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925 Silver Collection

We Win. Putin Loses By Bill Lasarow

The murder of Alexei Navalny together with the revelation that Putin, that darling, level-headed Neo-Stalin, has been working on a project to put nuclear weapons into orbit has rightfully focused the world’s attention on Russia. Each affront in very different ways is a piece that fits seamlessly with the invasion of Ukraine. It has been clear from the start that the purpose of invading Ukraine was not to prevent Ukraine from joining the NATO alliance but to destroy both. Iron control must be imposed domestically, but would crumple immediately in a free and fair election devoid of state-run violence. Ukraine is the new Sudetenland, and it is equally urgent that the 1938 script must be rewritten.

Joel Peter Witkin, “Anna Akhmatova,” 1998, gelatin silver print, 30 x 40”. Courtesy of Etherton Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.

Loss of life is nothing other than a tactical matter to a man like Putin. Driven as such psychopaths can be, what may start as conventional politics is made more and more difficult as Putin locks down his hold on power at home and simultaneously strives to expand it abroad.

I heard one long time pundit remark on CNN that if Putin is given Ukraine (very transactional term, right?) he will turn his attention to the three smallish Baltic states. That could be right, but I don’t think so other than as a test of NATO’s Article 5 should Caligula return to the White House. In that event it could well be Putin’s best opportunity to achieve the end game that would upend the post-World War II international geo-political and economic order.

Fiona Banner, “Harrier and Jaguar,” 2010, installation view for Tate Britain Duveens Commission. Photo: Sam Drake, Tate Photography. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Barbara Thumm, Frith Street Gallery, London and 1301PE, Los Angeles.

Anne Applebaum, that commentator, argued that we now need to get serious. We need thousands in the Biden administration working on carrying out sanctions, not whatever that number is currently. Biden, together with our NATO allies, needs to seize the approximately $300 billion in frozen Russian assets and start directing that money to Ukraine. In terms of international law, sovereign states have, and should have, such assets protected — but not when they violate the sovereignty of other states and commits war crimes. More on this in a bit. A number of observers have been ticking off other means that need to be fully activated for the defense of freedom. A fair question right now is whether the situation warrants such extreme measures.

Applebaum is correct: That time has arrived.

I first argued a couple years ago that the former Republican Party, the GOP, is no longer that. It is the NPP. This fact now seems to be widely understood. The führer of the NPP is Caligula. The Christian Nationalists hoping to leverage him to establish a totalitarian theocracy imagines him to be their second coming; but he is in fact their Anti-Christ. Caligula himself fantasizes that he is Spartacus marbled through with the style of Jimmy Swaggart. But he is not Spartacus. He is Benedict Arnold. Far worse than Benedict Arnold.

Matthias Grünewald, “Isenheim Altarpiece” (detail, “The Temptations of St. Anthony”), ca. 1512-16, oil and tempera on limewood panels, 376 x 668 cm. Courtesy of Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France. Photo: Steven Zucker.

Through Caligula it is clear that Putin’s primary target now is America, not the Baltic states. He thinks he has a chance to swallow the largest fish in the world thanks to this singular asset. It is not an opportunity that a bold dictator would let slip by. Just as Alexander the Great was able to swallow Persia despite vastly fewer men and resources.

After all previous developments, and given the deliberately provocative words Caligula chooses to use, Navalny and space nukes may have woken us up. There must continue to be a strong NATO and international structure of alliances. We offer a safety umbrella for any and all democracies who have no interest in mass violence. We extend that umbrella to aspiring democracies … of which Ukraine is the world’s most strategic example.

Caligula is such a brazen and extreme traitor because he would not merely forgive Putin his transgressions, he would sign on to them. In power, he would attempt to flip the last century’s geo-political alliance structure. Russia would gain its big brother ally, together with Iran and North Korea. The NATO countries, Japan, much of Latin America, Canada … there would still be a formidable alliance that will be prepared to assume our former role as the bastion of democracy, not unlike Britain once France fell in 1940. It would be another darkest hour.

Francis Bacon, “Figure with Meat,” 1954, oil on canvas, 51 x 48”. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

And what about China, a potential difference maker? China has acted as a balancing weight thus far. Favoring one side or another will be a key geo-political decision, with the decider being Xi Jinping. Chinese repression is bad enough, but Putin has gone too far even for the Chinese or Xi would have already decisively joined forces with him. Thus far, the Chinese Communist Party has shown scant interest in fomenting mass casualties that today would make the 120 million casualties amassed in the two World Wars look like a modest figure.

Adding China to that global realignment, it would then result in an axis of America together with: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Taken as a group they would be capable of: (1) subduing the rest of the world, even though it may very well require lots of cannon fodder and civilian casualties; and (2) it’s well worth that cost to each dictator. We now have in the NPP a prospective leadership that would not only support these costs, they would regard the fate of the likes of Navalny not as a beacon for the cause of freedom, but as a license and model by which to crush domestic dissent.

David Wojnarowicz, “Silence = Death,” 1989, pigment print by Andreas Sterling, 24 x 18 1/2”. Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington.

This is a shorthand description of what so many now can see. America would no longer be the America that we have been privileged to be a part of up until now. Daily life under a new NPP administration will fairly quickly come to resemble that of China or Russia. Maybe to a degree even North Korea in a worst-case scenario. A crime family passing their quaint inheritance (of a country) from one generation to the next. Caligula and his progeny can intuitively sense that toxic but bracing mix of conquest and fear; like their good friends, the Kims, the very prospect feels so good. Caligula himself possesses a quality that is not only rare but difficult to sustain: he is a true psychopath who was born into the resources that the rest of us could only dream of, and utterly disconnected from the pain and death he causes being his fault or his problem. Far from causing him pause, it energizes him. If he profits himself and his loyal minions (for as long as they are loyal) at the expense of everybody else, so much the better. Soon enough the $500 million in legal penalties would be dwarfed.

When I was but a wee lad in my thirties, we had a president who I would never consider voting for because so many of his major policy positions were wrong due to the then prevailing Neo-conservative ideology. I don’t think “ideology” is the powerful force it once was, but it has also changed. In the case of the NPP it is a reversion to a far more barbaric state of Mafia-style fiefdoms led by warlords. For the head of those families maybe it would be Caligula. Maybe it would be Putin or Xi Jinping. Or one of the others. Maybe Viktor Orbán, who would probably leave NATO the day after Caligula pulls us out. Theirs would be an alliance of convenience that would soon lead to its own conflicts.

Petr Pavlensky, “Seam,” 2012, photograph of action by Maxim Zmeyev. Courtesy of the New York Times. Photo: Trend Photo Agency/Reuters.

Think about American life trending, probably rapidly, towards something like its new allies.

Which takes us back to Ukraine. Everything I’ve written admittedly casts me as a hawk on Ukraine. Having grown up with the Viet Nam War, my natural instinct is that being a “hawk” or advocating an “aggressive” posture was not a good or moral thing. From where I sit today that is an incomplete assumption. In 1968 that was a correct assumption. This is not 1968. This is 1938.

The objective must be to be driven by the example and the martyrdom of Alexei Navalny. Our objective cannot be simply to protect the front line in Ukraine. Through our aid to Zelenskyy we must win and Putin must lose.

In addition to seizing Russia’s $300 billion in frozen assets and imposing far more stringent sanctions, President Biden should resubmit the proposed budget authorization currently held back by another traitor to America, Mike Johnson. The President should not merely redouble efforts to get this so-called House Speaker to allow a vote. The proposed $60 billion is only a recipe for a continuing stalemate. President Biden should double or triple that amount and schedule a speech before the joint houses of Congress. In the meantime, the steady unfreezing of those Russian assets, even a relatively small amount at a time, can help bridge the period to the next Congress. Our eggs are already in a November basket. Failure in November means that all bets are off.

Dmitri Prigov and Andrew Prigov, still from “The people and the state together are building an image of the new Russia,” 2003, DVD, 8 minutes. Courtesy of Jacket 2.

This would be more than a meaningful policy shift, it would take advantage of a political opening, a sliver, a crack which Rachel Maddow, that brilliant narrative artist, put a spotlight on recently. No moderate, Mike Turner (R-OH), not only announced that with the development of space nukes and the murder of Navalny, Putin has crossed a line. He praised President Biden’s handling of the situation. And he is correct; Ukraine is indeed that hill to die on politically in order to save democracy. He directly refuted the wisdom of Caligula’s stated intention to pull back from our NATO commitments and offer Putin free reign to “do whatever the hell he wants.” Might Turner lead a (small!) group of House Republicans to force that floor vote? They can have Johnson removed just as surely as the Matt Gaetz (R-FLA) wing was able to liquidate that spineless jerk from Bakersfield.

Keep in mind that immediately after standing by politely while Turner made his points, Johnson made the now traditional thumbs up pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago, the stamp of Bakersfield written all over his fake smile.

I have an additional tactical suggestion for House Democrats. Leader Jeffries is undoubtedly positioned to make a powerful offer to Christian Nationalist Johnson to enable those votes to take place. If Turner and a group of his fellow Republicans are a threat to remove Johnson, the Jordan wing may well act if the Ukraine floor vote is permitted. If Jefferies allows Democrats the option to vote “Present” Johnson would not lose his Speakership, at least not for now. Actual Republicans who apply pressure in this way, by working with Democrats to defeat Putin, and by both sides praising each others’ efforts, will swing the likelihood of defeating Putin decisively in our direction. I don’t mean militarily, but that too. I mean that Putin will thus be removed domestically. The ghost of Navalny will bite him. Hard. He can retire to one of his $1.3 billion dachas. Or perhaps he could face World Court hearings, even better. Or he could be summarily executed, not what I would personally wish to see happen, but I sure would not feel struck with remorse. Would you?

Michelangelo Caravaggio, “Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist,” ca. 1607, oil on canvas, 36 x 42”. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

Finally, I suggest that the remaining Republicans organize to hire Liz Cheney to be their spokesperson and CEO. They must work not only to defeat Caligula, but the NPP traitors who will be running for election or re-election to Congress. Just look at the core roster of top issues Democrats will be running on anyway: American democracy, abortion rights, voting rights, climate change … and more. Now add to that: winning in Ukraine and maintaining an enduring NATO alliance. Working with those remaining Republicans, with Cheney leading them, the 2024 election will be a resounding success. For America.

If the NPP wants to commit political suicide, I’d be thrilled to see the Republican survivors bring Cheney the head of Caligula.

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