What starts in Ukraine may not stay in Ukraine: How war could affect Southwest Florida

Ukrainian soldiers train at US Marine Corps Camp Lejeune in 1998. The US-Ukrainian military relationship stretches back decades. (Photo: US DoD)

Jan. 26, 2022 by David Silverberg

In Southwest Florida, the crisis over the Ukraine may seem like a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”

That’s the way British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described the dispute between a democratic Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany in 1938.

The Czechoslovak government was pressured to give up parts of its territory to appease Adolf Hitler and once he had those pieces he swallowed the rest of the country whole. A full-scale world war eventually followed.

Today Vladimir Putin is endangering Ukraine, threatening war to get his demands met. It seems like a very close replay of Hitler’s moves on Czechoslovakia.

Two of the most knowledgeable Ukraine-Russia analysts have put forward their evaluations of the situation.

Alexander Vindman, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, was director for European Affairs at the National Security Council when in 2019 he blew the whistle on President Donald Trump’s improper political demands on the Ukrainian government. He offered his take on the current situation on Jan. 21 in the magazine Foreign Affairs: “The Day After Russia Attacks: What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond.”

Fiona Hill was an intelligence officer on Russian and Eurasian affairs for presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and served on the National Security Council under Trump. In a clinical and steely performance, she too testified against Trump’s improper use of his office during his first impeachment hearings. Her article appeared on Jan. 24 in The New York Times under the headline: “Putin Has the U.S. Right Where He Wants It.”

Both call for a strong, robust American response and in particular urge the United States to take the initiative and not just react to Putin’s moves. Hill believes Putin has a much larger goal: to kick the United States out of Europe altogether, allowing Russia to dominate the continent. Both warnings are scary, insightful and deserve heeding.

But why should anyone in Southwest Florida care? It’s not as though Naples is on the front lines or Russian tanks will be rolling into Fort Myers. No matter what happens on the frosty plains of Ukraine, Southwest Florida will still have its sun and beaches.

As World War II demonstrated 80 years ago, conflicts in faraway lands have a way of impacting even places very remote from them, especially in today’s interconnected world. What is more, shooting wars have a nasty tendency to spread their effects in unexpected and uncontrolled ways, especially the longer they go on.

Southwest Florida has already seen how a large, overarching crisis can affect daily life in countless everyday ways. The COVID pandemic emptied store shelves, disrupted travel, upended the supply chain and sowed deep and passionate political divisions over health precautions and vaccinations.

COVID is an assault by an impersonal force of nature; a war in Ukraine that expanded into a US-Russian conflict—presuming that it remained non-nuclear—would be the result of human decisions but would be no less and in some ways, even more impactful.

So how could a hot war in Ukraine immediately affect residents, retirees and tourists in Florida’s Paradise Coast?

Gas prices

United States officials are already negotiating with oil producers to make up for shortfalls in oil supply should Russian oil exports be shut off, either by the Russians or Western blockades.

While Southwest Florida doesn’t get its gasoline from Russia, a global tightening of supply would send prices at the local pumps higher—potentially much higher.

Indeed, gasoline supplies could be so straitened that Floridians—and all Americans—could see the return of gas lines reminiscent of the oil embargoes of the 1970s.

If the scarcity persists, US oil companies could again start eyeing oil drilling and exploitation in eastern Gulf of Mexico or under the Everglades and this time there would be little political will to stop them, even if it would take years for Florida oil to make a difference.

Cyber disruption

The Russians have mastered the art of the cyberattack as a weapon of war. Prior to what the military calls “kinetic” assaults they have launched major electronic onslaughts. They’ve done this in Estonia, Georgia and they just did it in Ukraine, one reason that the alert level of an imminent invasion went up so urgently.

As the Internet has broken down national boundaries, so it has dissolved protective barriers. Cape Coral, Fla., is as vulnerable to cyber-attack as Kyiv. It is not as likely to be a deliberate target since it holds no strategic interest or assets. Nonetheless, should war break out, it might experience collateral damage along with the rest of the United States.

Just how interconnected the electronic world is, was brought home to this author during the 2018 congressional campaign of Democrat David Holden in Southwest Florida’s 19th Congressional District. Staff discovered that the campaign website was being monitored from Moscow—and not just from Moscow but by someone in the Arsenal building, a very secure and secret spot in the very heart of the Kremlin complex. The campaign contacted US authorities. The incident proved that even a place as obscure, remote and strategically insignificant as Southwest Florida could find itself under a watchful Russian eye.

If war breaks out, every time there is an interruption in digital service, whether of the Internet, wi-fi, cable television or telephone, Southwest Floridians may be left wondering whether it’s the result of a technical glitch, a random accident or a deliberate attack. They will not know how long it will last. It will make the web of connectivity that binds us together unstable and affect virtually every human activity. It will make commerce, communications and control extremely difficult and in many cases impossible.

A key cyber vulnerability will be in the banking and financial system. If this system is disrupted, credit card transactions might not go through due to downed networks. Access to bank accounts may be blocked. Electronic payments and income may become erratic and undependable.

Stock market crash

Collier County, Fla., tops the country’s midsize markets in numbers of people who get passive income from stocks, bonds and investment, with Lee County a close second, according to a report from the US Chamber of Commerce. That passive income is dependent on a healthy and robust stock market.

Over the past weeks, the New York Stock Exchange has experienced precipitous plunges as a result of war jitters. If war actually breaks out it might crash on the scale of 1929. We might see halts in trading as circuit breakers kick in to stop free-falls. There could be massive losses of wealth that could have a very direct effect on Southwest Florida residents.

Inflation, already high but expected to decline later this year, could climb higher, eroding everyone’s purchasing power.

Supply chain disruption

The world is already dealing with supply chain disruptions caused by COVID. Shoppers in local stores are seeing empty shelves where once items like cream cheese or paper products or frozen vegetables were once plentiful. During the early days of the pandemic the rush was on for face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

Depending on the scale and scope of a Ukrainian war, supply chains might be disrupted around the world.

Russian attacks on cyber infrastructure combined with extremely high military demand for key elements like steel or silicon could result in scarcity in a wide variety of goods at the retail level, including here in Southwest Florida. However, it’s impossible to predict with any precision which goods might be affected or where scarcity might emerge.

Travel disruption

Anyone who has traveled, especially by air, has experienced travel delays due to weather or other unexpected obstacles. The COVID Omicron surge was a major disruptor, felling flight crews and introducing unpredictability into airline schedules and flights.

A US-Russian conflict could compound that with deliberate Russian efforts to disrupt air corridors, interfere with commercial aviation or confuse navigation systems on the ground or in the air.

Social media disinformation

As the Mueller Report detailed, Russian operatives substantially interfered in the 2016 election (especially in Florida), helping to put Donald Trump in office. They are now practiced and proficient in the use of American social media to achieve political and strategic aims. After all, the word “disinformation” is originally a Russian word (дезинформация).

A US-Russian conflict would likely see a tsunami of Russian-aided social media and Internet propaganda and disinformation aimed at confusing, misleading and dividing Americans.

A unique local aspect of this is the Florida presence of two major American pro-Russian sympathizers, Donald Trump and Michael Flynn. On Jan. 24, Flynn penned an op-ed in the conservative Western Journal that was characterized by Forbes magazine as voicing support for a Russian invasion. It presented the Russian viewpoint on Ukraine.

It will likely be impossible for Americans to wall themselves off from these efforts but with public discernment, skepticism and the efforts of social media platforms to responsibly weed out false and misleading disinformation, perhaps the impact can be kept to a minimum.

Avoiding the inevitable

Nothing in human affairs is inevitable except death and taxes. Even the most seemingly unstoppable force can be stopped if it’s controlled by human decisionmaking. War is one of these kinds of events.

A diplomatic solution in Ukraine is entirely possible although the alignment of forces doesn’t favor it at the moment. Putin simply doesn’t regard Ukraine as an independent country. He attempted to dominate it through subterfuge, first by putting his own candidate in the Ukrainian presidency, then by backing breakaway areas and competing regional governments. He put his own candidate in the American presidency to aid and abet these efforts but that puppet is now gone from power. His efforts to date have not yielded the desired result.

Now he’s left with either threatening physical force or using it on a massive scale.

The United States and its NATO allies recognize Ukraine as a separate, independent state and treat it that way. This irreconcilable difference is what is fueling the current crisis.

Though seemingly mild-mannered and quiet, President Joe Biden long recognized the Russian threat. In particular he had an early awareness of the danger presented by Russian corruption, bribery and subversion as a state tool to buy agents and defeat obstacles to its ambitions. The US government is taking action to thwart those efforts.

Obviously, a win-win-win (Ukraine-Russia-US) diplomatic solution would be the most desirable for all parties. However, if conflict breaks out, there exists the very real possibility that a Russian invasion could be thwarted, that Russian cyberattacks could be stopped and a successful counteroffensive launched. Americans could unite in defense of their country. Russia could suffer cyber damage as great or worse than any inflicted on the United States. Its economy could be shattered. Ukraine, the United States and NATO could emerge victorious—but at a cost in lives and treasure and all this amidst an ongoing pandemic.

There is no telling at this point how the Ukraine crisis will resolve itself. But only 80 years ago history provided an example: appeasement of Hitler did not work.

Appeasement of Putin will not work now. There come times when the forces of law and democracy must stand firm to survive. That’s true in international affairs and it’s true in domestic affairs.

Like an earthquake or a tsunami, the aftershocks from a Ukraine conflict will reach Southwest Florida in one form or another. This is not a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”

In this time and place that “faraway country” is right next door. And those “people of whom we know nothing” are our neighbors.

*  *  *

For further reading about post-Soviet Russia and the rise of Vladimir Putin (both available in the Collier and Lee county public libraries), see:

Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West by Catherine Belton.

From Cold War To Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia by Michael McFaul.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate!

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