On Putin, Bullies, and WWIII

On Putin, Bullies, and WWIII

Cover Image: Putin meeting with China’s Xi Jinping on 2/4/22 during the Beijing Winter Olympics, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo credit: http://www.kremlin.ru


Did you ever deal with a childhood bully? I did. Every day for years and years. He never stopped, and I never stopped him. I tried talking things out with him, befriending him, avoiding him, but nothing worked. It made no sense to me to use violence against him because violence itself made no sense to me. I also worried that if I allowed myself to feel enough anger to fight back, I wouldn’t know when to stop, and either I would kill him or he would kill me. And if we survived, I figured that he would treat me even worse after that. So instead I endured regular pummelings, daily humiliation and ridicule, and the constant threat of violence – either from him or from lower-tier bullies who saw from his example how easy it was to push me around.

As of this writing, nearly three weeks of war crimes have been taking place in Ukraine, some of them captured on video for all to see. The world had optimistically hoped that Putin would not be so bold as to invade another sovereign country with no provocation, but he did, plunging the citizens of Ukraine into a brutal war and a horror show of grim choices: abandon my home or fight and potentially die, split up my family or put them in danger, shoot my mortally wounded father lying in the road or let him bleed out. But how does this conflict differ from the other genocides over the past 60 years – Palestine, Rwanda, Congo, East Timor, Somalia, Myanmar, Syria? While it is potentially valuable for the Caucasians among us to examine how the skin pigment of the victims may be affecting our personal level of concern, I would argue that there is a geopolitical element that makes Ukraine different and particularly urgent: the global ambitions of Vladimir Putin and other dictators – ambitions which have only grown more intense as the United States of recent decades has come to be seen as a nation of weak, inconsistent leadership and internal disunity. In particular, Putin and China’s Xi not only wish to expand their nations’ borders, but have a feeling of entitlement to specific countries that they believe they are justified to “take back.”

Putin grew up in dire poverty in bombed-out post-WWII St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). He was bullied by local thugs and learned to become a bully and a thug himself. He had a deep sense of pride in his Soviet homeland and grew up to successfully pursue his dream of becoming a KGB officer. While many greeted the collapse of the Soviet Union with excitement and optimism, Putin viewed it as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” – the humiliating downfall of a glorious empire shattered into independent fragments as a result of American meddling. As President of Russia, Putin has decried NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance of western nations formed after World War II) and sought its demise, in part because it is the most potent military force holding him back from invading the former Soviet nations, and in part because he sees more and more of those former Soviet nations seeking NATO membership.

A desire to stop NATO expansion and a nostalgic fantasy of reconstituting the USSR are the primary drives behind his invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s excuse that he is “denazifying” Ukraine is such an absurd and lazy rationale as to indicate a core belief that he shouldn’t even need an excuse to “take back what is rightly his.”

Map of NATO member nations in Europe, showing decade of membership.
Map of European nations that were once Soviet territories and Soviet satellite countries.

We have all admired the stunning bravery of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people who have stayed to fight off the Russian invaders. From our relative comfort in the United States, we check the news, root for the Ukrainians, damn Putin, pray for a peaceful outcome, and hopefully make donations to humanitarian organizations helping civilians on the ground there. But this is nowhere near enough. The courage on display in Ukraine is not sustainable without real help, including military assistance. The 40-mile convoy of stranded Russian tanks north of Kyiv was a glaring opportunity for fighter jets to decimate a large portion of Putin’s army. Instead of providing such bombers, America sat by, with its most promising solution being a deal wherein Poland would give Ukraine Soviet-era jets and the US would backfill the Polish air force with American fighter jets. As that deal was discussed and ultimately fell apart, Russia got the needed fuel and supplies to the tanks, and now they are back on track and closing in on Kyiv.

So what do we do when they have Kyiv surrounded – with more fresh Russian troops arriving daily, when Ukrainian forces have run out of ammunition, when they’ve grown exhausted and sick because they are getting little sleep and their water and electricity and heating have all been cut off, when we wake up to the news that Zelenskyy is one of the many dead under a pile of rubble? Do we just feel sad, shrug, and wish that things had gone differently? The Ukrainians are outnumbered and outgunned, and their courage must be backed by steady outside help. We can at the very least provide them ample ammunition and weapons, including fighter jets, without hiding behind other countries in convoluted arrangements to do so. And we can also work covertly for the rapid elimination of Putin from the Russian Presidency.

A Ukrainian girl sits in a bomb shelter during a Russian attack.
Residential homes in Lysychansk, Ukraine bombed by Russia.

Putin has repeatedly mentioned his nuclear arsenal as a threat to anyone who might wish to step in and interfere with his slaughter of Ukrainian civilians. And in truth, the relative absence of the Russian Air Force from the current conflict may mean that he is keeping those forces on standby to deal with outsiders. Having grown up during the Cold War with the threat of nuclear annihilation constantly looming in the background of daily life, I take seriously the horror that a nuclear conflict would bring. But Putin seems to have turned the Cold War policy of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) on its head. Whereas in the past, it was a deterrent against Soviet use of nuclear weapons, Putin is using it as a cudgel to hold the world at bay while he does whatever he wants. And we’re accepting that.

So what is our red line before we are willing to get involved? Clearly it is not the commission of war crimes or the targeting of civilians. Is it the use of chemical weapons? Biological weapons? The death of Zelenskyy? Deliberate face-to-face executions of Ukrainian soldiers? Of civilians? Bulldozers loading them all into mass graves? The expansion of the invasion to Moldova? To Finland? Or do we simply do nothing until an actual NATO country is attacked?

Putin will decide what is or is not a provocation for him to use nuclear weapons, if he is actually willing to use them. And that provocation can be whatever he chooses – interference from America, a desire to save face after unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance, a perceived slight from a world leader, anything. In the meantime, he is learning with each new atrocity that his initial calculation was correct: that he can do anything he wants as long as he occasionally uses the magic words “World War III” or “nukes.” Rest assured that China, who wishes to invade Taiwan, is learning by watching all of this as well. So do we wait for China – with a larger and far more potent military force than Russia – to make its move? Is that our red line? The farther out we push the boundary of what we will accept, the more dangerous the odds become.

Through action or inaction – either way – we are potentially provoking World War III. The difference is that action now has a chance of sending a message of deterrence to the world’s expansionist thugs. Inaction will hand us a pre-1945 world, where invasions of sovereign countries for the spoils of war are once again commonplace, borders are fluid, international rules become completely unenforceable and therefore nonexistent regarding things like the development of nuclear weapons, and fear becomes much more of a constant across the globe. Putin’s war on Ukraine is not just another military conflict in another country. It is a gateway to a new era of global lawlessness and conquest, and we have the choice right now whether we will be meekly dragged through that gate by a bully or if we will have the courage to use our strength to hold that gate shut.

– rob rünt

What About Crowdstrike?

What About Crowdstrike?

Crowdstrike is the cybersecurity company that investigated the 2016 hacking of the DNC and Clinton Campaign servers and found the hack to have come from two Russian groups that they nicknamed “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear.” U.S. Intelligence agreed with this assessment. Robert Mueller’s report (p. 36-50) also agreed, identifying the groups as Russian Military Units 26165 and 74455 of the GRU, an intelligence agency of the Russian military. Mueller issued indictments for 12 members of those groups.

During the House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings, Republicans like U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) echoed a Russia-originated conspiracy theory that Ukraine had actually hacked the DNC and Clinton servers to frame Russia, and were assisted by Crowdstrike, because its owner is “Ukrainian.” Crowdstrike’s co-owner, Dmitri Alpertovitch, is a Russian-born American citizen.

Developing evidence that Crowdstrike was part of a Ukrainian effort to meddle in the 2016 election would help Putin by shifting blame from Russia and muddying the waters of the findings of Robert Mueller and the U.S. intelligence community. It would also give Trump an opportunity to claim that his 2016 victory was made without Russian interference, or at least in spite of Ukrainian interference.


“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike.”

Donald J. Trump
President of the United States
(From transcript of 7/25/19 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky)


“I don’t think that raising 2016 elections or Vice President Biden or these things I consider to be conspiracy theories […are…] things that we should be pursuing as part of our national security strategy with Ukraine.”

Kurt Volker
Former US Special Envoy to Ukraine
(11/19/19)


“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

Fiona Hill
Former White House Adviser, Former Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs
(11/21/19)


For more info, visit Trump-Ukraine Central


– rob rünt

What About the Bidens?

What About the Bidens?

Burisma Holdings is the largest Ukrainian company in the oil and gas sector. From 2014 to 2019, Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden, served on Burisma’s Board of Directors and was paid $50,000/month. Because then-Vice President Joe Biden was American’s point person on Ukraine, many rightfully say that his son’s role at Burisma gave an appearance, at the very least, of conflict of interest.

Several of Ukraine’s Prosecutor Generals had investigated Burisma for corruption over the years, including during Hunter Biden’s time there. However, Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, appointed in 2015, was notable for hampering a number of anti-corruption investigations, including investigations into Burisma. Consistent with official U.S. policy, and consistent with the wishes of the EU nations, in early 2016, Vice President Biden publicly called for Shokin to be removed from office as a condition of Ukraine getting $1 billion in loan guarantees from the United States. Shokin’s removal would, of course, do the opposite of benefitting Burisma, because it would mean the potential for a new Ukrainian Prosecutor General who would go after corruption.

During the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, many Republicans pointed to Biden pushing for Shokin’s ouster as evidence of Joe Biden using U.S. government power in a corrupt effort to enrich his son. They equated this to Donald Trump withholding $400 million in U.S. military aid from Ukraine until Zelensky publicly announced investigations into Crowdstrike and Burisma. They equate the quiet, behind-the-scenes machinations of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, with Biden’s public efforts.

Implicating Biden’s son and potentially Joe Biden himself serves Trump’s agenda by discrediting the candidate about whom Trump’s aides have said that Trump is most concerned in the 2020 election.

For then-Vice President Joe Biden to have been America’s point person on Ukraine while his son Hunter was serving. lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company gave, at best, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Was it right for Trump to ask Ukraine for an investigation of this specific situation? No. Would it have been appropriate to mention Burisma as one of many specific issues in the context of a broad statement encouraging Zelensky to take on corruption? Probably.

However, the withholding of Congressionally approved military aid, the use of a communications channel outside of the normal diplomatic channels, and the secrecy around Trump’s activities all points to the investigation of the Biden’s not being about corruption in Ukraine, but about domestic American politics.


“…in February of 2015, I raised my concern that Hunter Biden’s status as a board member could create the perception of a conflict of interest. Let me be clear, however: I did not witness any effort by any US official to shield Burisma from scrutiny. In fact, I and other US officials consistently advocated re-instituting a scuttled investigation of Zlochevsky, Burisma’s founder, as well as holding the corrupt prosecutors who closed the case to account.”

George Kent
Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Eastern Europe and the Caucuses
(11/13/19)


“We fully anticipated the Ukrainians would raise the issue of meeting, of a meeting between the presidents. Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short when Ambassador Sondland started to speak about the requirement that Ukraine deliver specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with President Trump. Following this meeting, there was a short debriefing during which Ambassador Sondland emphasized the importance of Ukraine delivering the investigations into the 2016 elections, the Bidens and Burisma. I stated to Ambassador Sondland that this was inappropriate and it had nothing to do with national security. Dr. Hill also asserted his comments weren’t proper.”

U.S. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman
National Security Counsel Ukraine Expert, Director for European Affairs
(11/19/19)


“It’s not credible to me that former Vice President Biden would have been influenced in any way by financial or personal motives in carrying out his duties as vice president.”

Kurt Volker
Former US Special Envoy to Ukraine
(11/19/19)


“As I previously testified, I have known Vice President Biden for 24 years, he is an honorable man and I hold him in the highest regard. At no time was I aware of or knowingly took part in an effort to urge Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Biden.”

Kurt Volker
Former US Special Envoy to Ukraine
(11/19/19)


For more info, visit Trump-Ukraine Central


– rob rünt

Is There Another Explanation for What Happened With Ukraine?

Is There Another Explanation for What Happened With Ukraine?

One strategy used by criminal defense attorneys, especially when they know that the evidence points clearly to their client’s guilt, is to present as many alternative theories as possible to muddy the waters and sow doubt in the minds of the jury. During the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, many Republicans on the committee have taken on this role. This section addresses those theories.

  1. This was all part of official U.S. foreign policy 
  2. Trump wanted to root out corruption in Ukraine 
  3. Trump wanted the EU to pay its fair share of Ukraine aid 
  4. Trump was being fiscally responsible with U.S. tax dollars 
  5. The Ukrainians didn’t even know that aid was being withheld 
  6. There was no pressure on Ukraine – President Zelensky said so 
  7. Zelensky didn’t do what Trump wanted, so no crime 
  8. Trump said emphatically “no quid pro quo” 
  9. These were rogue operators – Trump was not involved 
  10. It was legitimate to ask Ukraine to investigate the Bidens 
  11. It was legitimate to ask Ukraine to investigate Crowdstrike 
  12. This is how politics works: we pressure other countries 
  13. The Democrats keep changing the charges 
  14. The hearings were unfair or illegitimate 
  15. All testimony was meaningless because the Whistleblower didn’t testify 
  16. All testimony was meaningless because few of the witnesses actually talked with President Trump 
  17. It looks bad, but who knows what was really in the President’s heart


For more info, visit Trump-Ukraine Central


– rob rünt

It Looks Bad, But Who Knows What was Really in the President’s Heart

It Looks Bad, But Who Knows What was Really in the President’s Heart

This is true. None of us knows what the President was thinking, and this may be his best defense. Similarly, one does not know what is in the heart of the man in a mask pointing a gun at the bank teller and handing them a note saying “give me all the money.” He could just be making an ordinary withdrawal while exercising his Second Amendment rights and making an unusual fashion choice.

A reasonable person, looking at the evidence and witness testimony, would conclude that the President was abusing his power.


For more info, visit Trump-Ukraine Central


– rob rünt

The Democrats Keep Changing the Charges

The Democrats Keep Changing the Charges

“The offense itself changes depending on the day, ranging from quid pro quo, to extortion, to bribery, to obstruction of justice, then back to quid pro quo.”

Devin Nunes
U.S. Representative, CA and Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee
(11/21/19)


Most of these are synonyms. “Quid pro quo” is Latin meaning “that for this,” and is a description of bribery. From a legal perspective, bribery and extortion are the same thing, involving an attempt to persuade someone to do something in exchange for something else.

Obstruction of justice is a separate charge, and refers to the actions taken by the President to hide evidence, prevent witnesses from testifying, and intimidate witnesses and members of Congress – acts that the President engaged in during the impeachment hearings.


For more info, visit Trump-Ukraine Central


– rob rünt

This is How Politics Works: We Pressure Other Countries

This is How Politics Works: We Pressure Other Countries

“I have news for everybody: get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy. That is going to happen. Elections have consequences, and the foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.”

Mick Mulvaney
White House Chief of Staff
(Press conference on 10/18/19)


It is absolutely true that the United States pressures other countries to enact policies that we agree with. We often use financial pressure and “carrot and stick” tactics. The difference here is that those actions are taken for America’s national security interest, not for an individual’s personal interest.


“I found the July 25th phone call to be unusual, because in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.”

Jennifer Williams
Official at the State Department detailed to Vice President Mike Pence
(11/19/19)


“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was probably an element of shock, that maybe in certain regards, my worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out was playing out, and how this was likely to have significant implications for U.S. national security.”

U.S. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman
National Security Counsel Ukraine Expert, Director for European Affairs
(11/19/19)


“In retrospect for the Ukrainians it would clearly have been confusing. In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company Burisma as equivalent to investigating former Vice President Biden. I saw them as very different — the former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable. In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.”

Kurt Volker
Former US Special Envoy to Ukraine
(11/19/19)


For more info, visit Trump-Ukraine Central


– rob rünt

It was Legitimate to Ask Ukraine to Investigate the Bidens

It was Legitimate to Ask Ukraine to Investigate the Bidens

Republicans argue that it was legitimate for Trump to want Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden potentially made millions working for Burisma, despite having little obvious relevant experience in the energy industry. His father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, was overseeing the U.S. relationship with Ukraine. At best, this has a strong appearance of conflict of interest.

However, President Trump’s approach – having his private attorney, Rudy Giuliani,  pushing for the investigations behind the scenes, telling Zelensky to “talk to Rudy,” keeping the career diplomats in the dark, hiding the call transcript on a classified server – all seem to indicate an intent that was itself corrupt. And while the family of a political opponent should not be immune to investigation, such an investigation would need to be conducted in a way that rigorously avoids conflict of interest. That did not happen in Trump’s request to investigate the Biden’s.


“It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a US citizen and political opponent. It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play.”

U.S. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman
National Security Counsel Ukraine Expert, Director for European Affairs
(11/19/19)


“I participated in the July 10th meeting between National Security Advisor Bolton and then Ukrainian chairman of the National Security and Defense Council, Alex Danylyuk. As I remember, the meeting was essentially over when Ambassador Sondland made a general comment about investigations. I think all of us thought it was inappropriate.”

Kurt Volker
Former US Special Envoy to Ukraine
(11/19/19)


“The specific instruction [from John Bolton] was that I had to go to the lawyers, to John Eisenberg, our senior counsel for the National Security Council, to basically say, ‘You tell Eisenberg Ambassador Bolton told me that I am not part of this, whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up.’”

Fiona Hill
Former White House Adviser, Former Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs
(11/21/19)


For more info, visit Trump-Ukraine Central


– rob rünt

Zelensky Didn’t Do What Trump Wanted, So No Crime

Zelensky Didn’t Do What Trump Wanted, So No Crime

This is similar to saying “I tried to rob the bank, but someone called the cops and I wasn’t able to get the money.” Attempting to commit a crime is still a crime. Attempted robbery is a crime. Attempted murder is a crime, Attempted bribery is a crime. Attempted extortion is a crime. Not being successful at it is not a legitimate defense.


For more info, visit Trump-Ukraine Central


– rob rünt