Commentary Magazine


Topic: Crimea

Will the Russian Army March into Ukraine?

It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

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It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

First Vladimir Putin let loose his “little green men”–a collection of Russian intelligence agents and military personnel along with a sprinkling of locals–to stir up a separatist rebellion in Crimea. Then after a bogus referendum held under Russian guns, he brazenly annexed Crimea, as flagrant a violation of international law as it is possible to imagine. Next he instigated another faux rebellion in eastern Ukraine led by Russian citizens, many of them current or former Russian military and intelligence personnel.

The pro-Russian rebels managed to carve out a quasi-independent region in eastern Ukraine where there is a substantial Russian-speaking population even if previous public opinion polls had indicated little support for breaking away from Ukraine. When the elected government in Kiev began to fight back against the rebels with some success, Putin provided them with heavier weapons including the sophisticated Buk or SA-11 air-defense system which brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, killing some 300 people on board.

Instead of apologizing for this war crime committed by his stooges, Putin has spun elaborate fantasies about how the Malaysian aircraft was really brought down by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft battery or fighter aircraft, even though U.S. intelligence and every other reputable observer has provided ample evidence that the foul deed was committed by a missile fired from the territory controlled by Russian separatists. Then the Russian rebels had the gall to deny international investigators access to the crash site and to actually loot the belongings of the innocent victims.

Far from chastened in the aftermath of the Malaysian Airlines tragedy, Putin is actually escalating his aggression. On Wednesday two Ukrainian fighter aircraft were shot down over their own airspace, with Kiev alleging that the shots came from the Russian side of the border. The State Department reports that in recent days artillery in Russia has been pounding Ukrainian positions and that Russia is now supplying the rebels with heavier weapons including tanks and rocket launchers. Speculation is rife that Putin may order the Russian army into Ukraine or that, at the very least, his proxies will stage a major offensive.

It is simply incredible that this is happening in the Europe of 2014–the land of the euro and the Eurovision song contest, of espresso and Bordeaux, of long vacations and short work weeks. Wasn’t Europe supposedly entering an era beyond power politics and certainly beyond war?

Recent events sound like something out of the 1930s, the dark years when brazen predators picked off countries at will: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), China all fell while the League of Nations and the “international community” stood by, helpless and hapless, paralyzed, not knowing what to do. Putin is no Hitler or Tojo or Mussolini, but there are echoes of these outrageous events in his reckless disregard for the norms of international conduct.

What is even more incredible is that the democracies of the West, which together are infinitely richer and stronger than Russia, cannot muster the will to do anything to stop Putin’s offensive. Germany doesn’t want to lose access to Russian natural gas. France doesn’t want to lose the revenues from selling Russia two amphibious assault ships. Britain doesn’t want to lose the ability to attract Russian money to the City of London. And the U.S.? Well, President Obama appears to be too busy attending fundraisers to formulate a coherent response to Putin’s villainy.

I am normally an optimist–a half-glass-full kind of guy. But faced with the evil let loose from the Kremlin–and the cowardice with which it has been met in the West–it is hard not to despair for the future of Ukraine, of Europe, of the United States, and indeed the world. Perhaps I am being melodramatic but I am simply being driven to despair by the events of recent months.

It is hard to watch the international system disintegrate into chaos–not only in Ukraine but also in Iraq and Syria–while ordinary Americans and Europeans heedlessly enjoy the dog days of summer. It is hard not to think of another summer 100 years ago when illusions were shattered by the roar of guns. Today, however, the guns are roaring and the illusions of the West remain firmly intact.

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The Putin Doctrine

Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

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Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

“There are two ways to talk about a Russian person or thing in the Russian language,” Marten explained. “One way, ‘Rossisskii,’ refers to Russian citizens and the Russian state. Someone who is ethnically Chechen, Tatar, or Ukrainian can be ‘Rossisskii’ if they carry a Russian passport and live on Russian territory.” That was how Putin had been referring to Russians. He was the leader of the Russian state, and his language reflected that. But then, Marten wrote, “Instead of sticking to the word ‘Rossisskii,’ he slipped into using ‘Russkii,’ the way to refer in the Russian language to someone who is ethnically Russian.”

This was significant especially because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. According to Marten, Putin was signaling that he was driven by ethnic Russian nationalism–a figure to whom ethnicity, not borders, is the key determinant of his behavior toward others. The consequences could be severe, Marten wrote:

It is no longer far-fetched to think that Ukraine might go the way of the former Yugoslavia, as German journalist Jochen Bittner argued in Tuesday’s New York Times. The possibility of ethnically motivated violence there looms on the horizon.

It is useful to look back on Marten’s post in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in eastern Ukraine. The plane was, it appears, shot down by Ukrainian separatists loyal to Putin who had supplied them with the weapon that shot down the civilian airliner. It resulted in the deaths of about 300 innocent travelers whose plane might have been mistaken by the rebels for a Ukrainian military plane.

Putin, of course, blamed the West. But now it seems Putin the ethnic nationalist has taken yet another step toward war with Ukraine. While the downing of the plane involved Russian weapons and commanders crossing the border into Ukraine and then firing away, Reuters reports that the State Department has evidence the Russian military is shelling the Ukrainian military from Russian territory.

The erasure of borders, of course, started long ago–before Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. Russia did, after all, invade Georgia in 2008 in the culmination of a decade-long escalation of Russian hostilities and attacks against Georgia, which included installing Russian commanders in Georgian separatist communities. Putin’s playbook has been relatively stable, so perhaps Marten’s linguistic analysis shows that Putin is not changing tactics but aligning his rhetoric with action.

And even if ethnic nationalism provides an explanation for Putin’s actions, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a strategy. In a jarring cover story for Time, Simon Shuster lays out the Putin approach to managing world affairs:

The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

It’s a strategy that has so far worked. And this afternoon’s news fits right in. When Putin needs a distraction–and he certainly needs a distraction from MH17, which has caused ripples of outrage in his direction–he simply causes more mischief.

The West routinely gets caught off-guard by Putin’s provocations. And while he may not be totally predictable, there does seem to be a method to his madness. His strategy of causing trouble in one place to distract from the mayhem in another tells us what he might do, and his ethnic nationalism gives us at least a ballpark estimate of where. If Shuster and Marten are correct, Putin is far from finished.

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The Crimea-Kuwait Parallel

Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

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Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

In short there are some uncomfortable echoes here with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which, if allowed to stand, would have vastly bolstered Saddam Hussein’s oil reserves. It was not allowed to stand, but the annexation of Crimea already looks like a fait accompli.

This makes it all the more imperative to impose stronger sanctions on Russia to make it more difficult to deploy the technology and resources it needs to exploit its ill-gotten gains.

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So Much for Self-Determination in Crimea

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

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Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

Now, Putin is waving his stick once again, signing a decree banning the leader of Crimea’s Tatars from his homeland for five years. Perhaps he was upset that the Tatars were taking a page from Putin’s own playbook and demanding a referendum for their own freedom from Russia. What’s good for the goose obviously isn’t good for the gander. Perhaps if Russia is unilaterally banning the Tatar leader from Crimea and its wonderful beaches, Europe should show solidarity and respond by banning members of Russia’s ruling “United Russia” party from their summers in the Riviera or the Algarve. The financial loss to business could be more than offset by a concerted advertising campaign to encourage Ukrainians and other Europeans to take their place. After all, many would be more than happy to enjoy the resorts absent the loud Russians who put the stereotype of the “Ugly Americans” to shame.

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Finish the Sentence, Mr. Vice President

With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

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With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

If the substance of Biden’s remarks was to encourage the Ukrainians to defend their territory against Russian aggression, as they have every right to do, the most important question facing the West now is: what exactly is President Obama prepared to do to back them up if, as seems entirely possible, Putin responds by sending in troops to seize whatever parts of Ukraine he covets? The answer from the administration isn’t exactly a secret. Since the U.S. won’t supply Ukraine with weapons or make credible threats to enforce real sanctions on Russia—as opposed to the laughable sanctions on individual Putin cronies that have already been enacted—there is no reason for Moscow to view Biden’s visit as a deterrent to further aggression. Indeed, by making those empty statements, Biden may have actually helped Putin further justify his slanders about the dispute with Ukraine being largely the result of American interference.

American diplomacy on the subject has been equally risible as the agreement worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has proven to be worth as much as the agreements he previously worked out with them on Syria and Iran.

No sane American would choose to ignite a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine. But the U.S. is obligated by treaty to defend those former outposts of the Russian empire that are now NATO members. Yet, like Biden’s bloviating, the decision to send a token number of U.S. troops to Poland for military exercises isn’t likely to impress Putin.

If this dilemma seems familiar, it should. Much like the position that the U.S. finds itself in with regard to Syria, President Obama has few options and none of them are good. Years of sending the wrong messages to Moscow can’t be undone with a few weak gestures at this late date. Just as the situation in Syria might have been improved by decisive U.S. action in the early stages of that civil war, making sure Putin understood that the U.S. would regard any repeat of Russian aggression against Georgia elsewhere as a game changer might have made a difference this year when a pro-Moscow puppet was toppled in Kiev. Instead, the farcical “Russia reset” championed by Hillary Clinton and continued by Kerry only made the current debacle more likely.

It bears repeating that the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine provided Putin with the same opportunity to seize Ukrainian territory he had this year. But he was then uncertain about international reaction to projecting force beyond his borders. Now he has no such doubts. And it is almost certainly too late to create any reason for Putin to hesitate in time to save Ukraine, though clearly the U.S. can and should do what it can to aid Ukrainian self-defense.

The debate about what to do about the crisis in Ukraine is a frustrating one and, because of the lack of decent options for the U.S. at this point, it could be used to bolster support for neo-isolationist positions that would call for Americans to stop caring about the fate of countries that are marked for partition by their more powerful neighbors. But the moral of the story is not that the U.S. shouldn’t seek to restrain Russia. It’s that Obama’s years of weakness have made it impossible for us to defend our interests and our friends. As Biden’s empty rhetoric echoes across Eastern Europe this week, those allies who look to their alliance with the U.S. as a foundation of their defense may be forgiven for worrying about the value of American promises.

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Does Ukraine Exist?

The latest reporting out of Ukraine is a good demonstration of just how much Vladimir Putin has accomplished without the kind of military incursion he sent into Georgia in 2008. And it raises basic questions about what, exactly, Ukraine’s status is, especially in light of the deal that the U.S., EU, Russia, and Ukraine have reached to turn the heat down slightly in the eastern part of the country.

According to the New York Times, the agreement “calls for armed pro-Russian bands to give up the government buildings they have seized in eastern Ukraine” in return for a general, but not unconditional, amnesty for pro-Russian agitators. There are a couple of catches, however. Russia will play a role in monitoring the evacuation of public buildings, and, more importantly, that’s where Russian obligations end:

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The latest reporting out of Ukraine is a good demonstration of just how much Vladimir Putin has accomplished without the kind of military incursion he sent into Georgia in 2008. And it raises basic questions about what, exactly, Ukraine’s status is, especially in light of the deal that the U.S., EU, Russia, and Ukraine have reached to turn the heat down slightly in the eastern part of the country.

According to the New York Times, the agreement “calls for armed pro-Russian bands to give up the government buildings they have seized in eastern Ukraine” in return for a general, but not unconditional, amnesty for pro-Russian agitators. There are a couple of catches, however. Russia will play a role in monitoring the evacuation of public buildings, and, more importantly, that’s where Russian obligations end:

But the agreement, described in a joint statement, does not specifically require Russia to remove the approximately 40,000 troops it has on Ukraine’s border, as President Obama has demanded.

Nor does it commit Russia to holding direct talks with the interim Ukrainian government, which has been another American demand. The agreement also does not mention the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula last month.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been met with grudging acceptance, it seems. There may not have been much the West could have realistically done to prevent that, but Russia has learned a lesson: create facts on the ground, and the U.S. and EU will frown at Putin from afar. It’s a price Putin is willing to pay.

And the question remains how many more times Putin will seek to trade that toothless opprobrium for another patch of Ukrainian territory. As Jamie Dettmer and Anna Nemtsova detailed today in separate reports, the Ukrainian military can’t even seem to get in the way of Russian separatists or protesters, let alone Russian military reinforcements should they be needed. “Pro-Russian separatists seized a column of armored vehicles from Ukrainian soldiers in the city of Kramatorsk on Wednesday,” Dettmer writes. He then references Nemtsova’s dispatch: “Reports of Ukrainian paratroopers defecting and handing over half-a-dozen carriers without firing a shot have triggered alarm in Kiev, with government officials rejecting eye-witness accounts of the surrender.”

Dettmer and Nemtsova’s colleagues, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, co-filed a report today asking if Ukraine is in danger of losing Odessa. Here’s the key sentence: “If forces loyal to Putin can successfully disrupt Odessa, it could effectively cut the county (sic) of Ukraine in two.” If all Putin needs to take a major port city like Odessa and completely redraw the map of the two countries is for “pro-Russian forces” to “disrupt” the city, what kind of governance currently presides over Ukraine?

The answer could be “a weak government.” But even that seems optimistic at this point. The Ukrainian government doesn’t have much (if any) control over its citizens; it arguably doesn’t have fully defined borders; its power to enter into national agreements with other states–a common requirement for state status–is questionable at best; and the Ukrainian troops are by turns refusing to fight and in some cases switching sides.

Ukraine has not descended into total anarchy, of course. But it’s important for Western leaders to make sure they accurately understand Putin’s intentions. They will be tempted to declare a modest victory, or at least claim they have denied Putin a further victory, if the rest of Ukrainian territory stays moderately intact. Yet while I sympathize with Max’s contention that Putin appears desirous of expanding Russia’s borders deeper into Ukraine, it’s not clear that Putin sees that as the best-case scenario.

Taking on more territory is costly, and sanctions make it more so. Expanding Russia means Moscow has to govern a restive region that just seceded from another country. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea has had another effect: Putin’s threats are being heeded. So the Ukrainian government is virtually powerless to stop pro-Russian regions from asserting, under the claim of federalism, a kind of autonomy that would require Kiev to pick up the check for a part of the country that would be a Russian province in all but name.

Why wouldn’t this be Putin’s endgame? It would demonstrate Putin’s control over Ukrainian governance while essentially charging Kiev rent. It wouldn’t be a Greater Russia, but it would also mean Putin could destabilize Ukraine and exert a pro-Russian policymaking role beyond Russia’s borders without isolating Russia’s business class any more than it is. And it would keep Ukraine hovering somewhere between a failed state and a non-state–in other words, in Putin’s pocket.

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How to Get Moscow’s Attention

Ukraine is drawing ever closer to dismemberment. The government in Kiev has dispatched forces to reclaim control of eastern Ukraine from pro-Russia militants whose ranks undoubtedly include covert members of the Russian military. Those efforts have not yet gotten far because of the lack of resources and willpower among the Ukrainian military. This is, after all, a new government in Kiev that disbanded some of the most effective special forces in the Ukrainian military because they had been used to repress protests against the previous regime of Viktor Yanukovych. What remains of the Ukrainian military scarcely seems able to challenge the pro-Russian forces which are taking over much of the country’s east. 

What makes current developments especially ominous is that for the first time Vladimir Putin is starting to assert a historic Russian claim not just over Crimea but over the whole of eastern Ukraine. In his televised dog and pony show, enlivened by the participation of fugitive traitor Edward Snowden, Putin “repeatedly referred to eastern Ukraine as ‘New Russia’ — as the area north of the Black Sea was known after it was conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 1700s. He said only ‘God knows’ why it became part of Ukraine in 1920.” 

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Ukraine is drawing ever closer to dismemberment. The government in Kiev has dispatched forces to reclaim control of eastern Ukraine from pro-Russia militants whose ranks undoubtedly include covert members of the Russian military. Those efforts have not yet gotten far because of the lack of resources and willpower among the Ukrainian military. This is, after all, a new government in Kiev that disbanded some of the most effective special forces in the Ukrainian military because they had been used to repress protests against the previous regime of Viktor Yanukovych. What remains of the Ukrainian military scarcely seems able to challenge the pro-Russian forces which are taking over much of the country’s east. 

What makes current developments especially ominous is that for the first time Vladimir Putin is starting to assert a historic Russian claim not just over Crimea but over the whole of eastern Ukraine. In his televised dog and pony show, enlivened by the participation of fugitive traitor Edward Snowden, Putin “repeatedly referred to eastern Ukraine as ‘New Russia’ — as the area north of the Black Sea was known after it was conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 1700s. He said only ‘God knows’ why it became part of Ukraine in 1920.” 

Putin also said that he had legislative approval to use force in eastern Ukraine–not that any such approval is needed: “I remind you that the Federation Council has given the president the right to use armed forces in Ukraine,” he said, referring to the upper house of Parliament. “I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that by political and diplomatic means we will be able to solve all of the sharp problems.”

Actually Putin has scant interest in solving the current crisis by diplomatic means which is why the accord just negotiated by the U.S., Russia, the EU, and Ukraine, which calls for armed militants to give up the government buildings they have seized, is likely to be a dead letter. Putin sees another chance to restore Russia to imperial glory and he is unlikely to be stopped short of his objective unless he is met by overwhelming force.

Such force, alas, is nowhere in sight. NATO is increasingly being revealed as a paper tiger. It is moving a few naval and air force units to the frontline states around Russia, but nothing that substantially changes the balance of power in the region, which overwhelmingly favors the Russian armed forces. 

If NATO wanted to get Moscow’s attention it would announce that U.S. Army Brigade Combat Teams had been dispatched to Poland and the Baltic Republics. The U.S. and its European allies would also announce massive sanctions on the Russian economy beginning with the especially vulnerable financial sector, which does substantial business (including money laundering) in the West. But no such announcements are forthcoming, thus giving Putin the green light he needs to create a “new”–and terrifying–Greater Russia.

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Edward Snowden, Putin Propagandist

Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

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Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

NSA leaker Edward Snowden put a direct question to Vladimir Putin during a live televised question-and-answer session Thursday, asking Russia’s president about Moscow’s use of mass surveillance on its citizens.

Speaking via a video link, Snowden asked: “I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance, so I’d like to ask you: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?”

Putin replied by stating Russia did not carry out mass surveillance on its population, and that its intelligence operations were strictly regulated by court orders.

“Mr Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy, I used to work for the intelligence service, we are going to talk one professional language,” Putin said, according to translation by state-run broadcaster Russia Today.

“Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law so…you have to get a court permission to stalk that particular person.

“We don’t have as much money as they have in the States and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by society and the law and regulated by the law.”

He added: “Of course, we know that terrorists and criminals use technology so we have to use means to respond to these, but we don’t have uncontrollable efforts like [in America].”

Edward Snowden: esteemed public servant by day, craven Putin propagandist … also by day. It’s a long day.

Much of Putin’s telethon, to judge by the translations offered by Putin’s more experienced propagandists at RT, was a mix of threats and spin. According to RT, Putin was asked if Russia would invade other parts of Ukraine to claim territory for Russia, as was done in Crimea. His response was a barely-veiled warning that he would be happy to take by intimidation rather than force. “The point is that with the understanding how important the force is, the states could develop and strengthen reasonable behavior rules in the international arena,” he responded.

The same transcript also gives readers a glimpse at the whiny, aggrieved brat lurking inside the ostentatious tough-guy façade (italics in the original):

Referring to the 2009 “Reset” in relations, Putin said the agreement ended after the US and NATO intervened in Libya and plunged the country into chaos.

“We believe this is not our fault. This double-standard approach always disappoints us. Behaving like the US did in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is allowed, but Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” said Putin. He added that Russia was not trying to sour its relations with the EU and hopes this feeling is reciprocated.

The idea that all was well in U.S.-Russian relations until the spring of 2011 is utterly ridiculous, but this is standard fare from Putin. In fact, however, Putin’s own statement (if the translation is correct) refutes itself. It wasn’t really the intervention in Libya that ended the reset, Putin hints, because NATO has intervened before. It’s that, according to Putin, “Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” despite NATO’s actions. What Putin wants is to be able to invade his neighbors at will. If he can’t do that, well then the reset is off. Which is why it was never really extant in the first place.

This agenda, of invading and destabilizing neighboring states, is what Snowden is propagandizing in service of. And Putin’s lies about domestic surveillance are what Snowden, who supposedly stormed off to China and Russia over his need to protest such actions at home, are what Snowden is helping to feed the Russian public. The real public service Snowden has done, then, is to make it clear just how much of a hypocrite and an authoritarian tool he really is.

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The U.N.’s Parallel Universe

In the midst of the greatest threat to European stability since the Balkans war of the 1990s, and perhaps back to the Berlin Crisis of 1961, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon just announced that the European Union’s primary focus should be on fighting climate change. Ban, who has been singularly unsuccessful in having any positive impact on the Syrian civil war, Chinese coercion in the East and South China Seas, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the like, now sees a Europe in which climate change is more of a threat than Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued threat to Ukraine and possibly other parts of Eastern Europe.

While the pillars of the post-World War II international order tremble in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the secretary general’s statements could be mistaken for parody, but they are manifestly in earnest. The unilateral redrawing of borders in Europe, along with Putin’s deeply paranoid, grievance-driven, and aggressive speech of March 18, might spark a level of personal commitment and concern on the part of the U.N.’s leader commensurate with the threat. Instead, Ban reveals the deeply irrelevant nature and unshakeable ideology of the world’s leading multilateral organization. The only worse news would be if the EU itself, facing violent transformation of its continent, were to endorse such folly as its primary goal.

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In the midst of the greatest threat to European stability since the Balkans war of the 1990s, and perhaps back to the Berlin Crisis of 1961, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon just announced that the European Union’s primary focus should be on fighting climate change. Ban, who has been singularly unsuccessful in having any positive impact on the Syrian civil war, Chinese coercion in the East and South China Seas, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the like, now sees a Europe in which climate change is more of a threat than Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued threat to Ukraine and possibly other parts of Eastern Europe.

While the pillars of the post-World War II international order tremble in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the secretary general’s statements could be mistaken for parody, but they are manifestly in earnest. The unilateral redrawing of borders in Europe, along with Putin’s deeply paranoid, grievance-driven, and aggressive speech of March 18, might spark a level of personal commitment and concern on the part of the U.N.’s leader commensurate with the threat. Instead, Ban reveals the deeply irrelevant nature and unshakeable ideology of the world’s leading multilateral organization. The only worse news would be if the EU itself, facing violent transformation of its continent, were to endorse such folly as its primary goal.

To functionaries such as Ban, process is everything, thus, he calls for a European action plan on climate change to come into effect no later than 2030. By then, of course, no one can any longer be certain what Europe’s borders will look like, whether there will have been actual conflict, or how many other depredations on territorial sovereignty there will have been in Europe and elsewhere.

Perhaps, though, Ban is actually providing a useful vision of the future of multilateralism. Were Washington and its liberal allies to accept that the U.N., and many organizations like it, is fit only to focus on soft issues such as food relief, health care, and environmentalism (regardless of its actual ability to make a meaningful impact), then we can move beyond the fiction that it has any real role to play in responding to global threats. If Washington can free itself from bondage to the “legitimacy” of the U.N. Security Council, then perhaps we can more creatively respond to Russia’s aggression, North Korea’s threat, and Syria’s bloodbath. That might prevent, or at least delay, the continued erosion in international norms. Call it the Ban Doctrine.

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The Obama Doctrine of Selective Memory

On June 17, 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something strange. On the topic of a deal struck on settlement construction between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, Clinton said: “In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”

It’s important to clarify what is “strange” about this comment. It was a strange thing to say because it is flatly untrue: the agreement most certainly existed, and was put to writing. But it was not strange that Clinton was the one to say it: as Omri Ceren meticulously explained for the magazine in May 2012, the Obama administration’s disastrous policies toward Israel were predicated on ignoring, and at times outright falsifying, history.

Sharon made real strategic concessions to boost the peace process at great political and personal cost because he knew he had America’s support. When Obama came into office, American allies learned the hard way that the White House was no longer bound by such agreements, regardless of the danger it put those allies in. Ukrainian leaders now appear to be running into the same problem.

According to the Budapest memorandum of 1994, Ukraine would give up its nukes in return for the recognition and maintenance of its territorial integrity. That ship has very clearly sailed, since the United States is now asking Vladimir Putin’s Russia to please only take from Ukraine that which they have already pilfered. Putin is considering this request–which is exactly what it is: a request. Thus, Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” does not, at the moment, exist in any meaningful sense.

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On June 17, 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something strange. On the topic of a deal struck on settlement construction between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, Clinton said: “In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”

It’s important to clarify what is “strange” about this comment. It was a strange thing to say because it is flatly untrue: the agreement most certainly existed, and was put to writing. But it was not strange that Clinton was the one to say it: as Omri Ceren meticulously explained for the magazine in May 2012, the Obama administration’s disastrous policies toward Israel were predicated on ignoring, and at times outright falsifying, history.

Sharon made real strategic concessions to boost the peace process at great political and personal cost because he knew he had America’s support. When Obama came into office, American allies learned the hard way that the White House was no longer bound by such agreements, regardless of the danger it put those allies in. Ukrainian leaders now appear to be running into the same problem.

According to the Budapest memorandum of 1994, Ukraine would give up its nukes in return for the recognition and maintenance of its territorial integrity. That ship has very clearly sailed, since the United States is now asking Vladimir Putin’s Russia to please only take from Ukraine that which they have already pilfered. Putin is considering this request–which is exactly what it is: a request. Thus, Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” does not, at the moment, exist in any meaningful sense.

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, has taken to the Daily Beast to describe the Budapest memorandum in terms nearly identical to the way the Bush-Sharon letter was described by those who wanted Obama to respect the promises of the White House. When Clinton denied an agreement that plainly existed, she tried to hedge, in part by saying she found no “enforceable” deals. As Elliott Abrams noted in the Wall Street Journal at the time: “How exactly would Israel enforce any agreement against an American decision to renege on it? Take it to the International Court in The Hague?”

Gelb acknowledges that the Budapest deal does not specifically obligate America to use force against Russia to repel its Ukrainian adventure. But Gelb wants the administration to stop insulting the intelligence of the Ukrainians:

The Budapest document makes sense historically only as a quid pro quo agreement resting upon American credibility to act. The United States cannot simply walk away from the plain meaning of the Budapest Memorandum and leave Ukraine in the lurch. And how would this complete washing of U.S. hands affect U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, supposedly a top national priority? Why should any nation forego nukes or give them away like Ukraine, if other nations, and especially the U.S., feel zero responsibility for their defense? It’s not that Washington has to send ground troops or start using its nuclear weapons; it’s just that potential aggressors have to see some potential military cost.

And that’s the consequence of the administration’s penchant for selective memory in foreign affairs that Obama brushed aside when it came to Israel. It’s not about whether Obama would or would not have signed such a deal himself. It’s about whether American promises evaporate every four or eight years.

The obvious rejoinder is that presidential administrations cannot be bound by every political or strategic principle of their predecessors–otherwise why have elections? True, but the question is one of written agreements, “memoranda,” and understandings, especially those offered as the American side of a deal that has been otherwise fulfilled. Sharon pulled out not just of Gaza but also parts of the West Bank and made concessions on security in both territories he was hesitant to offer. He held up his end of the bargain, and Israelis were only asking that the administration hold up Washington’s.

That’s the point Gelb is making on Ukraine, and it’s an important one. He is saying that the United States’ decision on how to respond to Russia’s aggression should not be made in a vacuum. This may bind Obama’s hands a bit, but there is danger in reneging on this agreement. It’s a danger that was mostly ignored when it came to Israel. But now it’s clear that this is a pattern with Obama, and that American promises are suspended on his watch. It’s no surprise that the world is acting accordingly.

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Putin and Pyrrhic Victories

Of the attempts to take a more optimistic view of Vladimir Putin’s shoplifting spree on Ukrainian territory, two stand out. One is the idea that Putin is, as President Obama said, acting “out of weakness,” not strength. The other is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be something of a Pyrrhic victory by slow bleed–that Putin has taken on an economic albatross.

To the first, the general response is: Who cares? Either international laws and norms must be followed, or they don’t. Psychoanalysis is far more useful to those seeking to predict future behavior, because putting Putin on the couch will not give Ukraine back its territory. The second one has a corollary, voiced today by Owen Matthews in the Spectator–that just as gaining Crimea will weigh down Russia’s budget, losing Crimea will unburden Ukrainian domestic politics. Here’s the crux of his argument:

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Of the attempts to take a more optimistic view of Vladimir Putin’s shoplifting spree on Ukrainian territory, two stand out. One is the idea that Putin is, as President Obama said, acting “out of weakness,” not strength. The other is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be something of a Pyrrhic victory by slow bleed–that Putin has taken on an economic albatross.

To the first, the general response is: Who cares? Either international laws and norms must be followed, or they don’t. Psychoanalysis is far more useful to those seeking to predict future behavior, because putting Putin on the couch will not give Ukraine back its territory. The second one has a corollary, voiced today by Owen Matthews in the Spectator–that just as gaining Crimea will weigh down Russia’s budget, losing Crimea will unburden Ukrainian domestic politics. Here’s the crux of his argument:

With Crimea gone, Ukrainian politics will no longer be a tug of war between the Ukrainian west and the Russian east: the balance of power tips irrevocably west.

Thanks to Putin’s rash decision to occupy Crimea, not just the EU but its most powerful members — notably Germany, the UK, France and Poland — realise that supporting Ukraine is no longer about handouts but principle. Countries that strive towards European values — and suffer for it — should be rewarded and protected. Angela Merkel, the European leader who knows Putin best and is usually the most conciliatory towards Russia, told the Bundestag last week that he was ‘on a different planet’. Brussels has hurried to offer an amended Association Agreement; the US has backed a generous bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

That’s what Ukraine and the West stand to gain. Here’s what Russia stands to lose:

Doubtless Putin will pour money into his acquisition, as he has done into Chechnya, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But making Crimea a viable part of the Russian Federation will be cripplingly expensive. ‘Today, our Crimea looks no better than Palestine’ — not the words of a EuroMaidan enthusiast in Kiev but of Russia’s regional development minister, Igor Slyunayev, speaking to the Russian business daily Kommersant just before Putin’s Anschluss. …

But Putin’s biggest problem is not that annexing Crimea will be expensive for the treasury — it is that it will be expensive for Russia’s elite. On the face of it, US and EU sanctions amount to a mere pinprick. But the cost to Russia’s business class will be deep, and come in subtler ways — higher borrowing costs, evaporated international enthusiasm for their share offerings, a sliding stock market, a weak ruble, bad credit ratings. With energy prices sliding too, and Europe pushing hard to find alternatives to Gazprom, Putin is strangling the goose that laid golden eggs in pursuit of an incoherent imperial vision. Russia’s moneyed class will not forgive him.

Perhaps, but one is tempted to once again respond, at least to that last point: Who cares? Is Putin in need of the forgiveness of “Russia’s moneyed class?” When Putin instituted his so-called national champions policy of raiding the private sector and bringing important economic industries under Moscow’s thumb, he did a great many things that were both antidemocratic and bad for business. When Boris Berezovsky fled and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was thrown in prison, Russia’s “moneyed class” did not demand an apology from Putin.

His past displays of raw power have had economic downsides–and quite predictable ones at that. They have not been followed by Putin begging for forgiveness; in fact, they often boost his approval with the Russian public. Long term, of course, this might not be the case. There is a very strong argument that what Putin is doing is ultimately unsustainable, that eventually the bottom will fall out. The crucial question for the West will be to figure out what this means until then.

So if Matthews is right that Putin is accelerating a downward spiral, and Obama is right that Putin orders the invasions of other sovereign states out of weakness, doesn’t that suggest that the West ought to be prepared for more Russian adventurism? That, as the Wall Street Journal reports, appears to be the case: “Russian troops massing near Ukraine are actively concealing their positions and establishing supply lines that could be used in a prolonged deployment, ratcheting up concerns that Moscow is preparing for another major incursion and not conducting exercises as it claims, U.S. officials said.”

The incursion could be done “without warning” because the pieces are in place. It’s easy, from a certain distance, to say that Putin is foolishly bringing about the decline of his own power structure. And it may even be true. But the complacency with which Putin’s repeated invasions are being treated in the West suggests a lack of both resolve and urgency where more of both are needed.

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Obama Loses Complete Touch with Reality

Last week I wrote that President Obama, having been bested by Vladimir Putin at virtually every turn, has retreated into a world of his own making. “He’s created a fantasy world where disengagement translates into influence and we’re strong and Putin is weak,” I said.

I’m here to report that Mr. Obama’s dissociative disorder has become more, not less, acute. As evidence I would point to an exchange the president had yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, in which Mr. Obama made this claim: 


Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness… The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and laid bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.

This is–and I want to be properly respectful here–crazy. Does the president really and truly believe that Russia has less influence now that it has seized Crimea without a single Russian casualty? Does he believe that in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Latvia they consider Russia less influential and weaker since the conquest of Crimea? 

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Last week I wrote that President Obama, having been bested by Vladimir Putin at virtually every turn, has retreated into a world of his own making. “He’s created a fantasy world where disengagement translates into influence and we’re strong and Putin is weak,” I said.

I’m here to report that Mr. Obama’s dissociative disorder has become more, not less, acute. As evidence I would point to an exchange the president had yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, in which Mr. Obama made this claim: 


Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness… The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and laid bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.

This is–and I want to be properly respectful here–crazy. Does the president really and truly believe that Russia has less influence now that it has seized Crimea without a single Russian casualty? Does he believe that in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Latvia they consider Russia less influential and weaker since the conquest of Crimea? 

According to a story from the Washington Post, titled “NATO general warns of further Russian aggression,”

Ukrainian officials have been warning for weeks that Russia is trying to provoke a conflict in eastern Ukraine, a charge that Russia denies. But Breedlove [U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe] said Russian ambitions do not stop there.

“There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” Breedlove said.

That’s not all. 

Russia has increased its influence in Syria, Egypt, and Iran. Indeed, Russia’s position in the Middle East hasn’t been this strong since Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviet Union from Egypt in the 1970s. Yet the president continues to make his preposterous claims. In public. Repeatedly.

I’m starting to be convinced this isn’t simply a talking point by a president on the defensive. I think he actually believes what he’s saying. Which means he is losing touch with reality. Which may be the most worrisome thing of all.

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Slurring Israel with the Crimea Comparison

For those who make a profession of inciting hatred against Israel, just about every new eventuality seems to present another opportunity to demonize the Jewish state. The recent invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia has been no exception. The fact that the West has responded to this clear breach of international law with sanctions against Russia has both brought cries of hypocrisy from the anti-Israel camp and whetted its appetite to push for similar such moves against Israel. The difference between the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukrainian sovereign territory and the Israeli presence in the West Bank should be clear enough for all to see. Yet, there are those whose agenda will involve a concerted effort to push this comparison.

The fact that a particularly unpleasant blog post appeared on Al Jazeera pushing the Israel-Russia comparison might not be considered all that consequential. Al Jazeera may have greatly expanded its programming in the anglosphere, but as is apparent from the piece in question, the commentary given here is hardly of either a mainstream or overwhelmingly credible character. Yet, watered down versions of the same accusations made at Al Jazeera have also appeared in the Economist and are now even being made by peers in Britain’s parliament. We may well find that, wildly inaccurate as this comparison undoubtedly is, for the undiscerning it has some traction. 

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For those who make a profession of inciting hatred against Israel, just about every new eventuality seems to present another opportunity to demonize the Jewish state. The recent invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia has been no exception. The fact that the West has responded to this clear breach of international law with sanctions against Russia has both brought cries of hypocrisy from the anti-Israel camp and whetted its appetite to push for similar such moves against Israel. The difference between the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukrainian sovereign territory and the Israeli presence in the West Bank should be clear enough for all to see. Yet, there are those whose agenda will involve a concerted effort to push this comparison.

The fact that a particularly unpleasant blog post appeared on Al Jazeera pushing the Israel-Russia comparison might not be considered all that consequential. Al Jazeera may have greatly expanded its programming in the anglosphere, but as is apparent from the piece in question, the commentary given here is hardly of either a mainstream or overwhelmingly credible character. Yet, watered down versions of the same accusations made at Al Jazeera have also appeared in the Economist and are now even being made by peers in Britain’s parliament. We may well find that, wildly inaccurate as this comparison undoubtedly is, for the undiscerning it has some traction. 

Apart from the fact that Vacy Valanza’s piece for Al Jazeera makes the bizarre claim that the establishment of Israel was itself a violation of international law, and that Israel is annexing the West Bank “supported by monies from Jews worldwide through rich Zionist organizations,” the main thrust of the argument is one accusing the West of “hypocrisy.” The claim is that the West singled out Russia yet turns a blind eye to Israel behaving in a highly comparable way. Of course, if the anti-Israel camp is going to now start leveling accusations about the hypocrisy of opposing some occupations but not others, then they may be inviting some rather hard-to-answer questions about their own disinterest in every other occupation from China in Tibet to Turkey in Cyprus. 

The Economist piece addressing this subject is in many respects almost as startling as the Al Jazeera piece. Here the suggestion is that the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory may serve as a distraction that will allow Israel to strengthen its hold on the West Bank and avoid U.S. pressure to end “its own occupation of Palestine”. In this suggestion the analysis offered by the Economist is simply illiterate of recent events. It is the Palestinians that are currently under pressure to continue negotiations about an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but more significantly it is Israel that has made a series of concessions by way of prisoner releases to keep these discussions open. Nevertheless, the Economist piece only strays into even more questionable territory when it starts detailing at length a tenuous list of links between Russia and Israel, as if Israel is the only country in the world that had any remotely friendly ties with Putin’s Russia. This appears to be a particularly poor case of attempting to establish some kind of vague guilt by association.

Clearly such sentiments, however outlandish, have had a certain resonance even with politicians. During a recent debate in Britain’s House of Lords, several of the peers repeated the comparison between Israel and Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory. The Labour peer Lord Grocott complained that when it came to occupied territory, the Crimean issue had received a level of “urgency and commitment” not seen in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The infamous Baroness Jenny Tonge, who achieved the impressive feet of managing to be thrown out of the left-wing Liberal Democrat party for her continuous stream of anti-Semitic statements, asked why Britain was “prepared to impose sanctions on Russia for breaking international law but not upon Israel, which has been breaking international law for decades?”

It is striking that so many are referencing this comparison, when in fact it should be clear that any equivalence between these two cases simply does not stand. In the case of Russia and the Crimea, one state invaded the sovereign territory of another and then unilaterally annexed it. This was a completely unprovoked act. In the case of the Israeli presence in the West Bank, this territory fell to Israel after a defensive war in which Jordan initiated hostilities against Israel, and it should further be noted that the West Bank had at no point been legitimately considered Jordanian territory. It was the Jordanian annexation of this land that was in contravention of international law and as such never recognized by most of the international community.

Today the West Bank is commonly referred to as occupied territory, despite the fact that the situation here does not meet the Geneva Conventions’ own definition of occupied territory. Having not previously been the territory of any existing sovereign state it would be more accurate to simply consider the West Bank disputed territory. But as the Levy report acknowledged, if any state has a legitimate claim to this territory it may well be Israel, given that the League of Nations earmarked this land for close Jewish settlement as part of the creation of a Jewish national home.

While the British peers condemn what they refer to as occupation others, such as Al Jazeera’s Valanza, accuse Israel of being in the process of annexing the West Bank. Yet remarkably Valanza actually gives credence to the notion that the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory may have legitimacy because Russia appeared to hold some semblance of a referendum. It is, however, a sign of the times that even when talking about Crimea, there are many who can’t stop themselves from changing the subject back to Israel.  

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Russia Threatens More Than Neighbors

Today while speaking at The Hague during a meeting of the newly contracted G-7 Nations, President Obama threatened Russia with expanded sanctions. But he also made it clear that he isn’t that worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Dismissing the complaints from conservatives who remember how he scoffed at Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” the president asserted that Moscow’s aggression was a sign of its weakness, not strength, and that it was a threat to its neighbors, not to the United States. He was, he said, more concerned about “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

The president is correct that the Russians are not likely to be aiming their nukes at the United States or invading our shores. He is also right to be focused on the still potent threat from Islamist terrorism that has persisted even after the strike on Osama bin Laden, whose death at the hands of Navy SEALs was used by the administration in 2012 as a sign that the war on terror was finished. But he’s dead wrong about the trouble that the Putin regime can cause for the United States. Putin can make trouble for more than the Eastern European countries that still remember their oppression at the hands of his Soviet and tsarist predecessors. By basing so much of his foreign policy on the assumption that Russia can be persuaded to go along with American initiatives in the Middle East that will allow Obama to withdraw from the world stage while “leading from behind,” the president finds himself not only coping with the implications of Putin’s aggression in Europe but the prospect of being blackmailed by Moscow over issues like Iran and Syria.

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Today while speaking at The Hague during a meeting of the newly contracted G-7 Nations, President Obama threatened Russia with expanded sanctions. But he also made it clear that he isn’t that worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Dismissing the complaints from conservatives who remember how he scoffed at Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” the president asserted that Moscow’s aggression was a sign of its weakness, not strength, and that it was a threat to its neighbors, not to the United States. He was, he said, more concerned about “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

The president is correct that the Russians are not likely to be aiming their nukes at the United States or invading our shores. He is also right to be focused on the still potent threat from Islamist terrorism that has persisted even after the strike on Osama bin Laden, whose death at the hands of Navy SEALs was used by the administration in 2012 as a sign that the war on terror was finished. But he’s dead wrong about the trouble that the Putin regime can cause for the United States. Putin can make trouble for more than the Eastern European countries that still remember their oppression at the hands of his Soviet and tsarist predecessors. By basing so much of his foreign policy on the assumption that Russia can be persuaded to go along with American initiatives in the Middle East that will allow Obama to withdraw from the world stage while “leading from behind,” the president finds himself not only coping with the implications of Putin’s aggression in Europe but the prospect of being blackmailed by Moscow over issues like Iran and Syria.

The administration is characteristically attempting to have it both ways on the struggle between Russia and Ukraine. On the one hand he understands that the man who is still seen as the leader of the free world cannot be seen to stand by mutely while a democratic nation that looks to the West for protection is dismembered and perhaps swallowed whole by its former Russian masters. Yet, Obama has spared no effort to make it clear that he will not allow the seizure of Crimea or even a possible invasion of eastern Ukraine to draw him into a fight with Putin.

No one imagines that the U.S. would involve itself in a direct confrontation on the territory of a non-NATO nation in Europe. But Obama’s slowness to react to the attack on Ukraine with serious sanctions or the aid that might allow Kiev to put up a fight on its own was not missed in Moscow. While Putin’s government may be weak in terms of its economic and military might when compared to the sole superpower left in the world, it is still more than a match for the region. A Russia that feels undeterred by Obama’s taunts poses a potent challenge not only to the Ukraine but also to the Baltic republics and Poland. If the president doesn’t understand how threats to these NATO members could draw the United States into conflicts for which it is not prepared, he isn’t paying attention.

Even more to the point, Russia is a crucial element in any effort to restrain Iran via diplomacy or to broker some sort of resolution to the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria. That they are in the catbird seat on these important issues is due solely to the miscalculations of the president and his two secretaries of state who gambled America’s influence on a farcical attempt at a “reset” with Russia that is still impairing Washington’s ability to think straight about Moscow. The president still seems unable to wrap his head around the fact that Russian foreign policy is rooted in two overriding goals: to reassemble the Tsarist/Soviet empire and to thwart the U.S. at every possible opportunity.

Russia may not be thinking about dropping a bomb on Manhattan and for that we should be grateful. How do you characterize a country that can swallow democratic nations whole without fear of Western retribution, involve the U.S. in conflicts to defend NATO members and sabotage efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program while potentially pushing the U.S. out of the Middle East? If that’s not a top geostrategic foe that the president should be worried about, then I’d like to know what he thinks one would look like.

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How Rational Is Putin’s Threat Perception?

During the Ukrainian election of 2004, Angus Roxburgh sat down with Sergei Markov, who was helping the pro-Putin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, at the behest of the Kremlin. Roxburgh, who describes the encounter in his book on Vladimir Putin, asked Markov what he thought of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. He could hardly believe the answer. Markov told him that he believed Yushchenko was completely controlled by his wife, who was a radical Ukrainian nationalist in league with Nazis and with Polish instigators who, through his wife, were installing Yushchenko in order to most likely start a war with Russia.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most rational assessment. Roxburgh continues: “These are quite astonishing claims, but they are important, for it is highly likely that Markov’s apocalyptic view was shared by his masters in the Kremlin.” That is, Vladimir Putin probably believed this nonsense. Putin is nothing if not paranoid–that chapter of Roxburgh’s book is called “Enemies Everywhere”–and his policies are often based on these kinds of ludicrous conspiracy theories. It’s worth recalling at this point that Yushchenko was poisoned during the election.

This is a recurring problem for the West in trying to predict Putin’s behavior. I noted yesterday that the idea that NATO expansion can or should be blamed for Putin’s behavior is not only amoral–those nations should have a say in their own affairs independent of the Kremlin–but nonsensical. And yet, after Russia invaded Ukraine in order to seize the Crimean peninsula and destabilize Ukrainian politics, we heard this canard again from various quarters. Today’s New York Times contains an important response to that claim in what is one of the best articles on the Ukraine crisis yet. The Times writes about European self-delusion toward both Russia and Ukraine, and adds with regard to the expansion of the European Union:

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During the Ukrainian election of 2004, Angus Roxburgh sat down with Sergei Markov, who was helping the pro-Putin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, at the behest of the Kremlin. Roxburgh, who describes the encounter in his book on Vladimir Putin, asked Markov what he thought of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. He could hardly believe the answer. Markov told him that he believed Yushchenko was completely controlled by his wife, who was a radical Ukrainian nationalist in league with Nazis and with Polish instigators who, through his wife, were installing Yushchenko in order to most likely start a war with Russia.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most rational assessment. Roxburgh continues: “These are quite astonishing claims, but they are important, for it is highly likely that Markov’s apocalyptic view was shared by his masters in the Kremlin.” That is, Vladimir Putin probably believed this nonsense. Putin is nothing if not paranoid–that chapter of Roxburgh’s book is called “Enemies Everywhere”–and his policies are often based on these kinds of ludicrous conspiracy theories. It’s worth recalling at this point that Yushchenko was poisoned during the election.

This is a recurring problem for the West in trying to predict Putin’s behavior. I noted yesterday that the idea that NATO expansion can or should be blamed for Putin’s behavior is not only amoral–those nations should have a say in their own affairs independent of the Kremlin–but nonsensical. And yet, after Russia invaded Ukraine in order to seize the Crimean peninsula and destabilize Ukrainian politics, we heard this canard again from various quarters. Today’s New York Times contains an important response to that claim in what is one of the best articles on the Ukraine crisis yet. The Times writes about European self-delusion toward both Russia and Ukraine, and adds with regard to the expansion of the European Union:

“But once a country signs up, it is in Weight Watchers and, if they follow the regimen, they change,” she said. “Russia realized this and did not like it.” Indeed, she added, Russia had already been deeply alarmed by the transformation of countries like Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after they entered the European Union in 2004.

Their joining the European Union was followed swiftly by their admission to NATO, a sequence that strengthened Moscow’s view that Brussels served as a stalking horse for the American-led military alliance.

In the case of Ukraine, Europe never offered even the possibility of it one day joining the European Union, and NATO dropped Ukraine as a potential future member back in 2008. This raised hopes in Brussels that Moscow might not object too strongly. Russia initially expressed little unease about Europe’s Eastern Partnership plans, lulling Europe into a false sense of clear sailing ahead.

After Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012, after a four-year stint as prime minister, previous talk of shared interests in free trade and close cooperation gave way to increasingly forceful calls for the establishment of a Moscow-dominated rival to the European Union called the Eurasian Union.

By last summer, Moscow embarked on a sustained campaign of pressure to dissuade former Soviet lands, including Ukraine, from siding with Europe.

The whole article is worth reading, especially for its portrayal of Brussels as hopelessly naïve to the point of negligence in its conduct of foreign affairs. But the point about economic ties throwing up red flags in the Kremlin is an important one. Russia had been “deeply alarmed” by the financial success of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It proved, it seemed, that breaking away from Moscow in favor of the West was the way to improve life for your citizens.

Latvia, no matter when it was admitted to NATO, has no plans to invade Russia. And anyway the argument that Putin’s Russia reacts to perceived threats to its security is not one that should govern the West’s conduct, for two main reasons: first, Putin’s perception of risk is not rational, and second, Putin includes economic integration and improvement in his overall assessment of foreign security threats. Hence the Eurasian Union proposal. Putin sees countries as either collaborators or competitors. There is no such thing as neutrality, there is only loyalty and disloyalty.

If Putin sees economic cooperation as a prelude to military cooperation, should the West also cease expanding economic ties with countries Putin wants to control? Ukraine is in Europe; should Europe not be permitted to trade freely with a European country if that’s what both want? What this saga (and the Times piece) makes clear is that Putin does not want to see his neighbors thrive economically or their living standard improved independent from Moscow’s direction.

In other words, what Putin wants is not a multipolar world but a bipolar world; he simply exploits the West’s desire for a multipolar world in order to draw the line as far from Moscow as he can. The Times suggests this whole incident is a wake-up call for Brussels. It should also be one for Washington, which has not been free of its own wishful thinking toward Putin’s Russia.

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Obama Needs Israel to Rattle Its Saber

The Obama administration may be acting as if its rift with Russia won’t affect the attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. It can hope against hope that Russia will forget its quarrel with the Americans and maintain solidarity with the U.S. and the European Union in the Iran talks and continue as if nothing has changed. But there’s little doubt that the open hostility between Washington and Moscow has reduced the already slim chances for a satisfactory P5+1 agreement with Iran. Since the diplomatic option that the president has defended so vigorously in recent months depends entirely on Russian cooperation including the enforcement of sanctions that Putin never really supported, the aftermath of the Crimea conflict has left the administration with little diplomatic leverage.

If so, where does that leave Israel?

The obvious answer to that question is that it is left in a highly precarious situation. Even if one discounts the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to make good on its genocidal threats against the Jewish state, Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would transform the strategic balance in the region in a manner that would drastically affect Israel’s security. That means Israel must either learn to live with a nuclear Iran or ponder the possibility of striking the Islamist regime on its own. While it’s not clear whether Iran or anyone else takes this seriously, Jerusalem is nonetheless acting as if they should. So should President Obama.

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The Obama administration may be acting as if its rift with Russia won’t affect the attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. It can hope against hope that Russia will forget its quarrel with the Americans and maintain solidarity with the U.S. and the European Union in the Iran talks and continue as if nothing has changed. But there’s little doubt that the open hostility between Washington and Moscow has reduced the already slim chances for a satisfactory P5+1 agreement with Iran. Since the diplomatic option that the president has defended so vigorously in recent months depends entirely on Russian cooperation including the enforcement of sanctions that Putin never really supported, the aftermath of the Crimea conflict has left the administration with little diplomatic leverage.

If so, where does that leave Israel?

The obvious answer to that question is that it is left in a highly precarious situation. Even if one discounts the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to make good on its genocidal threats against the Jewish state, Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability would transform the strategic balance in the region in a manner that would drastically affect Israel’s security. That means Israel must either learn to live with a nuclear Iran or ponder the possibility of striking the Islamist regime on its own. While it’s not clear whether Iran or anyone else takes this seriously, Jerusalem is nonetheless acting as if they should. So should President Obama.

As Haaretz reported today,

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon have ordered the army to continue preparing for a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities at a cost of at least 10 billion shekels ($2.89 billion) this year, despite the talks between Iran and the West, according to recent statements by senior military officers.

Three Knesset members who were present at Knesset joint committee hearings on Israel Defense Forces plans that were held in January and February say they learned during the hearings that 10 billion shekels to 12 billion shekels of the defense budget would be allocated this year for preparations for a strike on Iran, approximately the same amount that was allocated in 2013.

The leaking of this information this week makes it clear that Netanyahu would like both the Iranians and his American ally to think that he is still actively considering a unilateral strike on the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities. The same interpretation might be put on statements from Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who boasted yesterday that the IDF has the ability to carry out military operations anywhere on the globe, including Iran.

Opposition to a solo Israeli attack on Iran has been stiff within the country’s military and security establishment. This reluctance has been rooted not so much in a belief that Israel was incapable of dealing Iran a devastating blow but that the blowback from such an operation might be almost as bad as the scenario that it would be intended to avert. Even assuming Israeli forces could make enough sorties into Iranian airspace to knock out Tehran’s nuclear facilities without unacceptable losses, it might set off a regional conflict. Iran’s Hezbollah allies on Israel’s northern border and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the south in Gaza might launch their own strikes at Israeli cities and embroil the country in a costly three-front war.

Just as important, many Israeli security officials have always felt that dealing with Iran was primarily America’s responsibility. If push came to shove, the far more numerous American air and naval forces in the region would also be in a much better position to do the job. Moreover, they also know that if it did act on its own, Israel risks deepening its diplomatic isolation and creating more problems with the Obama administration.

But if, thanks to Russia, America’s diplomatic option to stop Iran is no longer viable and few take seriously the notion that President Obama would use force against Tehran under any circumstances, that would put Netanyahu in a position where he might think the IDF was the last and perhaps only hope of preventing an Iranian bomb.

While Netanyahu has said he won’t be deterred from acting by American diplomacy, anyone who thinks he will order an attack on Iran while the P5+1 talks are ongoing is not thinking clearly. An Israeli attack under those circumstances would create a quarrel with Washington that the prime minister rightly wishes to avoid at all costs. Force only becomes a possibility once those talks are seen to have failed and even then both Obama and the Iranians may think the Israelis wouldn’t dare act on their own. Only time will tell if they are right.

Nevertheless, Obama should be encouraging Netanyahu to rattle his saber as loudly and as much as possible. With Russia determined to thwart any U.S. foreign-policy initiative, the only possible hope for a P5+1 deal is for Iran to believe that the alternative is an Israeli attack that, however costly, would inflict a decisive blow to their nuclear ambitions.

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A Much-Improved Slate of Russia Sanctions

Now that’s more like it. After an anemic first round of sanctions on Monday, targeting only 11 Ukrainian and Russian individuals, today President Obama announced wider-ranging sanctions in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea.

Facing asset freezes and travel bans are 20 more people including Putin pals such as Viktor Ivanon, an old KGB man who now heads the Federal Drug Control Service; Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff; Alexei Gromov, the first deputy chief of staff; Vladimir Yakunin, chairman of the state-owned Russian Railways; Vladimir Kozhin, head of administration to Putin; and Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg, two of the biggest contractors behind the Sochi Olympics. These are people who have close relationships with Putin–including close financial relationships–so sanctioning them will get Kremlin’s attention.

Possibly even more significant is the fact that a Russian bank–Bank Rossiya, which has $10 billion in assets and is known to be owned and used by members of Putin’s inner circle–is being frozen out of dollar-denominated transactions. This is a major blow to the bank and a warning of more to come if other Russian financial institutions are added to the sanctions list.

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Now that’s more like it. After an anemic first round of sanctions on Monday, targeting only 11 Ukrainian and Russian individuals, today President Obama announced wider-ranging sanctions in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea.

Facing asset freezes and travel bans are 20 more people including Putin pals such as Viktor Ivanon, an old KGB man who now heads the Federal Drug Control Service; Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff; Alexei Gromov, the first deputy chief of staff; Vladimir Yakunin, chairman of the state-owned Russian Railways; Vladimir Kozhin, head of administration to Putin; and Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg, two of the biggest contractors behind the Sochi Olympics. These are people who have close relationships with Putin–including close financial relationships–so sanctioning them will get Kremlin’s attention.

Possibly even more significant is the fact that a Russian bank–Bank Rossiya, which has $10 billion in assets and is known to be owned and used by members of Putin’s inner circle–is being frozen out of dollar-denominated transactions. This is a major blow to the bank and a warning of more to come if other Russian financial institutions are added to the sanctions list.

There is of course more that can be done to punish Russia for the illegal annexation of Crimea, although much of it will require cooperation from our European allies which may not be forthcoming. France should immediately cancel the production of two amphibious assault ships being built in a French shipyard for the Russian navy. Britain should freeze the assets of Putin’s cronies which are held in the city of London. Britain and France will be deeply reluctant to take such action because it will come with an obvious price to their own economies, but this is where American diplomacy must come in: Obama and Secretary of State Kerry must convince our European friends that we had better hang together in pressuring Putin lest he get the idea that he can slice off further parts of Ukraine with impunity.

There are also military steps that could be taken, such as providing equipment, training, intelligence, and advice to Ukraine to enable it to defend its borders; positioning more U.S. troops in Poland and the Baltic Republics; and rolling back planned cuts in the U.S. defense budget. Those are all hard-sells, for one reason or another: NATO is afraid that aiding Ukraine will tempt Putin into further aggression, while rolling back defense cuts will run into opposition in Congress. There is no doubt that retaliation will come in one form or another–extending beyond Putin’s farcical announcement that nine senior U.S. officials will be denied entry to Russia. (As if they were planning a vacation in Novosibirsk.)

But the imperative of standing up to Russia and making clear to the entire world–especially to states such as Iran and China–that aggression does not pay should override concerns about Russian retaliation. The issue here extends far beyond Crimea or even Russia. It is a question of what kind of world we want to live in: a world where states more or less abide by the dictates of international law or a world where the law of the jungle prevails.

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Obama’s World of Make Believe

For anyone who has observed Barack Obama over the years, it’s obvious that a fundamental part of his self-identity involves seeing himself, and having others see him, as pragmatic rather than ideological, reality-based, driven by reason instead of bias.

This has never actually been true. Mr. Obama is, in fact, unusually dogmatic, blind to counter-evidence, and mostly unable to adjust his views to the way things are. So when his worldview collides with reality, he often can’t adjust. He instead creates his own make believe world.

We’ve seen it time and time again with the Affordable Care Act. (Earlier this month the president declared ObamaCare “is working the way it should.” He may be the only person in America who believes such a thing.) We’ve also seen this in Mr. Obama’s dealings with Vladimir Putin, who with lightning speed has seized Crimea, threatens Ukraine, and whose top officials are now openly mocking the president (including with tweets ending with smiley faces). Yet President Obama insists that Putin is acting “out of weakness, not out of strength” in attempting to take control of Crimea. This is an effort to seek comfort by engaging in an almost clinical level of delusion. And it’s not isolated to Mr. Obama.

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For anyone who has observed Barack Obama over the years, it’s obvious that a fundamental part of his self-identity involves seeing himself, and having others see him, as pragmatic rather than ideological, reality-based, driven by reason instead of bias.

This has never actually been true. Mr. Obama is, in fact, unusually dogmatic, blind to counter-evidence, and mostly unable to adjust his views to the way things are. So when his worldview collides with reality, he often can’t adjust. He instead creates his own make believe world.

We’ve seen it time and time again with the Affordable Care Act. (Earlier this month the president declared ObamaCare “is working the way it should.” He may be the only person in America who believes such a thing.) We’ve also seen this in Mr. Obama’s dealings with Vladimir Putin, who with lightning speed has seized Crimea, threatens Ukraine, and whose top officials are now openly mocking the president (including with tweets ending with smiley faces). Yet President Obama insists that Putin is acting “out of weakness, not out of strength” in attempting to take control of Crimea. This is an effort to seek comfort by engaging in an almost clinical level of delusion. And it’s not isolated to Mr. Obama.

As Russia began its aggression against Crimea, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” Except that Russia did exactly that. Earlier this week Mr. Kerry said Putin’s speech announcing the Crimean annexation “just didn’t jibe with reality.” But the reality is that Crimea is once again part of Russia.

The president puts in place sanctions that are so farcically weak that it would have been better to remain silent and done nothing rather than huff and puff and do as little as he has. (In response to the announcement of sanctions, the Russian stock market actually rose.)

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, is in the process of restoring the Russian empire. He is besting Mr. Obama at every turn, from arms control agreements to Crimea and Ukraine to Syria, Egypt, and Iran. Russia has established a major presence in the Middle East for the first time since the 1970s. Early in his presidency President Obama canceled a missile defense agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic–and got nothing in return from Putin. Our adversaries are emboldened; our allies are afraid. Confidence in America is collapsing. 

Yet the president seems clueless to all this; his failures don’t seem to compute with him. Even Jimmy Carter eventually understood the errors of his ways and adjusted his dealings with the Soviet Union. Mr. Obama remains off in his own world.

In psychiatry, there’s a condition known as dissociative disorder. It’s considered to be a coping mechanism, when the person literally dissociates himself from a situation or experience too traumatic to integrate with his conscious self. A person escapes reality in ways that are unhealthy.

That pretty well sums up the Obama foreign policy. He cannot understand how someone as brutish, crude, aggressive and chauvinistic as Vladimir Putin is acting as he is. The fact that in the process Mr. Obama is being humiliated is simply too much for him to bear. And so he’s created a fantasy world where disengagement translates into influence and we’re strong and Putin is weak.  

For Barack Obama, the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.

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Russia Was Always a Bad Bet to Stop Iran

The Obama administration has always seemed to have trouble managing even one foreign-policy crisis at a time. But the opening of the next stage of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in the same week that Russia, the West’s nominal partner in trying to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear question with Tehran, is annexing Crimea is posing a particularly difficult dilemma for the administration. After all, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been counting on Moscow to back up the West’s efforts to get the Iranians to give up their quest for nuclear weapons or at least not to sabotage either the talks or the sanctions on the Islamist regime. But with the U.S. and the European Union contemplating sanctions to punish the Putin government for its aggression against Ukraine, how can they possibly expect the Russians to act as partners in an effort to pressure Iran in the exact same manner?

Those worries are the conceit of a story in today’s New York Times in which an anonymous “senior American official” could do no better than to express the “hope” that the defiant Russians would not “put these negotiations at risk.” But the problem with the administration’s approach to the Iran talks goes deeper than merely it being bad luck that the Ukraine crisis has happened at just the moment when the president was hoping to swing a deal with Tehran. Even in the best of times, Russia’s equivocal attitude toward pressuring Iran was always a liability to the Western negotiators. But the open breach between Russia and the West over its seizure of Crimea makes an agreement that would actually prevent Iran from getting a bomb in the long run even more unlikely than it was before. Rather than re-evaluate an approach that was already rooted in weakness, the president and Kerry are apparently determined to stick with a losing hand. If Iran’s negotiators weren’t already confident about their ability to take Obama to the cleaners in the talks, they are now.

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The Obama administration has always seemed to have trouble managing even one foreign-policy crisis at a time. But the opening of the next stage of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in the same week that Russia, the West’s nominal partner in trying to negotiate a resolution of the nuclear question with Tehran, is annexing Crimea is posing a particularly difficult dilemma for the administration. After all, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been counting on Moscow to back up the West’s efforts to get the Iranians to give up their quest for nuclear weapons or at least not to sabotage either the talks or the sanctions on the Islamist regime. But with the U.S. and the European Union contemplating sanctions to punish the Putin government for its aggression against Ukraine, how can they possibly expect the Russians to act as partners in an effort to pressure Iran in the exact same manner?

Those worries are the conceit of a story in today’s New York Times in which an anonymous “senior American official” could do no better than to express the “hope” that the defiant Russians would not “put these negotiations at risk.” But the problem with the administration’s approach to the Iran talks goes deeper than merely it being bad luck that the Ukraine crisis has happened at just the moment when the president was hoping to swing a deal with Tehran. Even in the best of times, Russia’s equivocal attitude toward pressuring Iran was always a liability to the Western negotiators. But the open breach between Russia and the West over its seizure of Crimea makes an agreement that would actually prevent Iran from getting a bomb in the long run even more unlikely than it was before. Rather than re-evaluate an approach that was already rooted in weakness, the president and Kerry are apparently determined to stick with a losing hand. If Iran’s negotiators weren’t already confident about their ability to take Obama to the cleaners in the talks, they are now.

The presence of Russia and China in the group negotiating with Iran was always Iran’s ace in the hole in the talks. While both countries have expressed their opposition to the prospect of an Iranian bomb, their role in this diplomatic equation was always complicated. Russia has been a major supplier of nuclear technology as well as arms to Iran, including anti-aircraft missiles that would make a strike on their facilities even more difficult. Russia also has an extensive trade relationship with Tehran. Meanwhile China is the ayatollah’s leading trade partner in the vital oil sales that keep the Islamist regime afloat financially. Under the most favorable circumstances for diplomacy, those factors created an even greater conflict of interest than the strong trade ties between America’s European allies and Iran.

But Russia’s ties with Iran are also connected with Putin’s desire to recreate the old Soviet empire. The Bashar Assad government in Syria, Moscow’s principal Middle East ally, has only been kept in power because of Iran’s intervention in the civil war in that country. Though the Obama administration has always been beguiled by its hopes for a “reset” with Russia, the guiding principle of Moscow’s foreign policy in the Putin era is its desire to expand its influence abroad at America’s expense. Though Putin would rather not see a nuclear-armed Iran on the southern border of the old Soviet Union, his commonality of interests with Tehran always threatened to overshadow any desire on his part to cooperate with Western diplomacy.

However, getting Russia to be part of the international coalition against Iran was always a priority for the administration. In theory, this was a sensible decision since without Russia as well as China sanctions were never going to work against Iran. But Washington’s dependence on them also forced those sanctions to be watered down. It was also part of the reasoning that led Obama to conclude that it was smarter for the West to give up its military and economic leverage over Iran in order to conclude an interim deal that gave Iran far more than it gave up last fall.

All of this means that Iran is in an even stronger position vis-à-vis the West in the talks than the already formidable stance it was able to sustain in earlier rounds of diplomacy. Secure in the knowledge that Russia will never agree to a re-imposition of the sanctions that were dropped in November or impose tougher ones (such as the program Congress is still considering) that would shut down Iran’s oil trade for good, Tehran can simply stand its ground in the talks. That means that if President Obama wants an agreement—and he’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to do just about anything to get out of his promise to stop Iran’s nuclear quest—he’s going to have to let Tehran keep its nuclear program and give up the sanctions.

But those inclined to blame Obama’s weak position on Iran on bad luck, bad timing, or Russian aggression are mistaken. The diplomatic path chosen by the administration was always dependent on Russian goodwill that was never likely to be forthcoming. The flaws in the P5+1 formula were already there long before Putin seized Crimea.

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Putin’s Crimes and the Kosovo Precedent

Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Crimea as a “sovereign and independent state” today, formalizing the theft of the region from the Ukraine. The United States and the European Union have responded with outrage and with limited sanctions on prominent members of the Putin regime (though not their leader) that are doing nothing to convince the Russians that they have made a mistake. The next step appears to be a decision by Putin to annex Crimea that may happen tomorrow. As the U.S. prepares its reaction to this outrage, no one should be laboring under the illusion that there is anything that President Obama or the Europeans can do to restore Ukrainian sovereignty. But there is still time to save what is left of the Ukraine from further Russian aggression as well as to ensure that other independent republics that were once part of the Soviet empire don’t suffer the same fate.

Can the West summon the will to restrain Russia? Putin is under the impression that President Obama is all talk and probably thinks even less of the Europeans. He has already calculated that serious economic sanctions on his country would be as painful for the EU as they are for Moscow. He knows that Obama is more interested in managing U.S. retrenchment from world-power status than in maintaining America’s credibility as a force on the world stage. He is also aware that growing isolationist sentiment on both the right and the left is sapping support for a strong stand in defense of Ukraine.

It is on that point that we should focus today in the aftermath of the staged plebiscite that took place in the Crimea lending the imprimatur of democratic legitimacy to Putin’s land grab. The Rand Paul isolationist wing of the Republican Party (as opposed to the followers of Ron Paul, who is an open Putin apologist) is making noises about this not being America’s fight as well as faintly echoing Putin’s main talking point about the stripping away of Crimea from the Ukraine being no different from the Western-backed secession of Kosovo from Serbia in 1999. Though there are superficial similarities between the two cases, this analogy should be completely rejected.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Crimea as a “sovereign and independent state” today, formalizing the theft of the region from the Ukraine. The United States and the European Union have responded with outrage and with limited sanctions on prominent members of the Putin regime (though not their leader) that are doing nothing to convince the Russians that they have made a mistake. The next step appears to be a decision by Putin to annex Crimea that may happen tomorrow. As the U.S. prepares its reaction to this outrage, no one should be laboring under the illusion that there is anything that President Obama or the Europeans can do to restore Ukrainian sovereignty. But there is still time to save what is left of the Ukraine from further Russian aggression as well as to ensure that other independent republics that were once part of the Soviet empire don’t suffer the same fate.

Can the West summon the will to restrain Russia? Putin is under the impression that President Obama is all talk and probably thinks even less of the Europeans. He has already calculated that serious economic sanctions on his country would be as painful for the EU as they are for Moscow. He knows that Obama is more interested in managing U.S. retrenchment from world-power status than in maintaining America’s credibility as a force on the world stage. He is also aware that growing isolationist sentiment on both the right and the left is sapping support for a strong stand in defense of Ukraine.

It is on that point that we should focus today in the aftermath of the staged plebiscite that took place in the Crimea lending the imprimatur of democratic legitimacy to Putin’s land grab. The Rand Paul isolationist wing of the Republican Party (as opposed to the followers of Ron Paul, who is an open Putin apologist) is making noises about this not being America’s fight as well as faintly echoing Putin’s main talking point about the stripping away of Crimea from the Ukraine being no different from the Western-backed secession of Kosovo from Serbia in 1999. Though there are superficial similarities between the two cases, this analogy should be completely rejected.

It is true that at the time the Russians, who were supporting Serbia, warned that a dangerous precedent was set when the United States and its NATO allies decided that Serbia should no longer be allowed to exercise its sovereignty over the province of Kosovo. Like the Ukrainians, the Serbs protested that the complaints of the Kosovars notwithstanding, the West had no right to decide that Serbia’s internationally recognized borders could be redrawn without Belgrade’s permission.

But unlike the situation in Ukraine, Serbian nationalists had created a genuine human-rights crisis in Kosovo with vicious repression of the ethnic Albanian majority in the region. Though Serbia had deep historic ties to Kosovo dating back to the Middle Ages, their rule there had lost its legitimacy due to their depredations that seemed to be a repeat of the horrors that Serbs had perpetrated in Bosnia only a few years earlier. Rather than stand by and watch the slaughter, this time the West intervened and a bombing campaign forced the Serbs to surrender the province. While this could have been seen as a bloodless war to create a greater Albania, in retrospect there’s little doubt that it was the right thing to do. The campaign prevented a potential catastrophe and ended the series of bloody Balkan wars that had followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

What has happened in Ukraine is nothing like that. Instead of an intervention by a great power to save people in a small country, Putin’s gambit is an attempt by a large power to victimize a small country. Though Putin has claimed he is intervening to save the ethnic Russians in the Ukraine, they were in no danger. The only potential human-rights problem is the result of Russian aggression in which ethnic Tatars in the Crimea now feel as if they are about to be squeezed out of a land where they were once the majority.

As Hillary Clinton rightly pointed out, Adolf Hitler patented the notion that local ethnic majorities can be used to tear nations apart in the 1930s. While Putin is no Hitler, his use of Russian nationalism to partition Ukraine threatens the independence and the sovereignty of every independent state in the former Soviet Union. It should be remembered that Ukraine’s independence is guaranteed by a treaty signed by the United States, as are those of other free nations in the region such as the Baltic states.

In allowing Kosovo to be sheared off from Serbia, President Clinton did potentially set a precedent that could be used by tyrants like Putin to threaten other small states. But the real precedent that governs actions such as the events in Kosovo and what is now going on in the former Soviet Union goes back farther than 1999.

Countries that use their sovereignty to victimize other, small peoples and nations effectively forfeit their rights in such situations. Just as Germany’s aggression rendered the complaints of ethnic Germans in Central Europe a mere pretext for atrocities, so too did the actions of the Serbs when they ran amok in the Balkans in the 1990s. Yet rather than legitimizing Russia’s conduct today, the opposite is true.

By smearing Ukraine and committing aggression on false pretexts, it is Russia that has forfeited its right to speak for ethnic Russians outside of its borders or to have its claims over the far-flung territories of the former Soviet empire respected. If there is a Kosovo precedent that applies here it is the one between Serbian aggression and the crimes being committed by the Putin regime. It is to be hoped that Western leaders understand this and won’t let any worries about Russian economic leverage or its claims of popular sovereignty undermine the West’s determination not to let Putin get away with this crime without paying a hefty price. 

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