Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russia

NATO’s Gesture Won’t Deter Putin

You can bet Vladimir Putin is shaking in his Gucci loafers as he learns that NATO is going to respond to his aggression in Ukraine … by creating a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops that could deploy to Eastern Europe. Actually, this is the kind of ineffectual action that will only cause Putin to smirk even more.

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You can bet Vladimir Putin is shaking in his Gucci loafers as he learns that NATO is going to respond to his aggression in Ukraine … by creating a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops that could deploy to Eastern Europe. Actually, this is the kind of ineffectual action that will only cause Putin to smirk even more.

Although none of the news stories reporting breathlessly on the latest developments from this week’s NATO summit in Wales bother to mention it, the nations of Europe actually have a long history of trying to stand up rapidly deployable forces. In 1992 we had the creation of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, “a North Atlantic Treaty Organization High Readiness Force (Land) Headquarters ready for deployment worldwide within five to thirty days.” In 1993 we had the Eurocorps, “an intergovernmental army corps headquarters (HQ) based in Strasbourg, France” and based around a Franco-German brigade created in 1987. In 2003 we saw the creation of the NATO Response Force, which was supposed to be a “coherent, high-readiness, joint, multinational force package” of up to 25,000 troops that is “technologically advanced, flexible, deployable, interoperable and sustainable.” Uh, right. At least the NATO Response Force has a nifty logo.

If any of these initiatives had produced any substantive results, it would be hard to see why NATO would need to create yet another rapid-response force. But of course as with most NATO or EU initiatives these past efforts have produced more memoranda, PowerPoints, and conferences than actual usable military force. So there is little reason for Putin or anyone else to think that a new brigade-size NATO force–just 4,000 troops!–will present any significant threat to his designs given that he has 766,000 active-duty soldiers at his command.

NATO as a military actor scares no one–certainly not the predator in the Kremlin. The only thing that might give Putin pause is if the United States of America, whose military power vastly eclipses Russia, were to take a credible stand. President Obama might do that by dispatching U.S. army brigades–say one each–to the three Baltic states along with a few more brigades for Poland. That could be combined by sending U.S. cargo aircraft to airlift urgently needed supplies to Ukrainian forces to allow them to fight back against what is plainly a Russian invasion of their country. And the president at the same time could announce that he is asking Congress to suspend cuts in the military budget and especially to stop cuts in army end-strength that will make it impossible for the U.S. to provide a credible deterrent to Russian aggression.

Yet Obama will not take any of these steps–he will not even call the invasion an invasion. Until the U.S. steps up, NATO can issue all the communiqués, resolutions, and press releases that it wants. None of it will mean anything.

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Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

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President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

What is truly disturbing about this president is that this not a one-off gaffe. Rather, it is part of a long and disturbing series of remarks by the president and his top aides who, while trying to explain and defend their foreign-policy thinking, have caused a major crisis of confidence in their ability to handle the nation’s foreign policy.

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

The New Yorker, May 2, 2011: “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ ”

President Obama’s interview with David Remnick, the New Yorker, January 7, 2014: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The president’s press conference in the Philippines, April 28, 2014: “My job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it… That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Politico, June 1: “Forget The New Yorker’s ‘leading from behind,’ and even President Barack Obama’s own ‘singles … doubles.’ The West Wing has a preferred, authorized distillation of the president’s foreign-policy doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’ ”

Leading from behind… Getting our paragraph right… Hitting singles and doubles… Not doing “stupid shit”: The more the president and his foreign-policy deep thinkers talk, the bigger a hole they dig for themselves.

Even liberals are scathing in denouncing these risible attempts to lay out a foreign-policy doctrine. As Hillary Clinton says, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Or as Maureen Dowd wrote, “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody.”

Little wonder, then, that in a Pew poll conducted even before Obama made his “no strategy” comment, 54 percent of respondents said last week that the president isn’t “tough enough” on foreign policy. You can bet that’s a view shared by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-un, and other key American adversaries.

That the president is so ham-handed in trying to defend his foreign-policy conduct is all the more puzzling in that he is supposedly a great orator–at least he won the White House (and a Nobel Peace Prize, lest we forget) based largely on the power of his inspirational words. But at the end of the day there is a limit to how much any orator, no matter how gifted, can say to defend the indefensible or explain the inexplicable. We have now reached that point and beyond. It is high time for Obama to stop talking and start acting. At this point the only thing that can reverse the crippling decline of American credibility is tough, unexpected action–say bombing the Iranian nuclear complex if talks fall through, or mounting an all-out campaign to destroy ISIS, or sending military aid to Ukraine and positioning U.S. troops in the Baltic republics.

You may well observe that these are all military actions. Am I suggesting that Obama become a militarist–a warmonger of the kind he plainly despises? Not at all. Not one of these policy options will send American ground troops into combat. All can be executed with a limited degree of risk without becoming “another Iraq,” the bogeyman that the president most wants to avoid.

And if Obama had acted tougher to begin with–if, for example, he had done more to aid the Syrian opposition or to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–such drastic actions would not now be necessary. But American credibility has sunk so low that it is now crucially important to show that there is more to our foreign policy than empty verbiage from the White House–especially when the more of that verbiage that we hear, the less confidence the world has that we know what we’re doing.

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Obama’s Luck on the World Stage

When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

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When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

Of course, a resurgent Russia is just one of many challenges the United States now faces. Obama kept his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, only to be forced by the eruption of ISIS to re-engage at least symbolically even if not substantively. Libya—the marquee example of leading from behind—has descended into chaos. And Obama’s inaction in Syria has enabled a bad situation to grow much worse. Turkey has transformed itself into an anti-Western autocracy more intent on encouraging the growth of radical Islamism abroad than promoting peace at home. By acting more like a zoning commissioner than a world leader, Obama has managed to take Israeli-Palestinian relations to their nadir.

So how could it be that Obama is lucky?

It’s always tempting for partisans to blame events on the world stage upon the occupant of the Oval Office rather than the rogue who has free will. It is absolutely true that the world does not revolve around Washington D.C. That said, Obama’s decisions have contributed to some of the worst aspects of the current crises. Rather than see Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia as a sign of Putin’s true character, Obama sought to appease the Russian leader. Pulling the rug out from allies like Poland and the Czech Republic only encouraged Putin further by depicting the United States as desperate for a deal regardless of the cost to its allies. Undersecretary for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher completed the trifecta by acquiescing to almost every Russian demand in order to come to agreement on the START treaty, and then by downplaying if not hiding Russian cheating.

Nor would ISIS have made the advances it made in recent months had the United States maintained a residual force in Iraq or moved to strike at the radicals as they gathered strength in Syria. While Obama prized leading from behind in Libya, that decision came at the cost of failing to secure Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s arms caches, leading extremists to seize thousands of surface-to-air missiles and enabling a weapons flow which has destabilized a broad swath of the Sahel, including Mali—once ranked by Freedom House as the most free majority-Muslim country on earth.

But consider this: As bad as Vladimir Putin is, imagine that China had a ruler not only as nationalistic (it does) but as willing to use brute military force to achieve its aims (at present, China is happy to posture and build its capabilities). Why work diplomatically to take Taiwan back into its fold when they could achieve their aim in days. It would be a pretty safe bet that Obama might finger wag, but he wouldn’t do a thing. Or imagine North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un interpreted Obama’s inaction as reason to turn Seoul—well within range of North Korea’s artillery—into a sea of fire. At worst, the North Korean leader would face a press conference with Obama threatening to sponsor resolutions at the United Nations. Back in 1982, an economically failing Argentina decided to distract its public by seizing the British-held Falkland Islands. Today, the same thing could occur, only Britain is too impotent to respond and the White House—with its misguided notion of colonial guilt—might actually side with Buenos Aires. ISIS has marched across the heart of the Middle East, but it has yet to topple Jordan or Lebanon, or teach Turkey a listen or two about blowback. That might simply be a matter of time, however: King Abdullah II of Jordan is popular everywhere but within his own country, and ISIS is gaining momentum.

Simply put, the world could be far more dangerous than it is right now. That China, North Korea, Iran, Argentina, and other aggressors or potential aggressors haven’t made their move is more a matter of luck than the natural outcome of Obama’s policies.

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Ukraine in the Shadow of Molotov-Ribbentrop

The 75th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union pledged non-aggression toward each other and shortly thereafter divided Poland, passed with little comment on August 23. It should not have, for its ghosts loom large in Ukraine.

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The 75th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union pledged non-aggression toward each other and shortly thereafter divided Poland, passed with little comment on August 23. It should not have, for its ghosts loom large in Ukraine.

First, there were reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was negotiating secretly with Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to trade territory for Putin’s promise to continue the gas flow into Ukraine. That she proposed paying off Putin with Ukrainian territory was a fact she shrugged off, as was the fact she sought to change Ukraine’s borders permanently for the simple promise of a man who has repeatedly shown himself not to be trustworthy.

Then, there was the ill-considered Carnegie Corporation-sponsored “Track II” meeting in Finland with Russian officials in which both the American and Russian sides excluded any Ukrainian participation. One chapter of my recent book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogues Regimes, is dedicated to these so-called people-to-people meetings and showing that when constructed the way Carnegie did, they do far more harm than good. In this case, the American do-gooders handed a victory to the Kremlin from the start by acquiescing to Ukraine’s exclusion. That the resulting conclusions treated Ukraine and Russia and moral equivalents, no matter that Russia is the aggressor and occupying force, underlined the academics’ collective tin ear.

Any compromise that formalizes Russia’s occupation and annexation of Ukrainian territory effectively treats Ukraine the way that Germany and the Soviet Union treated Poland three-quarters of a century ago. The belief that treaties of non-aggression can restrain the most aggressive, revisionist powers is a notion that should have been dispensed with after, 75 years ago, such an agreement contributed to a cascade of events which ultimately claimed well over 50 million lives.

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“This Is Now a War with Russia”

This has been the summer from hell. While President Obama has been busy teeing off, ISIS has conquered much of northern and western Iraq, while killing untold thousands including journalist James Foley, and drawing U.S. aircraft back into action; Libya has degenerated into full-blown civil war; China has staged numerous provocations against its neighbors (and on at least one occasion against an American aircraft); and, lest we forget, Russia has mounted a barely disguised invasion of Ukraine.

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This has been the summer from hell. While President Obama has been busy teeing off, ISIS has conquered much of northern and western Iraq, while killing untold thousands including journalist James Foley, and drawing U.S. aircraft back into action; Libya has degenerated into full-blown civil war; China has staged numerous provocations against its neighbors (and on at least one occasion against an American aircraft); and, lest we forget, Russia has mounted a barely disguised invasion of Ukraine.

That invasion just got a bit worse with news that Russian tanks, artillery, and infantry have been streaming across the border to open a new front against Ukrainian forces defending the southern city of Novoazovsk. According to the New York Times, “The Russian aim, one Western official said, was to open a new front that would divert Ukrainian forces from Donetsk and Lukhansk and possibly seize an outlet to the sea in the event that Russia tries to establish a separatist enclave in the eastern Ukraine.” This might even be a step toward uniting separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine with Crimea, which Russia had earlier seized in contravention of all international norms. Whatever the case, as one Ukrainian sergeant fighting the Russian onslaught told a reporter: “This is now a war with Russia.”

Yes, it is. So what, if anything, is “The West”–the empty cliche–going to do about it? President Obama has imposed some semi-tough sanctions on a few Russian firms and individuals; the European Union has followed suit with less-than-tough sanctions. Clearly none of this has deterred Vladimir Putin, a wily predator who can smell weakness on the part of the West and is clearly looking to seize as much as he can while the going is good.

As it happens, just today Bill Perry, the Clinton secretary of defense, and George Shultz, the Reagan secretary of state, had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal recommending a response to this Russian aggression. They call for providing military equipment and training to Ukraine, for deploying forces in the Baltic states, and for strengthening sanctions. They don’t spell out what stronger sanctions are needed but the most damaging step the U.S. could take would be to pass financial sanctions that prevent all Russian companies from access to the U.S. financial system and from doing dollar-denominated transactions. This could be coupled with secondary sanctions, as with Iran, to force foreign companies to choose between doing business with Russia and doing business with the U.S.

Of course Putin will retaliate in any way he can, but it is well past time to care about Russian retaliation. It is time to step up our response, whatever the cost, to the outrageous and illegal steps that Putin is taking to invade Ukraine before the most basic norm of the post-1945 world order–the norm against cross-border invasions and annexations of neighboring states–entirely disappears.

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Was Putin’s Syria Advice Really Trenchant?

With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

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With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

After forces aligned with Assad apparently used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, a humanitarian tragedy and a challenge to President Obama’s blunt red line, Putin scrambled to prevent any America military strikes. In a New York Times op-ed almost a year ago, Putin offered this advice:

A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance. Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government.

Sounds prescient, but was it? Assad is a terror sponsor who has worked closely not only with Hezbollah and, in the past, Hamas, but also with the al-Qaeda-linked extremists he now fights, whose passage through Syria and into Iraq he enabled. Russia likewise criticized and, at times, sought to undercut American action against al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers in Afghanistan. Over at The Hill, the European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure, my wife, who was a refugee from Russia and also spent much time in Syria and who, alas, sometimes also considers me her Medvedev), points out how curious it is that so many of those who point to this op-ed ignore Putin’s earlier New York Times op-ed which said quite the opposite when it came to battling extremism: “No government can stand idly by when terrorism strikes. It is the solemn duty of all governments to protect their citizens from danger. Americans obviously understand this concept… But when a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond.”

When it comes to the use of military power—or reticence against its role in the fight against terror—Putin may seem inconsistent. Actually, though, he is not, so long as it is understood that his advice is not meant to actually illuminate the best way to counter terror in places like Syria. Rather, he is motivated by a singular desire to pursue Russia’s interests and check those of America. As Borshchevskaya rightly concludes, “Looking back to Putin’s two op-eds, it is clear that he is not guided by genuine principle. Ultimately Putin pushes his own agenda, often aimed at criticizing and undermining the United States.”

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Russian Paratroopers Confirmed Killed in Ukraine

It is well-documented now how Russians have been living in a bubble with regard to news coverage of what has been going on in (and over) Ukraine. In the Russian narrative, the Ukrainians are all aggressive fascists and neo-Nazis seeking to victimize ethnic Russians, and while Russian humanitarian relief is heading into Ukraine, the idea that Russian forces are fighting there is nothing but nonsense.

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It is well-documented now how Russians have been living in a bubble with regard to news coverage of what has been going on in (and over) Ukraine. In the Russian narrative, the Ukrainians are all aggressive fascists and neo-Nazis seeking to victimize ethnic Russians, and while Russian humanitarian relief is heading into Ukraine, the idea that Russian forces are fighting there is nothing but nonsense.

Now, fortunately, that bubble is bursting. First there were the soldier selfies. Now journalists in the Russian city of Pskov have confirmed the deaths of Russian paratroopers inside Ukraine, tracking the names of Russians that Ukrainian officials had said were killed and then found their graves in Pskov. The broader Russian media is beginning to pick up on the story. More in English here (scroll down).

Russian President Vladimir Putin played both President Bush and the Obama administration. While they sought to believe that Putin was a reasonable, responsible partner, they never recognized that he had never shed his KGB worldview and remained dedicated all along to the dual goals of defeating America on the global stage while reconstructing the Soviet Union, in effect if not in reality. He has sacrificed the Russian economy in the process, and moved to insulate the Russian public from what he has done. In this, he has been like his Soviet predecessors who lied to the home population about what was really happening in Afghanistan and then in Chechnya. Let us hope that the Russians don’t take so long to realize their leader is playing them for fools once again. The question is how many Russians will die needlessly before Russian mothers recognize that Putin is sacrificing their sons for his own dishonest purposes.

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Another Russian Invasion on the Horizon?

On August 19, the New York Times carried an interesting story on the “fading rebellion” in eastern Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin appeared to be “maneuvering for a face-saving settlement.” The Russians were on the run. In the high command of the separatist rebellion, they’d been replaced with inexperienced Ukrainian locals. But three days later the Times poured cold water on its own optimism:

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On August 19, the New York Times carried an interesting story on the “fading rebellion” in eastern Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin appeared to be “maneuvering for a face-saving settlement.” The Russians were on the run. In the high command of the separatist rebellion, they’d been replaced with inexperienced Ukrainian locals. But three days later the Times poured cold water on its own optimism:

Russia on Friday escalated tensions with Ukraine to the highest level since its stealthy invasion of Crimea in the spring, sending more than 200 trucks from a long-stalled aid convoy into rebel-held eastern Ukraine over the objections of Kiev and, NATO said, conducting military operations on Ukrainian territory.

In other words, Russia had invaded Ukraine. Again.

And three days after that–today–the Times has arrived with more bad news: “Russia Says It Will Send Another Aid Convoy to Ukraine.” Russia was planning to invade Ukraine again, again.

The first invasion, of the Crimean peninsula, was greeted with harsh words from American and European leaders, impressing upon Putin what a bully he was being. They made it clear they strenuously objected to his behavior. (I have in the past likened the West’s condemnation of Putin to the way the teachers would deal with the Gilly character on Saturday Night Live. I think the comparison holds up pretty well.)

Putin assessed that he was to be hit with a guilt trip and some token sanctions for his Crimean adventure, shrugged it off, and went back for more. He was hit with some more token sanctions, and then some more serious sanctions. None of it deterred him.

On Friday, he invaded eastern Ukraine, and was immediately rewarded with the rest of the world falling all over itself to avoid using the term “invasion.” Putin probably could not believe his good fortune, to have Western leaders and their media so pusillanimous. As long as we’re all playing silly word games, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov decided to join in:

Mr. Lavrov said that Ukraine and the Red Cross created “artificial delays” for the first convoy, but said that Russia was ready to continue acting with complete transparency that would allow for inspections of future convoys. “The fact that the first convoy eventually delivered aid with no excess or incidents gives us reason to hope that the second one will go much more smoothly,” he said.

Ukraine’s response:

Mr. Lavrov’s statements came as the authorities in Kiev charged that Russia had sent a column of armored vehicles across the border, and a day before a summit meeting in Minsk, Belarus, where President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Mr. Poroshenko will meet for the first time since early June. They will be joined by representatives of the European Union and the Russia-led Customs Union, including the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus.

And then the requisite moral equivalence from the Times:

Although the talks offer some hope for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in east Ukraine, both Mr. Putin and Mr. Poroshenko are under strong pressure from nationalists at home to stand firm.

This is a slightly weaker, but still fairly absurd, formulation of one of the media’s favorite tropes. Here’s Bill Keller comparing Iranian “hardliners” to American “hardliners”–in this particular case, that means comparing a former American ambassador to the United Nations and presidential advisor to the head of a violent Iranian paramilitary group personally sanctioned by Washington for human-rights abuses.

The Times has also used the formulation with regard to democratically elected Israeli politicians and Palestinian terrorists. And now we hear about Ukrainian and Russian nationalists spoiling for a fight.

The problem here is that one of those countries has invaded the other twice this year. So-called “nationalists” in Ukraine are simply Ukrainians objecting to being invaded with lethal force. “Nationalists” in Russia are, in this case, not really nationalists at all but ethnic imperialists.

There is currently a land war in Europe. Russia is threatening to expand that European land war. The cause of this is not dueling nationalisms but militaristic autocracy encountering self-defense. And by the way, this war may already include Russian war crimes, including the following:

Mr. Lavrov was also questioned about a rebel military parade held Sunday in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, where prisoners of war from the Ukrainian Army were paraded through the streets by armed guards bearing bayonets.

Lavrov responded that he didn’t see a problem with it. Perhaps the West could help Kiev spell it out for him. They could start by using the word “invasion” a bit more freely.

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Sanctions and Appeasement: 1941 and 2014

There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

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There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

The executive director of the “realist” Center for the National Interest think tank is clearly opposed to Western sanctions on Russia. Instead, he says, the U.S. should be offering the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin some carrots along with the threat of a stick or two. He worries that that the constant attacks on Russian policy combined with President Obama’s lack of credibility will not only not deter Putin from more adventurism; he thinks it might actually impel Moscow to do the unthinkable and launch invasions of former Soviet republics that are today NATO allies of the U.S. like the Baltic states.

Saunders is right that no matter what policy the administration pursues, without Russia believing that Obama is serious about stopping them, nothing will work. In that sense, sanctions may well ultimately fail.

But Saunders’ argument that the only applicable precedent for the standoff with Russia today is the failed attempt by the United States to force Japan to cease its campaign of aggression in Asia is completely off the mark.

Saunders is correct that the U.S.-Japan dispute involved miscalculations on both sides. President Franklin Roosevelt feared that Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific would ultimately end in armed conflict. Yet the oil embargo imposed on the Japanese Empire and the seizure of their assets in the U.S. was an attempt to give Tokyo a chance to back down before it was too late. Rather than seizing an opportunity for negotiations that might have provided them with a chance to avoid a suicidal war, Japanese militarists saw the sanctions as a challenge to their legitimacy that must be met with further aggression. Hence, rather than slow down the path to war, the embargo may have speeded it up.

From this, Saunders draws the lesson that great powers can’t be deterred by economic sanctions, only incited to up the ante in a game of international poker. The Japanese wrongly thought Roosevelt was bluffing and believed the U.S. was too materialistic and spiritually weak to wage a war of annihilation against them. Perhaps, similarly, the Russians today believe, not without some justification, that the Obama administration will ultimately back down if push comes to shove. The fear that Iran has the same evaluation of Obama’s character and fortitude makes the current nuclear negotiations with Tehran all the more perilous.

But the analogy with Japan gives Putin and Russia too much credit. Japan was vulnerable to economic sanctions because of its lack of national resources and dependence on oil imports. But it was also an expanding empire with a crack military machine whose hunger for great power status and hemispheric hegemony was such that it could not be stopped by negotiations or bought off. It had been waging an active genocidal war of aggression in China since 1937 and its occupation of Indochina (today’s Vietnam) illustrated its intentions to expand even further. There was never any chance that anything short of war would ever force Japan to give up its Chinese conquests or their dream of Pacific domination.

By contrast, as dangerous as Putin might be, his nation is a shell of a once formidable empire with a ramshackle military that struggled to deal with Chechen rebels and is now flummoxed by the ragtag army opposing them in eastern Ukraine. Though it stole a march on the Ukrainians and seized Crimea with ease, the Russians appear to be in retreat with little sign that they would dare risk a conflict with the West by attacking members of NATO. Putin would like to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. But if the U.S. and its European allies were sufficiently determined to punish Russia—something that is still in doubt even after the atrocity of the shooting down of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine by Russian loyalists—Moscow would be put in a difficult spot with little alternative but to back down.

But Saunders, stuck as he is in his realist mindset, seems to miss a broader point about the arc of American foreign policy than just the narrow question of the utility of sanctions. The “proud empire” of Japan that the U.S. sought to deter was an ally of Nazi Germany and already guilty of unimaginable atrocities when sanctions were imposed on them. A U.S. deal that would have left them in possession of China was not an option, even for an American government that would have preferred not to fight. The notion of a reasonable accommodation between the U.S. and Japan was not merely far-fetched but immoral, something that Roosevelt, though hopeful of staying out of the war that had already begun in Europe and Asia, seemed to understand. Just as appeasement of Japan’s ally Germany failed, so, too, would the course of action that Saunders seems to think would have been a good idea.

America’s embrace of sanctions against nations like Japan and Russia is a function of its values and interests, not merely a calculated effort to pursue a great power agenda. Feeding the appetite of nations like Japan and Russia for small nations never works. While some policymakers are too glib about using World War Two-era analogies about the dangers of appeasement, rethinking the virtues of such a discreditable course of action is even more misguided.

Saunders’ fears of a too-forceful use of American economic power is not only misplaced with respect to Russia; the idea that the goal of these confrontations is splitting the difference with aggressors is his real mistake. Offering Japan enough carrots in order to avoid an attack on U.S. territories would have been a disaster. The same is true of any misguided effort to buy off Putin.

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Snowden Can’t Be Trusted–Just Ask Him

Edward Snowden’s practice of granting the occasional interview to worshipful admirers of his has continued with the new Wired magazine profile. The interviews tend be very long, generally insufferable press releases. When Snowden’s feeling lonely, it seems, he talks to an apostle so he can see his messianic significance proclaimed by press agents masquerading as inquisitive journalists. And yet, the Wired interview, like the others, can be surprisingly revealing–not because the interviewers dig for information but because Snowden’s own story is so self-contradicting.

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Edward Snowden’s practice of granting the occasional interview to worshipful admirers of his has continued with the new Wired magazine profile. The interviews tend be very long, generally insufferable press releases. When Snowden’s feeling lonely, it seems, he talks to an apostle so he can see his messianic significance proclaimed by press agents masquerading as inquisitive journalists. And yet, the Wired interview, like the others, can be surprisingly revealing–not because the interviewers dig for information but because Snowden’s own story is so self-contradicting.

In the past, this has generally meant Snowden claiming to be interested in protecting Americans’ constitutional rights and then demonstrating how some of his most serious revelations have almost nothing to do with Americans at all. Or it can take the form of Snowden trumpeting the values of freedom and democracy and then openly propagandizing on behalf of authoritarian thugs. Snowden is not a man who has thought deeply and clearly on the great issues of our day. He is a child who likes the sound of his own voice.

In the Wired interview, Snowden wears his hypocrisy on his sleeve. Speaking about recent NSA leaks that raised the prospect of another leaker who isn’t working with Snowden, the defector makes the following, fairly reasonable point:

If other leakers exist within the NSA, it would be more than another nightmare for the agency—it would underscore its inability to control its own information and might indicate that Snowden’s rogue protest of government overreach has inspired others within the intelligence community. “They still haven’t fixed their problems,” Snowden says. “They still have negligent auditing, they still have things going for a walk, and they have no idea where they’re coming from and they have no idea where they’re going. And if that’s the case, how can we as the public trust the NSA with all of our information, with all of our private records, the permanent record of our lives?”

It is, of course, a fair question to ask if the NSA can be trusted with so much private information, considering how they’ve handled it. Snowden is evidence of this: the agency clearly botched his background check, since he was flagged early on. Yet they still gave a delusional troublemaker with a messiah complex access to all that information.

But Snowden himself undercut his own logic a few paragraphs earlier in the profile. Snowden mentions that he tried to leave something of a trail for the NSA to figure out what he took and what he merely looked at, but their accusations against him, he says, indicate they didn’t follow the trail:

Snowden speculates that the government fears that the documents contain material that’s deeply damaging—secrets the custodians have yet to find. “I think they think there’s a smoking gun in there that would be the death of them all politically,” Snowden says. “The fact that the government’s investigation failed—that they don’t know what was taken and that they keep throwing out these ridiculous huge numbers—implies to me that somewhere in their damage assessment they must have seen something that was like, ‘Holy shit.’ And they think it’s still out there.”

Yet it is very likely that no one knows precisely what is in the mammoth haul of documents—not the NSA, not the custodians, not even Snowden himself. He would not say exactly how he gathered them, but others in the intelligence community have speculated that he simply used a web crawler, a program that can search for and copy all documents containing particular keywords or combinations of keywords. This could account for many of the documents that simply list highly technical and nearly unintelligible signal parameters and other statistics.

That gives the reader an idea of the complexity involved, but the key sentence there is: “Yet it is very likely that no one knows precisely what is in the mammoth haul of documents—not the NSA, not the custodians, not even Snowden himself.” Why doesn’t he go ahead and check–you know, just to be sure of the precise magnitude of his irresponsibility? Oh right:

Meanwhile, Snowden will continue to haunt the US, the unpredictable impact of his actions resonating at home and around the world. The documents themselves, however, are out of his control. Snowden no longer has access to them; he says he didn’t bring them with him to Russia. Copies are now in the hands of three groups: First Look Media, set up by journalist Glenn Greenwald and American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, the two original recipients of the documents; The Guardian newspaper, which also received copies before the British government pressured it into transferring physical custody (but not ownership) to The New York Times; and Barton Gellman, a writer for The Washington Post. It’s highly unlikely that the current custodians will ever return the documents to the NSA.

He doesn’t have them. (So he says.) Just to be clear, Snowden himself is claiming that a) he doesn’t know what exactly he has leaked to the media, and b) he no longer has the documents. This is important, because it makes crystal clear that Snowden’s entire story is complete rubbish.

He claims to have been acting out of regard for data collection that could be harmful to the American people, yet he doesn’t know what he took. And he claims to be interested in the honest, capable management and handling of private citizens’ personal information, yet he has released his files to the media without being sure exactly what’s in them, and he has no control over them.

The lesson, from Snowden’s own mouth, could not be clearer: do not believe a word he says.

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“The Tide of War is Receding,” “We Don’t Do Stupid [Stuff],” and Other Myths  

Given unfolding events in the world–the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the breaking apart of Iraq and Libya, the war between Israel and Hamas, fears of destabilization in Jordan, the radicalization and rising anti-Semitism in Turkey, the mistrust toward America by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the setbacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, an emboldened China in the South China Sea, and strained relations with allies in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia–it might be worth calling attention to some of President Obama’s statements on foreign policy and national security over the years. I’ve included excerpts and headlines from newspaper and magazine articles following quotes from Mr. Obama, in order to help provide context and clarify the record.

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Given unfolding events in the world–the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the breaking apart of Iraq and Libya, the war between Israel and Hamas, fears of destabilization in Jordan, the radicalization and rising anti-Semitism in Turkey, the mistrust toward America by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the setbacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, an emboldened China in the South China Sea, and strained relations with allies in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia–it might be worth calling attention to some of President Obama’s statements on foreign policy and national security over the years. I’ve included excerpts and headlines from newspaper and magazine articles following quotes from Mr. Obama, in order to help provide context and clarify the record.

Think of this as an exercise in accountability, then; in holding Mr. Obama not to my standards but to his, to measure what he said he’d do against what he has actually done and what has come to pass.

* * * *

“The tide of war is receding.”–Address to the nation, June 22, 2011

“The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s… In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.”–“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2014

* * * *

“These long wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] will come to a responsible end.”–Address to the nation, June 22, 2011

“The crisis gripping Iraq escalated rapidly on Thursday with a re-energized Islamic State in Iraq and Syria storming new towns in the north and seizing a strategic dam as Iraq’s most formidable military force, the Kurdish pesh merga, was routed in the face of the onslaught.”–“Jihadists Rout Kurds in North and Seize Strategic Iraqi Dam”, New York Times, August 8, 2014

“In one of the most significant coordinated assaults on the government in years, the Taliban have attacked police outposts and government facilities across several districts in northern Helmand Province, sending police and military officials scrambling to shore up defenses and heralding a troubling new chapter as coalition forces prepare to depart… With a deepening political crisis in Kabul already casting the presidential election and long-term political stability into doubt, the Taliban offensive presents a new worst-case situation for Western officials: an aggressive insurgent push that is seizing territory even before American troops have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.”–“Taliban Mount Major Assault in Afghanistan”, New York Times, June 27, 2014

* * * *

“The analogy we use around here sometimes [in describing ISIS], and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”–Quoted in the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected. Should ISIS continue this pattern of consolidation and expansion, this terrorist ‘army’ will eventually be able to exert a destabilizing influence far beyond the immediate area.”–Janine Davidson, Council on Foreign Relations, July 24, 2014

* * * *

“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”–Responding to a question about the fall of Falluja to ISIS, the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

“U.S. expands airstrikes against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq.”–Washington Post headline, August 8, 2014

* * * *

“What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision… the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances. And on that basis, we left… So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were — a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq.”–President Obama, asked by reporters if he had any second thoughts about pulling all ground troops out of Iraq, August 9, 2014

“After taking office, I announced a new strategy that would end our combat mission in Iraq and remove all of our troops by the end of 2011… So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”–Remarks to the press corps, October 21, 2011

“At one meeting, [Nouri al-] Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. ‘The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,’ Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.”–“What We Left Behind”, Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker, April 28, 2014

“Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. ‘There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,’ he said. ‘Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.’ But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies.”– “What We Left Behind”, Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker, April 28, 2014

* * * *

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”–Remarks to the White House press corps, August 20, 2012

“US attack on Syria delayed after surprise U-turn from Obama”–the Guardian headline, August 31, 2013

“Forensic Details in U.N. Report Point to Assad’s Use of [Deadly Chemical] Gas.”–New York Times headlines, September 16, 2013

* * * *

“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”–“Obama on the World”, Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 8, 2014

“President Obama got angry at lawmakers who suggested in a private meeting that he should have armed the Syrian rebels, calling the criticism ‘horsesh*t.’”–“Obama Told Lawmakers Criticism of His Syria Policy is ‘Horsesh*t’”, Josh Rogan, the Daily Beast, August 11, 2014

“The White House … proposed a major program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels, in a significant expansion of the U.S. role in a civil war that officials fear is bleeding into Iraq and across the region. The Obama administration requested $500 million—a larger amount than expected—to aid the Syrian opposition, reflecting growing U.S. alarm at the expanding strength of Islamist forces in Syria, who in recent weeks have asserted control of large parts of neighboring Iraq and now pose threats to U.S. allies in the region.”–“Obama Proposes $500 Million to Aid Syrian Rebels”Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2014

* * * *

“Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free… Yesterday, the leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli. This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights.”–Address to the United Nations, September 21, 2011

“The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighbouring Tunisia under US military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said. ‘Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the US embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,’ a spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said.”–“US closes embassy in Libya after militia battles in Tripoli”, the Guardian, July 26, 2014

* * * *

“In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”–Commencement address at West Point, May 28, 2014

“With all the talk of coming home, of nation building at home, the perception has grown increasingly around the world that the U.S. is pulling back from the global responsibilities that it has shouldered for many decades. I believe Russia and China, among others, see that void and are moving to see what advantage they can take of it.”–President Obama’s former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, quoted in The Huffington Post, May 21, 2014

“[Obama’s is] a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”–“The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy”, Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker, May 2, 2011

* * * *

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end. I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…”–Remarks at Cairo University, June 4, 2009

“In a number of strategically important Muslim nations, America’s image has not improved during the Obama presidency. In fact, America’s already low 2008 ratings have slipped even further in Jordan and Pakistan… in the Middle East there is little enthusiasm for a second term – majorities in Egypt (76%), Jordan (73%) and Lebanon (62%) oppose Obama’s re-election… There is little support for Obama, however, in the predominantly Muslim nations surveyed. Fewer than three-in-ten express confidence in him in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan. And … just 7% of Pakistanis have a positive view of Obama.”–“Global Opinion of Obama Slips, International Policies Faulted”, Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, June 13, 2012

* * * *

 “Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage.  If we don’t, no one else will.”–Commencement address at West Point, May 28, 2014

“Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding… Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. ‘It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,’ the adviser said. ‘But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.’”–“The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy”, Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker, May 2, 2011

* * * *

President Obama: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space… This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

President Medvedev: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”–Exchange between President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, March 26, 2012

“Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West”–New York Times headline, March 18, 2014

* * * *

“The truth is that Mr. Putin acted out of weakness, not out of strength.”–President Obama in a radio interview (KNSD) speaking about the Russian invasion of Crimea, March 20, 2014

“Putin clearly indicated [in a March 18 speech to parliament] he believes that borders drawn even earlier — right after the revolution of 1917 — can and should be redrawn. In other words, he positions contemporary Russia as the heir to the Russian Empire as it was constituted under the czars.”–Masha Gessen, Russian American journalist and author, “After carving up Ukraine, where will Putin turn next?”, Washington Post, May 9, 2014

“The Levada Center, a well-respected independent polling center, has also found that Putin had a 72 percent approval rating, up 7 points from January and a recent record. To put that in context on a world stage, U.S. president Barack Obama is currently at 43 percent, according to Gallup, while 79 percent of the French say they don’t approve of Francois Hollande’s presidency. Putin isn’t just popular, he’s extraordinarily popular.”–“We treat him like he’s mad, but Vladimir Putin’s popularity has just hit a 3-year high”, Adam Taylor, Washington Post, March 13, 2014

* * * *

“We don’t do stupid sh*t.”–President Obama describing his foreign policy doctrine in private conversations to reporters, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats”, New York Times, May 28, 2014

“The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants — an offensive hastened by the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi Army — stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.”–“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2014

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”–President Obama’s former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, August 10, 2014

 * * * *

“I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”–Barack Obama, September 6, 2008

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Is Putin’s Next Move Against Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

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Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

As much as Azerbaijan orients itself toward the West, neighboring Armenia has planted itself firmly in Russia’s orbit. Indeed, Armenians are perhaps the only people who would willingly vote to embrace Russia rather than the West even if Russia did not lift a finger to influence or force them. Culturally, Russians and Armenians have much in common, and Russia remains Armenia’s chief patron.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into hot conflict almost immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence by both states. In December 1991, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh declared their own republic, one of those fictional states that the Kremlin has helped prop up with increasing frequency—for example, Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and more recently Crimea and Donetsk in the Ukraine.

Visiting Georgetown University Professor Brenda Shaffer is right when she writes in the Wall Street Journal that “Freezing lawless regions invites conflicts.” Nagorno-Karabakh has become a center for money laundering, weapons trafficking, and general instability. In sum, it has become the typical Putin proxy.

With the West distracted by events in Iraq, it seems Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to make their move against a pro-Western ally which has moved to become an energy hub outside Russia’s orbit. Clashes began last week, and have escalated over subsequent days.

When it comes to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there’s a tendency by American policymakers to engage in moral equivalence or simply to seek quiet, regardless of principle. This is wrong on four counts:

First, while Western policymakers see diplomacy as a means to conflict resolution, Russian Present Putin sees international relations as a zero-sum game in which for Russia and its client states to win, the United States and its allies must lose.

Second, whatever the emotional commitment many in the Armenian Diaspora in the United States have toward Armenia and their desire to seek acknowledgement for the events of a century ago, the fact of the matter is that the Armenian government has repeatedly undercut U.S. interests, even going so far as ship Iranian weaponry to be used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.

Third, it’s time the White House recognize that friendship and alliance go two ways. We cannot expect Azerbaijan to so continuously align itself with the United States and promote American interests if we turn our back on its friendship in its hour of need.

And fourth, there is no longer any excuse to not see Putin for what he is. No more Bush-era soul gazing, or Obama-era reset. That Bush and Obama hardly reacted when Russian forces invaded Georgia surely contributed to Putin’s willingness to invade Ukraine. That Obama fiddled and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to appease in the aftermath of that crisis only encouraged Putin to move once again to destabilize the South Caucasus, and its most consistent pro-Western republic. If the United States does not stand up for Azerbaijan, then Putin will understand that we are neither serious about freedom or liberty, friendship or alliance. In such a case, beware Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Poland.

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Reality Is Neoconservative

“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

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“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

In the summer of 2014, is it not clear that reality is neoconservative?  That is to say, disposed toward violence and chaos in the absence of an American-led liberal world order. Recently, the case was made unwittingly not by a neoconservative, but rather by CBS News’s Bob Schieffer. “Trying to understand the news of this terrible summer,” he said, “it is hard to come away with any feeling but that we are in the midst of a world gone mad.” He went on:

On one side of the world, an ego-driven Russian leader seems to yearn for the time of the czars, when rulers started wars on a whim or a perceived insult — and if people died, so be it.
 In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause — a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters.

Schieffer closed with his own apt quote from Will Durant: “Barbarism, like the jungle, does not die out, but only retreats behind the barriers that civilization has thrown up against it, and waits there always to reclaim that to which civilization has temporarily laid claim.” The barbarians are back.

And just think of what Schieffer’s inventory of barbarism ignored. This week in Iraq, ISIS forced the last of Mosul’s Christians from the city under the threat of death. The United States evacuated its embassy in post-Gaddafi Libya, owing to an orgy of violence taking place there. In a recent 10-day period 1,800 Syrian civilians were killed in the ongoing civil war—a new conflict record.

And when Iran develops its fervently sought nuclear weapon, this will look in retrospect like our last carefree summer.

In the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt has called the current state of affairs “as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of U.S. disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide.” In Barack Obama’s global laboratory, the experiment persists even as it fails. The experimental design was laid out in his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 2009. Explaining the hypothesis to be tested, the president said, “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”

Globally interdependent benevolence. It was a nice thought, and, given its uncontested dominance in the academic institutions of which Obama is a product, its implementation was inevitable. But being president of merely one country, Obama could ensure only that it followed the new rules. That country, the United States, was the linchpin of the peaceful post-WWII global order, and national experimentation put the whole planet at risk. Because reality is neoconservative, no one else obeyed. Bad actors around the world mobilized to exploit the new dispensation.

In 2011, a thinker named Richard Tokumei wrote a book arguing that while modern liberals usually believe in evolution, their policy prescriptions tend not to incorporate it. Conversely, says Tokumei, conservatives are more likely to doubt evolution while supporting policies that reflect it. I make no claims for the evolutionary convictions of neocons, but this is at heart an argument about understanding human nature. Neoconservatism is grounded in it. Globally interdependent benevolence is a dream.

The challenge is that reality has only a glancing relationship with political expediency. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, neoconservatism remains politically unpopular. That could very well change, depending on the duration and rigor of Obama’s experiment. But whether or not we see a neocon comeback anytime soon, we’ve certainly not seen a serious challenge to neoconservative reality. Which is sad for us all.

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Russia’s Treaty Violation Is Old News; Only Obama’s Interest Is New

Western reaction to Vladimir Putin’s continued provocations in Ukraine and general contempt for basic human rights has toughened in recent weeks, and took another step forward today. But they also have the effect of highlighting just how far Western leaders went to appease Putin and cover for his thuggish behavior.

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Western reaction to Vladimir Putin’s continued provocations in Ukraine and general contempt for basic human rights has toughened in recent weeks, and took another step forward today. But they also have the effect of highlighting just how far Western leaders went to appease Putin and cover for his thuggish behavior.

The efforts to punish Putin have been both rhetorical and financial. On the latter, sanctions have been instituted and more were added today, with the EU and U.S. willing to get more serious about confronting the Russian leader and President Obama making an afternoon statement today to accompany the announcement of sanctions. With regard to the rhetoric, however, the West’s record is a bit mixed.

I talked about one aspect of this last week: British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to allow a full investigation into the assassination of Putin critic (and British citizen) Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. The British government had claimed in part that it wasn’t comfortable with a full inquest because of the state secrets that would have to be exposed to the investigators for an honest accounting to be taken. But the fact that Britain is apparently no longer concerned about that suggests Cameron’s initial hesitation was more about not angering Putin and upsetting UK-Russia relations.

Few will ask “why now?” when the result is what they think is just. Better late than never has been the prevailing reaction. But in truth countries that so baldly offered misdirection on such matters when the truth was inconvenient should at least have to answer for it.

The same is true with regard to the other American escalation of Putin’s reprimand. The New York Times reports:

The United States has concluded that Russia violated a landmark arms control treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile, according to senior American officials, a finding that was conveyed by President Obama to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in a letter on Monday.

It is the most serious allegation of an arms control treaty violation that the Obama administration has leveled against Russia and adds another dispute to a relationship already burdened by tensions over the Kremlin’s support for separatists in Ukraine and its decision to grant asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.

But is this new? No, not really:

Russia first began testing the cruise missiles as early as 2008, according to American officials, and the Obama administration concluded by the end of 2011 that they were a compliance concern. In May 2013, Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s senior arms control official, first raised the possibility of a violation with Russian officials.

The New York Times reported in January that American officials had informed the NATO allies that Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile, raising serious concerns about Russia’s compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or I.N.F. Treaty as it is commonly called. The State Department said at the time that the issue was under review and that the Obama administration was not yet ready to formally declare it to be a treaty violation.

So what happened? The Obama administration decided to care:

In recent months, however, the issue has been taken up by top-level officials, including a meeting early this month of the Principals’ Committee, a cabinet-level body that includes Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of state and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Senior officials said the president’s most senior advisers unanimously agreed that the test was a serious violation, and the allegation will be made public soon in the State Department’s annual report on international compliance with arms control agreements.

You would think it would be important enough to look into earlier. But the president has not, until Putin humiliated him one too many times on the world stage, been interested in seeing Putin for what he is. In today’s press conference, Obama was asked if this is a new Cold War. His response: “This is not a new Cold War.” Instead, it is “a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path.”

Well, it’s one specific issue. But it’s part of a larger picture. And the violation of the missile treaty is another “specific issue.” When you start to piece together all the “specific issues” the West has with Putin’s Russia, they really add up. New Cold War or not, there’s obviously a serious and deteriorating and adversarial relationship between the U.S. and Russia, and the public could be forgiven for wondering why the president appears to have been the last to know.

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Ukrainians Get the Gaza Connection; Why Doesn’t the West?

Much of the world appears to view the current fighting in eastern Ukraine as totally unconnected to the fighting in Gaza. And since the Ukrainian government is desperately seeking support from both Europe and the Obama administration, neither of which is enamored of Israel’s Gaza operation, one could have forgiven Ukrainian officials for seeking to nurture this illusion. Instead, they have repeatedly gone out of their way to dispel it.

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Much of the world appears to view the current fighting in eastern Ukraine as totally unconnected to the fighting in Gaza. And since the Ukrainian government is desperately seeking support from both Europe and the Obama administration, neither of which is enamored of Israel’s Gaza operation, one could have forgiven Ukrainian officials for seeking to nurture this illusion. Instead, they have repeatedly gone out of their way to dispel it.

Three weeks ago, Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, compared eastern Ukraine’s situation to what Israel faces and warned that terrorists would likely adopt similar tactics in other countries if the West didn’t take a firm stance against them.

“We, of course, studied the experience of both Croatia and Israel, but here a lot of new features are added,” Parubiy said. “And, if Russia sees that this experience is successful, this experience can very easily be used in any Baltic countries, and even in Belarus and Kazakhstan.”

Yesterday, Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Henadii Nadolenko made both the comparison and the warning even more explicit in an op-ed in Haaretz. Unambiguously titled “Ukraine and Israel: Together in fighting terrorism,” it declared, “We, the representatives of Ukraine, have, together with the people of the State of Israel, personally felt the totality of the threat posed to civilians by the criminal activities of the terrorists.”

After enumerating the losses both countries have suffered, Nadolenko continued, “I am convinced that the huge loss of civilian and military life might have been avoided had the activities of terrorist organizations had been condemned by the international community.” Then, citing the recent downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine, he drove the point home:

I would like to emphasize once again that the crime, which killed 298 innocent civilians from around the world, is another confirmation of the fact that today’s terrorism is not constrained by borders…

In this regard, once again I would like to appeal to the thinking and caring people of the world to demonstrate their support for these peoples, who came upon a fight with an evil that threatens the security of everyone, regardless of nationality or place of residence.

I believe that the countries that are faced with terrorism and who try to fight this evil should support each other, and should join their efforts in order to draw the world’s attention to our cause. We must begin to receive real help and support from international organizations in order to combat this threat.

Clearly, Nadolenko understands what too many European and American officials seem to have missed: The West’s fine shades of distinction–under which some terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda, are utterly shunned; others, like Hamas, are denounced but deemed to have “legitimate grievances that must be addressed”; while still others are positively feted, like Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah, whose Gaza branch boasts of its contribution to the rocket fire at Israel–are meaningless. All terrorists are equally enemies of the civilized world, and all of them learn from each other’s tactics. Thus if the West rewards a given tactic in one location, terrorists in other countries will soon replicate it.

For Hamas, launching rockets at Israel has so far paid handsome dividends: No less a personage than U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged that if it ceases its fire, he will personally see to it that all its economic demands are met–including opening the border crossings, paying Hamas employees’ salaries, “ensuring the social and economic livelihood” of Gaza residents and providing “major humanitarian assistance”–while not insisting that it forfeit any of its military capabilities (all Kerry offered Israel was a vague promise to “address all security issues”).

Kerry clearly hasn’t grasped that if targeting Israeli civilians with rockets pays economic and diplomatic dividends for Hamas, this will encourage other terrorists worldwide to adopt similar tactics. Nadolenko and his fellow Ukrainians, in contrast, understand this very well. The question is whether anyone in the West is listening to them.

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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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Putin, Europe, and Historical Amnesia

The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

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The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

It’s been less than a full week since the crash happened, so perhaps the appropriate Western response is still coming. I hope so. But it sure doesn’t look like it. Instead the West appears to be as pusillanimous as ever in the face of Russian aggression.

A meeting of European Union foreign ministers could not even agree to impose an arms embargo on Russia, because the French don’t want to refund 1.1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) that Russia has paid for the first of two Mistral-class amphibious assault warships due to be delivered in October. “We should have had an arms embargo quite some time ago,” said Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister. “To deliver arms to Russia in this situation is somewhat difficult to defend, to put it mildly.”

Just as difficult to comprehend is Europe’s willingness to continue serving as a financial outlet for rich Russians and big Russian companies. British Prime Minister David Cameron talks tough (“Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, European capital, European knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe’s neighbors”), but he’s not rushing to impose unilateral sanctions on Russia either–something that could bite given the level of Russian investment in the City of London as well as in British properties of various sorts ranging from football clubs to swank apartments.

Naturally Europeans offer lots of excuses for inaction–for example one hears that sanctions now would lead Putin’s minions to discontinue their cooperation with crash-site investigators. Note how something that should be done as a matter of course–giving investigators access to a crime scene–is now being held hostage to the whims of drunken Russian thugs.

The U.S. is little better. While President Obama has imposed slightly stiffer sanctions than the Europeans, even he has not ordered the kind of “sectoral” sanctions that he has threatened (another red line crossed with impunity!). Only such sanctions would really punish Russia by denying Russian companies and individuals access to U.S. financial markets and to dollar-denominated trades.

All of this is entirely predictable, of course, but dismaying nevertheless. In a sense, the worse that Russian misconduct is, the less likely it is to be punished because the more evil that Putin does–the more territory his minions seize, the more innocents they kill–the more that the Europeans are afraid to provoke him. He’s a bad man, they figure; why mess with him?

The result, of course, is only to encourage Putin to commit further crimes. We’ve seen this movie before–it played across the continent in the 1930s and it didn’t have a happy ending. It says something about our historical amnesia that we are so ready to watch a repeat performance.

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Britain’s Latest Rebuke to Putin Is Personal

When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

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When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

But then nothing happened, and for some reason Obama went back out Monday and gave another, quite similar statement, imploring Vladimir Putin to cooperate. It was unclear why the president saw fit to give a second statement at all if not to announce new punitive action toward Russia. We already knew he (correctly) blamed Putin; repeating it without action only calls attention to the lack of action.

Which is what makes today’s announcement by Britain’s government at first welcome, but also a bit puzzling. The Wall Street Journal reports that European countries have tightened sanctions on Russia, but Britain is going a step farther: the British government has ordered a full investigation into the 2006 poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, presumably by Russian agents:

Litvinenko’s excruciating death and Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect, a career Russian security officer, plunged relations between London and the Kremlin to a post-Cold War low from which they have yet to fully recover.

Last July the government refused to open an inquiry, which promises to go further than the initial inquest by looking into who was to blame, with Mrs. May saying international relations had been a factor in the decision. But in February the High Court ordered the Home Secretary to review her decision following a challenge by Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the former agent of Russia’s FSB agency.

The British government had thus far opposed the kind of formal inquiry that would include classified information. Prime Minister David Cameron says the timing of the decision is purely coincidental, of course.

Litvinenko was a critic of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Putin ran the FSB before becoming Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister and then president. Litvinenko’s criticism of Putin was about more than just corruption, however. He alleged that Putin was behind the series of domestic apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and used, in part, as a casus belli for the Second Chechen War. Putin’s direction of that war probably sealed his victory as president in 2000, so the accusation undercuts Putin’s legitimacy and suggests his entire public career was a lie–meaning Putin was never anything more than a fraud and a terrorist.

People who said such things about Putin tended to have reduced life expectancy. In November 2006, a month after investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, Litvinenko was poisoned using the radioactive substance polonium-210 in London. The trail of evidence led to another former Russian KGB agent, who Putin refuses to extradite. In an effort to stay on Putin’s good side, Cameron has not pressed the issue, but now appears to have had a change of heart. Opening the files for a thorough investigation, however, was never without some risk, as the New York Times explains:

Plans to hold an inquest led by a senior judge, Sir Robert Owen, were dropped after the British Foreign Office invoked national security interests to prevent the inquest from even considering whether Moscow had played a part in the killing or whether British intelligence could have prevented it.

The judge said last year that the restrictions made it impossible to hold a “fair and fearless” inquest, and he urged the establishment of a public inquiry that would be empowered to hold closed-door sessions about possible involvement by the Kremlin or MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency. Ms. Litvinenko has said her husband was a paid agent of MI6 at the time he was killed. He and his family had been granted British citizenship weeks before his death.

It’s doubtful Cameron would be unaware of the sealed intel or that he would embarrass the UK just to take a jab at Putin. So it seems as though Cameron was, indeed, waiting for the right time to play this card.

Which raises the following question. If and when this inquest concludes that Moscow was behind this egregious violation of British sovereignty and security, what would Cameron do? Litvinenko was a British citizen, murdered on British soil, presumably at the direction of the Kremlin. If that’s confirmed, people will expect more than pointing fingers. Western leaders’ habit of honestly and openly blaming Putin for his misdeeds is halfway there. It’s the other half–the actions that follow the words–that people get tired of waiting for.

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Why Is Aeroflot Still Flying?

The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

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The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

While this is ongoing, Aeroflot—Russia’s national airline—is still flying over American and European airspace. Perhaps if President Obama and European leaders really wanted to make Vladimir Putin understand how unacceptable it was to down this aircraft, it is time for U.S. and European officials to deny Aeroflot overflight rights. When Russia comes clean and Putin makes amends for the Russian militia’s actions, perhaps there can be some discussion about allowing Russian airliners to again traverse European and American airspace.

Now certainly Putin will bluster and bloviate—he does that all the time—and he may also lash out at American and European carriers. But I suspect a lot more travelers want to leave Russia than enter it. The children of Russian elite often study in the West, and their families like to visit them. And, in August, Russians–like many in Europe–like to take vacations down to the Mediterranean or Algarve, if not to Disneyland. If they have to choose Sochi instead for the next year or two, so be it.

Putin plays hardball, while Obama waves his wiffle ball bat. While Obama sees international relations as a platform upon which to compromise, Putin sees it as a zero-sum game where he wins and the weak lose. Perhaps it’s time that the White House and State Department to stop treating leverage as a dirty word, and actually start to wield it.

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