It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a complete nuisance. The Cosmopolicast tells Vova to straighten up and fly right, because no one’s got time for his nonsense.

So a Ukrainian, two Estonians, two Americans and a Canadian walked into the Cosmopolicast—and we’ve been looking for the right punchline all day, but it’s just not happening. Still, it’s a great podcast.

We rounded up our favorite people from the former Soviet satellite states to discuss Russia, and as you might imagine, none of them are amused. Vladislav Davidzon—remember the piece he wrote for us about Ukraine?—called in from a Georgian sanitorium. Scott Abel joins us from Tallinn. Estonia’s former president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, reinforces the Estonian contingent from his lonely farmhouse in the Estonian countryside. Jon Nighswander (who began his career as a Russianist) joins us from Vienna.

We ask just what, exactly, Putin thinks he’s doing. He’s now sent tanks, troops (85,000 of them, at last count) and long-range guns to loom, thuggishly, on Ukraine’s borders and in its stolen territories. Why? He couldn’t seriously be planning to gnaw off another chunk of Ukraine, could he? His last meal has been giving him serious indigestion. Is he testing to see what the EU will do? (The EU has already made it clear it is eager to beclown itself, as Toomas notes.)

Is this a test of the new US administration? Is Moscow angling to get control over the Crimean water supply? Or is Putin just keen to make of himself the maximum possible nuisance to any adult in the world who is trying to accomplish anything useful or constructive? (If you missed it, John Oxley discussed all of these possibilities in this recent newsletter.)

Scott tells us what he’s hearing on the grapevine from Estonian parliamentarians with deep ties to Russia.

Toomas surmises that Russia’s goal is simply to screw up Ukraine—and all of its neighbors—so badly they’ll never be able to get their act together enough to join Europe or NATO.

We discuss Putin’s strategy of creating and exploiting frozen conflicts. We ask whether Russia actually could roll over all of Ukraine, if it wanted to. (It could, we think, but it would destroy the Russian state.)

Toomas and Jon ask why Ukraine doesn’t just tell Putin, “Fine. Take the Donbass and choke on it. Have fun.” Vladislav explains how Ukrainians would view this.

We decide the odds of full-scale invasion are about 30 percent. The odds are against it, in other words, but we sure wouldn’t bet the farm on this assessment.

We talk about how Europe views Ukraine, and why Ukraine hasn’t made as much social and economic progress as Estonia. (Vladislav points out that Ukraine has, on the other hand, built one of the most formidable militaries in Europe in the past seven years, which Estonia hasn’t, though he was too polite to mention this.)

Vladislav and Toomas note that Putin is out of touch—literally and metaphorically—and growingly reliant on paranoid, hardline elements in Russia’s security forces for information. The advice they’re providing him is not necessarily good. We worry about accidents and miscalculation.

Jon notes that Russia has achieved the needless goal of completely alienating the rest of Ukraine, which would otherwise have remained sympathetic to Russia. Scott says he’s observed the same thing among Russophone Estonians.

We end by talking about Navalny and the grotesque declaration by Amnesty International that they don’t propose to support him because he once said something politically incorrect. (He’s Russian. They want a Russian opposition figure who’s clued in on the latest Oberlin campus mores? Good luck with that.)

We discuss Russian philosophy. Toomas says Russia is not part of Europe: It’s always been at the forefront of counter-Enlightenment thinking.

True that, I reply, but counter-Enlightenment thinking is, actually, authentically European. You can’t argue that everything illiberal that happens in Europe is not truly European. That gets into no-true-Scotsman territory very fast.

We wrap things up with a round of mirth at Russia’s expense.

As always, if you have any questions, for any of us, leave them in the comments. We’ll try to answer as best we can.


  1. I will have more to say about this later but listening to this podcast today I was thinking of a quote from Elliot Cohen’s recent Atlantic piece that came out yesterday which is that in several important aspects of foreign and national-security policy that Biden’s Administration is the same as Trump’s but with more civilized manners. While this quote was made in reference to Afghanistan I wonder if the Cosmopolitan Globalists might like to comment as to whether this same quote might apply towards Russia and Ukraine.

    • Maybe a second question that is way out of left field. What do the Cosmopolitan Globalists think about the CPTPP and it’s global impact? The reason I bring this is up at the moment the CPTPP is a club a lot of countries(other than the US) seem to be seriously looking at joining and unlike the EU and NATO the existing countries in it seem to be looking for new members although I doubt te CPTPP are particularly interested in Ukrainian membership at the moment.

      • I guess there are two things I find interesting about the CPTPP in recent months. One is that a CPTPP that includes the UK but NOT the US effectively has the potential to be a “Fourth” economic bloc albeit quite a motley one(although it is not as if the EU, US, and China at the moment have their act together in a strong way) in addition to the US, EU, and China so in some sense I am not sure if I was the US, EU, and China I would not be “thrilled” with the CPTPP breaking into their “club.” Second I am a bit surprised that the US has not either joined the CPTPP itself nor has it tried to call upon its special relationship with the UK to try to ward off London from having anything to do with a “fourth” economic bloc.

  2. I love the anecdote of the Soviet major (?) hugging Kundera and telling him “we invaded you because we love you”. That’s Super Powers for you – always so misunderstood.

  3. Thomas M Gregg | April 16, 2021 at 2:35 pm | Reply

    Claire, the punchline is obvious: The bartender looks up and says, “What’s this? Some kind of joke?”

  4. Another informative podcast. Interesting discussion about whether Russians are European. Thomas Sowell in his book Conquests and Cultures, suggests that Western Europe advanced due to the river systems and access to the sea that provided easy trade routes, and the civilizing influence of the Roman occupation. Eastern Europe, mostly the Slavs, missed out and remained centuries behind. In some cases there was no written language until the 15th century. They were finally dragged into modern agriculture, industry, science and education by expatriate residents, Germans, Jews, Indians and latterly English and others, who came to do business and settled. Naturally they became prosperous and powerful and at various times were expelled by the resentful indigenes, who in spite of that, gradually industrialized. And as your podcast says, once they acquired “critical mass” Russian literature became world class. Sowell’s point is that the key is human capital, not race or colour.

    I like the story of the Russian businessman who said as long as the price of sausage and beer does not go up, he will tolerate Putin. How many Chinese think the same, or are they less cynical? Do they accept their illiberal government, thought police, and social credit as the price for prosperity and access to cars and Gucci goods?

    Is it true that Obama removed missiles from the Ukraine to placate Russia, and promised to protect the Ukraine, but then reneged?

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