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Ukraine 1: Term Limits Must be Enacted Under International Law

Bill Lasarow

Let us start with the naked observation that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a terrible mistake in judgment, one he is already attempting to paper over with threats of nuclear extortion.


Remember Ilya Kabakov? Back in the late Soviet era of the 1970s and ‘80s Kabakov participated in the introduction of contemporary aesthetic ideas by artists stretching beyond the officially sanctioned art practices they were trained in. They absorbed and produced their version of the vangard, on the whole paler and more limited than their American and European models, but requiring greater courage in the face of a government that might come down hard on such expression when it suited the political moment. Kabakov's remarkable installation “The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment” put the entire movement of dissident artists on the art world map. He left the Soviet Union in the late ‘80s as Glasnost was evolving towards what would become the Soviet collapse just a few years later. Eventually settling in New York, Kabakov and a handful of fellow Russians enjoyed a flowering of interest in the international art scene. The transplanted Kabakov was a novelty whose name was etched into the art world’s consciousness. The novelty has long since faded. Kabakov, with his wife and collaborator Emilia, remain in the secure embrace of the Pace Gallery empire, a far warmer and more accommodating regime than the one they abandoned.


Kabakov was born and raised in Ukrainian S.S.R.,  but identifies as Russian-Jewish. Could you name even a single contemporary Ukrainian artist of note? The country's tiny handful of galleries, public and private, is pretty much limited to Kyiv. What exposure they enjoy beyond that occurs within a narrow band of international art fairs.


Vlada Ralko, from the “Kyiv Diary” series, 2013-14, watercolor

and ballpoint open on paper. Courtesy of Vlada Ralko


Ilya Kabakov, “The Man Who Flew into Space from

His Apartment,” 1985, drawing 1982-84, installation

The most prominent artists are Vlada Ralko, Nikita Kadan, Alevtina Kakhidze, Mykola Ridnyi, and Maria Kulikovska according to Adrienne Kochman, curator at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago. Pavlo Makov was set to present at the Ukrainian Pavilion for this year’s Venice Biennale, set to open in April. (It is not known whether the artist and curatorial team will be able to complete the installation.) Ralko’s raw watercolors of the 2014 Maidan Revolution that deposed the corrupt kleptocrat (and former Paul Manafort client) Viktor Yanukovych deserve wide circulation on their merits, but also because they serve as reminders that we are witnessing for the third time in less than 20 years that Ukraine has been forced to respond to Russian coercion. The whiplash conditions have made for a generation of deeply expressive, politically engaged  visual artists (and cultural expression in general) that fleshes out today’s narrative in ways we all need to understand beyond what is happening in Ukraine right now.


Who are these Ukrainian and Russian artists who now deserve to be pursued by the major galleries and museums in an art world far more internationalized than 30 years ago? The flirtation with the Russians went belly up long before Vladimir Putin evolved into the full-blown Stalinist who has now disrobed before the international community. As for their Ukrainian counterparts, they have always had to live at the margins of the art world (perhaps until now).

Same question, different actor. Do you recall Dmitry Medvedev? At the time that he was elected (so to speak) Russia’s President there was a two-term limit. Medvedev today remains at the deputy chair of the Russian Security Council, well below the public radar. His Prime Minister during his single term? His immediate predecessor, and soon-to-be successor, Vladimir Putin. In the meantime Russian law was changed, then changed again, to tack on additional terms to the presidency, effectively permitting Putin the position of President for Life.

Whether Mr. Medvedev is to be celebrated or dismissed, he, unlike his boss, lacks the dictatorial instinct. He remains relatively safe to this day as a background figure, if one with a good deal of power and influence. Medvedev is content to be a secure apparatchik. Putin’s drug of choice, by contrast, is demonstrably the power of life and death he holds over the masses. Wielding this power arbitrarily he walks the familiar tightrope between extermination of whole populations and self immolation. If Madeline Albright’s characterization of the chilling reptilian is fair, we must acknowledge his patience. He is believed by many to be the richest person on earth today, but if so the conspicuous consumption embodied in solid gold toilets is frankly not his style. His most fervent acolyte, Donald Trump, both admires and fears Putin because he so clearly possesses the coin of absolute authority, with no need to broadcast his blood-soaked wealth. He knows that you know, and there is no need to rely on a Forbes list for affirmation. 


Pavlo Makov, “The Fountain of Exhaustion,” 2022, digital rendering for the proposed Ukrainian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Pavlo Makov

None of this was so when Putin first assumed power as Boris Yeltsin’s designated successor. It left the once rather heroic, tank-climbing Mr. Yeltsin free to enjoy the final deterioration of his liver. Left thus to his own devices, Putin recognized that if the true extent of his hunger for a restored imperial Russia were to be satiated, he must learn to play the long game. And now we are more than twenty years in, the four Medvedev years in the middle having allowed Putin the luxury of furthering his consolidation of power just right of center stage. It has now been a decade since Putin resumed his march towards this decisive moment.

The great street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined this term, "decisive moment," which refers to the unplanned capture of a fleeting image that gets at something larger and more essential. The camera necessarily records an instant; but that frozen instant may be looked at and studied for as long as we wish. The crossing of the Rubicon River by Julius Caesar was a historically decisive moment, ultimately defining the transition of the Roman republic to an imperium ruled over by a single Emperor or dictator. After biding his time in order to build towards his own decisive moment, one that will define his previous 22 years of command, Putin stands revealed in a much harsher light than all that has gone before. To the aggrieved Putin the invasion of Ukraine is an act of completely justifiable recovery of property to which Russia has always had claim. To nearly all of the international community, it is an act of unprovoked aggression directed at a sovereign nation, one that has evolved its democratic ambitions no less. To Ukrainian citizens it is that and so much more: to them it means the loss of autonomy and life in response to a democratizing trend that has begun to rekindle the aspirations of many Russians to do the same. 


Marc Chagall, “The Marketplace, Vitebsk,” 1917, oil on canvas, 26 x 38 3/8”


Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Sunday on the Banks of the Seine, France,”

1938, photograph. Courtesy © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Putin was never about to midwife the flowering of that aspiration for a number of reasons. The prospect of it leading to a loosening of his grip on power is at the top of the list. The longer he has retained that grip the more intertwined his personal identity has become with the Russian national identity — at least in his own badly detached mind. Such megalomania is bad enough when it happens in countries that do not wield significant influence, but Russia’s nuclear arsenal allows Putin to single handedly hold the international community at bay. This is not "genius" or "savvy" in any way; rather, it is both desperate and evil. But make no mistake, the threat of its use is more credible precisely because Putin has painted himself into a corner.


The possibilities of the NATO/international alliance deploying its superior air power, and massing potentially hundreds of thousands of troops that are better equipped than his own now overstretched forces along Russia’s western border, make it obvious that Ukraine will probably be Putin’s final opportunity to reconstruct even some portion of the former Soviet sphere of influence. Should he attempt a land invasion of NATO members and former Soviet satellites Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania, it would mean launching a war against the entire NATO alliance. If I understand the direction in which the Western alliance is headed, he will never gain formal recognition for his likely conquest of Ukraine; the subjugated state will be a source of constant destabilization for as long as he occupies it; and there will almost certainly not be a repeat of the current invasion and annexation of a former Soviet republic (with Moldova being the one possible exception).

The threat to use Russia's nuclear arsenal is the single factor that is already buying Putin some time, and by itself must disqualify him as a legitimate head of state. The obvious goal of the allied strategy is to separate Putin from his authority over that arsenal. I believe that the surest way to realize that goal is to steadily undermine his governing authority at home using the existing tools of international authority, starting with the UN and the World Court. Indeed, war crimes complaints are already being discussed publicly with the World Court in order to move it towards criminal indictments; our UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has made that clear. Just as Hitler commanded his generals to burn their own German cities to the ground as that war wound down, should Putin order his military to launch a nuclear attack, our best course is to lay the ground to make it safe for his generals to refuse, just as Hitler’s refused nearly 80 years ago. 

Make no mistake, Putin has placed his country in a weak position, and by now he knows that. Nuclear extortion has already been put on the table by this maniac for that very reason; thus there is no choice but to take it seriously. It will be more realistic to woo his leadership team to remove the suicide vest from within than to hope we can do so by launching an offensive from without. The present massing troops in the NATO countries aligning Russia’s western border has begun and is necessary, not merely justifiable. But pre-emptive military action would be extremely dangerous unless it is used in concert with other levers designed to bring down Mr. Putin from within.


I am happy to leave the strategy that leads to that point in better hands than mine or yours. But I want to look beyond to the question of necessary changes in the international system, one of which is the point of this stroll through art, history, and the present situation. That is why I have laid out my own twelve step program for removing Putin and taking a second shot at integrating a truly reformed Russian nation back into the international community. We cannot simply leave that country to its own devices, we must help them. And “help” does not mean stripping Russia of resources, money, and talent.

The building of empires may have been a central feature of the international system for the first few millennia of human history. And a key feature of the means to building those early empires was the longevity of the head of state's command (exceptions like Alexander the Great and the English King Henry V notwithstanding). That has been even more the case since the advent of industrialization less than three centuries ago. And it is abundantly so in Putin’s case. If he had left office in 2008 he would have left a nation with serious problems to overcome, but a personal legacy of having revived its economy and re-entering it into the system of global affairs as a member near the top tier of nations. Russian culture had rebounded and become something of a darling in the minds of many cultural leaders around the world. And if most of the Russian economy was by then in the firm grasp of a club of plutocrats overseen by Putin, it would have been the task of fresh leadership to set its own reform agenda and gather public support to enforce it. Remaining in power, Putin naturally sought to entrench the structure of money and power over which he had been presiding as both mob boss and chief beneficiary.


The most certain answer to preventing the Putins, Hitlers, Mussolinis, Bonapartes and Maos is for the international system, through the UN, to declare, and over time be able to enforce with the weight of law and tradition rather than arms, term limits that apply to all member countries. A limit of two or three terms would also deny enlightened heads of state such as Angela Merkle and Franklin D. Roosevelt that fourth term, but the dangers of a fourth term — and more — far outweigh the shortened service of even a great leader.


Nikita Kadan, from the series “Broken Pole,” 2019-21, iron, print on silk,

59 1/4 x 44 x 2 3/4”. Courtesy of Voloshyn Gallery, Kyiv, Ukraine

One of the great beauties of democracy is that capable leadership is always waiting in the wings to be recognized and elevated by the people at the ballot box. This is a proposition that, for Americans, dates from George Washington’s farewell address.


It would be naive to suggest that this alone will serve as a guarantee against nuclear catastrophe. But it is a key element, as we see today with Mr. Putin, because the evolution of an autocrat into a madman is a direct function of the personalization of authority, combined with the singular isolation of the decision maker. And it is a simple initiative that has excellent potential as a tweet or bumper sticker. Another Ukrainian artist, Nikita Kadan, has visualized the impact of Russian and Soviet barbarism when released against Ukraine, not just now but during the Orange Revolution of 2005. He said at that time, “To be a conscious citizen means to be a social-political activist now.” His recent “Broken Pole” series anticipates the present destruction and speaks volumes as to the constancy of the threat Russia has posed, and to the urgency with which the international community must take fresh steps, not only to preserve but to extend the stabilizing architecture of the post-war order.

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