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Monday, January 24, 2022

The Sweetheart And The Nasty– Biden, The Russian Czar, And The Battle Of Ukraine

Joe Biden had prepared for this moment his whole life – a do-or-die struggle with the most powerful man on the planet – so why did he feel so unprepared?  It was clear that Vladimir Putin meant business with Ukraine.  Why else would he amass troops on the border, threaten to gag the gas pipeline, and give the finger to NATO and the West?  

Putin had made it clear that he wanted to restore the grandeur and power of Imperial Russia and the Soviet empire.  He had retaken Crimea as a matter of course, secured his client states in the East, and consolidated his electoral gains in Russia.  This man was a Genghis Khan, an emperor, and a canny, willful, Nietzschean man of geopolitical purpose; and that was exactly why Joe Biden was shaky.  Delaware had not prepared him for such doings.  He was far more at home in Rehoboth than in either Kiev or Moscow.  He was a man of compromise, easy political liaisons, and happy warrior electability.  Now what?

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His wife comforted him just as Lady Bird had listened to LBJ, as Pat had kissed Nixon’s brow, as Nancy had loved Ronnie, and as Barbara and Laura had cared for their Bushes.   “Sweetheart”, she said, “this too will pass.  Reason and faith will rule the day”.

But Joe was not comforted by these words as he had usually been.  In his heart of hearts he knew that he was no more than a lifetime Senator from a small state, an acolyte to a charismatic, iconic president, and a dutiful and obedient member of his political party.  A playground bully was not in his playbook.

“Just be yourself, dear”, Jill said, rubbing her husband’s tense, tired muscles.  But what is that, exactly? the President asked himself.  For years, decades really, he had been at others’ beck and call, answering to the nation as well as the State of Delaware ; but that had only meant adding his name to legislation, caucusing with party faithful, but never having to stand up for or against anything; a life of complaisance, compromise, and good will.  This thing with Putin was something else altogether, a matter of tanks and artillery for God’s sake.

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Jill was becoming worried about her man, and seeing him at sixes and sevens was upsetting.  She knew that he had gotten in over his head with this presidential thing, and never had even thought his election possible; but there it is, and there he was in the Oval Office facing life and death decisions when all he ever had to answer for in Delaware was a few shillings for poor people in the Wilmington ghetto or off shore rights or maybe an aircraft carrier.  “What will I do?”, he plaintively asked his wife.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart”, she answered.  “It will all work out in the end”

Cold comfort, the President thought.  His wife had always been right in the past and her nostrums and homilies had always had relevance and resonance, but this thing with Putin was different.

“Mr. President”, said the National Security Advisor in unusually clipped, formal tones, “we have a problem”

Here we go again, thought the President, ‘that Russian”, that thorn in my side, that Rasputin, that neo-Stalinist, Marxist mouthpiece who insists on interrupting my thoughts, my routine, and my Administration.

In fact ‘that Russian’ was forcing the issue.  It was a question of national sovereignty, Putin had said, not territorialism, empire, or hegemony.  Tell your war dogs to go back into their kennels, he said, and peace will reign. But the hounds of democratic hell had already been released and the scent of fresh blood was in the air.  Putin cannot be allowed another inch, they howled, and America must pull the alpha dog out of his traces.

Once again the President turned to his wife for support and counsel.  “What am I to do?”, he asked as he tossed and turned to her side of the bed.

“You will make the right decision, dear”, she replied, rubbed his back, and turned off the light.

There  was no such romantic fol-de-rol in Russia. No back rubs, no hour of the wolf indecisive moments, no confessional Cabinet meetings.  Russian troops were positioned on the Ukraine border and would incur at a moment’s notice.  Putin was a Machiavellian genius, pure and simple.  If conditions and circumstance permit, then take due advantage.  Not ‘do the right thing’, but do your thing.  He slept well at night because he had no irritating doubts and second thoughts.  Expand Russian hegemony, exact tithings from the West, and rule forever.

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How to deal with such a philosophy, wondered the President. Never been faced with such an opponent, he thought.  The politicians most resistant to his charm, smile, and  broad shouldered camaraderie were nothing compared to this Slavic devil.  They could be turned, could see the light of reason and a feathered nest.  Not so Putin, a man whose methods, purposes, and ethos were far beyond Delaware.

“You’re making too much of it and of him”,  counselled Jill after a midnight snack of hot sausage and pickled peppers. “The principles of Christian democracy will always prevail”

“But he is a Christian”, Joe replied.  While most Catholics had no use for any academic parsing of 4th century theology and the unfortunate split of the faith, Joe did.  The Russians and their embrace of a rejected brand of Catholicism had it coming.  No Russian, Orthodox president could possibly have any moral standing. For most Americans, he was as good as a Muslim and probably was one.

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“Mr. President”, interrupted the Vice President some moments later, “isn’t it time we told the Russians, ‘hands off’”?  This was surprising and not the least ironic that one of the most progressive, socialist-leaning members of the President’s inner circle was in favor of anti-Russian positions. She hedged her bets.  “He might be the heir to Marx and Engels”, she said, but enough is enough.  Time for the velvet glove in the fist of iron.

‘Let’s get down on our knees and pray’, said Father Murphy, the White House chaplain and religious counsellor to Joe ever since his Senate days.  Catholics did not usually behave like this, kneeling and praying wherever, but Father Murphy had taken a lesson from Billy Graham whose spiritual counsel had been a support for many presidents.  The relationship between the President and Father Murphy had always been one of camaraderie, a bit of good Scotch after work, parish gossip, and an occasional round of golf.  The altar and the confessional were the places a good Catholic freed his soul from sin not on his knees in the office.  

“No thank you, Father”, Joe replied.  There was no time for prayer, no bended knee supplications for peaceful resolution, no quick side exit to St. Matthew’s around the corner.  It was secular time here, a clash of titans. Although the Crusaders heading off to Jerusalem prayed and asked for victory, they quickly attended to secular business as they marched across the continent. The cross and the banner of the Church were held high as the troops stormed the gates of the Holy City, but they were more concerned at that crucial moment with halberds, swords, and flaming arrows than they were with Jesus Christ.  And so it was now in the Oval Office as the President morally armed himself for battle.

The President went over the many possible Ukraine scenarios until his head spun.  “Let’s see now”, he said, looking over the large interactive board map before him in the War Room.  “Let’s say the Russians incur…” and before he could finish his sentence, the board lit up to show panzer divisions, air support, and troops on the ground.  “Ok”, he said, "then the Ukrainians, armed with the ‘lethal aid’ we have provided them, counter attack…” Again the board lit up with Ukrainian tanks, troops, and air power.  It reminded him of the Parcheesi board he had found under the tree on Christmas, but with lights and avatars, so much better.

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“By the way”, said the President, “what’s wrong with a little give and take?” Thinking of the good old days of Congressional compromise, a little friendly jawboning, a bridge here for a carrier there, he suggested all kinds of deals that would have certainly worked in the Delaware legislature and more often than not on the floor of the House.   “Quid pro quo”, the President said, “in for a penny, in for a pound.  The frosting on the cake, and so forth”.

At this point the Vice President stepped in.  She had heard the President’s wobbly non sequiturs before and knew, like a scratchy throat before a cold, they were warning signs of far worse discombobulation.

“No, Mr. President”, she said and whispered something in his ear.  “On second thought”, the President said, “No more rook takes knight, bishop to K3 and all the rest.  Surround the Slavic pig, build ramparts and catapult buckets of hot oil on him”.  

Here the President recalled the story books of his childhood, tales of knights, fair ladies, damsels in distress, heroic battles, galloping horses, armor, and valor.  “It should be no different”, he shouted, half back in his childhood bedroom, books scattered on the counterpane, figures of men and animals, swords and lances to be moved, half in the avant garde of Napoleon’s army fighting Kutuzov in the Battle of Borodino .  “A fight to the death!”.

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Now, those present were unsure of what to make of all this.  Here was the President, a man of good nature and solid principles, always out for the interest of the common man with generosity always on tap, turning Trump, lots of bombast, January 6  inflammatory rhetoric, impossibly provocative demagoguery.  

“He’s a quick learner”, whispered one general to another, heir to the Curtis Lemay school of ‘bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age’ military philosophy who had been muzzled on his way up the ranks but now felt encouraged.

Meanwhile back in Moscow, Putin was enjoying a cigar and cognac with his friends.  No parcheesi board, no chessmen, no ifs, ands, or buts.  His tanks were ready to roll, and he knew that Biden and the West would come to the table.  They had looked the other way when he had retaken Crimea, were indifferent to his hegemonic geopolitics and his currying favor with Central Asian dictators, his brutal and decisive victory over the Chechens, and much more.  Why should a President worried about transvestites and the gender spectrum make any difference to Russia?

So, at this writing (late January 2021), Russian troops are still on Russian soil, Joe Biden is still playing confusing war games and trying to sort things out, and Ukraine is awaiting direction, arms, and money from Washington.  Few people doubt Putin’s resolve, will, and determination, but because no one in the West, let alone Biden, knows exactly what the Russian dictator wants – expansion of the new Russian Imperium, homeland security, international recognition, or a bevy of other possibilities – their planning was going nowhere. 

“Rub me with that organic cream again, sweetheart”, the President said to his wife after a particularly trying day in the War Room.  “That’s my girl”

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