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[Martin Schram] Military mind-reading and Putin’s presidency

Wars leave us with iconic images that somehow capture for eternity the reality that made each war hell.

So our minds’ eyes see forever the hell that was Vietnam when we recall just two photographs: that little girl running down the road toward us, crying, stripped naked by napalm dropped from America’s planes; and that South Vietnamese military officer shooting his pistol into his prisoner’s head.

But we also see the very different iconic photo. It marked the end of World War II -- a scene not from the rubble of Europe or Asia but New York City’s Times Square: The sailor kisses the young woman. There’s nothing as moving as a still photo.

Yet now, as the images of Russia’s Ukraine inhumanity gush from our Great News Funnels, we are too close to know which images will become iconic. History will make that call.

But it is possible that history may end up spotlighting a photo that’s very different from those of past eras. History may conclude that a photo taken on Feb. 27 may turn out to be symbolic of a pivotal moment in the Ukraine war that hasn’t happened yet.

It was taken not in combat but in the Kremlin. We are looking over the left shoulder of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as he meets with the two uniformed generals who are his top military advisers -- Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the armed forces general staff. They are sitting at the far end of a table that is roughly as long as a football field.

The generals had a lot on their mind. Putin has just put Russia’s nuclear force on high alert, frightening the world. Three days earlier Putin had launched his invasion of Ukraine. He also showcased his mental instability by conducting a satirical-looking national security meeting, live on state TV, with intelligence advisers he hadn’t bothered to consult earlier. He bizarrely told them Ukraine was just a Russian colony and shouldn’t exist independently. He made each one say they agreed with him -- and he humiliated his top spy chief, who tried to waffle.

His top two generals also knew Putin’s troops had been fed Mega-Lies. Soldiers believed they would be cheered for liberating Ukrainians from neo-Nazi dictators. But instead they discovered Ukrainians loved their president and independence -- and are fighting fiercely to keep it. Russian troops would run out of fuel, food, and see they were just slaughtering innocents who looked like their mothers and children. Russia’s troop morale plummeted.

I can’t read the minds of what Putin’s top two generals were thinking as their leader lectured them from their table’s end zone. But I did know one of their predecessors: Russia’s late Marshal Igor Sergeyev, who was chief of the Soviet nuclear rocketry, then Boris Yeltsin’s defense minister. In 2002, Sergeyev was a presidential adviser when I interviewed him in his Kremlin office, near the suite of his boss, Russia’s still-new president, Putin.

Sergeyev, who died in 2006, was proud that, in a US financed deal, Ukraine returned to Russia the huge nuclear warhead arsenal they inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed -- in exchange for Russia’s agreement never to invade Ukraine. I believe Sergeyev, born and raised in Ukraine, would be repulsed and enraged that, at Putin’s command, his Russian troops were slaughtering his innocent fellow Ukrainians and shattering his homeland.

In our Kremlin interview, I asked Sergeyev if we would have talked when I first visited Moscow to cover the 1972 Richard Nixon-Leonid Brezhnev summit. The old general guffawed. “No! ... At that time, no doubt, any American was an enemy for me.” But times change, Sergeyev noted. He and his US counterparts visited each other’s nuclear sites. “Today our best friends in America are the strategic commanders of the strategic armed forces,” he said. “Substitute the notion of the Axis of Evil for the notion of an Arch of Stability. The United States, Russia and China -- that is the Arch of Stability.”

Today, as I look at that still photo of Putin and his two generals, I am mentally substituting Gen. Sergeyev into the picture. And then I am wondering if those generals are feeling as Sergeyev would feel.

Are Russia’s generals as repulsed as I think Sergeyev would be? Will Russia’s loyal generals dare to make it possible for a born-again, sane-again, post-Putin Russia to be a keystone of an Arch of Stability?

Download that photo -- and save it for posterity.

Martin Schram

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

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