What a Surprise, or: The Curious Case of the Green Men

Posted: Apr 26, 2014 12:01 AM

The curious need not wait till "The Grand Budapest Hotel" comes out as a DVD to watch a between-the-wars farce done in high mitteleuropäische style, complete with comic-opera uniforms, foreign intrigue, transparent guile and enough layers of nostalgia for an imagined past to reduce any plot to some unreal dimension where violence is only playacting and tragedy becomes broad comedy.

Wes Anderson, the movie's director/producer/auteur, has a talent for depicting the slightly strange, that is, reality. But even he could not outdo the homicidal drama now being produced in Ukraine, as it was in Georgia and Chechnya before that. This production comes to you courtesy of the latest incarnation of the old Russian Empire starring Vladimir Putin as the scheming tsar.

Even the New York Times, which has always been a sucker for the Kremlin's newest or even oldest line, can't ignore what's going on. "Photos Link Masked Men/in East Ukraine to Russia," said its Page 1 headline the other day.

My, what a surprise! How could those eagle-eyed editors at the Times have figured out the connection between what's happening in Ukraine these violent days and those oh-so-innocent Russians?

Could it have been the standard-issue Russian army fatigues worn by the clearly professional troops taking over one town after another in eastern Ukraine -- just as they took over Crimea a few weeks ago? Subtle this operation isn't, not with all the invaders dressed like Russian special-ops types minus only the identifying insignia. Which in this case are scarcely needed. The world knows very well who they are and where they come from. The "green men," the locals call them in honor of their telltale uniforms. And they're everywhere, just waiting to be backed up by Russian regulars once the usual provocation is staged and the usual pretext invented.

What could have given away this not-so-secret plot? Could it have been the presence of one Igor Ivanovich Strelkov? His is a familiar face to those who keep up with the leading players in the repertory company known as the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian general staff. One day they're Crimeans, the next Ukrainians, and who knows what next? Balts, Poles, Moldovans? This not so mysterious Strelkov, master of a hundred ill-fitting disguises, was last seen in Crimea a couple of months ago before he showed up in and around Slovyansk, an occupied city that by now is Ukrainian only technically, for the green men, backed by the usual local thugs, have taken over the place, as is their wont in much of Ukraine by now. In the same way Hitler's storm troopers recruited Sudeten Germans as fronts for their invasion of Czechoslovakia back in the 1930s.

Naturally the Russians deny having anything to do with these events. ("What Russians? There are no Russians occupying Slovyansk, and if there are, they're there only to protect the poor, oppressed Russian speakers there. What Strelkov? There is no Strelkov. You must be talking about some other Russian in his mid-to-late 50s with a long record as a Russian undercover agent.") It's not just their modus operandi that the Russians have taken straight from A. Hitler's playbook, but the cover story for his various aggressions.

Moscow can explain everything. The once independent Ukraine is being invaded in self-defense! In the holy cause of national self-determination. That's what accounts for the presence of all those Russians in eastern Ukraine, which may be western Russia soon enough. It's all enough to bring back Dr. Goebbels' advice: When you lie, lie big! The Big Lie, the theory was called, and it's still being employed, just by a separate but equally authoritarian regime.

John Schindler, who lectures on counter-intelligence techniques at our own Naval War College, calls what's now being waged in Ukraine "special war," which he describes as "an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense." The Russians have their own word for it: maskirovka, or masked warfare. Literally. All those green men everywhere along Ukraine's border with the ever expanding motherland seem to wear black ski masks, this year's most popular fashion accessory when committing not-so-disguised aggression. The balaclava is back! Like the 1914 Model T, it's available in any color so long it's black.

The Russians' starring role in this drama is an open secret -- so open it's no secret. Nor is this an original screenplay. Before he invaded Poland in 1939, where his troops would link up with Stalin's coming from the opposite direction in a pre-planned division of the spoils, Hitler had select units of the Wehrmacht dress in Polish uniforms and attack a German radio station on the Polish border ("The Gleiwitz Incident") so he could claim Nazi Germany was only acting in self-defense when he ordered a million and a half German troops into Poland.

It's all so drearily familiar, including how unprepared Washington and the West in general have been for this remake of an old 1930s production. (I keep looking for Greta Garbo and a bevy of Barrymores to appear.) Despite how predictable all this was, and how many times this administration was warned it was coming, the masterminds at State slept right through the familiar overture, and were caught as unprepared as ever.

The next act in this old melodrama is predictable, too. At least to anyone with the slightest familiarity with Herr Hitler's m.o. Sure enough, one of the green men was overheard telling a local Russian-speaking Ukrainian woman -- soldiers get lonely -- that, should the Ukrainians dare attack them, the occupiers would have to hold out only 24 hours before they were relieved by a million-man Russian army. It's the Gleiwitz Incident all over again, only on a grander scale.

The more Russia changes, the more it remains the same. And the more our "useful idiots" mouth Moscow's line. That term, often attributed to Lenin, is still an accurate description of the kind of Western gulls who can be counted on to echo whatever rationale the Kremlin is using this year. No matter how preposterous.

See the neo-isolationist line taken by one John R. Quigley, a law professor and commentator at Ohio State. "NATO has outlived its usefulness," the professor informs the rest of us. "There is no need for an organization that requires us to police Europe ... what one country calls aggression another calls the expression of the right of self-determination." Why get so worked up about all this? It's only a matter of different definitions.

The line between aggression and self-defense, right and wrong, can grow hazy in the minds of apologists for the new-old Russia. It's as if Henry Wallace had returned from 1948 and was making American foreign policy these days. Yes, let's retreat to good old Fortress America, and not pay overmuch attention to how well that "strategy" worked all the way through the 1930s. Right up to December 7, 1941.

Now we are asked, once again, to ignore "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing," to use a phrase employed by poor, deluded Neville Chamberlain, who didn't wake up till it was too late to avert the bloodiest war in history.

The moral of this old, old story: We learn from history mainly how little we learn from history.