War in Ukraine — 2023 wrap-up

Christmas is coming and Zelensky is back from a tour in the Americas and Europe just like he did one year ago. Putin also held his annual press conference, the first time after he started the war in Ukraine. Here’s my wrap up of what we have learned about the war in the past one year and what’s ahead:

1. Russia didn’t advance much in the spring and Ukraine’s much-awaited counteroffensive hit the defenses without any major breakthroughs. That does not mean the war would be stuck. Intense fighting is continuing all across the frontlines as we speak. We are in a situation where nobody is winning and nobody is happy. Men and machines burn on daily basis.

2. It seems clear Russia’s goal remains Ukrainian capitulation and complete takeover. We have seen the pattern. Now Putin says Odessa belongs to Russia. He doesn’t mention Ukrainian officials by name just like his political opponents who have been taken out. He is on a mission to punish Ukraine like Prigozhin just because they fight back. It looks very unlikely Russia would ever settle this war as long as Putin is alive and there are Ukrainian soldiers standing.

3. For Ukraine most of their territory occupied a year ago is still under Russian control. Ukraine will continue to defend Russian attacks over the winter and hopefully get into counteroffensive again when its resources allow. It is not conceivable Ukraine would settle and surrender any parts of its territory no matter what others say and how much support they get. Otherwise all the fighting and nation build-up project up to this point would become tears in the rain.

4. The Free World’s support has become the subject of political games. This is however all anticipated and expected. There will always be voices in an open society like the US republicans and the current head of the Hungarian government. It does not mean Ukraine would be out of backing anytime soon. Just remember the EU just decided to start official membership talks with Ukraine no matter of one lone opponent.

5. What happens in 2024 is all open. The big picture is very much like in December 2022. The parties are the same and the stakes are the same. Even the frontline is about the same. The default scenario is that the war just drags on and on unless some surprise event unfolds. My wish for 2024 is that in one year from now Ukraine has taken the next steps towards ultimate victory and I don’t have to write again the same projection for 2025.

Nove Colli

I’m clearly getting into road cycling. This time drove Nove Colli 170km in and around Cesenatico. The event sounded like Boston marathon of Gran Fondos and it probably was. Again close to 10.000 participants, mostly around Italy. Guests included Grande Miguel Indurain who I saw while picking up the number bib. Took also a pic at Pantani’s statue. Grande heroes.

The ride was tough as expected because of weather. The rain stopped for a moment before the start and the hopes went high. But it started to pour down again just after 15 mins of driving and continued for like 2 hours without a stop. I saw plenty of flat tires, broken chains and even fallen drivers in the middle of the course.

My bike worked this time perfectly. After climbing Barbotto at around 90km the clock ticked 3.29 or so, the sun broke in for the moment, and it felt like I might finish in under 7 hours.

After just 100km stopped for the first and only time to eat. When I tried to kick the left foot out of the pedal got a major cramp in the left calf and fell down to the pavement. That was painful! I was struggling for the next hour or so with what felt like half power in the left side. I could not push the pedal and feared another cramp is on the way. But luckily it started to fade and after a couple short showers the skies started to clear out. The roads dried up and the last tens of kilometres went flying again.

Time was 7:05 total with c. 24 km/h average speed and total 2500m of climb or so. Garmin stats here.

Maratona dles Dolomites

Rode Maratona dles Dolomites yesterday. 138km total and over 4km uphill. My first ever bicycle race. The longest bicycle ride by a wide margin, like 100km+. Went directly to one of the most well known Gran Fondos with 9000 fellow riders. Beautiful scenery. Excellent weather.

Overall I would say it was a major learning experience and introduction to the culture of road cycling. I had no clue what to expect. Was pretty nervous before the start wondering what to wear, what to eat and so on. The choice of a long sleeve running shirt under the cycling jersey turned out to be pretty good. You want long sleeves in the first morning descents. Gloves were ok for the first hour or so. I had just one caffeine gel with me which I took maybe 2/3 up Giau pass but could have had a few more. I feared mechanical issues and was really scared when after just 15 minutes of riding the saddle gave a popping sound and went all loose. Luckily the seat post was ok and it was just misplaced. I ended up stopping 5 times to fix the saddle position, another 5 times to drink and eat and one more stop for a toilet visit. That said, based on Garmin data it all added just max 15 minutes.

I finished in 7.42 and overall position 2171. It was by no means an easy Sunday ride. It was a hard full day workout in the saddle with heart beat going 150 all over uphills. In the big picture however not as damaging to your body compared to running a full marathon on the road. Still I would not recommend Maratona for casual riders or amateurs with no endurance sports background and proper preparation. I respect now pro cyclist more than ever who can do this kind of rides during major tours on daily basis. My position changed roughly between 2.000 and 2.500, the best splits being uphills at around 1.700. I was passing riders in uphills and passed from left and right in downhills. I just don’t understand why anybody at the level I was riding would risk it all to go like 100 km/h in a downhill where I capped it at maybe 50 (data shows I peaked somewhere at 65 km/h). I think I saw 3 or 4 accidents. In two cases there was an ambulance at the site.

Right after the ride I was thinking this was it. Bucket list stuff crossed out. But after a couple of beers and the next day feeling just some pain in the neck and back stiffness I am thinking could this be done again. With some proper preparation and weather permitting I could shoot for a time starting with 6.

Enter Dolomites

Signed a week ago the papers to purchase a property in Italy. A late 1800s stone building to be renovated in Selva di Cadore, Belluno province, in the heart of Dolomite mountains. Four stories with basement and attic included. An attached garage and some land. I’m obviously pretty excited at the moment but at same time I do understand the extent of attention this property will require right now and in the long term. It needs some serious renovations and tons of TLC. I’m okay with all that.

I have been looking at properties in Italy for quite some time, ever since teaching at local universities and living in the middle of Piemonte vineyards back in 2009. My interest meant initially just occasional online searches through idealista.it, immobiliare.it and casa.it until a good friend bought a pretty nice property down in Molise a few years ago. Since then I’ve been to Molise, Piemonte and Dolomites to see tens of different properties from modest single family homes to medieval castles.

Why mountains and not vineyards or beaches? I’m certainly not the only one looking for a vacation or second home in Italy. The web is full of property guides how to find and buy your dream home in Italy. Everyone has heard about one euro homes and there are so many stories of people buying and renovating old rustic buildings in Tuscany and other popular areas. Usually close to the vineyards or the Mediterranean Sea. In pictures it always looks sunny, warm and cozy.

After some soul searching and talking with my family it became clear the Alps and Dolomites in particular is the sweet spot in our case at this point in our lives. Beautiful, unique nature. Four seasons. Year around activities and options for sports. World class skiing, including cross-country. Road and mountain biking. Hiking and running. Clean air. Not too hot. Still in Italy with rustic, traditional villages where the church is in the middle. With local cuisine and wines. But not too far from other central European countries and cultures. Interestingly this place is even in between Italian and German speaking villages, and the local language is called Ladin. Of course you can’t win them all. Mediterranean beaches are a few hours away. Property prices are not dirt cheap. On balance though this place took over in my mind.

I went to the Dolomites four times to check potential properties out. Met a number of local real estate agents and talked with local geometras and architects. The first thing I did was to take a detailed look at the map and sort out an ideal micro location. Where would you be kind of close to everything, however still outside the main tourist resorts? I soon narrowed the search down to the communities of Alleghe, Rocca Pietore, Livinallongo del Col di Lana, Colle Santa Lucia and Selva di Cadore. I was determined to buy an independent, traditional building on its own land. Something older, rustic, that has stood the test of time. Most of the reasonable priced properties which checked these boxes looked ok in the pictures and many had gorgeous views. But way too many were just too remote from any services starting from a grocery store and basic restaurant and a bar. And after seeing them in person many were in really poor shape with structural damage, significant moisture in the basement and so on.

What I ended up finding next to the 1500s cathedral in the heart of Selva di Cadore cleared the last hurdles. Solid, straight stone structure and some, but not too bad looking damage over the years. If you look at the map the place sits literally in the crossroads and in the middle of the Dolomiti Superski system. Google Maps says the closest ski lift to Civetta area is 6 minutes and 3.7km away. Closest lift to Cinque Torri and Cortina areas is 14 minutes and 7.8km away. Closest ski lift to Marmolada and Sellaronda areas is 21 minutes and 14.5km away. Falcade and San Pellegrino area is 31 minutes away and so on. There is even a proposal that might connect Civetta to Cortina with a ski lift through this village — though I’m not so sure if that would be a good thing or not. During summer some of the lifts are open for hiking and mountain biking. Selva di Cadore is right in the middle of the popular hiking route Alta Via 1 passing through just above the village. I’ve signed in to Maratona dles Dolomites road bicycle race to drive through all the main mountain passes next July, also passing by Selva di Cadore on the way.

Let’s see how this turns up. The next step is to get the renovation planned out.

War in Ukraine: the First 300 Days

I have been following the war in Ukraine through Twitter, Telegram and other real time social media channels since the very beginning on daily basis. Right now that Zelensky is giving a press conference with Biden in White House, and we are 300 days from day one, I have the feeling there might be a calmer period ahead but no immediate end in sight. So I thought it could be a good time to gather my thoughts together.

It is still obvious that nobody knows how the war will end. Not Putin, not Zelensky, not Biden, not anybody else. Some patterns and possible outcomes can be however identified:

1. Putin’s mission has been and remains to take over the whole Ukraine and he can be only stopped by a bullet, coup or the like. It doesn’t count a cent what Russia says and lies about their goals, peace talks etc. Their take over can go militarily up to the Polish border or at minimum they want Zelensky gone, Ukrainian surrender and some random puppet government placed in Kyiv. In this sense this war is comparable to WWI or WWII. Putin’s Russia is essentially running an old school conquest mission we haven’t seen in this world in a generation or two.

2. Ukraine will never surrender. They will fight until the last man standing no matter how much they are attacked or how much support they get from the US and EU. Before the war it was unclear to me if there will be genuine, large-scale conflict between Russia and Ukraine or if Russia will just march in like in Crimea back in 2014. This has no longer been the case after the first two weeks of the war or so. Ukraine has kind of reborn as a fully independent, sovereign nation and founding story in the past 10 months. They stand united. Ukraine will not stop until pre-2014 borders are back on the map.

3. EU, US, China, Israel and others were initially just following and reacting to the events as they unfolded. Since then the Free World has step by step increased the absolutely critical military support to let Ukraine defend its territory and stop Russia. But that is not enough. Now after significant Ukrainian gains over the past few months I get the feeling the military support for Ukraine should be still couple magnitudes higher If we want to see Russia defeated and retreat back to the pre-2014 borders in months instead of years. We also need to continue to build up unified political pressure and sanctions against Russia and all the Kremlin agents across the world.

4. Before February it was somewhat unclear to me who leads Russia. Was Putin just a puppet of some of the top oligarchs or vice versa? Now it is clear that everyone in Russia is under Putin who runs some kind of Peter the Great reality show on TV. Pretty many oligarchs and other regional bosses must hate big time letting their country get into this stage. Their capo has sucked all the power and runs a war economy in an unpredictable, dangerous way. Late John McCain has still the best description of what Putin’s Russia is all about: “A gas station run by a mafia that is masquerading as a country.”

5. Russian army is the black horse. They could simply stop the war if there is still some independent command structure left. They could do a quick power transition like has happened in some of the other modern-day dictatorships over the past 50 years or so.

6. Another random rider are nukes. It seems like Putin can at some point simply order Russian army to nuke any target and then we see what happens. In any event Putin is the only known person in this world both capable and even possibly willing to detonate a nuke on people. If they would nuke I think nobody would really respond in kind unless Russia would like bomb Kiev to the ground or something as crazy as that.

7. The default scenario is that the war goes on with conventional weapons until the bitter end. We will have more blood in the snow when the Christmas comes and the year turns into 2023. Where the borders lie next year — nobody knows. In the long term it is obvious Ukraine will take over the lost land, join EU and so on. Right now it feels like this journey will just take a long time.

8. What happens to Russia after the war is another major question mark but it has to be addressed because this kind of wars cannot happen again. One scenario is they follow the North Korean complete isolation model but I have hard times to believe in that because Russia is just too big, diversified and unstructured to be as tightly controlled. At the other end if Russia would succumb into chaos some independent regions could rebel and declare independence. Even if that would happen I don’t think anybody wants to go there, occupy, “peace keep” or grab any of that land with any pretext. They need to somehow sort it out themselves. Like Zelensky said in his address to US Congress: “The Russians will stand a chance to be free only when they defeat the Kremlin in their minds.” They do it either region by region, which I guess would be most likely, or then in some miraculous way as a reborn, unified, democratic nation among other nations.