JOHN DERBYSHIRE: Could Ukraine Be Partitioned? Can Russia Survive Exclusion From Eurovision Song Contest?
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My opening music on Radio Derb this week was a snippet of the great Vladimir Horowitz playing the last movement of Mussorgsky's piano suite "Pictures at an Exhibition." Horowitz, generally regarded as the greatest concert pianist of the last century, was born in Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. The suite was inspired by, duh, pictures the composer saw at an exhibition in 1874. The particular picture that inspired this tenth movement of the suite was a sketch the artist had done for a monumental new city gate the authorities wanted to build for Kyiv. As it happened, the gate was never actually built. But we still have the music.

This is a war within Western civilization.

Last week, after perusing some well-informed commentary from Russia experts, I came down on the side predicting that Putin would invade. Well, he did.

So now the questions are:

  • Why did he?
  • How will it play out?
  • What effect will it have on us in the U.S.A.?

Why did he?

Three likely answers: 1) Putin wants to "gather the Russian lands" in the sense Solzhenitsyn expressed thirty years ago: bringing the three Slavic republics—Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine—along with Kazakhstan all together in a unitary state.

Belarus, as far as I can gather, is already there—just a Russian puppet state. Ukraine has been more resistant; hence this current assault. Kazakhstan is big, resource-rich, and moderately Russified—twenty percent ethnic Russian, mostly up along the border with Russia, says Wikipedia.

Likely answer 2): Putin wants to recreate the USSR, the collapse of which he once called "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" [Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, April 25, 2005].

That would be a more serious matter for the USA. The USSR included the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. They are all now in NATO; so under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, if Putin were to attack them, we'd be obliged to join in defending them.

Those of us who've been arguing for years that the U.S.A. should get out of NATO have been fond of posing rhetorical questions like: "What proportion of U.S. voters are willing to see our soldiers die fighting for Lithuania?" and "Why is defending Lithuania's border with Belarus more important than defending our own southern border?"

If Putin is bent on recreating the USSR, these questions may not be merely rhetorical much longer.

Likely answer 3) Putin wants to recreate the 19th-century Russian Empire.

That would certainly be in accord with Putin's Great-Russian nationalism. It would, however, mean re-occupying Poland. I seriously doubt Putin is contemplating that.

There is also the possibility that Putin's ambition is actually less than to gather up the Russian lands.

If you look at a map of Ukraine, it's divided into two pretty equal parts, the east and the west, by the river Dniepr.

If Russia were to occupy just the part of Ukraine east of the Dniepr, that would give her a nice big-river border, clear land passage to the Crimea, and control of Kyiv. That would be a pretty good result by itself.

We haven't heard much about Russian action in the western zone, although air raid sirens went off in Lviv on Friday [Russia-Ukraine war news updates: Air raid sirens wail across Lviv in western Ukraine, India Today, February 25, 2022]. On those maps we've been seeing with big red arrows for Russian units crossing into Ukraine, the arrows all cross east of the Dniepr.

So just possibly Putin only wants the eastern half of Ukraine. That's not the way I'd bet, but it's possible.

How will it play out? 

The correlation of forces of course favors Russia, which is way bigger and has more stuff: twenty-eight times the land area of Ukraine, 3½ times the population.

There are some imponderables, though. Ukrainians, at any rate outside those disputed regions furthest east, are fighting on their own land, so the old fox-and-rabbit cliché applies: The fox is running for his dinner, while the rabbit is running for his life.

(When you raise that in conversation, however, someone always points out that foxes none the less manage to keep themselves fed, which of course is true.)

From what we've been seeing this first few days, the Ukrainians aren't short of patriotic fighting spirit. President Zelensky seems willing to go down with the ship. There are reports that on videoconference with EU leaders, he told them: "This might be the last time you see me alive."

That's gutsy if it's true.

It likely is true: Zelensky's had plenty of time to flee the country, but he's still in Kyiv.

There are reports, although admittedly from the Ukrainian side, that captured Russian soldiers aren't happy about killing fellow Slavs [UA Ambassador: Russian Troops give up: "they didn't know that they were brought to Ukraine to kill," Daily Kos, February 24, 2022]. And there have been impressively large anti-war demonstrations in Russian cities:

Impressively large, and impressively brave: Russia is still an authoritarian state with a big and brutal secret-police apparatus.

We're seeing some brave people here on both sides.

And then there is Putin's position among his peers, the people running Russia. Are there cliques and factions in the Russian leadership? Well, yes, of course there are. There always are. That's the nature of politics, including authoritarian politics—especially authoritarian politics, where there is total power to be played for, and the playing is being done without the scrutiny of an independent press.

Is any of those factions strong enough to unseat Putin? In a secretive system of palace power like that, stuff happens. I don't expect to open my newspaper next Wednesday and see a headline PUTIN DEPOSED. But I wouldn't be utterly astounded.

All that said, it's hard to see how the Ukrainians can prevail, or even force any kind of stalemate. The betting has to be that President Zelensky and his family will be killed along with a lot of other brave patriots; and a lot of other brave patriots will be shipped off to slave-labor camps in Siberia.

Which is awful. Someone should write an opera about it at the very least.

Radio Derb's position is ethnonationalist. In a just world, Ukrainians would have a country of their own. Putin should have left them the hell alone.

We're a long way yet from that just world, but we can still speak up for it.

What effect will Russia-Ukraine have on us in the U.S.A.?

The effect could be pretty dire. Here’s Dmitri Alperovitch writing in The Economist:

In the economic sphere, Russia can limit the export of strategic resources to the West, including grain, fertiliser, titanium, palladium, aluminium, nickel and timber—to say nothing of possibly calamitous limits on oil and gas exports. Consider that Russia is the world's biggest exporter of fertiliser, without which food prices around the world would rocket. Over 70 percent of neon gas—used in the sophisticated laser-etching technology needed for manufacturing most semiconductors—comes from Ukraine. Russia could easily stop its supply in the event of war. Mr Putin could also take additional measures simply to make life difficult for Westerners, including banning overflight rights for Western airlines on routes to Asia.
[Dmitri Alperovitch on the risks of escalation, February 25, 2022]

I did not know that about neon. Yes: one single chemical plant in Ukraine—actually in Odessa, west of the Dniepr—supplies 65 percent of the world's production of neon.

There's a Trivial Pursuit question for the ages.

It's energy that people have been talking about most, though. Russia is a major exporter of energy in the form of oil and gas; and exporting energy is a major component of Russia's economy.

It helps to state it like that, as an equation with two sides, because the calculation to be made here is whether any kind of restrictions or embargoes on those exports hurt Russia more by depriving her of revenue, or her customers more, by depriving them of energy.

I don't know the answer to that, and I'm not sure anyone else does, either. I do know, though, that we're in a much worse position than we need to be energy-wise because of extremely stupid actions on the part of the Biden administration.

Those actions—shutting down the Keystone pipeline from Canada, banning fracking and new leases on federal lands, restoring regulatory obstacles scrapped by the Trump administration—ended our energy independence at a stroke.

It's commonly said that Biden carried out those actions because he's in thrall to the crazy-green wing of his party, the people who tell us the world will end if we don't stop burning fossil fuels.

Well, maybe. Possibly Joe had it in the back of his mind that it might be smart to appease the climate-change cultists. At the front of his mind, however, was determination to reach The World of Null-T: the world in which nothing whatsoever remains of anything Donald Trump did in his presidency. It all had to be annulled, zeroed out, as if it had never happened.

Remember those pictures from back then in January of Biden at his desk in the Oval Office, working through a big stack of Trump's executive orders, canceling every one? Do you think he paused to read them? Do you think that now and then he thought: "Wait a minute: this one makes sense…maybe we should keep it"?

Nope: he just plowed through canceling every one. If Trump did it, it's bad: Cancel it! The World of Null-T.

CULTURAL FOOTNOTES: There are also some cultural aspects worth noting on the Russia-Ukraine war. (See opening paragraph.)

This is the first national-scale war of Slavs against Slavs since the Poland-Russia conflict about a hundred years ago. At any rate if you count the fighting when Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s as ethnic, not really national.

In the 1990s fighting, Russia seems mainly to have sided with the Serbs, perhaps seeing them as the closest of all their Slavic brothers down there on account of belonging overwhelmingly to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

And speaking of religion, I was surprised to learn that there may be a religious angle to Russia-Ukraine. Here's a quote from Giles Fraser

In 2019, the Ukrainian arm of the family of Orthodox churches declared its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church—and the nominal head of the Orthodox family, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, supported it. The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, described this as "a great victory for the devout Ukrainian nation over the Moscow demons, a victory of good over evil, light over darkness."

[Putin’s spiritual destiny,, February 24, 2022]

That's led to a good old-fashioned schism, although I don't believe the word filioque has played any part this time around.

Putin is of course on the Russian side of this schism, and quite passionately so. His mother was a devout Christian, and according to Unherd’s Fraser Putin sees himself as "the true defender of Christians throughout the world." The Russian Orthodox Church is the focus of his spiritual loyalty; and Kyiv, where that church was founded in a.d. 988, is a key objective in this current military campaign.

Another cultural aspect of this war: it is the first of any significance to be fought in demographic modernity.

By "demographic modernity" I mean low fertility, declining workforce, swelling number of geezers. Russia's Total Fertility Rate [TFR] is 1.5; a tad better than it was in the disastrous 1990s, but not even close to replacement level [Putin’s Demographic Revival Is A Pipe Dream, by Ilan Berman, Moscow Times, January 23, 2020]. Population has been on a steady decline since 2020, should have halved by the end of the century.

Ukraine's in even worse demographic shape than that. David Goldman at Asia Times, a good reliable source for things like this, quotes 1.23 for the TFR [Ukraine is the hollow man of Europe, January 26, 2022].

Goldman also notes massive rates of emigration, with two-fifths of prime working-age Ukrainians earning their living abroad. The projection shows Ukraine's population well-nigh disappearing by 2100:

These populations are not shaped like pyramids. For pyramids, check out Afghanistan or Nigeria.

All right; most advanced countries have population pyramids that aren't very pyramiddy. Japan and the U.K. aren't fighting meat-grinder wars with each other, though.

As well as the cold statistics, there's a human angle to those numbers. Low TFR means one or two children as the norm, which means a half to one male children…something to bear in mind when you see those pictures of young Ukrainian women in military fatigues.

One more note on the cultural aspect, this one a crushing blow to Vladimir Putin: I see at the BBC website that Russia will not be allowed to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest this May [Eurovision: Russia banned from competing at 2022 Song Contest, February 25, 2022].

Picture, 2014 Eurovision Winner Conchita Wurst

Let it not be said that the Europeans can't act in solidarity against Russian aggression.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him.) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. He has had two books published by com: FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle) and FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT II: ESSAYS 2013.

For years he’s been podcasting at Radio Derb, now available at for no charge. His writings are archived at

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