Courier Herald column for the week of July 2nd:
June 23rd, 2023 will barely be a footnote in history – at least, in American history. For a few hours, however, it appeared that a major event in world history was happening right before us, in real time.
After a few weeks of openly criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin led his Wagner Group mercenary fighters in an open rebellion against the Russian military. Within hours the Russian town of Rostov was occupied by the Wagner troops, meeting no resistance from the Russian army. Another column of Wagner fighters and equipment moved from Ukraine, again unimpeded, to within 120 miles of Moscow before abruptly halting.
What has transpired since – at least as of this writing a week later – has been public speeches an uneasy truce between the two leaders. Behind the scenes, President Putin has begun to purge those deemed disloyal, while Prigozhin tries to shore up Wagner’s business and secure his personal safety.
For those of us observing that first evening – mostly by following sources on the ground in Russia and Ukraine via Twitter – it was a fascinating and frankly scary evening. On one hand, you had a brutal dictator who had just invaded a peaceful country and has spent the last year and a half committing various war crimes. On the other is the head of an equally brutal mercenary fighting group who has charged billions to fight for the most unscrupulous characters in Africa, the Middle East, and now Ukraine.
At stake was control of a very economically weak and increasingly divided Russian people, and control of the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. It was a situation where neither leader nor side should be favored. Politics, especially when dealing with foreign policy, is messy like that. Sometimes the best you can hope for – at least in the short run – is “stability”.
My thoughts that evening as I tried to get some sleep were much less about the conflicts in Russia and Ukraine than that of our own country. This week we celebrate America’s 247th birthday. We’re closing in on a quarter of a millennium as a united group of states, yet one nation.
Despite how often we refer to ourselves as a divided country, we take for granted how different our situation is from others. We’re 158 years removed from our War. By contrast, the Russian people have known their current government structure for a bit over three decades. That replaced the Soviet Union, which only lasted for just shy of 70 years.
We take for granted that we have peaceful transfers of power in this country – Yes, even after January 6th. We project too much of our own country’s perceived stability onto the rest of the word. We’re far too comfortable demonizing our political opponents as the enemy and/or evil incarnate because we are largely insulated from the evils that occur regularly beyond our nation’s borders by dictators who find our sense of morality charming and weak.
We’re fast approaching the meat of the Presidential Primary season where voters will have to get serious about their nominee for the 2024 elections. This is the person that would lay claim to the leader of the free world. This is the person that would have to not only hold our own federation together for the next four years, but protect us and our allies from all who would wish us harm.
At the top of that list, in no particular order, is a country in a leadership struggle with an uncertain military command structure that also happens to own enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet. Another is a country that seeks to be our economic rival, is proud of stealing our most valuable intellectual property, sends spy balloons to circle sensitive military installations, and seeks to occupy Taiwan – a trading partner responsible for making the lion’s share of our industrially and militarily important computer chips.
These are the most serious of times. When you look at how our political class, or media, and our common citizen approach our problems of the day, it begs the question as to whether or not we are capable of being a serious people.
Our country was born on July 4th, 1776, but it became an adult when we ratified the Constitution in 1787. When asked what was the result of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Russia’s struggles can give us comfort and pride for a country whose principles have given us 247 years of government by the people. It should also serve as a warning how quickly the entire world can change if we do not work to strengthen our own Republic on a daily basis. If we want to keep it, we’re going to need to work at it.