What’s Yours is Mine
In 2004, our family traveled to Portugal to attend several games of that year’s European Soccer Championships. While renting a villa in the Algarve, we were surrounded by various embodiments of the event: from exuberant Dutch fans in the streets, unmistakable in their luminous orange apparel, to the German training field a short walk away guarded by a grim fellow with a submachine gun ensuring that we would not pass the team’s tactics onto their long-time foe in war and peace, England, to the fans of that “sceptred isle” who strained mightily to maintain an illusion that its faded colonial glory is not history by performing prodigious feats of public drunkenness.
But the prize for audacious display had to go to Russia whose ubiquitous fans’ obnoxious behavior was exceeded by none. For instance, when my son and I tried to schedule a tennis court at a large resort near our rental, it seems that its many courts were all booked— by Russians. It is no wonder that a country with mostly frigid weather can produce so many indistinguishable figures in the world of professional tennis today. They usurped the warm weather training facilities with sheer numbers and forced the residents to invent pickleball. Now when you attend or watch a tennis tournament on TV, I dare you to tell me the difference between a Kuznetsova and a Kirilenko.
Of course taking over a dozen tennis courts cannot be compared to the invasion of a country, but why should we be the least bit surprised by the unprovoked and horrendous assault on Ukraine, a display of criminality and cruelty that makes Hitler’s 1938 march into the Sudetenland seem almost humanitarian by comparison. From Hungary in 1956 to Czechoslovakia in 1968 to Afghanistan in 1979 to Chechnya in 1994, Russians have exhibited a unique tendency to take what isn’t theirs and claim it as necessary for its own defense.
While Russians, not least Vladimir Putin, claim a glorious past, it has mostly been an illusion of greatness that stems from historical insecurity and a sense of grievance that it has never been given its due respect by the West. While Russian literature, ballet and chess have made their mark on the world, the country has never truly risen above its relatively recent feudal past, and has always relied on brute military force to enforce its vision of a kingdom of Slavs with a common history and culture. With Russia rightfully in charge, of course.
No one outside the influence of official Russian news sources believes that Russian-speakers in Ukraine needed protection from oppressive “neo-Nazi” Ukrainians led by a Jew, Volodymyr Zelensky, no less. And even if such an outrageous claim could be believed, it would hardly warrant the incommensurate war crimes being committed: rocket attacks on cities, the bombing of a maternity hospital and the shutting of corridors of escape for innocent evacuees.
The fact is that Putin has already lost this “special military operation.” The vaunted Russian army has performed abysmally, plagued by faulty tactics, poorly planned logistics and low morale of its troops. Not to mention Putin’s multiple miscalculations: failure to account for the bravery of the Ukrainians, the ability of President Biden to unite NATO and the brutal effect of the sanctions on the Russian economy. But no one has any illusions that Ukraine will ultimately prevail on the battlefield. Even so Putin has no way out without suffering stark humiliation. And while the risk of his using nuclear weapons is low, it is not zero.
No one knows how this will end, but the attack has to profoundly affect the Russian political climate. Naturally, the heads of the inept Russian generals will roll and Putin’s power has to take a hit. Maybe he can save face with a tennis match with Zelensky. But more likely he will just claim that he is the actual owner of the court and declare victory.