The Russia-Ukraine peace conference now taking place in Istanbul does nothing for nonviolence. The Russian delegation is under orders to lie through their teeth. The Ukrainian negotiators have been advised to not eat the food.
But the show must go on. The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, and the West’s misbelief that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to stop his carnage of Ukraine and go home sparks a hope that does not exist. The only theater critic who understands the reality of the drama taking place in Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace stage is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“These signals do not silence the explosion of Russian shells,” Zelensky said of the performance.
Russia has spent the past three decades bamboozling political and business leaders into believing all was quiet on the western front. Once again, their myopia is now on full display, crippling Ukraine as a degenerative menace to democracy.
“A screaming comes across the sky,” is the opening line of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow. To be sure, there’s a good chance that many folks have never read this book.
Putin is not one of them.
The term “gravity’s rainbow” refers to the contour of the Nazi’s V-2 rocket’s trajectory, a rainbow-shaped parabola caused by gravity. As Pynchon describes the result, “They must have guessed, once or twice—guessed and refused to believe—that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news.”
That bad news has now in full color reduced the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol to rubble, leaving a conservatively estimated 2,300 dead men, women and children. Donetsk region Governor Pavlo Kurylenko described the result as “the darkest of Hells.”
Putin’s quest to construct new netherworlds is not limited to Ukraine. He’s on course to do the same in Russia, from where some 200,000 of the country’s most talented citizens, predominantly young people, are estimated to have already fled to safety in the West. Putin and his cronies have no problem turning their country into a mediocrity.
Vladimir Lenin, employing a more impolite expression, called the creative class now in exodus a protein spill from Russia’s anal cavity. Joseph Stalin willfully slaughtered some 16 million of them, albeit the historians are still counting.
“It’s happened before,” Pynchon wrote, “but there is nothing to compare to it now.”
Putin is hopelessly barbaric. He is in Ukraine to make an example, to terrify, to force submission, and he’s awarded himself a mandate to remain at the helm of Europe’s nuclear-armed petrol station until 2036. Indeed, all Putin has is guns and gas, and a dwindling population in willful denial.
Putin’s geologists are keenly aware that eastern Ukraine contains Europe’s second-largest known reserves of natural gas. Mariupol has no need for theaters, schools and hospitals; Putin wants to refill the bomb craters with refineries, storage tanks and drilling vessels to tap Ukraine’s gigantic offshore oil and gas fields. That issue is not on the table in Istanbul.
“If they get you asking the wrong questions,” advises a character in Gravity’s Rainbow, “they don’t have to worry about the answers.”
What the West is asking Russia for is a series of enforceable “guarantees” that will de-escalate the military conflict, but Zelensky pretty much stands alone in knowing that Putin’s goal is to crush Ukraine and that every promise to end the war is the starting point for another war.
Zelensky’s response: “We will not decrease our defense efforts.”
Putin does not want to de-escalate, regardless of whether he ultimately makes a deal that splits Ukraine down the middle. Putin wants it all, and he has all the time to take it all. Zelensky and the Ukrainian people know that. Yet the democratic world continues to misguidedly calculate Putin’s trajectory through a Western prism. Realizing the enormity of that blunder is not something the foreign policy establishment and their think tanks are equipped to handle.