Commentary Magazine


Topic: Crimea

George W. Bush, Still Living Rent-Free in Their Heads

Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

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Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

The White House was taken by surprise by Vladimir V. Putin’s decisions to invade Crimea, but also by China’s increasingly assertive declaration of exclusive rights to airspace and barren islands. Neither the economic pressure nor the cyberattacks that forced Iran to reconsider its approach have prevented North Korea’s stealthy revitalization of its nuclear and missile programs.

Followed by this:

“We’re seeing the ‘light footprint’ run out of gas,” said one of Mr. Obama’s former senior national security aides, who would not speak on the record about his ex-boss.

“No one is arguing for military action, for bringing back George Bush’s chest-thumping,” the former aide said. At the same time, he said, the president’s oft-repeated lines that those who violate international norms will be “isolated” and “pay a heavy price” over the long term have sounded “more like predictions over time, and less like imminent threats.”

I don’t know who the source is obviously; since it’s in the New York Times he or she is anonymous. (How long until Times bylines are also anonymous? And how much would this benefit Tom Friedman?) But I sincerely hope this person’s view isn’t too widely shared among the Obama inner circle.

It was understandable to run against Bush in 2008. He was the sitting president of the other party, and his approval numbers were low. Additionally, the GOP candidate that year, John McCain, was considered even more hawkish than Bush. At the very least, he was more closely associated with the successful “surge” in Iraq than pretty much anyone except the president himself. Obama (who made a prediction on the surge that turned out to be completely and totally wrong) ran on his opposition to the Iraq war. So the contrast between the two candidates was clear, and it made sense for Obama to play up those differences. He felt he was on the right side of public opinion on them.

But that stark contrast had more or less evaporated by Obama’s reelection in 2012. He ran against Mitt Romney, who was certainly tougher on Putin’s Russia (Obama turned out to be wrong there too, as a pattern emerges) but who was otherwise hesitant to run too far to Obama’s right. Obama even used their debates to taunt Romney for being insufficiently bloodthirsty and too hesitant to blow stuff up. Obama ran as the bold assassin. Bin Laden is dead, or haven’t you heard?

More revealing is the fact that Democrats still slamming Bush aren’t actually criticizing Bush, but instead taking aim at the version of Bush they seemed to invent for electoral purposes but ended up believing was real. The power of propaganda can sometimes be most acutely felt by the propagandist. Bush didn’t bomb Iran in response to its nuclear pursuit, or Russia in response to its invasion of Georgia, etc.

And it’s a testament to the incoherence of leftist foreign policy that we’re also reminded of that by the White House–such as when Bush is portrayed as being too naïve for looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul. It’s no wonder the administration has no idea how to respond to the provocations of rogue states: if they want to do the opposite of Bush, but believe Bush is all over the map on policy, what space is left for them?

Not much. The Obama administration has boxed itself in by not giving up its long-stale and outdated campaign rhetoric. It’s disturbing to have to say this in 2014, but it’s time for Democrats still obsessed with Bush to just let it go.

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Crimea, After the Referendum

In the annals of fixed elections, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on Anschluss with Russia was a relatively restrained result. Vladimir Putin, the guiding intelligence behind this sham vote, was apparently content with a mere 96.7 percent vote in favor of unification with Russia. Give him props for not going for the full Castro–a 99 percent endorsement.

To say that the vote stealing was restrained is not, of course, the same thing as saying it was a fair or legal vote. Country A can’t simply invade a province of Country B and, under the guns of its army, call a snap election on unification with Country A. If that were permitted to occur, any semblance of the rule of law would be replaced with the law of the jungle. We would be back to the 1930s when predators ruled the international system.

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In the annals of fixed elections, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on Anschluss with Russia was a relatively restrained result. Vladimir Putin, the guiding intelligence behind this sham vote, was apparently content with a mere 96.7 percent vote in favor of unification with Russia. Give him props for not going for the full Castro–a 99 percent endorsement.

To say that the vote stealing was restrained is not, of course, the same thing as saying it was a fair or legal vote. Country A can’t simply invade a province of Country B and, under the guns of its army, call a snap election on unification with Country A. If that were permitted to occur, any semblance of the rule of law would be replaced with the law of the jungle. We would be back to the 1930s when predators ruled the international system.

Of course it’s always possible that Putin will refuse to annex Crimea notwithstanding the pro-unification vote. Possible, but not likely. All the signs point to Russian troops digging in for the long term–witness the paratroopers who just seized a gas plant that supplies Crimea but which is located in Ukraine proper. This could well be the first step in more annexations designed to safeguard electrical and water supplies to Crimea and perhaps even to create a land bridge back to Russia proper.

Putin’s power grab is tremendously popular among Russians who think that Crimea (given to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev) and Ukraine as a whole (which only became independent in 1991) are properly part of the Russian empire. There is no doubt that there is a close historical association between Ukraine and Russia, but Ukraine is now recognized by the entire world as an independent country, and the majority of its people have no desire to be dominated much less ruled directly by the Kremlin. Putin’s power grab is, in truth, no more legitimate than Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, which he claimed was properly Iraq’s 19th province.

Borders are disputed all over the world, and if Putin is again allowed to change borders by force this will set an incredibly dangerous precedent that can only embolden China, which abstained on a UN Security Council resolution (vetoed by Putin) condemning the Russian invasion. This is significant because of China’s abhorrence of the principle of self-determination for ethnic minorities such as the Russians in Crimea–a precedent that could apply equally well to Tibet or Xinjiang. Apparently China’s quasi-alliance with Russia, its hostility toward the West, and perhaps its desire to impose at gunpoint its own solution on disputed territories such as the Senkaku Islands weighed in the balance to prevent the Communist leaders in Beijing from breaking decisively with the former KGB agent in the Kremlin.

The bottom line is that, as I have been arguing, Putin cannot be allowed to get away with his criminal behavior with impunity. The higher the price he pays, the better the chances that he will think twice about such aggression in the future–and so will other dictators around the world. Now it’s up to the U.S. and EU to see how much courage they have to ramp up sanctions on Russia and suffer the inevitable Russian retaliation.

We don’t necessarily need a Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt leading the West today. We don’t even need a Ronald Reagan. But we could at least use a George H.W. Bush–the president who famously said, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”

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Putin’s Precedent: Give Siberia to China?

If Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wants to redraw the map of Russia to protect ethnic minorities, with tongue-in-cheek, perhaps it’s time that those revisions go both ways. Siberia is resource-rich and population-poor, but home to a growing Chinese minority, or at least a mixed Russian-Chinese minority. The reason is simple (and this isn’t tongue-in-cheek): Many Russian women are marrying Chinese men simply because they drink less and don’t beat them as much. Regardless, what happens in Crimea or, perhaps next, Kharkov, won’t stay in Crimea or Kharkov.

Precedent matters. Had the West not acted with such impotence in the wake of the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia, perhaps Putin would have thought twice before rehashing the same playbook in Ukraine. Certainly, the Baltic States have reason for concern given Latvia and Estonia’s Russian minorities; Lithuania’s is considerably smaller. So too does Moldova, where Russians almost equal the Moldovan population in the Transnistrian region.

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If Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wants to redraw the map of Russia to protect ethnic minorities, with tongue-in-cheek, perhaps it’s time that those revisions go both ways. Siberia is resource-rich and population-poor, but home to a growing Chinese minority, or at least a mixed Russian-Chinese minority. The reason is simple (and this isn’t tongue-in-cheek): Many Russian women are marrying Chinese men simply because they drink less and don’t beat them as much. Regardless, what happens in Crimea or, perhaps next, Kharkov, won’t stay in Crimea or Kharkov.

Precedent matters. Had the West not acted with such impotence in the wake of the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia, perhaps Putin would have thought twice before rehashing the same playbook in Ukraine. Certainly, the Baltic States have reason for concern given Latvia and Estonia’s Russian minorities; Lithuania’s is considerably smaller. So too does Moldova, where Russians almost equal the Moldovan population in the Transnistrian region.

Early in the Crimea crisis, Putin claimed Chinese support for Russian actions. Rather than two aspiring powers cooperating to checkmate American dominance, however, China may have played Putin by endorsing a doctrine that ultimately might justify a resurgent China’s territorial ambition.

It is too bad that the Obama doctrine continues to be one of empty redlines that the United States neither has the power nor the will to enforce, and U.S. public diplomacy emphasizes tweeting for the sake of tweeting, with absolutely no evidence that officials using twitter adds an iota of credibility or effectiveness to American diplomacy. Perhaps it is time to play hardball and suggest publicly and often that the United States respects the rights of minorities within the borders of Russia to independence or to join neighboring states if those minorities so choose.

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Putin Expects Western Inaction

Faced with the most direct military aggression in Europe since the days of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Obama administration and our European allies have been treating Russia so far with kid gloves.

We have been afraid of imposing economic sanctions on Russia or providing military equipment to Ukraine for fear of an escalation from Moscow which could take the form of invading eastern Ukraine, seizing the property of Western companies (including Ford and Boeing) in Russia, cutting off western Europe and Ukraine from Russian natural gas, or even selling advanced air-defense systems to Iran.

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Faced with the most direct military aggression in Europe since the days of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Obama administration and our European allies have been treating Russia so far with kid gloves.

We have been afraid of imposing economic sanctions on Russia or providing military equipment to Ukraine for fear of an escalation from Moscow which could take the form of invading eastern Ukraine, seizing the property of Western companies (including Ford and Boeing) in Russia, cutting off western Europe and Ukraine from Russian natural gas, or even selling advanced air-defense systems to Iran.

So what has the Western policy of restraint gotten us so far? Nothing, as far as I can tell. Crimea is preparing to vote this Sunday on an illegal referendum under the guns of Russian occupiers which will result in a predetermined endorsement of Anschluss with Russia. Meanwhile Russian troops are massing for maneuvers on Ukraine’s border, raising fears that Vladimir Putin is planning to annex more of that unfortunate country which most Russians regard as part of their empire. Oh and to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic criticism, Putin has just blocked the websites used by his critics Garry Kasparov and Alexei Navalny.

Only those who are unfamiliar with history can be surprised by Putin’s actions. Autocrats like him habitually keep pushing further and further as long as they sense weakness on the other side–and Putin obviously senses that today since he, like Bashar Assad, is able to violate our red lines with impunity. First we told him not to invade Georgia and he did. Then we told him to abide by a ceasefire and he did not; far from pulling his troops back, Putin has maintained effective control of significant chunks of Georgian territory. More recently we told him not to invade Crimea and he did. We told him not to annex Crimea and he seems to be in the process of doing just that.

It is well past time for the West to respond with serious sanctions that will inflict real damage on the Russian economy. For a start, block Russian financial institutions from access to dollar-denominated trades. Freeze the assets, held in the West, of so many of Putin’s oligarch pals. And block those same oligarchs from visiting their properties and families in the West. Already the Russian stock market is down more than 20 percent this year; that could be only the beginning of a free fall that will slice billions of dollars out of the value of Russian companies, most of them (given the nature of the crony capitalism in Russia) closely linked to the Kremlin.

None of that is likely to make Putin disgorge Crimea, which he sees as Russia’s historic territory, and unfortunately it will also inflict some pain on Western economies. But at least it will make him think twice about going any further. At the moment, the tyrant in the Kremlin no doubt feels like he has a green light for further aggression.

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Rubio and Paul Trading Places?

Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

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Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

Rubio seemed to sputter in 2013 as Paul saw his moment in the sun. Paul’s famous filibuster not only won him plaudits from both sides of the aisle but also got his fellow Republican senators–Rubio among them–to appear on the chamber floor as supporting characters. Then the Edward Snowden affair happened, and Paul appeared to go from potential dark horse candidate in 2016 to the top tier. As the NSA domestic surveillance revelations were easily folded into the broader narrative of President Obama’s intrusive, big-government agenda, Paul took a step toward the front of the pack.

Part of Paul’s appeal was a term and a concept we’ve come to prize in American politics, with its ubiquity of television cameras and endless debates: authenticity. Paul came across as genuine and comfortable in his own skin, and he spoke confidently and fluently to any audience that would hear from him. It was no surprise that Paul and Christie developed something of a (brief) rivalry; neither pulls punches.

But Paul comes across as genuinely uncomfortable talking about foreign crises where the choice isn’t war or peace but something in the middle. Ukraine has made the contrast with Rubio clear, not just on policy but on the fact that events have shifted onto the latter’s turf. Paul’s TIME magazine piece on the appropriate American reaction to the Crimean crisis has already come in for some tough criticism, for example from National Review’s Patrick Brennan, who called Paul’s ideas “terrible or delusional.” But what caught my attention was more the stylistic clumsiness of the messaging–not that U.S. senators should be graded on whether their prose matches up to Tolstoy’s but to their own. In other words, Paul’s surefootedness is completely absent. For example:

America is a world leader, but we should not be its policeman or ATM.

At the end of the day, I still agree with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen — the greatest threat to America’s security is our national debt.

Russia, the Middle East or any other troubled part of the world should never make us forget that the U.S. is broke. We weaken our security and defenses when we print money out of thin air or borrow from other countries to allegedly support our own.

Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less.

Like Ronald Reagan, particularly regarding Russia, I also believe, “Don’t mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.”

That’s just a sample, but much of the piece is written that way. It’s unlike Paul to speak without saying something, but he comes close to doing so on Ukraine. More than a week before Paul’s piece was published, Rubio published at Politico an immediate reaction to the crisis, whose applicability showed he was either prepared for the Russian action or he didn’t need to be to know how to react.

The issues underpinning Rubio and Paul’s fortunes demonstrate something else: unlike Christie’s “bridgegate,” which involved his staff, for Paul and Rubio events beyond their control have exerted upward or downward pressure on them–in Paul’s case, the NSA revelations and for both the crisis in Ukraine (and to a lesser extent Venezuela). It shows the degree of uncertainty and luck in the process. But then again, that’s often how it is in the White House too.

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Muslim Minorities Under Siege While the West Is Silent

In 1995, Matthew Kaminski traveled to Crimea and met with a Tatar family named the Tarsinovs. They had moved from Central Asia almost as soon as the Tatar diaspora was permitted to return to Crimea when the Soviet Union fell, half a century after Stalin ordered the Tatars’ mass deportation. Over the weekend Kaminski, now with the Wall Street Journal, went back to visit with the Tarsinovs. Where his first visit with them was filled with hope and some relief, this latest was clouded by fear and uncertainty.

That’s because the “return of history” story line in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its attempted annexation of Crimea has dark and potentially tragic implications for the Tatars, the Muslim minority citizens of the peninsula. As journalists like Kaminski have found since Russian soldiers showed up in southern Ukraine, Crimean Tatars’ homes have been marked with an “x” not only because they are taunted as the ethnic inferiors of “true” Russian Slavs but also because they are (perhaps in part because of this history) loyal to Ukraine.

Stalin considered them (potentially) disloyal citizens; Vladimir Putin has moved to treat Crimea as either Russian territory or Russian-aligned quasi-independent territory. It’s possible the latter is merely the road to the former, as the upcoming referendum on Crimea’s future indicates. Even if not, however, the fudging of Crimea’s status means Russia is at least treating it as separate from Ukraine. That would mean the Tatars are, once again, in the Russian leader’s eyes disloyal citizens (or worse: an enemy on Russia’s ever-expanding border). Kaminski notes:

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In 1995, Matthew Kaminski traveled to Crimea and met with a Tatar family named the Tarsinovs. They had moved from Central Asia almost as soon as the Tatar diaspora was permitted to return to Crimea when the Soviet Union fell, half a century after Stalin ordered the Tatars’ mass deportation. Over the weekend Kaminski, now with the Wall Street Journal, went back to visit with the Tarsinovs. Where his first visit with them was filled with hope and some relief, this latest was clouded by fear and uncertainty.

That’s because the “return of history” story line in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its attempted annexation of Crimea has dark and potentially tragic implications for the Tatars, the Muslim minority citizens of the peninsula. As journalists like Kaminski have found since Russian soldiers showed up in southern Ukraine, Crimean Tatars’ homes have been marked with an “x” not only because they are taunted as the ethnic inferiors of “true” Russian Slavs but also because they are (perhaps in part because of this history) loyal to Ukraine.

Stalin considered them (potentially) disloyal citizens; Vladimir Putin has moved to treat Crimea as either Russian territory or Russian-aligned quasi-independent territory. It’s possible the latter is merely the road to the former, as the upcoming referendum on Crimea’s future indicates. Even if not, however, the fudging of Crimea’s status means Russia is at least treating it as separate from Ukraine. That would mean the Tatars are, once again, in the Russian leader’s eyes disloyal citizens (or worse: an enemy on Russia’s ever-expanding border). Kaminski notes:

If retribution comes, will it be through violence or other means? The rights to their property could be challenged. “The Russians will go further,” says Ali. “They will come and we won’t be able to go to meetings and talk freely. We have gotten used to, over the last 20 years, life in freedom.”

Tatars have been told by their leaders about America’s promise to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest agreement, when Kiev gave up its nuclear weapons. Now, walking around Tatar neighborhoods, I was repeatedly asked: Will Barack Obama help us? What will the U.S. do? I had no answer. Damir Tarsinov —Ali’s eldest son, now a stout man with two daughters—fumes that the world has “already let Putin get away with it.”

What’s the answer to the Tatars’ question? Will the U.S. help them? The track record isn’t great, not only because of the West’s inability to muster the necessary resistance to Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty or America’s utter refusal to even address Russia’s violations of Georgian sovereignty, but also because the Tatars are not the only Muslim minority whose country’s politics is in flux and who are in grave danger because (or in spite) of it.

The Rohingya of Burma are in far worse shape yet, paradoxically, less likely to get help from the West. Ukraine has consistently been at the center of the news cycle while Burma has never made it very far from the fringes of the news. There are several reasons for that, but surely one of them is that the news out of Burma over the last couple of years has been generally good–and thus boring, unfortunately.

Burma has been in the midst of real progress in its efforts to liberalize domestic politics and phase the country away from military rule. But that has obscured some very real backsliding on human-rights issues, especially for its Muslim Rohingya minority. The Associate Press reports on the steadily worsening conditions for the Rohingya: they were marginalized and ostracized, and then the violence came, pushing them to remote patches of desert without medical care. The AP offers a glimpse of what that means:

Noor Jahan rocked slowly on the floor, trying to steady her weak body. Her chest heaved and her eyes closed with each raspy breath. She could no longer eat or speak, throwing up even spoonfuls of tea.

Two years ago, she would have left her upscale home — one of the nicest in the community — and gone to a hospital to get tests and medicine for her failing liver and kidneys. But that was before Buddhist mobs torched and pillaged her neighborhood, forcing thousands of ethnic Rohingya like herself to flee to a hot, desert-like patch of land on the outskirts of town. …

Living conditions in The’ Chaung village and surrounding camps of Myanmar’s northwestern state of Rakhine are desperate for the healthiest residents. For those who are sick, they are unbearable. The situation became even worse two weeks ago, when the aid group Doctors Without Borders was forced to stop working in Rakhine, where most Rohingya live.

They’ve been discriminated against for decades, but the AP notes that “their lives were far more peaceful before ethnic violence erupted in mid-2012.” That was also the time that the lifting of American sanctions against Burma really picked up steam.

Violence against ethnic minorities has become a regular feature of the upheaval in the wake of the Arab Spring and the unrest outside the Arab world. It is certainly present in modern-day Russia, which is why the Tatars have plenty of reason to fear their fate may resemble that of their forebears–or the Rohingya. Putin’s odious brand of nationalism is not unique to the Kremlin; the Russian opposition’s most well-known figure, Aleksei Navalny, has a history of allying with racist thugs and has been dogged by accusations that he shares their bigotry.

The West has mostly ignored violence against Christian minorities, behaving as though being on the wrong side of such persecution is some sort of historical karma. These days, Islamist governments and transnational terrorist groups have perhaps accustomed the West to seeing displays of power from the Muslim world. If that blinds them to the Muslim minorities on the wrong end of such violence, it will be a colossal moral failure.

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The West Has Leverage Over Russia

It’s quite likely, as so many commentators from Bob Gates on down have noted, that there is little likelihood of forcing Russia to disgorge Crimea. But much remains in play in Ukraine: namely will Russia try to annex the eastern portion of the country too and will Russia succeed in putting Viktor Yanukovych back into power? Beyond Ukraine there is also much at stake, as I have previously noted: The world is watching what happens in Ukraine and the less of a price that Russia has to pay for its conquest, the greater the likelihood that other predatory states will be tempted to stage similar power grabs.

The Russians who are most vulnerable to Western retaliation–the infamous oligarchs–are certainly worried about what will happen. As New York Times correspondent Ellen Barry notes from Moscow, “the prospect of losing access to Western finance is a frightening thought for Russian business leaders.”  

And what would truly frighten them would be “any sanctions’ affecting banks. Large Russian corporations have significantly increased foreign borrowing in recent years, and 10 were negotiating loans when the crisis boiled over, said Ben Aris, the editor and publisher of Business New Europe. Financial sanctions could set off a chain reaction of blocked transactions, frozen accounts and bank closings. “

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It’s quite likely, as so many commentators from Bob Gates on down have noted, that there is little likelihood of forcing Russia to disgorge Crimea. But much remains in play in Ukraine: namely will Russia try to annex the eastern portion of the country too and will Russia succeed in putting Viktor Yanukovych back into power? Beyond Ukraine there is also much at stake, as I have previously noted: The world is watching what happens in Ukraine and the less of a price that Russia has to pay for its conquest, the greater the likelihood that other predatory states will be tempted to stage similar power grabs.

The Russians who are most vulnerable to Western retaliation–the infamous oligarchs–are certainly worried about what will happen. As New York Times correspondent Ellen Barry notes from Moscow, “the prospect of losing access to Western finance is a frightening thought for Russian business leaders.”  

And what would truly frighten them would be “any sanctions’ affecting banks. Large Russian corporations have significantly increased foreign borrowing in recent years, and 10 were negotiating loans when the crisis boiled over, said Ben Aris, the editor and publisher of Business New Europe. Financial sanctions could set off a chain reaction of blocked transactions, frozen accounts and bank closings. “

The West has leverage should it choose to use it. So far President Obama has not been aggressive in implementing sanctions, hoping no doubt that Putin can be encouraged to pull out of Crimea on his own. Fat chance. Barring any miraculous chain of heart on the part of the former KGB agent in the Kremlin, it’s time to get tough with precisely the kind of financial sanctions that the Russian elite fears. We need to make clear that Russia will pay a price for transgressing the most basic norms of international conduct.

Putin could, of course, try to retaliate by blocking natural gas shipments to Ukraine and to customers in the rest of Europe, such as Germany. But that would be a costly course for Moscow to adopt: Lost gas shipments means lost revenue and the Russian state is totally dependent on oil and gas revenues. Putin has some leverage; it is true, but the West holds a stronger hand–should it choose to play it.

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There’s Plenty the U.S. Can Do About Putin

Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to be terribly impressed by the State Department’s decision to ban visas for all those involved in undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity–nor by the EU’s decision to freeze the assets of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and 17 of his closest aides and family members.

The Kremlin is pushing ahead with a referendum, now scheduled for March 17. That vote is almost certain to result in the people of Crimea voting to join the Russian Federation. That is the way of votes held at gunpoint, although even without a Russian troop occupation the Crimeans, most of whom are Russian speakers, might have voted to join Russia anyway.

There is, it seems, little the West can do to evict the Russian troops—pardon me, “local self defense forces” that just happen to be wearing Russian army uniforms–from the territory they have seized in recent days. But there is much more that the West could be doing to make Russia pay a higher cost for its brazen aggression.

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Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to be terribly impressed by the State Department’s decision to ban visas for all those involved in undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity–nor by the EU’s decision to freeze the assets of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and 17 of his closest aides and family members.

The Kremlin is pushing ahead with a referendum, now scheduled for March 17. That vote is almost certain to result in the people of Crimea voting to join the Russian Federation. That is the way of votes held at gunpoint, although even without a Russian troop occupation the Crimeans, most of whom are Russian speakers, might have voted to join Russia anyway.

There is, it seems, little the West can do to evict the Russian troops—pardon me, “local self defense forces” that just happen to be wearing Russian army uniforms–from the territory they have seized in recent days. But there is much more that the West could be doing to make Russia pay a higher cost for its brazen aggression.

The Treasury Department, for a start, could ban all Russian financial institutions from interacting with the U.S. banking system and force other countries to comply on threat of being denied access to the American market as well. Britain, whose capital is home to a vast amount of Russian money (just think of how many oligarchs own fancy apartments and sports teams in Britain), could freeze the assets of many of Putin’s cronies. France could stop building two amphibious assault carriers for the Russian Navy that will allow Putin to project power more easily into places like Ukraine. NATO could announce that it is beefing up its forces in Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic Republics, including stationing US troops there for the first time, to make clear that Russia cannot invade NATO members as it invaded Ukraine. The U.S. could announce a total suspension of all diplomatic contacts with Russia and refuse to send an ambassador to Moscow to replace the recently departed Michael McFaul.

And those are just actions (with the partial exception of the NATO troop move) that could be taken by countries that are not as heavily reliant as Germany on Russian shipments of natural gas. (Although if Putin were to stop shipping the gas he would face a crippling loss of revenue, so he’s not likely to do that.) But none of this is being done, at least not yet. Instead the Europeans, who have most of the leverage here because of their greater business dealings with Russia, are as usual trying to find a way to keep talking rather than acting. At least the EU has decided to cough up $15 billion in a rescue package for the new pro-Western government in Ukraine. Washington is kicking in another $1 billion. That’s a significant step to help steer Ukraine toward the West.

But the Europeans, along with the Obama administration, are missing the imperative to inflict significant harm–economic, political, and diplomatic–on Moscow in retaliation for its aggression. This is necessary whether or not such pressure forces Russia to disgorge Crimea. It is necessary to send a signal to other countries that aggression does not pay.

That signal was sent clearly in 1990-1991 when the George HW Bush administration organized an international coalition to evict Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. But the signal is being attenuated as Putin continues to use salami-slicing tactics to take one bit of territory after another–first a chunk of Georgia, now a chunk of Ukraine, whatever next? Nobody is suggesting, of course, using military force: Russia is not Iraq. It is a nuclear-armed state with a large military and war would be unthinkable. But there are plenty of options between appeasement and launching World War III that could be usefully implemented, and they should be, whether Russia decides to advance beyond Crimea or not.

Putin is no Hitler but remember how in the 1930s World War II became inevitable because Hitler was not stopped in time. Every time he tried a fresh provocation–rearming in violation of the Versailles Treaty, reoccupying the Rhineland, Anschluss with Austria, seizing the Sudetenland–he received no pushback from the West so he decided he could keep going. Today we should be worried about sending such a permissive message not only to Russia but also to other states such as Iran, North Korea, and China that are carefully watching this drama unfold. As Eliot Cohen notes: “If Russia can rip off a limb with impunity, why can’t China do the same with the Senkaku Islands?”

 The West needs to stop its rush to reestablish cordial relations with Russia. However discomfiting it might be to ratchet up tensions in the short term, the long-term result is likely to make peace more, not less, likely.

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Are Markets Right About Ukraine Inaction?

The big news today on the Russian seizure of the Crimea from the Ukraine was that Europeans are feeling a lot calmer about the prospect of conflict. To the extent that the uptick in the markets this reflected relief that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not further escalated the conflict with new military actions aimed at seizing more territory that is a sentiment that is universally shared. But as the days pass since Russian troops took control of the Crimea, those jumping to the conclusion that the West will soon be going back to business as usual with Russia may have a firmer grip on reality than those who assume that all of the exemplary rhetoric coming from both the United States and its European allies about their concern may not be followed up by the sort of economic sanctions that would, as President Obama said, make Putin pay a price for his aggression.

Gauging the intensity level of this crisis is a difficult job in large measure because the assumption that Putin will perform some new outrage in the coming days may be misplaced. While Russia’s planned ballistic missile test and the actions of Russian troops (that Putin is still pretending are not Russian) are scary, the action phase of this crisis may have already passed as far as Moscow is concerned. Having taken control of the Crimea, the big unanswered question for Russia revolves around whether Putin will annex the region (something the Russian Parliament is already considering) or allow his puppets to create a new buffer state there. The only other variable is how robust the Western response to this crime will be. While Ukrainians can certainly take comfort from Secretary of State John Kerry’s much needed visit to Kiev today and the laudable vows of help coming from Washington and European capitals, they may be forgiven for wondering whether Western investors who are betting today against serious sanctions or a disruption of Russia’s oil and gas sales are right.

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The big news today on the Russian seizure of the Crimea from the Ukraine was that Europeans are feeling a lot calmer about the prospect of conflict. To the extent that the uptick in the markets this reflected relief that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not further escalated the conflict with new military actions aimed at seizing more territory that is a sentiment that is universally shared. But as the days pass since Russian troops took control of the Crimea, those jumping to the conclusion that the West will soon be going back to business as usual with Russia may have a firmer grip on reality than those who assume that all of the exemplary rhetoric coming from both the United States and its European allies about their concern may not be followed up by the sort of economic sanctions that would, as President Obama said, make Putin pay a price for his aggression.

Gauging the intensity level of this crisis is a difficult job in large measure because the assumption that Putin will perform some new outrage in the coming days may be misplaced. While Russia’s planned ballistic missile test and the actions of Russian troops (that Putin is still pretending are not Russian) are scary, the action phase of this crisis may have already passed as far as Moscow is concerned. Having taken control of the Crimea, the big unanswered question for Russia revolves around whether Putin will annex the region (something the Russian Parliament is already considering) or allow his puppets to create a new buffer state there. The only other variable is how robust the Western response to this crime will be. While Ukrainians can certainly take comfort from Secretary of State John Kerry’s much needed visit to Kiev today and the laudable vows of help coming from Washington and European capitals, they may be forgiven for wondering whether Western investors who are betting today against serious sanctions or a disruption of Russia’s oil and gas sales are right.

Sanctions levied against Russia and against individual members of the Putin regime are necessary and can’t be put into effect too soon. But the problem with this effort is that everyone knows that there is nothing the West can do now to reverse what has happened and Putin knows it. Since a Western military response against a nuclear power is unthinkable, Russia knows it will never be forced to give back the Crimea even if it has been torn from Ukraine in a blatantly illegal act of aggression.

Moreover, for all of the righteous rhetoric flowing from Western leaders this week, Putin also knows that Europe is unlikely to want to have to kick its Russian oil and gas habit cold turkey. That’s why he dared to invade a sovereign nation secure in the knowledge that he could get away with it.

It goes without saying that the only way to have prevented this from happening was an American foreign policy that was more concerned with restraining Putin than in making nice with him. It cannot be stressed enough former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kerry bear the lion’s share of blame for this disaster for their comical Russian policy “reset.” President Obama and his media cheering section that openly mocked first Sarah Palin and then Mitt Romney for their focus on the threat from Russia also need to apologize.

But though anger at Putin is running high today, he is counting on it all fading away rather quickly. The Obama administration’s strong suit is “engagement” and diplomacy for its own sake, not principled confrontation. Moreover, if European countries can’t be trusted to stick to sanctions against the Islamist regime in Iran, how can we possibly expect them to hang tough against Russia when the economic stakes involved in any punishment for aggression against Ukraine are so much higher?

Ukraine and all the other independent states — including NATO members in the Baltic and Poland—that stand between Putin and his cherished dream of reassembling the old Tsarist/Soviet empire are looking to Washington, London, Paris and Berlin for stiff economic action against Russia this week. But it’s hard to argue with those who are betting their bankrolls on the proposition that neither Obama nor the Western Europeans intend to disrupt the Russian gravy train for the sake of Ukraine.

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Liars Like Putin Capable of Anything

It’s hard to know what’s more unsettling: to imagine that Vladimir Putin actually believes what he said at a press conference today–or that he doesn’t. Either way, his remarks make clear that the West is dealing with a crafty, ruthless autocrat who isn’t afraid to bend reality to his own will. The only question is whether he secretly knows the difference between his castles in the air and the world inhabited by the rest of us.

His comments were so far-fetched as to be almost comical. Let’s see…

He claimed that the troops who have taken over Crimea were not Russian–merely local self-defense forces that happened to buy some Russian uniforms: “Look at former Soviet republics,” he said. “You can go to a store and buy a uniform. Were these Russian soldiers? No, they’re very well-trained self-defense forces.” (Makes you wonder, if the troops in Ukraine, went shopping for their own uniforms, why they didn’t buy German fatigues or American ones?)

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It’s hard to know what’s more unsettling: to imagine that Vladimir Putin actually believes what he said at a press conference today–or that he doesn’t. Either way, his remarks make clear that the West is dealing with a crafty, ruthless autocrat who isn’t afraid to bend reality to his own will. The only question is whether he secretly knows the difference between his castles in the air and the world inhabited by the rest of us.

His comments were so far-fetched as to be almost comical. Let’s see…

He claimed that the troops who have taken over Crimea were not Russian–merely local self-defense forces that happened to buy some Russian uniforms: “Look at former Soviet republics,” he said. “You can go to a store and buy a uniform. Were these Russian soldiers? No, they’re very well-trained self-defense forces.” (Makes you wonder, if the troops in Ukraine, went shopping for their own uniforms, why they didn’t buy German fatigues or American ones?)

He claimed that the anti-Yanukovych demonstrators in Kiev were all fascists and anti-Semites: “Our major concern is the orgy of nationalists, and extremists and anti-Semites on the streets of Kiev.” (If that’s the case, it’s odd, as Timothy Snyder notes in the New York Review of Books, that it was the Yanukovych regime “rather than its opponents that resorts to anti-Semitism, instructing its riot police that the opposition is led by Jews.”)

He claimed that snipers firing on demonstrators were not Ukrainian security forces but rather “provocateurs from an opposition party.” (So the opposition forces are killing themselves! How crafty.)

He claimed that Russia’s past treaty obligations to respect Ukrainian sovereignty are no longer operative because there is a “new state” in Ukraine. (How convenient, in case the “local self defense forces” currently annexing Crimea to Russia decide to do the same with all of eastern Ukraine.)

And of course for his grand finale he claimed that the whole thing is the fault of America: “They sit there across the pond as if in a lab running all kinds of experiments on the rats,” Putin said. “Why would they do it? No one can explain it.” (If Washington is so powerful it’s a wonder how Moscow managed to take over Crimea so easily.)

For good measure he claimed that Washington was being hypocritical in criticizing Russia’s incursion into Ukraine: “Let’s remember what the U.S. did in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.”

Never mind that Russia actually voted at the UN to authorize the military mission to Afghanistan and abstained from vetoing the one to Libya, or that the U.S.-led operation in Iraq had infinitely more international support than the Russian intervention in Ukraine which is supported by not a single other country.

Presumably Putin says such things to provide some rationale, however flimsy and far-fetched, to his own people to justify his aggression against a neighboring Slavic state. The very bizarreness of his assertions is further cause for alarm, however. A leader who utters one whopping big lie after another with a perfectly straight face–indeed with an air of utter conviction–is capable of anything.

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Obama, Ukraine and the Price of Weakness

There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

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There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

A world in which dictators do as they like despite clear American warnings — as President Obama did first in Syria and then again this week about attacks on Ukraine — is not only a far more dangerous place. It also creates a dynamic in which every such American warning or diplomatic initiative is discounted as mere rhetoric, even if those daring to defy the United States are not so well situated as Putin is with his bold stroke in the Crimea. That is especially true with regards to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

The circumstances of the U.S. diplomatic effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are starkly different from those in the territories of the former Soviet Union. But the basic formula of a bold rogue regime that has no reason to fear the threats or the blandishments of either the U.S. or Europe is present in the P5+1 talks. Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy. The Obama administration gave up the formidable military, political and economic leverage they had over Iran last fall by signing an interim agreement with Iran that gave Tehran what it wanted in terms of recognizing their right to enrich uranium as well as loosening sanctions in exchange for almost nothing. If the Iranians had good reason to think they had nothing to fear from the Obama administration before this latest humiliation of the president at the hands of Putin, their conviction that they can be as tough as they like with him without worrying about a strong American response can only be greater today.

It is too late to save Ukraine from the theft of its territory. But it is not too late to reverse the U.S. retreat from the world stage that has been going on in the last years. President Obama can begin to regain some of his credibility by taking a strong stand on sanctions against Russia and sticking to it. But if he doesn’t no one should be under the illusion that it won’t affect Obama’s ability to prevail in the Iran talks. The cost of Obama-style weakness and isolationism will not be cheap, either for U.S. allies or for an American people who must now understand what it is like to live in a world where no one respects or fears their government.

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