Column: The Wasteland

Before the bombardment of the Ukraine started, there was a small outbreak of polio.  It was too minor to receive much press coverage. Covid-19 was still an active problem in the Ukraine, but vaccines were being distributed, and there was no major opposition to Covid restrictions. Those noisily protesting the persistence of Covid restrictions in the U.S. must be heartened by the elimination of all of these restrictions in the Ukraine as Ukrainian hospitals and other municipal facilities are targeted by Russian bombs and cruise missiles. The people jammed into bomb shelters without the luxury of “social distancing” and the burden of “mask mandates” may not realize that they are enjoying the freedom from the government regulations that have been so vigorously opposed in America.

They will not be forced to give their children polio vaccine as this viral epidemic gains traction and cripples the children who survive the Russian bombs.  They will not have to tolerate the intrusion of international relief agencies as cholera, influenza, pertussis [whooping cough], measles and other infectious diseases lay waste the civilian populations caught up in the war.

Despite all of the remarkable advances in recent decades in machines developed to kill people, the war machines fielded by Vladimir Putin may still be less deadly than the diseases unleashed by the conflict itself. In addition to viruses and bacteria attacking both civilian and military targets, starvation and hypothermia are entering the conflict. Infrastructure that we do not even think about, such as sewerage systems, when we consider the damage inflicted by bombs and missiles provide a fragile defense against infectious diseases. Modern hospitals rely on electricity, oxygen supplies, sterilization fluids, protective gear, surgical masks, etc. to merely remain operational. Russia does not need to bomb maternity hospitals to close them. It could just shut off their clean water supplies. Bombing children’s hospitals, schools, and maternity wards is a way of sending a message, not a way of securing the peace. The message is that the blood of Tsar Ivan the Terrible still flows in the veins of Russia’s modern tyrants.

The world may little note nor long remember the horrors of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, but it will certainly note the feeble response of Western democracies to the cries for help from the fledgling democracy targeted by Russia. Yes, the West stopped the ‘certification’ of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, but Europe is still getting and paying for 40 % of its natural gas and oil from Russia. Revenues from natural gas and oil sales account for nearly half of the Kremlin’s income. Yes, the U.S. said it would no longer buy oil from Russia, but the purchase of Russian oil constituted less than 1 % of America’s oil purchases over the past year. The Russian oligarchs controlling the export of oil and natural gas have already turned to China to compensate for any dip in petroleum sales. In a last ditch effort to hurt the oligarchs sitting behind the throne in Moscow, American corporations are pulling their operations out of Russia. We shall see what impact the closure of McDonald’s franchises and Coca-Cola distribution centers has on the Russian war effort.

Vlad the Invader said that he was putting his nuclear arsenal on high alert, just in case those timid Western democracies afraid of “escalatory actions” recognized the threat he posed to all of the west-leaning nations along Russia’s borders. NATO and the U.S. assured Putin that they would send lots of weapons but no jets or other equipment that would substantially interfere with Russia’s assault on the Ukraine.  Poland said it would ship jets to Germany to be flown to the Ukraine by Ukrainian pilots, but the U.S. decided that was too “escalatory.” “Escalatory” is the word currently used to describe anything that might incite Tsar Vlad to launch some of those nuclear weapons. 

Russia’s Beloved Leader has already declared the pusillanimous posturing of Western democracies acts of war. He considers all economic sanctions imposed on Russia as acts of war. In effect, he has already announced his reasons for lighting up the Ukraine with his atomic bombs, if he is so inclined.  Recently released intelligence reports claim that he will use chemical and biological weapons before resorting to nuclear weapons to wrap up this operation. NATO and the U.S. responded by noting that the use of biological or chemical weapons is “illegal.” Really?  Is bombing kindergartens and daycare centers legal? When crossbows were first introduced into warfare between Christian nations, the Pope declared them ‘illegal’ because of the remarkable accuracy and lethality of the invention. That declaration had no impact on the behavior of armies bent on subduing their neighbors. Judging Putin’s methods as illegal will have no more impact than banning the crossbow.

Putin will certainly pursue his aggression without regard to the acceptability of his munitions, unless it becomes too costly and threatens his position as Supreme Leader. Vlad has made it clear that nasty speeches addressed to him and economic sanctions depriving Russia’s citizens of Big Macs will not deter him from turning the Ukraine into a wasteland. Of course a wasteland with wheat fields contaminated with radioactive debris and cities that will be uninhabitable for several centuries would not serve Russia’s short term or long term interests. Russia wants to expand its influence and its territory, not create a radioactive parking lot downwind from the Kremlin. Putin has established that he needs to be feared, but in the final analysis, he is a politician, and he needs to be stopped.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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