On May 9th The Washington Post called attention to the “chilling effect” Gospodin (Mr.) Putin’s war on Ukraine is having on Arctic research with Polar Bears and other endangered species. The article in the Health & Science section points to the cutoff of scientific contact between American and Russian climate scientists. Arctic species are one of the best indicators of the impact of global warming at the poles.
War is hell. And now, it appears to be hell on bears, too. But was this the right place to impose sanctions? Efforts to cut off Russia’s access to world markets through sanctions was the best way for the U.S. and NATO to forge stronger ties, doubtless. And these sanctions are the first, least warlike of actions designed to unite the civilized world against naked aggression. Even though the Kremlin has found some creative “workarounds” to make do without direct access to foreign trade, there are still major nations—like China and even NATO member Turkey—who can help the Kremlin continue its belligerence.
This may be the first place to seek an end to this war. By extending an olive branch in the form of cooperation on environmental research in polar regions, we can send a strong message to the people of Russia that we Americans are not their enemy. Even a dictatorship finds it harder to continue an unpopular war when the people passively resist it. (The case of Mussolini in North Africa and Sicily in World War II is a stellar example.)
Washington Post writer Dino Grandoni points out that even in the coldest days of the Cold War, the USSR and America found common ground on protecting polar bears. And the migratory Spoon-bill Sandpiper proves that you can see Russia from Alaska. Cooperation to save this bird—even by incubating its eggs to protect them from predators—was a joint endeavor interrupted by our sanctions against Russian aggression.
Our past and hopefully future work on environmental issues with Russia can remind us of the priority our war time President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to conservation. When the Navy sought to condemn a migratory bird sanctuary to use as a firing range for battleships, FDR vetoed it. “Leave my ducks alone!” was his policy. And there was never a stronger supporter of a huge and powerful navy than our thirty-second President.
Our present attitude toward Gospodin Putin presents a paradox. We recognize the undoubted war crimes committed by the Wagner Group of mercenaries and criminals who are the Kremlin’s spear point in Ukraine. But how do we propose to bring the Kremlin’s ruler to justice at the International Criminal Court? PBS’s Frontline programs on Mr. Putin quote Russian experts who tell us he is most dangerous when cornered.
He has told us that himself. Part of Putin’s autobiography includes his story of confronting a rat in the hallway of his parent’s ramshackle apartment house in Leningrad. Mr. Putin noted that when he cornered that rat, it attacked him. Some Americans call him a rat, but this one has nuclear weapons.
University of Virginia professor Norman A. Graebner was a diplomatic historian of the school we call Christian Realism. Mr. Graebner always called upon us to consider Ends and Means. Our End in this war should be to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity and to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty. That sovereignty must include Kyiv’s ability to join NATO, if it so chooses.
Can threats to Gospodin Putin’s physical survival be the Means to achieve our End? South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham publicly calls for an assassination of Vladimir Putin. This violates international law and U.S. statute. Graham is a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demands “regime change” in Moscow. Gospodin Putin shows his cohorts videos of the gruesome fate of Muammar Gaddafi with Hillary cackling at his death. That’s what she means by regime change. No other American Secretary of State publicly gloated over the death of hated enemies. Not Hitler’s. Not Stalin’s. Not Mao’s.
In the Soviet era, a popular joke made the rounds about the red-scarfed Young Pioneer boy whose winning essay was titled “Russia: The Home of the Elephants.” The lad was an example of the USSR’s exaggerated claims to have invented everything, including elephants. But later archeologists actually found evidence of prehistoric mastodons in Russia. That lad had a point.
In the West we have for centuries equated Russians with the Bear. Huge, powerful, always dangerous—that’s Russia to us. Russians, however, see themselves as Elephants. That may be because Russians are a herd people who have an instinctive suspicion of outsiders. They habitually reject writings of exiles and expatriates. Perhaps that’s why heroic resisters of tyranny like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza would rather risk prison under Mr. Putin than be ignored as outsiders by the people of Russia, whom they love.
Sloni—Elephants—are famous for their memory. Russians remember successive invasions of their steppe-lands for a thousand years. (And, yes, they even recall the intervention of the U.S., as pitiably small and ineffectual as it was, in their Russian Civil War.)
Ronald Reagan said: “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” We should explore every Means to achieve the End we all seek. We may find common ground—on the Arctic ice.