Ukraine’s powerful weapon: Yankee ingenuity

Authoritarians control their flock with flattery about their inborn goodness and fear-mongering about the outside forces threatening it. There’s an underlying laziness to all this. It frees the followers from thinking things through since the strongman is going to protect them. And it frees the strongman from winning them over with real improvements.

Vladimir Putin railed that the West was using gay rights to weaken Russia, a charge moderns find laughable. Putin would have better spent that time investigating the debased state of his military. But leaders running on hot air tend not to burden themselves with details.

Putin accused Ukrainians of “mindlessly emulating foreign models.” A more accurate word would have been “mindfully.” Ukraine’s growing affinity with the West is why its people — softened by consumerism, according to the mythology — have so far beaten back Russia’s far bigger brute forces. And contrary to the stories Putin keeps telling his public and probably himself, Ukrainians’ desire to unite with their Russian brethren appears close to nonexistent.

West-facing Ukrainians are outmaneuvering the Russian invaders with technology and inventiveness, what some would call Yankee ingenuity. The term originally referred to New Englanders’ ability in the 19th century to marry know-how with the materials at hand. The result, the Industrial Revolution, was forced on a region with few natural resources other than resourcefulness.

Though Ukraine enjoys enormous support from the United States and others, military experts are astounded at how its fighters jury-rigged slow Turkish-made Bayraktar attack drones to drop grenades on Russian assets. They gussied up an old Soviet anti-ship missile design by adding modern electronics. They loaded the renamed “Neptune” missiles on a truck, drove it within range of Russia’s flagship, and down went the Moskva to the bottom of the Black Sea.

U.S. military experts have updated the concept of Yankee ingenuity with a reference to the 80s TV series “MacGyver.” They said Ukrainians had “MacGyvered” these weapons systems. In the show, action hero Angus MacGyver gets out of close scrapes by cleverly putting ordinary things to new uses. His “weapons” were a Swiss Army knife and his brains, not a gun. In one episode, he blew through a stone wall using steam pressure and spare pipe that was lying around. (A plumber friend tells me that this, actually, would not work.)

One recalls the native ingenuity of U.S. soldiers in World War II. A famous scene in “Saving Private Ryan” shows Americans just landed on Omaha Beach creating a makeshift periscope by attaching a shaving mirror to a bayonet blade with chewing gum.

Shortly after the landing, American tanks suffered losses as they rolled over the hedgerows lining roads in Normandy, thus exposing their undersides to attack. Then tank commander Curtis Culin fixed sheets of steel to the front of the tanks, creating a hedge cutter that could plow right through the dense growth. Where did he get the steel? From a German roadblock.

No discussion about brain-freezing authoritarianism should leave out Donald Trump. When Putin first invaded Ukraine, Trump called him a “genius” and declared with trademark childlike wonder, “There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen!” Trump didn’t bother with deeper analysis, so busy he was trying to undermine American democracy.

Authoritarian blowhards talk much the same way. “No matter who tries to stand in our way,” Putin said with Trumplike fire and fury, “must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Ukraine’s leaders, meanwhile, are enjoying real-world victories by working their creative thoughts rather than their mouths. Yankee ingenuity could be Ukraine’s most powerful weapon.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.