Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ukraine

Putin to Ukraine: Pay Up

Having annexed the Crimea and destabilized much of eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems intent not on de-escalating the conflict, but rather exacerbating it, with exposing European Union impotence as a bonus. After all, faced with a crisis to European identity, the European Union has fallen on the sword of short-term economic interests in order to justify turning their collective back (short of ineffective rhetoric and weak symbolic action) on Ukraine.

In a way it’s understandable: London’s real-estate bubble is a direct result of Russian investment. France has always put France first before any collective security responsibility. That is why it has only delayed rather than scrapped a multibillion dollar deal to sell Russia helicopter carriers. German officials have long prioritized receiving a share of Russia’s oil wealth over any action which might undercut their ability to do so. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder famously went to work for the Russian energy giant Gazprom after leaving office. While he reportedly infuriated his successor Angela Merkel by backing Putin, Merkel’s own foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was Schröder’s chief-of-staff. Hire a Russia apologist as foreign minister and the crocodile tears about his former boss shilling for the Russians falls a bit flat.

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Having annexed the Crimea and destabilized much of eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems intent not on de-escalating the conflict, but rather exacerbating it, with exposing European Union impotence as a bonus. After all, faced with a crisis to European identity, the European Union has fallen on the sword of short-term economic interests in order to justify turning their collective back (short of ineffective rhetoric and weak symbolic action) on Ukraine.

In a way it’s understandable: London’s real-estate bubble is a direct result of Russian investment. France has always put France first before any collective security responsibility. That is why it has only delayed rather than scrapped a multibillion dollar deal to sell Russia helicopter carriers. German officials have long prioritized receiving a share of Russia’s oil wealth over any action which might undercut their ability to do so. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder famously went to work for the Russian energy giant Gazprom after leaving office. While he reportedly infuriated his successor Angela Merkel by backing Putin, Merkel’s own foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was Schröder’s chief-of-staff. Hire a Russia apologist as foreign minister and the crocodile tears about his former boss shilling for the Russians falls a bit flat.

Putin understands that for European Union leaders, economics trumps principle. Perhaps this is why, in an episode of the talk show “Vesti v Subbotu” (Vesti on Saturday) aired on Saturday, April 19, Putin ignored the fact that he had invaded the country and complained that the new Ukrainian government had fallen behind on their payments for Russian gas:

[Interviewer]: Today you threw in one very interesting calculation. In one month’s time, you will revisit the Ukrainian gas payment issue. In one month’s time, it will be 17 May, with eight days to go before the planned [presidential] election in Ukraine. Does it mean that you will recognize the May 25 election or are you…

[Putin]: This has nothing to do with the election. We are not linking the economy with the political process in Ukraine. We simply had to receive money, on 7 April this year, for the gas delivered in March. We did not receive it. I repeat, this is 525m dollars. Zero [was received].

So, there you go: Putin effectively has issued an ultimatum to Ukrainians that they must pay their gas bill eight days before Ukrainians go to the polls. Finance is finance and principle is principle, but finance trumps principle. Ukraine may be the sacrificial lamb, but how comforting it must be for Angela Merkel that Putin is finally acting European.

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Obama’s eBay Diplomacy in Action

“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days,” President Obama said yesterday of the deal to ease the crisis in eastern Ukraine, “but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.” Such skepticism was warranted; as the Washington Post reports, the deal requiring pro-Russian forces to end their occupation of government buildings in Ukraine is being amended on the fly by those protesters. They’ll leave, they say–if the Ukrainian government does too:

“It is an illegal junta,” said Anatoliy Onischenko, of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the organization that has occupied the regional parliament building. A separate group is occupying the Donetsk City Hall.

Other pro-Russian activists also said they would not leave the occupied buildings as long as pro-government protesters still were massed in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Obama seemed to anticipate this, which is a good sign. But it’s worth asking why such deals are signed in the first place, knowing that Vladimir Putin is not an honest broker and that there is really no enforcement mechanism for such agreements. As the president also said yesterday, he’s “been very clear that military options are not on the table in Ukraine because this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution.” Force isn’t needed, the president said, when Secretary of State John Kerry can simply wave a magic wand instead: “What we have to do is to create an environment in which irregular forces disarm, that the seizing of buildings cease, that a national dialogue by Ukrainians — not by Russians, not by Americans or anybody else, but by Ukrainians — takes place.”

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“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days,” President Obama said yesterday of the deal to ease the crisis in eastern Ukraine, “but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.” Such skepticism was warranted; as the Washington Post reports, the deal requiring pro-Russian forces to end their occupation of government buildings in Ukraine is being amended on the fly by those protesters. They’ll leave, they say–if the Ukrainian government does too:

“It is an illegal junta,” said Anatoliy Onischenko, of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the organization that has occupied the regional parliament building. A separate group is occupying the Donetsk City Hall.

Other pro-Russian activists also said they would not leave the occupied buildings as long as pro-government protesters still were massed in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Obama seemed to anticipate this, which is a good sign. But it’s worth asking why such deals are signed in the first place, knowing that Vladimir Putin is not an honest broker and that there is really no enforcement mechanism for such agreements. As the president also said yesterday, he’s “been very clear that military options are not on the table in Ukraine because this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution.” Force isn’t needed, the president said, when Secretary of State John Kerry can simply wave a magic wand instead: “What we have to do is to create an environment in which irregular forces disarm, that the seizing of buildings cease, that a national dialogue by Ukrainians — not by Russians, not by Americans or anybody else, but by Ukrainians — takes place.”

This is classic diplospeak, in that it says absolutely nothing of substance but sounds nice. And that, in many ways, is the crux of the matter: the current American diplomatic team is being routed by their Russian counterparts. Why is that? Earlier this week James Bruno, a retired Foreign Service officer, argued that the politicization of American diplomacy has reached a point at which expertise becomes a luxury. Obama has essentially been auctioning off even high-level ambassadorships, which is no surprise considering the revelations that Obama has politicized the Foreign Service to an unprecedented degree.

Bruno expanded the argument:

Three-quarters of the top policy and management positions at the State Department currently are occupied by non-diplomats, mainly Democratic Party activists or liberal think tankers. “Most are competent, but must pass an ideological test to be appointed,” a former senior official who worked with Obama’s appointees at State told me. “These positions,” she added, “are handed out based on party connections and loyalty.” In the hands of these decision-makers, all major foreign policy issues are viewed through an “ideological prism as opposed to an eye toward the long-term interests of the United States,” she said. The White House’s National Security Council staff, furthermore, has ballooned from about four dozen three decades ago to more than twice that today, a shift that has had the effect of concentrating power in the White House, and infusing key decisions with political calculations.

The answer, according to this logic, is simple: Russia takes international affairs seriously, and the Obama administration doesn’t. But the U.S. and Russia are not the only actors in this drama, and this is where managing American alliances–another glaring weakness of the Obama administration–could make up some of the difference.

Those opposed to American defense alliances complain that the U.S. props up NATO, especially former Soviet or Russian satellite states. But those states’ relationships with Russia have their own advantages. One common myth of NATO enlargement to Russia’s near abroad has held that the process is adversarial enough to prevent negotiations instead of military confrontation. This is untrue, of course. As Vincent Pouliot writes in International Security in Practice: The Politics of NATO-Russia Diplomacy, according to Polish officials, Poland’s accession to NATO was driven in large part by fear of Russian military invasion. Once in NATO for purely defensive reasons, Polish officials became “less allergic to Russia.” NATO facilitates dialogue between otherwise mutually suspicious actors.

“Among NATO’s international military personnel,” Pouliot writes, “I met a Lithuanian colonel who was a Red Army conscript in 1987; his dispositions were obviously heavily influenced by that experience.” In one meeting Pouliot was told Lithuanians can read Russians’ minds; he was then told a similar thing about officials of the Baltic states. This may not be the norm, at least with regard to officials’ past service in Russian armed forces. But it does reveal how, when negotiating with Russia, the perspective of NATO allies can be of value.

The Obama administration is perhaps less likely to agree than both his predecessors in the post-Cold War era, which is why Obama is also far less inclined to make any progress toward upgrading the alliance. But his eBay diplomacy of auctioning off ambassadorships and other foreign-policy jobs means Obama would have far more to gain by listening to our allies who take European affairs and the maintenance of the international order a bit more seriously.

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Does Ukraine Exist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Get Moscow’s Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dems Realizing Hillary’s Record Matters

Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential candidacy rests on two pillars: gender and resume. Just as electing the first African-American galvanized the country in 2008, Democrats think, and not without reason, that nominating the putative first female president would, in and of itself, be a conclusive argument in 2016. But at the same time, Clinton is also running on what is now a rather lengthy resume as a first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. Yet after years of basking in the almost universal adulation of the mainstream media during her four years at Foggy Bottom, some rather pointed questions are starting to be asked about what it is she did–or didn’t do–while serving as the chief architect of American foreign policy.

As a front-page New York Times feature on the subject points out today, the crisis in Ukraine and the attention being given to other foreign-policy quagmires, such as Iran and the Middle East peace process, are forcing Democrats to ask themselves a question they had hoped not to have to ask, let alone answer: does Hillary’s record in office matter? Defining Clinton’s “legacy in progress” is a delicate question for the Times, and the story does its best to pose it in a sympathetic manner.

But while it might have once seemed plausible to think that she could merely coast to the presidency by touting her frequent flyer miles earned as secretary of state and mouth meaningless jargon about “soft power,” the unraveling of Obama administration foreign policy during a disastrous second term is bound to have an impact on her ability to win a general election. Though many Democrats see her as too hawkish for their taste, her farcical Russian “reset” and the failure of her attempts to appease Vladimir Putin are looking like a distinct political liability right now. The chances of another explosion in the Middle East and the fact that Iran is much closer to a nuclear weapon (developments made far more likely by her incompetent successor, John Kerry) are also undermining Clinton’s resume narrative. While none of this is likely to derail her coronation by the Democrats or encourage a serious primary opponent, the Times piece indicates that the media establishment is aware that she is a far more flawed candidate than many liberals are willing to admit.

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Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential candidacy rests on two pillars: gender and resume. Just as electing the first African-American galvanized the country in 2008, Democrats think, and not without reason, that nominating the putative first female president would, in and of itself, be a conclusive argument in 2016. But at the same time, Clinton is also running on what is now a rather lengthy resume as a first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. Yet after years of basking in the almost universal adulation of the mainstream media during her four years at Foggy Bottom, some rather pointed questions are starting to be asked about what it is she did–or didn’t do–while serving as the chief architect of American foreign policy.

As a front-page New York Times feature on the subject points out today, the crisis in Ukraine and the attention being given to other foreign-policy quagmires, such as Iran and the Middle East peace process, are forcing Democrats to ask themselves a question they had hoped not to have to ask, let alone answer: does Hillary’s record in office matter? Defining Clinton’s “legacy in progress” is a delicate question for the Times, and the story does its best to pose it in a sympathetic manner.

But while it might have once seemed plausible to think that she could merely coast to the presidency by touting her frequent flyer miles earned as secretary of state and mouth meaningless jargon about “soft power,” the unraveling of Obama administration foreign policy during a disastrous second term is bound to have an impact on her ability to win a general election. Though many Democrats see her as too hawkish for their taste, her farcical Russian “reset” and the failure of her attempts to appease Vladimir Putin are looking like a distinct political liability right now. The chances of another explosion in the Middle East and the fact that Iran is much closer to a nuclear weapon (developments made far more likely by her incompetent successor, John Kerry) are also undermining Clinton’s resume narrative. While none of this is likely to derail her coronation by the Democrats or encourage a serious primary opponent, the Times piece indicates that the media establishment is aware that she is a far more flawed candidate than many liberals are willing to admit.

Clinton ran for president in 2008 as the more responsible of the two leading Democrats on foreign policy and lost, in no small measure, because Barack Obama positioned himself to her left on the war in Iraq as well as the war on Islamist terror. Yet once he appointed her as secretary of state, Clinton became the person delegated to execute his policies rather than her own. That contradiction has led to furious efforts on the part of Clinton supporters to depict her as the hawk in administration councils who urged the president to order the strike on Osama bin Laden as well as to intervene in Libya. This is exactly the profile Clinton will find useful in a general election—as opposed to a Democratic primary—but it is undermined by the fact that Clinton was the front for Obama policies that not only didn’t work, but which arguably set the stage for genuine disasters.

Obama administration defenders claim that the failure of the Bush administration to stop Putin’s Georgia adventure in 2008 demonstrates that the 44th president is not to blame for the mess in the Ukraine. But it needs to be remembered that when Ukrainians rose up in revolt in 2004-5 against the same Putin puppet in Kiev, Moscow didn’t intervene. It was only after Clinton demonstrated to Russia that the U.S. was no longer interested in opposing its adventurism and would give them a veto over efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program that Putin felt emboldened to strike.

Democrats may have believed that Clinton’s exasperated reply to questions about the lies told about the Benghazi terrorist attack—What does it matter?—was enough to ignore conservative sniping about a disaster that took place on her watch. But the violence in Ukraine and the possibility that worse is to come there and perhaps also in the Middle East only add to the doubts about her supposedly inevitable progression to an inauguration in January 2017. Now that she is re-entering the political fray, her poll numbers are beginning to decline. Stuck between her pose as the Democratic hawk and the reality of the failure of her efforts at appeasement, Clinton can no longer skate by with talk about flying about the world promoting American values.

If even the New York Times cannot assemble a coherent argument for her time as secretary of state as a success, then that is a poor omen for a general election in which she will have to account not only for her own political baggage but also the failures of a lame duck and increasingly unpopular Obama administration. Gender may remain a Clinton trump card in 2016, but the resume she built up so carefully over the last decade and a half since her husband left the White House is looking more like a problem than an asset.

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Edward Snowden, Putin Propagandist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The West Is Emboldening Putin

It has been almost exactly two months since mysterious “self-defense” forces in unmarked uniforms began appearing all over Crimea—a prelude to the annexation of the Ukrainian province by Russia only a few weeks ago. The U.S. and the European Union reacted to this unprovoked aggression—of a kind rarely if ever seen in Europe since 1945—with almost comical self-restraint. They sanctioned a few dozen Ukrainian and Russian individuals associated with this aggression, along with one Russian bank, and suspended—rather than simply kicked out—Russia from the G-8.

Ukrainian pleas for military aid were met by President Obama with a laughable offer to send MREs (meals ready to eat), which were dispatched by civilian trucks rather than by U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft, which were deemed too provocative to employ. Requests from General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, to share intelligence with the Ukrainians and to provide them with enhanced training and communications equipment were apparently rebuffed by the White House. Requests from Poland, the Baltic Republics, and other frontline NATO states for the dispatch of more NATO troops, including American troops, to their soil have been ignored. 

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It has been almost exactly two months since mysterious “self-defense” forces in unmarked uniforms began appearing all over Crimea—a prelude to the annexation of the Ukrainian province by Russia only a few weeks ago. The U.S. and the European Union reacted to this unprovoked aggression—of a kind rarely if ever seen in Europe since 1945—with almost comical self-restraint. They sanctioned a few dozen Ukrainian and Russian individuals associated with this aggression, along with one Russian bank, and suspended—rather than simply kicked out—Russia from the G-8.

Ukrainian pleas for military aid were met by President Obama with a laughable offer to send MREs (meals ready to eat), which were dispatched by civilian trucks rather than by U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft, which were deemed too provocative to employ. Requests from General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, to share intelligence with the Ukrainians and to provide them with enhanced training and communications equipment were apparently rebuffed by the White House. Requests from Poland, the Baltic Republics, and other frontline NATO states for the dispatch of more NATO troops, including American troops, to their soil have been ignored. 

U.S. and European leaders have made clear they are so paralyzed by fear of provoking Vladimir Putin that they dare not do more. Only if Putin went further and extended his aggression to the rest of Ukraine would the Russian dictator suffer more severe “repercussions.” Or so we were told by Secretary of State John Kerry and his European counterparts.

It is by now obvious that the West’s self-restraint—so reminiscent of similar self-restraint after Adolf Hitler’s military buildup, militarization of the Rhineland, Anschluss with Austria, and seizure of the Sudetenland—has not convinced Putin to exercise self-restraint in response.  Instead he has, correctly, read the West’s non-response as an expression of weakness that he can exploit to make further territorial gains toward his ultimate dream of reestablishing the Russian Empire, of which Ukraine was a satrapy until 1991.

So over the last week mysterious masked gunmen, reminiscent of those seen earlier in Crimea, have been appearing all over eastern Ukraine where they have been seizing police stations and other symbols of governmental authority. As American officials have made plain, these are not spontaneous demonstrations organized by aggrieved Russian-speaking locals. Rather these are carefully planned provocations organized and abetted by Russian security forces even if the on-the-ground Russian special forces presence has been less numerous, so far, than it was in Crimea.

The new, pro-Western government in Kiev stood by as Crimea was wrested away by Russia. It cannot stand by and lose the entire eastern part of the country without a fight. So Ukraine has mobilized what scant military forces it has and threatens to pacify the increasingly wild east by force if necessary. This, of course, is catnip to Putin. By responding in kind to semi-covert Russian aggression, Ukraine risks provoking a confrontation which would provide an excuse for Russian troops—an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 are deployed on Ukraine’s borders in a high state of readiness—to come pouring across the frontier on the pretext of protecting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority.

On the other hand if the government in Kiev does nothing, Russian allies would simply declare the region’s independence from Ukraine, as many have already been doing. Heads you lose, tails I win: Ukraine is a no-win confrontation with its much bigger and better-armed neighbor.

The only hope that Ukraine now has of emerging as a whole and democratic state aligned to the West is to see dramatic action on the part of the U.S. and Europe to demonstrate to the Kremlin that the cost of further aggression is too high to be borne. What would this mean in practice? Practical steps would extend from rushing military aid to Ukraine, to reversing the dangerous drawdown of U.S. military strength, to rushing U.S. army brigades to Poland and the Baltics, to expelling every Russian financial institution from access to the Western financial system and seizing the ill-gained loot that Putin and his cronies keep in Western banks.

Simply to lay out what a serious response from the West would look like is to make obvious how unlikely it is to be implemented by the feckless leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Ukraine, I fear, has pretty much no chance of prevailing, because it is clear that the spirit of Neville Chamberlain, rather than that of Winston Churchill, is in charge of the Western response. The most that Ukraine can hope for is that Putin will choose not to annex its eastern territory outright, at least not yet, preferring for the time being to keep the region in an uproar to blackmail Kiev into remaining in the Russian orbit. (Nice country you have, he may be saying implicitly, in the fashion of movie gangsters, it would be a shame if anything happened to it.)

Alas the consequences of Western pusillanimity will be felt far outside Ukraine’s borders. Letting Ukraine be dismembered, even after the U.S., UK and Russia had guaranteed its territorial integrity, will send a signal to Putin that he can repeat the same stunt elsewhere. First Sevastopol, now Donetsk, next Tallinn? Likewise it will send a message to China’s leaders that they can act in similar fashion. If Putin can get away with aggression in Ukraine, why can’t China do the same in the South China Sea and East China Sea where it is locked in numerous territorial disputes with its neighbors?

With every fresh act of aggression by Russia which is met by Western confusion, hesitation, and weakness, the world becomes a more dangerous and unstable place.

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Hillary’s Best Defense: She’s Not John Kerry

Yesterday the Morning Joe crew supplied a moment of unintentional comedy when they tried to name Hillary Clinton’s major accomplishment as secretary of state. As noted over at Ace of Spades, “It’s funny watching the question of Hillary’s greatest accomplishment asked and laughingly rejected as ridiculous at first, then having it slowly dawn on the panel that none of them has an answer.”

One answer offered by the panel was that this great accomplishment shall be revealed by Clinton herself upon publication of her memoir. Her greatness is difficult for mere mortals to comprehend, but the former diplomat will try her best to help Americans understand what a privilege it has been to be served by Mrs. Clinton. Just because you didn’t see any accomplishments doesn’t mean they weren’t there; the Clintons work in mysterious ways.

But in fact we may have a preview of that revelation, provided by Byron York at the Washington Examiner. York writes that Clinton was on a panel last week moderated by Tom Friedman and was asked this very question. What was her great accomplishment? York quotes Hillary’s response:

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Yesterday the Morning Joe crew supplied a moment of unintentional comedy when they tried to name Hillary Clinton’s major accomplishment as secretary of state. As noted over at Ace of Spades, “It’s funny watching the question of Hillary’s greatest accomplishment asked and laughingly rejected as ridiculous at first, then having it slowly dawn on the panel that none of them has an answer.”

One answer offered by the panel was that this great accomplishment shall be revealed by Clinton herself upon publication of her memoir. Her greatness is difficult for mere mortals to comprehend, but the former diplomat will try her best to help Americans understand what a privilege it has been to be served by Mrs. Clinton. Just because you didn’t see any accomplishments doesn’t mean they weren’t there; the Clintons work in mysterious ways.

But in fact we may have a preview of that revelation, provided by Byron York at the Washington Examiner. York writes that Clinton was on a panel last week moderated by Tom Friedman and was asked this very question. What was her great accomplishment? York quotes Hillary’s response:

“We had the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we had two wars, we had continuing threats from all kinds of corners around the world,” Clinton said. Obama told her his top priority had to be dealing with the economic crisis, so he asked her to “represent us around the world.”

Clinton’s job was to “make it clear to the rest of the world that we were going to get our house in order.” But what did “in order” mean? Clinton described it this way: “We were going to stimulate and grow and get back to positive growth and work with our friends and partners.”

On the basis of that “stimulate and grow” policy, Clinton continued, the United States returned to strength and can now deal with foreign crises like the Ukraine without having to worry about a world economic collapse. “I think we really restored American leadership in the best sense,” she said. “That, you know, once again, people began to rely on us, to look at us as, you know, setting the values, setting the standards.”

Clinton, then, has no idea what she accomplished at State. But the answer offers an important clue as to how Clinton must manage the perception that she didn’t really do anything as secretary of state. In many ways, this was by design. Clinton knew she was considering a run for the presidency, and so didn’t want to take any risks at Foggy Bottom. She wasn’t there to accomplish big things; she was there to pad her resume and bide her time.

For this reason, you’ll recall, she lobbied against Susan Rice’s nomination as her successor in favor of the current secretary of state, John Kerry. Clinton’s caution as the nation’s chief diplomat meant she couldn’t afford to be followed by someone with competence and clear vision. She needed to be followed by someone like Kerry.

And the strategy is beginning to pay dividends. Not every secretary of state has to be Dean Acheson, and there’s something unfair about expecting greatness–and something dangerous in promoting it–in every secretary of state. Had Clinton not experienced major failures, such as the “reset” with Russia and collapse of security in Libya following her administration’s “leading from behind” intervention, she wouldn’t need any major accomplishments to justify her time there. It’s just that she could really use a better resume to at least offset the damage she did.

Kerry, however, doesn’t believe in diplomatic pacing or modesty; he wants to be present at the creation–of something. Hence his disastrous stream of diplomatic crises, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran to Syria to Russia. Kerry’s approach to American diplomacy is best understood as the Foggy Bottom version of the broken windows theory of economics. He will stimulate a demand for American diplomacy, whatever it takes. If there isn’t a four-alarm diplomatic fire–well, Kerry happens to have a box of matches on him.

It would be more helpful to Clinton if she could run against Kerry’s record as a contrast to her own. That’s tricky, but she’ll probably have to do so in some form. She might cast herself as more cynical toward Russia’s intentions, skeptical of Iranian “reform,” and supportive of Israel, for example, in a subtle but intentional way of responding to questions about her success by hinting that, at least, she did not set any raging fires. It’s not particularly compelling, but it’s the best she’s got.

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Immigration Debate Is Just Getting Started

Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

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Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

“We need to be a nation that welcomes and celebrates legal immigrants, people who follow the rules, and come here according to the law,” said Cruz in response.

“Rule of law matters. And if you look at any sovereign nation, securing your border is critically important,” said the freshman lawmaker.

“We need to solve the problem to secure the borders and then improve and streamline legal immigration so people can come to America consistent with the rule of law,” said Cruz.

Cruz’s response is not particularly controversial, though it’s clear he’s less concerned about fixing America’s legal immigration system–which is an unholy mess–than about securing the border. Both are important: in the age of asymmetric warfare, it makes no sense to have an unsecured border; and the current restrictions and layers of red tape on immigration are artificially distorting the market for labor and creating a black market–as overregulation almost always does–to fill the demand.

More relevant to 2016 than this argument–which goes round and round, and round again–is what it indicates about the various actors involved. And it confirms the pattern we’ve seen from Ted Cruz on his strategy for the primary contest. Cruz has not taken to promoting major reform legislation or “owning” an issue such as it is. Instead, he moves with alacrity to position himself slightly closer to the party’s grassroots when such reform is proposed.

There’s nothing objectionable about the strategy. Cruz is not required to churn out white papers or author major reform legislation, and if he does run for president he’ll do so anyway. It might not be on immigration, but in all likelihood a Cruz candidacy would include a tax plan at the very least. What the strategy is allowing Cruz to do is take the temperature of the party’s grassroots as the 2016 picture fills out.

Cruz has deployed the strategy against the candidate who would probably be his closest rival for grassroots voters, Rand Paul. When the Kentucky senator staged his famous filibuster over drones to the applause of conservatives (and a few non-conservatives as well), Cruz joined him on the chamber floor for the assist. But Paul’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was too tepid for Cruz, who staked out vague but more interventionist ground:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz said. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did… The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

Cruz portrays the difference between him and Paul as a philosophical one, which is why, as I’ve argued in the past, foreign policy is likely to be a more prominent point of contention in the 2016 GOP primary season than it was in 2012. As Jeb Bush’s comments showed, the contentious domestic issue is likely to be immigration, which is why, no matter how stalled in the House immigration legislation remains, it’s an argument that will only get louder between now and 2016.

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What Is Standing in Putin’s Way in Eastern Ukraine?

Uh oh. Here we go again. Fresh off swallowing Crimea, Vladimir Putin may well be yearning not for peace but for another piece of Ukraine. At least that’s the concern raised by carefully orchestrated pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk and other cities in the eastern part of Ukraine where, before Russian TV cameras, the Russian minority is demanding Anschluss with the Motherland. 

John Kerry was quick to note, no doubt accurately, that these events are hardly spontaneous given the recent arrest of Russian intelligence agents in Ukraine. It is not hard to imagine a scenario unfolding whereby, once again repeating his favorite excuse for aggression–protecting Russian minority rights–Putin will send the Russian army rolling across the frontier. It would certainly not be a difficult military operation to carry out, given that the Russian forces are already mobilized ostensibly to carry out “exercises” and given the lack of military capacity in the Ukrainian army to oppose such an incursion.

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Uh oh. Here we go again. Fresh off swallowing Crimea, Vladimir Putin may well be yearning not for peace but for another piece of Ukraine. At least that’s the concern raised by carefully orchestrated pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk and other cities in the eastern part of Ukraine where, before Russian TV cameras, the Russian minority is demanding Anschluss with the Motherland. 

John Kerry was quick to note, no doubt accurately, that these events are hardly spontaneous given the recent arrest of Russian intelligence agents in Ukraine. It is not hard to imagine a scenario unfolding whereby, once again repeating his favorite excuse for aggression–protecting Russian minority rights–Putin will send the Russian army rolling across the frontier. It would certainly not be a difficult military operation to carry out, given that the Russian forces are already mobilized ostensibly to carry out “exercises” and given the lack of military capacity in the Ukrainian army to oppose such an incursion.

What, one wonders, is standing in the way of another semi-covert invasion followed by outright annexation? The only real obstacle would seem to be any concerns Putin might have about the consequences of such aggression. Kerry, after all, has warned the Russian president he will face “further costs” for such a move. But given the fact that the costs to Russia of annexing Crimea have been minimal–and given the complete loss of American credibility post-Syria when it comes to drawing “red lines” for dictators–one must conclude that it is only Putin’s self-restraint that is preventing a further expansion of the Russian Empire. And given Putin’s track record, both at home and abroad, of grabbing as much power as possible for himself, betting on his goodwill is not a very good guarantee of Ukraine’s continued territorial integrity.

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Vox: Old Media’s Best Friend?

Should the hoary institutions of mainstream American print media be concerned about the rise of web-only, technology-driven “explanatory journalism”? Judging by the highly anticipated launch of Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, which added its signature features Sunday night, they might be less alarmed than they were yesterday. That’s because Vox’s launch has shown the limits of its own vision. Technology is no substitute for information, as Vox’s early projects demonstrate.

Take, for example, its backgrounder of the Ukraine crisis. Vox claims to provide “explanatory journalism,” and sets up its backgrounders as a series of flash cards with highlighted terms, which link to explanations of those terms. It’s a smooth and readable interface, but the product itself basically comes across as targeting those without the attention span for Wikipedia. Klein has hired the Washington Post’s foreign-affairs blogger Max Fisher to “explain” foreign policy to Vox’s readers. And the Ukraine explainer has a somewhat surprising conclusion.

The backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis has (at least as I write this) 20 “cards,” each with a subheader meant to answer a specific question about the issue. Because the Ukraine crisis is evolving and escalating in real time, readers will wonder what to expect in the near future. Card 17 presents this opportunity, titled “Is Russia going to invade eastern Ukraine?” Good question. The answer, however, was revealing not about Ukraine but about Vox itself.

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Should the hoary institutions of mainstream American print media be concerned about the rise of web-only, technology-driven “explanatory journalism”? Judging by the highly anticipated launch of Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, which added its signature features Sunday night, they might be less alarmed than they were yesterday. That’s because Vox’s launch has shown the limits of its own vision. Technology is no substitute for information, as Vox’s early projects demonstrate.

Take, for example, its backgrounder of the Ukraine crisis. Vox claims to provide “explanatory journalism,” and sets up its backgrounders as a series of flash cards with highlighted terms, which link to explanations of those terms. It’s a smooth and readable interface, but the product itself basically comes across as targeting those without the attention span for Wikipedia. Klein has hired the Washington Post’s foreign-affairs blogger Max Fisher to “explain” foreign policy to Vox’s readers. And the Ukraine explainer has a somewhat surprising conclusion.

The backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis has (at least as I write this) 20 “cards,” each with a subheader meant to answer a specific question about the issue. Because the Ukraine crisis is evolving and escalating in real time, readers will wonder what to expect in the near future. Card 17 presents this opportunity, titled “Is Russia going to invade eastern Ukraine?” Good question. The answer, however, was revealing not about Ukraine but about Vox itself.

As John Tabin noticed last night, Vox’s answer seemed to change within the hour, from “At this point it looks pretty unlikely” to “there are growing reasons to worry that Russia may also try to annex some parts of eastern Ukraine as well.” Why the sudden change? Read on, and it becomes clear. The next card is titled, accurately, “You didn’t answer my question!” Indeed Vox did not answer your question. “This is very much a work in progress,” Fisher continues. “It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.” (Vox added the 20th card to explain that previous cards had in fact changed without acknowledgement.)

So is Vox explaining the news, or explaining why it can’t explain the news? All signs point to the latter. But the 19th card–which was the final card, until the disclaimer was added as card 20–is where the reader will really feel cheated. Card 19 offers further reading about the Ukraine crisis. Thus far we have seen that Vox’s foreign-policy explainers are simply bullet-pointed versions of someone else’s reporting. But whose? Card 19 gives us an idea.

Suggestions for further reading about the Ukraine crisis include five major publications: the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading these publications–indeed, the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe is a great source for Russia-related material and the NYRB contributor Vox suggests is Timothy Snyder, certainly an expert on the region.

But if you’ve slogged through 19 cards for a Vox explainer, what was your reward? A suggestion that if you want your questions answered, you should really be reading actual reporters and experts. Vox, then, appears to be a collection of road signs, pointing you in the right direction. And those media institutions Vox sends you to are old, East Coast liberal establishment fixtures. Vox is not replacing the New York Times; it’s reading the New York Times to you. Old media is the essential lifeblood of publications like Vox. The latter desperately needs the former, while the former mostly considers the latter an expensive parasite.

This is not to dismiss new media challenges to old media–those are, in general, quite real, as are the weaknesses in the business model of the kinds of stodgy newspapers that writers must leave in order to innovate. It would also be more valuable if Vox were to broaden its own horizons. If you followed Vox’s reading list on Ukraine, you would have a decent start. But you would be confined the narrow worldview that produced the Vox backgrounder in the first place.

And you would be surprisingly chained to print publications–a bizarre choice for a site hoping to be an online-only trendsetter. For example, Vox’s explainer ignores the great reporting on the conflict from Eli Lake and Jamie Kirchick at the Daily Beast. And it doesn’t recommend checking out the running Ukraine live-blog at the Interpreter, Michael Weiss’s latest project. Perhaps online publications are Vox’s competitors and are therefore not endorsed with the gusto reserved for the New York Times. But that would only reinforce the impression that Vox is simply explaining the sermon to the choir.

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The U.N.’s Parallel Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Obama Doctrine of Selective Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putin and Pyrrhic Victories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gates’s Wise Words on Russia

Bob Gates is sorely missed in President Obama’s Cabinet. To see how much is lacking without his input into the highest councils of government, read his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today.

He makes the sensible point that to date the Western response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea “has been anemic. Mr. Putin is little influenced by seizure of personal assets of his cronies or the oligarchs, or restrictions on their travel. Unilateral U.S. sanctions, save on Russian banks, will not be effective absent European cooperation. “

Here is what Gates proposes to do instead:

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Bob Gates is sorely missed in President Obama’s Cabinet. To see how much is lacking without his input into the highest councils of government, read his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today.

He makes the sensible point that to date the Western response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea “has been anemic. Mr. Putin is little influenced by seizure of personal assets of his cronies or the oligarchs, or restrictions on their travel. Unilateral U.S. sanctions, save on Russian banks, will not be effective absent European cooperation. “

Here is what Gates proposes to do instead:

Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas must be reduced, and truly meaningful economic sanctions must be imposed, knowing there may be costs to the West as well. NATO allies bordering Russia must be militarily strengthened and reinforced with alliance forces; and the economic and cyber vulnerabilities of the Baltic states to Russian actions must be reduced (especially given the number of Russians and Russian-speakers in Estonia and Latvia).

Western investment in Russia should be curtailed; Russia should be expelled from the G-8 and other forums that offer respect and legitimacy; the U.S. defense budget should be restored to the level proposed in the Obama administration’s 2014 budget a year ago, and the Pentagon directed to cut overhead drastically, with saved dollars going to enhanced capabilities, such as additional Navy ships; U.S. military withdrawals from Europe should be halted; and the EU should be urged to grant associate agreements with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine.

These are all great ideas but of course, with the exception of expelling Russia from the G-8 at least temporarily, they are not being implemented either by President Obama or the other leaders of NATO. The defense budget cuts continue and there is no sign of a meaningful U.S. military commitment to the Baltics, Poland, or other frontline states. Nor is there even a strategy in place to end European reliance on Russia’s natural gas which would require (a) lifting U.S. restrictions on the export of American oil and gas and (b) lifting European restrictions on “fracking,” which would make it possible to market copious oil and gas supplies within Europe itself.

In essence, for all the tough talk from NATO, the consensus of the West seems to be that Putin has gotten away with his theft of Crimea and that the West shouldn’t escalate tensions with Russia unless and until Putin decides to grab eastern Ukraine too. This is sending, as Bob Gates warns, a very bad message that aggression pays–a message that will be heard not only in Moscow but in Tehran, Pyongyang and Beijing too.

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Obama Loses Complete Touch with Reality

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

That’s not all. 

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

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

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Slurring Israel with the Crimea Comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Russia Threatens More Than Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putin, the Baltics, and NATO

Vladimir Putin seems to be bent on resurrecting the Russian Empire using as his excuse the supposed mistreatment of Russian minorities in former Soviet republics. At least that was his rationale for the annexation of Crimea. It is not only Ukraine, which has already lost one province and has a sizable Russian-speaking population in other provinces, which has cause to be worried. So does Moldova, where Russia has already sponsored a breakaway province in Transnistria. Russian troops are maneuvering now on the borders of both countries.

Ukraine and Moldova might seem particularly inviting targets for Russian aggression given that neither is a member of NATO. But the really worrisome scenario, at least from our perspective, should be what would happen if Putin were to set his sights on the Baltic republics. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are postage-stamp size countries on Putin’s doorstep which are members of NATO–and they have significant Russian minority populations whose grievances could be exacerbated and exploited with Kremlin manipulation.

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Vladimir Putin seems to be bent on resurrecting the Russian Empire using as his excuse the supposed mistreatment of Russian minorities in former Soviet republics. At least that was his rationale for the annexation of Crimea. It is not only Ukraine, which has already lost one province and has a sizable Russian-speaking population in other provinces, which has cause to be worried. So does Moldova, where Russia has already sponsored a breakaway province in Transnistria. Russian troops are maneuvering now on the borders of both countries.

Ukraine and Moldova might seem particularly inviting targets for Russian aggression given that neither is a member of NATO. But the really worrisome scenario, at least from our perspective, should be what would happen if Putin were to set his sights on the Baltic republics. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are postage-stamp size countries on Putin’s doorstep which are members of NATO–and they have significant Russian minority populations whose grievances could be exacerbated and exploited with Kremlin manipulation.

As this Reuters story notes, the Baltic republics are worried, and with good cause: “Russian speakers make up about 35 percent of Latvia’s 2 million population. In Estonia, around a quarter of its 1.3 million people are Russian speakers. In neighbouring Lithuania, which does not border Russia, ethnic Russians make up about 6 percent.” As these figures would indicate, Latvia has particular cause for concern. Reuters notes: “In the Latvian town of Daugavpils, where a Russian Tzarist-era fortress and barracks meet grey Soviet-era apartment blocks, you are more likely to be greeted in Russian than Latvian, with 51 percent of the city’s residents Russians.”

What exactly would NATO do if Putin were to move against the Baltics employing armed men with no insignia? This would be a crisis of the first order, which would confront the West with the unwelcome choice of either letting NATO’s collective security guarantees become a dead letter–or else getting embroiled in a war with a nuclear-armed Russia. The U.S., rapidly drawing down its military forces and especially its forces in Europe (where only two Army brigades will be left, if we are lucky), is not in a good position to defend the Baltic states. The other NATO states have more forces nearby but less willpower to act.

Putin knows this and it could well tempt him to further aggression. The best way to head off such a dire emergency would be to (a) increase the size of the U.S. army by cancelling a planned drawdown and (b) to position U.S. ground forces in the Baltic republics to act as a guarantee of American assistance in the event of invasion. By not doing this we are tempting Putin to exploit our perceived weakness–as he has previously done in Georgia and Ukraine.

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What Will It Take to Maintain Putin’s High?

Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine hasn’t been simply about uniting ethnic Russians; just as with the 2008 Georgia invasion, it has also been about the economy. Too many Western diplomats and policymakers—especially those who do not regularly follow Russia—are behind the curve with regard to Russian perceptions of Putin. True, Putin won plaudits for picking Russia up by its bootstraps in the wake of Boris Yeltsin’s terms, but much of his economic success was less than met the eye and due more to the steep rise in oil prices. As oil has leveled off, the Russian economy has stagnated.

The European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure: my wife) had a great piece a few years ago looking at Russia’s economic vulnerability against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. In short, Russia’s economy is stagnant. Rather than fix the problems and address the corruption from which he personally benefits, Putin has discovered that it is easier to whip the flames of nationalist fervor. But every time he makes a land grab–Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and Crimea and perhaps soon eastern Ukraine in 2014–he must subsidize the new territory, creating an even greater drain on Russian resources, all the more so since he also subsidizes client states like Belarus to keep them in line.

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Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine hasn’t been simply about uniting ethnic Russians; just as with the 2008 Georgia invasion, it has also been about the economy. Too many Western diplomats and policymakers—especially those who do not regularly follow Russia—are behind the curve with regard to Russian perceptions of Putin. True, Putin won plaudits for picking Russia up by its bootstraps in the wake of Boris Yeltsin’s terms, but much of his economic success was less than met the eye and due more to the steep rise in oil prices. As oil has leveled off, the Russian economy has stagnated.

The European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure: my wife) had a great piece a few years ago looking at Russia’s economic vulnerability against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. In short, Russia’s economy is stagnant. Rather than fix the problems and address the corruption from which he personally benefits, Putin has discovered that it is easier to whip the flames of nationalist fervor. But every time he makes a land grab–Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and Crimea and perhaps soon eastern Ukraine in 2014–he must subsidize the new territory, creating an even greater drain on Russian resources, all the more so since he also subsidizes client states like Belarus to keep them in line.

Therefore, with every territory he grabs, the speed with which the Russian economy unravels increases, forcing the need for even more land grabs to stay ahead of the issue. It’s analogous to a cocaine addict who must constantly up his dose to get the same high.

As diplomats and analysts consider what might be next in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cross hairs, it would be a mistake to focus only on eastern Ukraine, the Baltics, and Moldova because if he really wants to bolster his economy, he must retain its energy monopoly. Here, pro-Western Azerbaijan, a neighbor to Georgia, may actually have cause for concern. Azerbaijan is a major energy hub, and last summer announced that it would direct its new pipeline to southern Europe, bypassing Russia. The completion of the project will undercut Russian leverage and the Kremlin’s ability to blackmail Europe. Russia knows this, of course, and has worked to permeate the opposition to President Ilham Aliyev, who has stood firm against both Russian pressure and Iranian attempts to infiltrate and radicalize Azerbaijan.

President Obama tends to play checkers instead of chess, but it’s time to think several steps ahead, and bolster Azerbaijan. It may really be the most crucial piece in the new great game.

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