mirrored this earthly distinction, but without its subtle interplay of light and dark – instead, the moon was starkly divided, right down the middle, into two hemispheres: a world of bright day contrasting with one of deepest night.

The previous evening, I had watched with millions of others as the family of the American aid worker wept over her murder in the mid-east. Kayla Mueller had attempted to shed some light onto the land under the black flag, that land of moral darkness now illuminated redly, like a volcanic caldera, by the fire of those burned alive in cages, by tracer fire arcing over desert hills, and by the red-black blood pouring from the severed necks of the innocent.

Shutting off the monitor filled with images of weeping relatives, I had walked outside in the night, and looked upwards. Whether at dawn or during the evening, the sky here is nearly identical to that over the land of ISIS. It is clear, cloudless, and at this time of the year, Orion the Hunter hangs directly overhead. The Egyptians modeled the arrangement of the pyramids of Giza on the stars in Orion’s belt: in 4,500 years, neither have shifted perceptibly.

The same sky overhangs us both – Orion rides high above the heads of the merciful and compassionate, such as Kayla, as well as above the heads of those who murder in the name of the All-Merciful and Compassionate, such as her executioners.

It is both light and dark, ever-changing yet never-changing, this eternal sky that looks down upon us all, mirroring in its subtle shadings and sharp contrasts, the complex interplay of good and evil that tugs back and forth in every human heart. Like all of us below, the desert sky is neither all darkness nor all light: it is an ever-changing mixture of both, overshadowing every subtle variation from the saintly to the satanic among us mortals below.

So as I looked up into the sky again this morning, I became starkly aware of the bright dividing line on the face of the moon standing between night and day, goodness and evil. It perfectly bisected the moon hanging directly over my head. I stared at this stark contrast and remembered that scientists call that dividing line “the terminator”. And I thought, how apt a metaphor it is for this moment in human history.

Like the edge of the sword of Damocles, the terminator divides. It forces a choice – this side or that – and we weak human beings who like to dawdle in the twilight between good and evil, choosing one side or another as our moods dictate – we cannot delay our choice forever.

Eventually we must decide – do we want to live in the light, or in the darkness? Do we want to be a ray of mercy to those who invoke the name of the All-Merciful, or do we prefer to hide our broken natures in the shadows of violence and intolerance for those of a different creed?

Like nature itself, the changing cycles of light and darkness are inevitable and inexorable: we cannot delay them or bend them to our will. We cannot hold them back for a second. They operate with complete disregard for our preferences. Like blindfolded Justice with her sword and her scales, they are concerned only with what is, not what we would wish it to be.

So as much as we flit about like fish in the shallows of our moral twilight where good and evil intermix, we must eventually turn our eyes to the truth, and choose to either rise towards the light shining down upon us, or dive deeper into the darkness so as to escape its awful, relentless power to show us the truth about ourselves.

And it is in our response to this inevitable change from night to day that we learn something profound about our own hearts. When we look across this great sea of humanity into the hearts of our brothers and sisters, Kayla and ISIS, we see reflections of our own inclinations towards evil or nobility, towards compassion or murder, as each of our souls is either rising towards the light, or diving away from it into the cold comfort of the shadows.

Yet the terminator is moving relentlessly across the landscape of each of our hearts. Every one of us must choose to dwell in the light or in the darkness, because no person can remain in the moral twilight forever.

So, standing there in my backyard, I turned my back towards the darkness and decided to face towards the east. With great consciousness of my own inner shadows, I managed still to smile at the dawn shining back at me.

I smiled because I realized that this tear-filled night through which the world is groaning is now already passing away, already yielding to the inevitable power of the light that we can choose to embrace.

As the sun broke over the mountains, it warmed me.  I stood there sipping the coffee and soaked up the light.

It felt good. It felt really, really good.

We sent our lawyer!?

Yesterday’s rallies for unity across Paris and around the nation drew something like 3.5 million French citizens, the largest outpouring of faith in the victory of good over evil since the end of World War II.

They also drew an incredible collection of international leaders, who by their mere presence, expressed deep solidarity with the nation. More significantly, the crowds and the politicians shared a spirit of stirring defiance against the forces of evil who perpetrated and supported two awful terror attacks that have become a defining event of the year, if not the decade and perhaps the century.

Spontaneous international events like this are hugely symbolic, and incredibly rare.  Think of JFK’s speech in West Berlin, or Reagan’s similar call to “tear down this wall!” more than 20 years later.  These moments are written directly into the highlights of history, they become part of our collective memory, part of our language and knowledge of who we are, what we stand for, what makes us truly human.

This weekend, history offered us an opportunity to deliver an equally pivotal, historical statement.  To define the future by bold and profound insight, to declare the way forward.  The free world held its collective breath, waiting for its leader to speak.

Silence.

Despite this epic gaffe, the march of the world leaders was stunning.  Dozens of nations were represented by their equivalents of our President, arms linked in physical as well as metaphorical solidarity, representative of the additional unseen millions watching on TV and participating online.

It was a march for humanity, for civilization, for the humanism pioneered by the French Enlightenment.  It was a march for peace, an expression of the deepest defiance of violence.  It was a march expressing the power of the pen, the power of our great civilization, in contrast to the barbarism, the intolerance for diversity, and the blind hatred embodied by those under the black banner.

This opportunity for the President, and for the United States as a nation, to rally the world against terrorism was unparalleled, perhaps unique in human history.  It was truly a pivotal moment, when a well-conceived and charismatically-delivered speech by our President would have made global history, in addition to securing his own honored place within it.

But it was not to be.  The moment passed, and history moved on.

The United States failed to send her President.  Or her Vice President.  Or even the Secretary of State, fluent in French.  We even failed to send a smattering of Senate or House leaders. To a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of global leaders in the capital of our oldest and most faithful ally, we sent none of those dignitaries.

We sent our lawyer.

Imagine a death in a close friend’s family, a terrible tragedy suffered by an old and dear companion from your youth.  Even if the trip was long and dangerous, you would go to the ceremony.  You would stand beside her in her moment of grief and trial. You wouldn’t send your lawyer to offer cold condolences and scripted formalities. That’s worse than sending nobody at all.

What an insult this was to the French people, to the one nation who stood with us in those crucial years of the late 18th century when our own existence was very much in question.  Without France’s help and solidarity, we would still be drinking tea and curtesying to the Queen.

France’s soil has been soaked with more American blood than any other foreign nation.  France is our singularly honored ally, the trusted caretaker of the hallowed ground where more fallen American servicemen rest than any other beyond our borders.

It is our national bond as blood brothers with France that deepens the tragedy of our absence from Sunday’s pivotal events.

The failure of the United States to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with France and the rest of the civilized word was not only an insult to the French people, but equally disrespectful to our NATO allies.  Not to mention the damage it did to key players in the middle east like King Abdullah of Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority’s President Abbas, both of whom risked so much political capital, perhaps even their lives, by daring to link arms with the leaders of the west, marching mere feet from Israel’s Netanyahu.

In regard to middle eastern peace in particular, what a heart-breakingly beautiful opportunity was squandered yesterday.  Not since the Clinton administration has there been a similar chance to bring Israel and Palestine together in a public and emotional way, for the three to stand together and be seen by the world talking about peace at last.

Imagine the power of such a moment, so starkly in contrast to the black flag that flutters ominously in the background of our global consciousness.  With heroic courage and humanity, Israel and the PA could have been brought together by our President, with a handshake or a spontaneous embrace refuting the dark forces of war and violence.

Imagine the enduring impact of such a precious moment of respect and tolerance flooding the global press, its simple eloquence powerfully countering the global jihad against civilized humanity.

But it was not to be.  None of these great moments were allowed to blossom.

All because we sent our lawyer.

Nous Somme Tous Charlie, but who are they?

In Paris tonight, crowds are holding up signs saying “Je suis Charlie”.  They’re right.  We are all Charlie – Nous somme tous Charlie.

The principles of this awful event don’t need to be discussed – it’s a clear case of radicals who share nothing of the West’s respect for freedom of expression using the barrel of a gun to place their veto.

What’s interesting to me is the apparent professionalism of the attack, and what that says for the future of Europe, where so many radicalized young Muslim men have European passports and are able to return relatively easily to the EU after having spent time abroad, learning the skills of war.

When I saw the video clips, it took me only a few moments to understand what had happened, while (of course) the media continues to get the details wrong, for example calling it a terrorist attack using “Kalashnikov submachine guns”.

Here’s what I surmise might’ve happened

A small group of French-nationality Muslims had a “semester abroad” in the school of war with one of the dozens of factions duking it out in Syria these past couple of years. In that cauldron of blood and violence, they learned how to use small arms and RPGs. They gained real-world combat experience.

Afterward, they returned to France on their French passports. They probably didn’t go to ISIS, as the norm there is to destroy western passports.  Upon their return to the EU, they might’ve had exit stamps from Turkey or Cyprus in their passports, possibly not even that.  If they had taken a boat from Greece to Syria, and back through Greece, whose seaside border is utterly porous, they might not even be on the records as having left the EU at all.  In which case, their being ISIS alumni remains a possibility.

Tools of the attack – what can we learn?

They used AK-47 assault rifles, clearly in 7.62x39mm caliber. This is the older model, the kind that is lying around in warehouses throughout the world by the millions – the weapons might have been circulating in the underworld for decades.  This makes tracking the men via their suppliers a very big challenge, probably futile.

Their other equipment speaks to equally antiquated origin. They carried spare mags in chest pouches, almost certainly 3-mag fabric pouches, a very old style we’ve seen since Vietnam, one which is still quite popular in Syria today.  Their mags look like standard steel 30-rounders.  This means that each of them brought about 120 rounds to the fight: not enough to weigh you down excessively or prevent you from running quickly, but more than enough to accomplish their goal and give them a reserve in case they got pinned down.

In other words, they weren’t overly-armed amateurs.  They brought just enough firepower for the task at hand, so they could hit hard, move fast, and escape.

Outgunned and out-maneuvered

When the police bravely tried confronting them with their Sig SP2022 9mm pistols, they got hammered. They had little chance against the vastly superior firepower they were facing. These two soldier/terrorists formed into a rough skirmish line and moved aggressively up the street, seeking cover and working smoothly together as they cleared the opposition. Like they had done this many times before.

The one cop who is shown on the video being murdered was down because he was already hit, and was rolling away, attempting to raise his hands in surrender when one of the Islamic soldiers finished him off at nearly muzzle contact distance with his AK.  This horrific image will become the icon of the attack. It shows a cold-heartedness, a ruthlessness that comes from the battlefield: no prisoners, no threats left alive.

Deliberate

During the engagement, you can see these terrorists/soldiers aiming their weapons carefully.  The tightly-clustered holes through the windshield of the police car say that this was no spray-and-pray job.

You can also see their deliberate approach when they confronted the cop(s) up the street: they didn’t duck and shoot wildly, firing randomly from cover. No, instead they moved forward confidently, advancing towards contact, not trying to break it. Like professionals.

Again, this cool-headedness, the almost casual way one of them stopped to retrieve the sneaker, speaks volumes about their prior experience under fire.  As cowboys say: “this ain’t their first rodeo”.

Relentless

During combat, they called out “God is greater” during their volleys of fire, exactly as is done in Syria and Iraq. I am certain that while inside the target building, they made doubly sure of their primary kills – the cartoonists and the editor of the magazine.  I expect that those people were shot many times, and finished off quite deliberately with a shot to the head each.  We hear that some witnesses describe them as saying in French that they were doing this in vengeance for an affront to their God.

I expect that we will learn that these two attackers were not acting in a panic while inside the building – but instead, that their murderous attack was deliberately and enthusiastically carried out.

Planned

It’s obvious that they planned it carefully: this was not a spontaneous event by any means. One photo shows their vehicle parked up a one-way street, facing the wrong way, blocking all traffic flow with its open doors at a kink in the street, using a natural choke-point where even the sidewalk is blocked by traffic bollards.

That wasn’t a random choice: they needed to ensure that nobody drove into their AO, especially not the police, so they blocked the street at the best spot.  This speaks of planning, prior recons of the area, maybe even dry runs.  Perhaps CCTV footage from the past will come into play here, helping us to discover their identities.

Alone?

They probably had accomplices who were helping  by ensuring that their escape vehicle remained unmolested while they made the assault: there is talk about hand-signals to people in other vehicle(s).  There is also the possibility that the attackers were given inside information about the timing and attendees to the staff meeting: I’d look carefully at every person with access to that building, including cleaning staff and anyone who was conveniently absent during the attack.

Timing

They also clearly knew about the exact timing and attendees of this staff meeting well in advance, planning their attack for precisely the moment when all of the cartoonists (who normally work at home) would be gathered together in one room with their editor, like fish in a barrel.  Who was the source of their intel?

Escape

After almost casually clearing the street of any remaining police, they escaped, ditching the car after or (maybe before) switching into street clothes brought with them to better blend into society. This change of clothes says to me that they were planning on travelling in the open during at least part of their escape.

This is also why they concealed their identities during the attack, because they counted on being filmed – they knew that it was impossible to avoid CCTV or cell phone cams, so they dealt with it in a predictable way: balaclavas.

Still Armed?

What’s surprising to me is that they might have still had their AKs with them after abandoning their vehicle, the black Citroën. I suggest this because, if there had been weapons inside of it, the police would’ve handled the vehicle much differently.  There would be video of the guns being removed or bagged separately or the vehicle might’ve been screened off – in any event, the police would never have left guns in the car as it was being craned onto the flatbed.

Hidden Weapons

This is why I believe that it’s logical to assume that they made off with their weapons in gym bags or backpacks, unless they had ditched them or handed them off to their accomplices at that first rally point, where they ditched the Citroën.

The AKs were probably folding stock guns, which would make them much more easily concealable in such a bag.  The guns almost certainly came into their hands via the blackmarket. There was talk of an RPG: if true, this would confirm non-commercial sourcing.

Neither Amateurs nor Suicidal

The overall theme of the assault that comes through to me is professionalism, planning and a real determination to escape. This is not what a suicide attacker does – this is what a soldier does.

From where and how they parked the vehicle (at least twice), to the precise timing of the assault on the building, and through their apparent escape, this whole operation feels well-planned, and seems to have played out almost glitch-free.  If their goal was to live to fight another day, then it was a goal at least temporarily achieved.

Where Now?

My gut says that they are probably hunkered down somewhere within a couple of hours’ driving time of Paris, still armed, still ready.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they got away in the back of a commercial vehicle, moving to some remote location where they’ve “gone to the mattresses” as the Mafia used to say.

Finally, I’d bet that if they did take that route, they’re probably prepared to remain hidden (with the help of accomplices) in some rural basement or forgotten loft for weeks to come.

The bear has awoken, and he is hungry

The bear has awoken.  After turning inward and hibernating for the past two decades, he has shaken himself back to wakefulness.  And boy is he hungry.  First on the menu was Crimea – a tasty tidbit that Russia’s always considered to be its own, and has now annexed without any real opposition from the US, the EU, NATO or the UN.

The reality is almost childishly simple: the bear saw what he wanted, and the bear devoured it, because nobody was around to make him do otherwise.  Consequently, Crimea is no longer Ukrainian, and barring a serious shooting war, it will never be again.  For a war-weary America, and an economically strained EU (read: Germany) haunted by its own memories of a generation lost in this part of the world 70 years ago, a war with Russia isn’t even in the contingency plans, much less on the first page of Merkel’s agenda.

How did Russia pull it off?  First, by demonizing the pro-western forces who overthrew Ukraine’s corrupt government.  Putin applied the “Fascist” label to his enemies with great understanding of his domestic political audience. Russia soaked Crimea with a generation’s worth of its blood during the Great Patriotic War against the German Fascists: Simferopol, Sevastopol, Feodosiya, Kerch… these places that western reporters struggle to pronounce  are burned into the collective memory of the Russian people with a bittersweet pride.  Is there a Russian alive today who doesn’t nod with solemn respect at these memories, especially when a new , ostensibly Fascist threat was called out on this same hallowed Crimean ground?

Second, the Russians stacked the vote & intimidated the opposition.  Not discussed much in the Russian press these days is the Soviet-era ethnic engineering that guaranteed the recent referendum results.  Even without the injection of a Russian majority in the 1950s following the mass executions and deportations of Ukrainians, Tartars and other minorities, it should come as no surprise that a vote taking place under the sloping noses of Russian BTRs would produce results in perfect alignment with the Kremlin’s will.

Third, the west has absolutely no appetite (or budget) for war. Putin know this very well. He has met with, watched and analyzed his opponents, all of whom are necessarily bound to a shorter time-line given their much more brief political half-lives, and he knows that none of them can play the long game.  Neither they nor their constituencies have a desire to upset comfortable lives or disturb their delicate economies for a mere idea or principle.

The European 21st century view is that history has stopped evolving, and Europe’s borders are set in place.  This was the same view prevailing in salons across the continent precisely a century ago, in the spring of 1914.  In today’s modern, post-war Europe, there is no room for such quaint and antiquated notions like fighting in defense of a nation’s liberty or territorial integrity, if that nation lies beyond the pale.  Europe might fight against a physical threat like terrorism, especially if it involves sending a few troops to a distant place, but will they fight just outside their own backyard for an intellectual or moral ideal that echoes the moral constructs of an earlier century?  No, that is not very likely at all to be the case.

And Putin sees this, very clearly.  More clearly than most western analysts.  He has pored over the results of the cultural and economic studies of each and every nation that might try to foil his plans.  He’s taken their temperature, gauged their willingness to step into the fray.  Having considered all the angles,  he’s come to a result favoring continued national expansion via military means. He tested the west with Georgia, taking the west’s inaction as confirmation, and has taken a more dramatic step in Crimea.  Given the continued reinforcement of our hollow words, he can now can be expected to accelerate the pace in eastern Ukraine.

There, the situation is a near-mirror of the Sudetenland in 1938, where Hitler’s pre-war playbook achieved a similarly bloodless victory of national annexation empowered by shrugging acquiescence.  Both leaders boldly pursued conquest despite the headwinds of lukewarm European bluster.  Grossdeutschland then, Greater Russia now, it’s the same old story, and it follows a predictable sequence of events.

The pretext in both scenarios is based on phony concerns of ethnic violence against a minority population on the edges of the neighboring nation.  But there, they diverge.  Hitler went for a straight invasion, no subtlety.  Putin takes a more incremental approach, creating a crisis by accelerating the perception of a crisis – like a tornado, the perception feeds on itself and creates its own reality.  Putin’s cause is helped by the foreign press, who in their ravenous hunger to fill the 24 hour news cycle, add emotion by dutifully running endless loops of the most violent moments in the political drama performed by Putin’s supporters on the world stage.

The next steps we’ve already seen played out fully in Crimea, and can anticipate to revisit shortly in eastern Ukraine: after an invasion to “restore order”, the Kremlin’s political credibility is enhanced by a wildly skewed referendum confirming the facts already stamped into the ground by 16,000 pairs of combat boots.

Viewing the predictable results, Putin then plays the democrat, shrugging and claiming that “it’s the will of the people” to unite themselves with Russia.  A few weeks of headlines, and it’s all a done deal, bloodless, complete and effectively irreversible.  He gives the west time to  be distracted by latest crisis or social trend, and then he patiently goes back to work restoring the next member of Russia’s once-and-future empire.

This strategy has worked so well for Putin because, like those negotiating with Hitler in the late ‘30s, nations horribly scarred by the First World War, nations understandably anxious to avoid a Second, the western leaders of our time and the populations that empower them not only share that previous generation’s deep fear of another European war, they are utterly frozen in place by the mere thought, a prospect which they cannot consider because it is so alien to all their assumptions about what the future would and should hold for the world.

Europe and especially the USA exclaim disparagingly about Russia’s 19th century methods in a 21st century world, accusing Russia of being the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal on the international block. But they’re missing the point entirely – Russia is not living in the 21st century.  And her leaders couldn’t possibly care less about western hand-wringing, hurt feelings, or being perceived as a nation insufficiently sophisticated for this modern era. They know what works in their neighborhood, their national pride is on the rise, they want their empire back.  And they mean to take it.

Putin judged that his opponents lacked the stomach for real conflict, and events have confirmed his take.  In response to armed invasion, the west isn’t rattling sabers, it’s just jingling pocket change, hoping that the Russians can be bribed into compliance with Europe’s will. To the Russians, this is laughable, but those in the west are doubling-down on this strategy, because the power of the purse is the best (and perhaps only) stick left to them.

Consequently, western pundits advocate freezing the assets of the Russian “oligarchs”, thinking that this will undermine Putin’s support among them: they couldn’t be more wrong.  Although it may be a tragedy in those oligarchs’ eyes when they are barred from spending the Summer in their mansions along the Côte d’Azur, such “sanctions” are trivial, mere symbols, and they’ll probably backfire.

In Putin’s eyes, asset freezing makes these wealthy and influential people that much more dependent on him, and the pressures might help highlight where their true allegiances lie.  Suffering personal financial loss could raise their political capital, aligning them more closely with the Kremlin under a banner of false patriotism.  This is assuming that anything remains in the western banks worth freezing anyway – it’s probably all been whisked away to untouchable locations with a key stroke and a phone call, given the west’s frequent and detailed warnings of its intended courses of action in this arena.

Others have thought more broadly about how to bring the Russian bear to heel, and strategic economic warfare has been proposed in various forms.  Ideas range from light sanctions to those more severe, to outright trade embargoes, and the more adventurous have floated ideas like undermining the currency, literally trying to crash the ruble, and thereby the country, into insolvency.  Setting aside for a moment how these various measures would likely backfire in an interconnected global economy that is excruciatingly delicate, does anyone seriously believe that Putin will pull back from his territorial gains in the Ukraine because of mere economic hardship?

Not this leader. Vladimir Putin is a classic Russian strong man, a macho near-dictator of a type that can be traced straight back to Peter the Great and beyond.  And history shows that the Russians like their leaders that way: strong, defiant, bold and aggressive.  Harsh to their enemies and benevolent to their friends: think Don Corleone, rather than Abraham Lincoln.

If the west does make Russia suffer economically as Putin is trying to restore their formerly great empire, the people will dig in and support him all the more strongly.  The Russians have always suffered, it’s in their blood, it’s part of the culture: a global economic war against them would give it more meaning and focus, but it would not deter them.  Defying the west has the effect of elevating national pride and Putin’s status simultaneously in the eyes of the Russian nation, rather than undermining it.

Where will the bear go hunting next?

The one place I would not want to be today is Belarus, followed by the Baltic republics – the only dike standing between the Baltics and drowning beneath a deluge of white, blue and red banners may well be the dubious (?) security promised by their NATO membership.  I say this not because I doubt NATO’s commitments, but because I think that NATO member status may prove more of a temptation than a deterrent to Putin in this case.

I sense that for Putin, the Baltics’ status in NATO is an implicit challenge, a glove across the cheek, a perhaps irresistible goad to his growing boldness and pride.  After all, these countries were Russian before the First World War, and part of the Soviet Empire for long decades afterwards.  They retain significant Russian minorities today.

I wonder, how much would Russia’s national pride be bolstered by openly defying NATO and the EU by rolling the tanks into Riga?  And what would Putin really risk by staring down the west during a few weeks of high-stakes brinksmanship in the Baltics?

It’s an interesting scenario to game out.  Once our economic sanctions have been tried and found wanting, what then?  Invasion?  Putin’s troops could retreat faster than the west could strike overland, and airstrikes on a modern European city are unthinkable.  Moreover, would the west really consider getting into a shooting war over Latvian sovereignty in the first place?  How about for Belarus?  Forget about it.

So what’s the threat, really?

Russia is a threat to its immediate neighbors, but is this resurgent bear an actual threat to the USA?   Not militarily speaking. Russia remains far outmatched versus NATO in conventional warfare, especially in the air and on the seas (or under them).  Only their strategic and tactical nukes pose a serious threat to the west, but one thing that the Cold War taught us is that nuclear war is the least likely of all scenarios.

No, the threat is more subtle than that, and it’s really a perception problem: our tepid responses to Russia’s blatantly illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea are a threat to us, and our allies.  It’s not just a question of standing up to the bully, it’s a question of knowing what to do, of being able to reach into our national quiver and choose the right arrow.  And we don’t seem to know which one to select.  We appear to be paralyzed with indecision.

Our remaining options are reminiscent of the old joke about how the unarmed British police fight crime. The bobby chases a criminal down the street, blowing his whistle and yelling: “Stop I say, or I’ll blow my whistle again!”

And that’s what the west is doing – blowing a whistle while the bear enjoys his meal and pointedly ignores us.  This interaction between the great powers is being watched very carefully in unfriendly places around the globe.  After all, if a post-Soviet Russia, greatly weakened from its glory days, can thumb its nose at Washington and Brussels with impunity, this after rolling armor across a nation that once aspired to NATO membership and sits astride Europe’s natural gas lifeline, what’s to discourage Putin from restoring the rest of the jewels of the old Soviet empire when and how he sees fit?

Putin doesn’t have to worry about elections, or opinion polls.  He will never be a lame duck or have to ask Congress for authorization to use the military.  Yes, there is the Duma – but talk about a rubber stamp…  Most importantly, Russia has a veto and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, so any peaceful opposition in a global forum effectively ends before it begins.

With a whimper

Sometimes, it’s not wars that change maps. Sometimes maps change because the dread of war stops nations dead in their tracks, freezing hearts with fear when bravery and bold thinking are most needed.

Putin has stared across that shiny long table lined with mineral water bottles, the west has blinked and shuffled its position papers away, and now the bear is contentedly digesting his most recent meal.

While eyeing his next.