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Feb 14, 2022

Expecting a war on Wednesday

It has been a tense couple of weeks. US intelligence is predicting an invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Like most Russians, on both conservative and on liberal sides, I don’t want to believe something as crazy as this will actually happen. Many Ukrainians believe that also. Belief, however, is not evidence. The news reports are so specific, so menacing that a part of us is thinking – what if this is true?

It is hard to predict one man’s behavior, because you never know if the man is still sane. Actions of larger groups are much easier to predict – just go on previous patterns and understand power dynamics within those groups. With one man in charge, there is always the risk of him going full psycho on you. This is exactly why monarchy does not work – no checks and balances make a country highly unpredictable.

How do you conceive the inconceivable? How do you think the unthinkable? When imagination fails, anxiety replaces it. Ukraine is not an abstract for me. We have family members, friends there. Our honeymoon was in Ukraine. I love the language; it was widely spoken in rural Siberia, where one of four people is Ukrainian, and most people have some Ukrainian ancestry. I went to Kharkiv just a few years ago to give a talk at a local university. That is the same city that Russian artillery may hit without crossing the border. I have personal memories of Poltava, Nikolaev, Odessa, Lviv, Rivno, Crimea. It is the place I came from, just like Russia is.

We all hope sanity prevails so we can go on with our lives, because right now it is quite difficult to do. Imagine your neighbor picking up a rifle, aiming at you, and gently suggesting: “Oh, by the way, let’s talk about that fence repairs…. And no, I am not threatening you. What do you mean, am I crazy? I am not going to shoot you. Just standing here talking to you, holding my gun on my backyard, don’t worry, it is my right,” – all this while aiming directly at your heart. I find it highly problematic when people suggest that well, he has a legitimate grievance about the fence. And he is not shooting yet. He does and he is not but threatening is already a crime. Talking to the guy to please put the gun away is an honorable thing to do. Justifying him is something else. And if he expects an invitation to the next neighborhood barbecue, he must be just a tad crazy. And that is exactly what makes you worry.  

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