Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ukraine

Putin Pounces Amid Iraq Distraction

One of the peculiarities of the American political system is that we can seemingly only focus on one crisis at a time. Thus the disaster in Iraq has driven out of the headlines the disaster in Ukraine. But let’s not forget that bad things are still happening in Ukraine where Russia continues to pursue its semi-covert campaign of aggression designed to wrest the eastern provinces away from Kiev’s control.

In some ways the Russians are actually getting more brazen. The U.S. government has confirmed, for example, that Russia is now providing Ukrainian “rebels” with heavier weaponry–”a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne.”

Those same “rebels” have also been provided by someone, presumably a Russian someone, with potent anti-aircraft missiles because such a missile just shot down a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane that was about to land in the eastern city of Luhansk. Forty-nine Ukrainian military personnel, most of them paratroopers, are reported to have been killed.

Oh and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which is owned by the Russian government, has just announced it will suspend all further gas deliveries to Ukraine. If Gazprom sticks to the cutoff, and no alternative suppliers are found, Ukraine will lose 63 percent of the natural gas it consumes.

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One of the peculiarities of the American political system is that we can seemingly only focus on one crisis at a time. Thus the disaster in Iraq has driven out of the headlines the disaster in Ukraine. But let’s not forget that bad things are still happening in Ukraine where Russia continues to pursue its semi-covert campaign of aggression designed to wrest the eastern provinces away from Kiev’s control.

In some ways the Russians are actually getting more brazen. The U.S. government has confirmed, for example, that Russia is now providing Ukrainian “rebels” with heavier weaponry–”a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne.”

Those same “rebels” have also been provided by someone, presumably a Russian someone, with potent anti-aircraft missiles because such a missile just shot down a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane that was about to land in the eastern city of Luhansk. Forty-nine Ukrainian military personnel, most of them paratroopers, are reported to have been killed.

Oh and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which is owned by the Russian government, has just announced it will suspend all further gas deliveries to Ukraine. If Gazprom sticks to the cutoff, and no alternative suppliers are found, Ukraine will lose 63 percent of the natural gas it consumes.

This is a significant escalation of the conflict by Vladimir Putin, notwithstanding his pro forma denials that he knows anything about what’s going on in Ukraine. Suffice it to say, anti-aircraft missiles and tanks are high-end pieces of equipment that aren’t available for sale in military surplus stores (where Moscow improbably claimed that the “green men” who seized Crimea got their uniforms from). Russia is escalating the conflict before Ukraine’s newly elected President Petro Poroshenko can succeed in rolling back the “rebels.” (I’m putting “rebels” in quotes to emphasize that this is not an indigenous uprising but rather one manufactured by the Kremlin.)

So what is Washington going to do about it? Apparently we are going to hurl some really strong rhetoric at the Russians. A State Department spokeswoman said, in response to the sighting of the Russian tanks on Ukrainian territory: “This is unacceptable. A failure by Russia to de-escalate this situation will lead to additional costs.”

Uh-huh. Putin has heard that before–and he still hasn’t paid a significant cost for his aggression in Ukraine. What are the odds that he will have to pay a price now that Washington is distracted by the fresh crisis in Iraq?

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Obama’s International Legacy: Fait Accompli

President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

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President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

With United States power in retreat and with populists and dictators across the globe concluding that they can act with impunity, never has the danger been so real, not only in the current crisis spots but in Taiwan, the Falkland Islands, the Baltics, and other lands aggressors and dictators crave. All that matters in the new world order is brute strength and the will to use it. The most intractable diplomatic problems will no longer be solved by diplomacy, but rather by unilateralism. Of course, some critics might say unilateralism is simply what America engaged in for decades. That’s more propaganda than reality but, even if so, moral equivalency is a disease. America believed it acted for good; China and Russia clearly do not–their motivations are purely cynical.

One of the most surprising things I encountered when researching my recent study on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups was that, while the military spends more time in the classroom or the training ground going over its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department has never really conducted a full lessons-learned review with the diplomats who actually drive policy. Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was doing the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Unfortunately, that seems to apply to the State Department, not only in the current administration but in the last ten or so.

It would be wrong to blame all chaos on Obama. He may have ceded the ground, but ultimately it is the dictators who are to blame. Nevertheless, perhaps it is time for President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other top administration officials to sit back and consider the state of the world and what the United States might have done differently at key inflection points in order to prevent the current situation. Only then can the United States learn from its mistakes and seek to salvage what is left.

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Why Russia’s Other Neighbors Are Worried

President Obama just visited Poland, trying to offer reassurance to U.S. allies rattled by Russian aggression. The Poles and their neighbors will have to take Obama’s word for it that the U.S. will stop anything bad from happening to them, because he didn’t offer much in the way of concrete help. Of course America’s word isn’t worth much in these days when red lines can be crossed with impunity. (Note that Bashar Assad is able to use chlorine gas with virtually no pushback beyond some mildly critical rhetoric from the U.S.)

The best the president could do was to roll out a $1 billion “European Reassurance Initiative” (not a very stirring title), which will pay for additional U.S. military exercises and additional aid to the region. Obama definitely didn’t deliver what the Poles and other Eastern European members of NATO would like to see–namely a substantial and permanent U.S. troop presence on their soil. 

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President Obama just visited Poland, trying to offer reassurance to U.S. allies rattled by Russian aggression. The Poles and their neighbors will have to take Obama’s word for it that the U.S. will stop anything bad from happening to them, because he didn’t offer much in the way of concrete help. Of course America’s word isn’t worth much in these days when red lines can be crossed with impunity. (Note that Bashar Assad is able to use chlorine gas with virtually no pushback beyond some mildly critical rhetoric from the U.S.)

The best the president could do was to roll out a $1 billion “European Reassurance Initiative” (not a very stirring title), which will pay for additional U.S. military exercises and additional aid to the region. Obama definitely didn’t deliver what the Poles and other Eastern European members of NATO would like to see–namely a substantial and permanent U.S. troop presence on their soil. 

As Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, told the New York Times: “For the first time since the Second World War, one European country has taken a province by force from another European country, America, we hope, has ways of reassuring us that we haven’t even thought about. There are major bases in Britain, in Spain, in Portugal, in Greece, in Italy. Why not here?”

Why not indeed, unless the administration is concerned about offending Russia with such a move. Certainly assurances that Washington gave to Moscow in the 1990s that we would not station troops in Eastern Europe should be regarded as a dead letter–as much of a dead letter as Russia’s assurances that it would respect Ukrainian sovereignty.

As long as the administration and our European allies refuse to do more to counter Russian aggression, Vladimir Putin will just keep pushing forward. Sure, Putin has redeployed some troops away from Ukraine’s border. But his henchmen continue to infringe Ukrainian sovereignty. The latest news: well-armed separatists have attacked the border command post in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Already the border is porous, allowing Russian extremists to come and go with virtual impunity. If the command post falls, Ukrainian hopes of defending their eastern border will be dashed for the foreseeable future.

Please don’t tell me that this aggression is occurring independently of the Kremlin. If Putin wanted to, he could shut off the pro-Russian independence movement in Ukraine–which didn’t exist until a couple of months ago–with a snap of his fingers. The fact that separatists continue fighting, plunging eastern Ukraine into what looks increasingly to be a civil war, is a sure sign that the Kremlin hasn’t given up its imperialist designs. 

No wonder Russia’s neighbors are so worried. And the administration’s “reassurance” initiative will not exactly reassure them. Only a more substantial show of American strength will do that. But American strength and resolve have been in short supply lately.

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America and Poland: the Return of History?

The concern over disappearing red lines has given way to disappearing border lines in Ukraine. A key battle over a border command center in eastern Ukraine yesterday highlighted the fact that while the conflict may be changing, it isn’t yet subsiding. “The scale of the fight reflected the critical importance of the border to both sides,” the Washington Post reported. “In recent weeks, it has been penetrated frequently by separatists bringing reinforcements and supplies from Russia to eastern Ukraine. The shipments have helped transform the insurgency from a somewhat ragtag guerrilla force to one capable of carrying out major military assaults.”

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that President Obama’s efforts to reassure Eastern European allies are meeting a hopeful but not quite relieved welcome. Obama is in Warsaw today to deliver the message in person that the United States is putting its money where its mouth is: he is asking Congress to fund a $1 billion “European reassurance initiative,” according to the New York Times. The fund would enable military cooperation and training–including aid to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia–as well as increased American military presence in the region.

The Times notes that it might not be enough for Russia’s Western-oriented neighbors:

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The concern over disappearing red lines has given way to disappearing border lines in Ukraine. A key battle over a border command center in eastern Ukraine yesterday highlighted the fact that while the conflict may be changing, it isn’t yet subsiding. “The scale of the fight reflected the critical importance of the border to both sides,” the Washington Post reported. “In recent weeks, it has been penetrated frequently by separatists bringing reinforcements and supplies from Russia to eastern Ukraine. The shipments have helped transform the insurgency from a somewhat ragtag guerrilla force to one capable of carrying out major military assaults.”

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that President Obama’s efforts to reassure Eastern European allies are meeting a hopeful but not quite relieved welcome. Obama is in Warsaw today to deliver the message in person that the United States is putting its money where its mouth is: he is asking Congress to fund a $1 billion “European reassurance initiative,” according to the New York Times. The fund would enable military cooperation and training–including aid to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia–as well as increased American military presence in the region.

The Times notes that it might not be enough for Russia’s Western-oriented neighbors:

But it was unclear whether Mr. Obama’s new announcement would satisfy regional leaders previously unimpressed by the relatively token forces sent in recent months. Mr. Obama dispatched additional rotations of aircraft and support personnel as well as about 600 paratroopers to Poland and other allies in the region after Russia seized Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in the spring.

Anxious about the threat from Moscow, Polish leaders have been pressing for a more robust deployment and even a permanent base despite a NATO-Russia agreement following the end of the Cold War in which the western alliance said it would refrain from deploying substantial forces in eastern territory. Polish officials have argued that Russia had effectively abrogated that agreement by annexing Crimea.

“For the first time since the Second World War, one European country has taken a province by force from another European country,” Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, said in a telephone interview before Mr. Obama’s arrival. “America, we hope, has ways of reassuring us that we haven’t even thought about. There are major bases in Britain, in Spain, in Portugal, in Greece, in Italy. Why not here?”

Disappearing borders are precisely the sort of events that change the calculus in Eastern Europe in general, but particularly for Poland when those borders are Ukraine’s. The U.S. and EU like to pretend the end of history is near, but Eastern Europeans don’t have that luxury. That said, what Obama is proposing deserves to be taken seriously by our unnerved allies, because a beefed-up American military presence really does put more skin in the game, and would presumably have some deterrent effect.

Additionally, while the Obama administration has at times behaved appallingly toward Poland, the drift between the two countries is not all one-sided. A fascinating angle to this, which the Times explored yesterday, is the nature of changing alliances in the post-Cold War world combined with the effects of integration into the European Union.

The essence of the change is that partnership with the U.S. focuses on security while integration into Europe is about economics. The Times dispatch is centered on the fact that Poland is far from anti-American, but is not the U.S. cheerleader it once was. The drop in Polish enthusiasm for the U.S. mixed with the regional security concerns make Obama’s trip an uphill climb. In part, however, this is due to the success of Poland. For two decades a new Polish generation has needed the U.S. much less while getting a chance to discover its European neighbors (and identity) after the fall of Communism and the Polish accession to the EU:

What happened, Mr. Smolar said, was that Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2004, and the subsequent ability of Poles to travel freely throughout the Continent for the first time, have made the United States less attractive both as a romantic ideal and as a place where Poles dream of living.

Entry into the European Union pushed Poland to adopt European norms, from human rights to cleanliness standards in restaurants. Poles rapidly saw the benefits in such things as better roads and glittery malls.

“The E.U. became seen as a way of getting rich and respectable, though we continued to be connected to the U.S. for security,” Mr. Smolar said. “We began to realize that, for 90 percent of the problems we have, the solution is in Europe, not in America.”

The dependence on the U.S. for some of its security has made the Polish “much less anti-American than Western Europeans,” according to another of the article’s sources. Which raises an interesting question: Euro-integration has been an obvious success for countries like Poland, but is the other side of EU accession an inevitable slide into Western European anti-Americanism?

It would indeed be a sad irony if European integration meant indoctrination in the anti-Americanism of the smug hypocritical elites in some Western European countries. It would also be ironic if that slide were interrupted or derailed by Moscow’s military adventurism and the confirmation that even a war-weary America is still the foremost guarantor of security in Europe.

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What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

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The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president’s “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama missing his own stated goals is not the fault of hawks to his right or humanitarian interventionists to his left. He is not the victim here. He’s right about American leadership. But that has been true since the end of World War II, and often American leadership has been extraordinarily successful. It has not been while under Obama’s stewardship.

In his new book on the transfer of Western leadership from Britain to the U.S. after World War II, Aiyaz Husain, a historian at the State Department, highlights the role that each leader’s “mental maps” played in the development of the postwar order. Husain writes of the British perspective, which was that of an empire slowly losing its hold on distant lands and thus keen to protect important footholds in each area through what Husain calls “regionalism.” In contrast, the American conception of the world was quite different, consisting of “globalism” and the integration of a stable world system:

The geographic assumptions in this globalism came to shape postwar American grand strategy. As James Lay, the executive secretary of the National Security Council wrote in 1952 in the pages of World Affairs, the administration had realized early on that “policies developed for the security of the United States have far-reaching impact throughout the world. Likewise, events throughout the world affect our national security. Policies, therefore, can no longer be decided solely within geographical limitations.”

When the British sought to make revisions to a plan for the postwar order that would have protected some of their waning influence, FDR sternly and impatiently responded that they “smacked too much [of] ‘spheres of influence’ policies, the very thing which it was supposedly designed to prevent.” The American perspective, carried out by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was a coherent and prescient view of the emerging interconnected world with American leadership at the helm.

The concern by some of our allies around the world today is that America, under Obama, is acting more like postwar Britain than FDR and Truman’s United States. They wonder if we’re ceding influence while trying to mask retreat in token diplomatic gestures and occasional displays of interest or strength intended to keep a foothold, but no more than a foothold, in regions too important to leave behind but too chaotic to defend with press releases.

America does not have imperial properties around the globe as Britain did, of course. At the same time, there is no other United States to step into the vacuum and protect a globalism that could easily give way to regionalism. And painting those who want to know if America can still be counted on as warmongers is not going to reassure anyone.

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Obama Overstates Stability in Ukraine

In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

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In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

Meanwhile a full-blown civil war appears to be growing in eastern Ukraine where, despite Vladimir Putin’s slightly less belligerent rhetorical approach of late, his minions continue to fight to prevent the re-establishment of central authority. The latest news is that separatists used a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a helicopter carrying 14 Ukrainian soldiers including a general. This comes just a few days after a major battle for control of Donetsk’s airport, which had been seized by rebels, left more than 50 people dead. “Many of those killed in the fighting were Russian citizens fighting on the rebel side,” the New York Times notes, which would not be the case if Putin were truly interested in respecting Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ukraine faces massive challenges to ward off Russian aggression while dealing with corruption and other internal problems. It’s good that the country just held a presidential election, but Obama should know better than to cite a vote as a sign that everything is getting better–that was the mistake George W. Bush repeatedly made in Iraq.

Ukraine still needs lots of aid if it is to remain whole and free, and the U.S. has not been providing it. Neither have our allies. The Obama administration, for example, is still refusing to provide any military supplies beyond MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). As is so often the case, President Obama seems to prefer giving a fancy speech to implementing a substantive policy.

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The Anti-Freedom Hypocrisy of Europe’s Far Right

After the 2012 election, as Hillary Clinton was winding down her time as secretary of state and looking to the future, she began toughening up her rhetoric. Having presided over the disastrous Russian “reset,” Putin’s Russia seemed a good place to start. So she told the media before a meeting with her Russian counterpart that Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” a customs union involving Russia’s near abroad, was “a move to re-Sovietize the region,” and she planned to “figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The comment was surprisingly alarmist, as Clinton hadn’t officially left the State Department yet and appeared to be overcompensating for the weakness and naïveté that characterized Washington’s relationship with Russia on her watch. Yet as in so many instances, Russia’s recent behavior has made what looked alarmist at first glance much closer to the mark. And what if Clinton was actually underestimating the spread of Russian influence in Europe? That’s the upshot of the New York Times’s disheartening story on the rise of Putinist sympathizers across Europe’s political spectrum:

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After the 2012 election, as Hillary Clinton was winding down her time as secretary of state and looking to the future, she began toughening up her rhetoric. Having presided over the disastrous Russian “reset,” Putin’s Russia seemed a good place to start. So she told the media before a meeting with her Russian counterpart that Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” a customs union involving Russia’s near abroad, was “a move to re-Sovietize the region,” and she planned to “figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The comment was surprisingly alarmist, as Clinton hadn’t officially left the State Department yet and appeared to be overcompensating for the weakness and naïveté that characterized Washington’s relationship with Russia on her watch. Yet as in so many instances, Russia’s recent behavior has made what looked alarmist at first glance much closer to the mark. And what if Clinton was actually underestimating the spread of Russian influence in Europe? That’s the upshot of the New York Times’s disheartening story on the rise of Putinist sympathizers across Europe’s political spectrum:

This convergence has pushed the far right into a curious alignment with the far left. In European Parliament votes this year on the lifting of tariffs and other steps to help Ukraine’s fragile new government, which Russia denounces as fascist but the European Union supports, legislators at both ends of the political spectrum banded together to oppose assisting Ukraine.

“Russia has become the hope of the world against new totalitarianism,” Mr. Chauprade, the National Front’s top European Parliament candidate for the Paris region, said in a speech to Russia’s Parliament in Moscow last year.

When Crimea held a referendum in March on whether the peninsula should secede from Ukraine and join Russia, Mr. Chauprade joined a team of election monitors organized by a pro-Russian outfit in Belgium, the Eurasian Observatory for Elections and Democracy. The team, which pronounced the referendum free and fair, also included members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party; a Flemish nationalist group in Belgium; and the Jobbik politician in Hungary accused of spying for Russia.

Luc Michel, the Belgian head of the Eurasian Observatory, which receives some financial support from Russian companies but promotes itself as independent and apolitical, champions the establishment of a new “Eurasian” alliance, stretching from Vladivostok in Russia to Lisbon in Portugal and purged of American influence. The National Front, preoccupied with recovering sovereign powers surrendered to Brussels, has shown little enthusiasm for a new Eurasian bloc. But it, too, bristles at Europe’s failure to project itself as a global player independent from America, and looks to Russia for help.

A Eurasian union from Vladivostok to Lisbon is far, far more than even Putin could have hoped for. The story underlines a major reason Putin has been so effective at building support abroad: by shedding socialist ideology, Putin has been able to attract members of the far right without losing the support of European leftists who have retained a good dose of sympathy for Russia, believing that the West (through NATO especially) added insult to injury when the Soviet Union collapsed and proved somehow to be unworthy of its own victory. It was a consolation prize for the European left.

Another fascinating, if unoriginal, aspect to this is the role of anti-European Union populism. There are various reasons for this, but one of them is that the far right has put a new spin on the traditional leftist critique of American imperialism:

The European Union, said Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a member of the French Parliament and a niece of Marine Le Pen, is “the poodle of the United States.”

If only! (Though it wouldn’t be a “poodle,” but a far more majestic breed; some kind of retriever, perhaps.) This is where the uniting of the European far left and far right results in total incoherence. Does Le Pen really think Brussels is lacking in anti-Americanism? It isn’t. And that’s where this fight over Russia exposes the fault lines in Euro-Atlantic relations.

In the ongoing debate over whether Britain should remain in the EU, America’s position has been that it should stay in the EU because otherwise the union would be bereft of true Anglosphere voices. I have been clear that I find this argument unconvincing. What is likely is a kind of “reverse integration” in which British opinion would be submerged in a sea of Eurostatism and the free world would be compromised, not reinforced.

And here we have a perfect moment to test it. The Europeans are already skeptical of sanctions against Russia, undermining Western resolve. If there is pro-American sentiment of any real force in the EU, now would be a good time to hear it rally to the side of democracy and international law.

That last point also shows what is so counterproductive about the supposedly Euroskeptic right’s support for Putin. They may have legitimate grievances about the EU’s power grab and antidemocratic supranationalism. Indeed, they certainly do. But the Putinist model is the road to tyranny, not democracy. By throwing their support to an authoritarian thug, they are only proving just how hollow and dishonest are their claims to be standing up for freedom and democratic sovereignty.

They are hypocrites, and their hypocrisy only enables further bloodshed and the rolling back of freedom in Europe. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

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The Crimea-Kuwait Parallel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Washington Can Do for Kiev

In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (yes that’s what it is–an invasion), I, in common with other commentators, have emphasized the need for stronger economic sanctions on Russia as well as the permanent positioning of U.S. troops in frontline NATO states to send a strong message that cross-border aggression does not pay.

But there is also a need to do more to help the nascent pro-Western state in Kiev to stand up to Russian bullying. Part of the help it needs is economic, and it is receiving some of what it needs from the European Union, IMF, and U.S. But, as Ukraine’s defense minister Andriy Parubiy reminds us in the Wall Street Journal, the Ukrainian armed forces also are desperate for American assistance.

“We have submitted,” he writes, “a complete list of what is needed to the U.S.—assistance in the form of antiaircraft and antitank weaponry, as well as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles.” Ukraine also desperately needs more training for its ill-prepared forces, which have been mismanaged for years.

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In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (yes that’s what it is–an invasion), I, in common with other commentators, have emphasized the need for stronger economic sanctions on Russia as well as the permanent positioning of U.S. troops in frontline NATO states to send a strong message that cross-border aggression does not pay.

But there is also a need to do more to help the nascent pro-Western state in Kiev to stand up to Russian bullying. Part of the help it needs is economic, and it is receiving some of what it needs from the European Union, IMF, and U.S. But, as Ukraine’s defense minister Andriy Parubiy reminds us in the Wall Street Journal, the Ukrainian armed forces also are desperate for American assistance.

“We have submitted,” he writes, “a complete list of what is needed to the U.S.—assistance in the form of antiaircraft and antitank weaponry, as well as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles.” Ukraine also desperately needs more training for its ill-prepared forces, which have been mismanaged for years.

So far all that has been forthcoming from Washington is some Meals, Ready to Eat. Apparently the Obama administration thinks that it would be too “provocative” to provide Ukraine with arms to defend itself. While there is a risk of Russian action to preempt weapons deliveries, in the long-run the provision of more potent weaponry to Ukraine–in particular antitank and antiaircraft missiles–would actually make war less, not more, likely.

Vladimir Putin is already visibly hesitating as he contemplates the challenge of occupying eastern Ukraine, an area where most people don’t want to be part of Russia and whose geography makes it hard to split it off from the rest of the country–it is not an archipelago like Crimea. How much more would he hesitate if he knew that Ukraine’s defenders, who already have a history of guerrilla warfare against Soviet troops in the 1950s, would be armed with the kind of sophisticated weapons that the Afghan mujahideen used against the Red Army in the 1980s.

That is the logic of deterrence–of peace through strength. Too bad the U.S. and its Western allies seem bent on a policy of appeasement when it comes to Russian aggression.

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France’s Role in Putin’s War

At a time when the West is trying to make Russia pay a price for its aggression in Ukraine, what kind of message does it send if France delivers to Russia two top-of-the-line Mistral-class amphibious assault ships?

“Each of the ships would be able to carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks and up to 700 soldiers,” reports the New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon, and they would significantly augment Putin’s power projection capabilities.

Jim Stavridis, a retired admiral who was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013, says: “The technology and capability represented by the Mistral should not be passed to a Russian Federation that continues to threaten its neighbors.”

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At a time when the West is trying to make Russia pay a price for its aggression in Ukraine, what kind of message does it send if France delivers to Russia two top-of-the-line Mistral-class amphibious assault ships?

“Each of the ships would be able to carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks and up to 700 soldiers,” reports the New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon, and they would significantly augment Putin’s power projection capabilities.

Jim Stavridis, a retired admiral who was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013, says: “The technology and capability represented by the Mistral should not be passed to a Russian Federation that continues to threaten its neighbors.”

The Obama administration has been delivering that message to Paris ever since 2010. Yet two successive French governments have turned a deaf ear to American entreaties. So much for President Obama’s vaunted powers of persuasion. President Francois Hollande has no trouble saying “non” to a Nobel Peace Prize winner–and “oui” to the new tsar in the Kremlin–because it means an extra $1.6 billion or so for the French arms industry.

At the very least France deserves to suffer international opprobrium for this reckless, short-sighted, profit-first behavior that comes at the cost of enabling further Russian aggression. And if I were in a senior leadership position in one of the states directly threatened by Russian power–states like Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic republics–I would think of taking matters into my own hands in the way that Israel would if some outside power were to deliver powerful weapons to its enemies.

Those Eastern European states should give careful consideration to using their secret services to sabotage the French ships if possible because their entry into the Russian fleet will pose a direct threat to the future independence of these former Soviet satellites. That may be a shocking suggestion, but there are precedents for attacking French naval forces before they fall into enemy hands–e.g., the Royal Navy’s attack on the French fleet off Algeria on July 3, 1940, when it was in Vichy hands. 

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Power Vacuums and Green Lights in the South China Sea

Want to know what a world in which American power is in eclipse will look like? Just look around, from Ukraine to the South China Sea–both places where powerful states are seeking to dominate their neighbors with military force. 

The Ukrainian story is by now well known, with Russia having annexed Crimea and is in the process of setting up independent statelets in eastern Ukraine. But also of great significance is the recent decision by a Chinese state-owned National Offshore Oil Company to plant a $1 billion oil-drilling rig just 130 miles off the Vietnamese coast in waters that are claimed by Vietnam as an exclusive economic zone. Accompanying the oil rig were as many as 80 vessels belonging to the Chinese navy and coast guard; they used a water cannon to ward off a Vietnamese ship that got in the way of their power grab.

This Chinese move, into territory over which its jurisdiction under international law is virtually nonexistent, is all the more egregious because just three years ago Beijing and Hanoi reached agreement on shared borders and maritime rights. Now China is unilaterally abrogating that agreement and daring Vietnam and the rest of the world to do something about it.

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Want to know what a world in which American power is in eclipse will look like? Just look around, from Ukraine to the South China Sea–both places where powerful states are seeking to dominate their neighbors with military force. 

The Ukrainian story is by now well known, with Russia having annexed Crimea and is in the process of setting up independent statelets in eastern Ukraine. But also of great significance is the recent decision by a Chinese state-owned National Offshore Oil Company to plant a $1 billion oil-drilling rig just 130 miles off the Vietnamese coast in waters that are claimed by Vietnam as an exclusive economic zone. Accompanying the oil rig were as many as 80 vessels belonging to the Chinese navy and coast guard; they used a water cannon to ward off a Vietnamese ship that got in the way of their power grab.

This Chinese move, into territory over which its jurisdiction under international law is virtually nonexistent, is all the more egregious because just three years ago Beijing and Hanoi reached agreement on shared borders and maritime rights. Now China is unilaterally abrogating that agreement and daring Vietnam and the rest of the world to do something about it.

So far, just as in Ukraine, so in the South China Sea, the rest of the world–led by the U.S.–is hardly a profile in courage. Vietnam tried but failed to get its neighbors, meeting last weekend at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to condemn the Chinese move; those states are too scared of China to speak up publicly. The State Department, for its part, issued a pro forma denunciation of the Chinese move and left it at that.

Beijing is unlikely to be impressed. This was widely seen as a test of American and regional resolve to stand up to Chinese attempts to dominate waters that are also claimed by its neighbors. The lesson that Beijing must take away is that, just like Moscow, it has a green light for further aggression. 

The great danger here is that, just as in Europe, the local bully may miscalculate; one of its neighbors–whether Vietnam or Japan or the Philippines or some other state–may actually stand up to China and the result could be a shooting war. 

Although this is a regional dispute, just like the ongoing events in Ukraine, it has global ramifications, because it highlights the power vacuum being left by the present administration’s ill-advised retreat from America’s global leadership.

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Putin Keeps Chipping Away at Ukraine

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Sure, he’s immoral, corrupt, despicable, tyrannical. But he’s also a power politician of the first order, and right now he’s playing the West like a Stradivarius. 

Last week, facing growing calls for sanctions on Russia in the U.S. and Europe, he announced that he was pulling his troops back from the border with Ukraine and ending his support for a referendum this weekend among pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who desire Anschluss with Russia. This rhetorical feint provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for those in the West who don’t want to do anything about Russian aggression. But then of course Putin did not follow through. 

According to NATO intelligence reports, Russian troops still have not redeployed from the Ukrainian border. And on Sunday Russian separatists held a rigged referendum in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which delivered a predictable–if hardly believable–majority in favor of breaking away from Kiev. In Donetsk the pro-autonomy measure won 89 percent of the votes; in Luhansk a truly fantastic 97.5 percent. Pretty incredible when you consider that opinion polls just a month ago showed only 30 percent of eastern Ukrainians wanting to go their own way. These kinds of election “results”–reminiscent of years of rigged elections in the Soviet Union which reliably delivered 99.99 percent majorities for Communist candidates–are only credible to Putin’s mouthpieces on RT (Russia Today) television.

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You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Sure, he’s immoral, corrupt, despicable, tyrannical. But he’s also a power politician of the first order, and right now he’s playing the West like a Stradivarius. 

Last week, facing growing calls for sanctions on Russia in the U.S. and Europe, he announced that he was pulling his troops back from the border with Ukraine and ending his support for a referendum this weekend among pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who desire Anschluss with Russia. This rhetorical feint provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for those in the West who don’t want to do anything about Russian aggression. But then of course Putin did not follow through. 

According to NATO intelligence reports, Russian troops still have not redeployed from the Ukrainian border. And on Sunday Russian separatists held a rigged referendum in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which delivered a predictable–if hardly believable–majority in favor of breaking away from Kiev. In Donetsk the pro-autonomy measure won 89 percent of the votes; in Luhansk a truly fantastic 97.5 percent. Pretty incredible when you consider that opinion polls just a month ago showed only 30 percent of eastern Ukrainians wanting to go their own way. These kinds of election “results”–reminiscent of years of rigged elections in the Soviet Union which reliably delivered 99.99 percent majorities for Communist candidates–are only credible to Putin’s mouthpieces on RT (Russia Today) television.

But the results serve to further muddy the waters: They undermine Kiev’s attempts to assert its sovereignty over the breakaway eastern provinces and they call into question the legitimacy of the looming May 25 election in Ukraine–how can a free and fair ballot be conducted when Russian gunmen are in control of substantial parts of eastern Ukraine?

Putin is now being extra cagy. Unlike in Crimea, he is not using this rigged referendum as an excuse to immediately annex eastern Ukraine. Instead he is demanding that the government in Kiev negotiate with the “demonstrators” (really, Russian provocateurs) who have taken power in the east–as if the two forces were of equal legitimacy. Putin is thus avoiding the onus of outright annexation, which could bring about not only more costly Western sanctions but also guerrilla warfare against Russian troops. Instead he is continuing to destabilize Ukraine and preparing the way to create autonomous Russian-controlled enclaves in that country as he has previously done in Moldova and Georgia, thereby helping to undermine the independence of all these post-Soviet republics.

You have to give Putin points for cleverly if amorally pursuing his realpolitik objectives. If only the leaders of the West were half as clever in stopping him. But they’re not. While Putin is playing geopolitical chess like a grandmaster, his opponents are playing checkers with the skill of not-overly-bright six-year-olds. No wonder pieces of the map keep falling to Russia.

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Putin’s NATO Justification

To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

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To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

But it is disingenuous to suggest that Putin’s desire to reassemble the Russian empire is fueled by fear of NATO, a purely defensive alliance. Only someone who has been binge-watching RT (formerly Russia Today)–the Kremlin’s propaganda organ–could possibly imagine that, absent NATO’s expansion, Putin would be behaving in a more neighborly fashion toward Georgia, Ukraine, or other neighboring states that he still considers to be Russian satrapies. 

NATO expansion may be an excuse for Russian aggression but it is not its cause. Actually, NATO expansion has been a great force for peace and stability, helping to lock in the democratic gains in Eastern Europe and to impose limitations on Russian bullying. 

Far from backing away from NATO, the U.S. and its allies should double down. Ukraine and Georgia may not be ready for membership, but Sweden and Finland could easily be absorbed into the alliance as Swedish commentator Jan Joel Andersson argues in Foreign Affairs. “From a military standpoint, Sweden and Finland would add technologically sophisticated and well-equipped armed forces to the alliance,” he argues, and “it would bring the NATO border ever closer to Russia, demonstrating that military aggression in Europe carries major geopolitical consequences.” 

Such a bold step makes eminent sense to counter Russian aggression and to signal that the West will not accept Putin’s attempts to blame NATO for his own misconduct.

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Obama Invades Strawmanistan While Rubio and Others Offer Ideas

President Obama’s now infamous press conference in Manila last week was marked by the president making two accusations of his critics. First, they are warmongers who would immediately resort to force: “most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures.” Second, those who don’t want to invade don’t offer alternatives; when asked for specifics, their criticism suddenly “kind of trails off,” the president said.

To emphasize precisely what he meant, the president brought up the Iraq war, so that the audience knew he was specifically and clearly designating his critics as warmongers. This bit of theater no doubt fooled some of the president’s more devoted, and less discerning, fans. But in truth it proved just how insulated the president is from the informed discussion taking place in the public sphere. There are plenty of serious ideas being proposed; it’s a shame the president isn’t aware of them.

Take Ukraine, for example. While there have been debates about sanctions, another idea comes today from Senator Marco Rubio, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Rubio notes that while the ruble has fallen since the beginning of the conflict, the value of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has been falling even faster, raising the possibility that Vladimir Putin will be willing to take a financial hit to Russia if it means the complete collapse of Ukraine’s economy.

He proposes anchoring the hryvnia to a stable currency:

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President Obama’s now infamous press conference in Manila last week was marked by the president making two accusations of his critics. First, they are warmongers who would immediately resort to force: “most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures.” Second, those who don’t want to invade don’t offer alternatives; when asked for specifics, their criticism suddenly “kind of trails off,” the president said.

To emphasize precisely what he meant, the president brought up the Iraq war, so that the audience knew he was specifically and clearly designating his critics as warmongers. This bit of theater no doubt fooled some of the president’s more devoted, and less discerning, fans. But in truth it proved just how insulated the president is from the informed discussion taking place in the public sphere. There are plenty of serious ideas being proposed; it’s a shame the president isn’t aware of them.

Take Ukraine, for example. While there have been debates about sanctions, another idea comes today from Senator Marco Rubio, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Rubio notes that while the ruble has fallen since the beginning of the conflict, the value of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has been falling even faster, raising the possibility that Vladimir Putin will be willing to take a financial hit to Russia if it means the complete collapse of Ukraine’s economy.

He proposes anchoring the hryvnia to a stable currency:

We should encourage the establishment of a Ukrainian currency board, an institutional arrangement that anchors the value of national money to a more stable currency. Under a currency board, the hryvnia would be convertible into the dollar or the euro at a fixed rate, and backed by Ukraine’s own hard currency reserves. The International Monetary Fund would supplement the reserves with a special-purpose loan arrangement.

A currency board would help Ukraine’s money become as reliable and stable as the world’s dominant reserve currencies. The effects would ripple throughout the economy: Foreign investors could have confidence that the hryvnia is not in a death spiral, and Ukrainians would know that Mr. Putin cannot annihilate the value of their personal savings. Such stability would encourage the nation under siege to maintain its faith in free people and free markets.

Equally important: Moscow would immediately face the dismaying reality that Ukraine’s money is suddenly far more dependable than its own. Russia is already on a spending blowout to save the ruble as economic conditions deteriorate: Russia’s central bank has spent more than $23 billion intervening in foreign exchange markets since January. On April 25, the bank raised its key interest rate by 50 basis points to 7.5%, a desperate attempt to tamp down the inflationary effects of a weakening ruble. Monetary policy is not Russia’s forte in global affairs, and so the U.S. and Europe should use their advantage strategically to hurt a vulnerable adversary.

Such a plan would get Europe and the U.S. working with the International Monetary Fund to not only help stabilize Ukraine’s economy but ensure that financial aid to Kiev wouldn’t be obliterated by a collapsing currency. If someone in the White House passes this along to the president, he might be amazed not only at the options at his disposal but the fact that Rubio was able to explain all this without invading any countries. Again, this is a fact that bears repeating: it is Obama, not his conservative opposition, who thinks war is the only alternative.

Another suggestion comes from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Jan Joel Andersson–probably not someone the president blames for America’s intervention in Iraq. Andersson goes back to the question of how to channel a response to Russia through NATO. It’s not an easy question to answer, because it’s not as though Ukraine is in any shape to join NATO now nor does the new government appear interested in doing so anyway. But Andersson has come up with a twist on the idea of expanding NATO: add Sweden and Finland. Andersson explains:

Expanding NATO to Sweden and Finland would achieve several important aims. From a political standpoint, it would bring the NATO border ever closer to Russia, demonstrating that military aggression in Europe carries major geopolitical consequences. Sweden and Finland’s nonalignment has offered Russia a comforting buffer zone along its northwestern border ever since the end of World War II. If Sweden and Finland were to join NATO now, that buffer would be gone, and the alliance would gain two of the world’s most democratic, politically stable, and economically successful countries. NATO would also pick up two very active proponents of transatlanticism that have consistently argued for strong U.S. involvement in Europe.

“From a military standpoint,” Andersson continues, “Sweden and Finland would add technologically sophisticated and well-equipped armed forces to the alliance.” Nor would the historical significance of Sweden and Finland joining the Atlantic alliance be lost on Russia. “Given the upsides, bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO seems like a no-brainer,” Andersson writes. “But the two countries have to agree to it.”

These are but two examples of policy choices on offer that would strengthen alliances and forge transatlantic cooperation without being too costly (or warmongering). They are also examples of the growing chorus of politicians and analysts who seem to be taking the Ukraine crisis far more seriously than the president is.

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Israeli Independence Day and the New Reality for World Jewry

As fighting picked up in Ukraine and the government in Kiev proved helpless to stop its spread, it was easy to miss a three-paragraph story in Haaretz about the Jews caught up in the unrest. And once reading the story, it was just as easy to forget it. The news item was about Israeli security experts being dispatched to Ukraine to train the Jewish community, because of the fear that should anti-Semitism–not exactly alien to Ukraine–bubble back to the surface, the government would be unable (or unwilling) to protect them.

The fact that the story of Israeli-facilitated self-defense passed without much notice says much about the way the existence of the State of Israel has completely changed the conversation about the world’s Jews. It’s a point especially worth remembering today on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, the year preceding which we saw speculation on the once-unthinkable notion that French Jews might have to take up an “aliyah of rescue”–a development that serves as an alarming reminder of the status of European Jewry.

Those two stories, one about the concept of an aliyah of rescue and the other about Israel dispatching trained security professionals to Jews in isolated communities, demonstrate a crucial point about Israel’s value to the Jewish world: not only do Jews feel safer in Israel than in most places in the world, but Jews feel safer all around the world simply because of Israel. Compare the situation in Ukraine, for example, to previous episodes in Jewish history. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries, some of whom were Jews. In her new history of Israel, Anita Shapira describes what happened next:

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As fighting picked up in Ukraine and the government in Kiev proved helpless to stop its spread, it was easy to miss a three-paragraph story in Haaretz about the Jews caught up in the unrest. And once reading the story, it was just as easy to forget it. The news item was about Israeli security experts being dispatched to Ukraine to train the Jewish community, because of the fear that should anti-Semitism–not exactly alien to Ukraine–bubble back to the surface, the government would be unable (or unwilling) to protect them.

The fact that the story of Israeli-facilitated self-defense passed without much notice says much about the way the existence of the State of Israel has completely changed the conversation about the world’s Jews. It’s a point especially worth remembering today on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, the year preceding which we saw speculation on the once-unthinkable notion that French Jews might have to take up an “aliyah of rescue”–a development that serves as an alarming reminder of the status of European Jewry.

Those two stories, one about the concept of an aliyah of rescue and the other about Israel dispatching trained security professionals to Jews in isolated communities, demonstrate a crucial point about Israel’s value to the Jewish world: not only do Jews feel safer in Israel than in most places in the world, but Jews feel safer all around the world simply because of Israel. Compare the situation in Ukraine, for example, to previous episodes in Jewish history. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries, some of whom were Jews. In her new history of Israel, Anita Shapira describes what happened next:

The tsar’s assassination sent shock waves throughout the Russian Empire, as well as a spate of pogroms in Ukraine. The Church and the government made no effort to rein in the mob, and Jews suspected both of collaborating with the rioters. While the damage was mainly to property, the shock was great: mass rioting against Jews had not occurred in Eastern Europe during the previous century. The assumption had been that the strengthening of the absolutist state ensured public order and security. Now it suddenly appeared that, whereas in most of Europe and in America the Jews were citizens with equal rights, the Russian masses could still go on the rampage while the government either stood passively by or was itself involved in the rioting.

Even after educational reforms brought the Jews far more inclusion into society, and even after the Jews of the Russian Empire thought they had solved the riddle of how to establish themselves as a protected minority, pogroms broke out in Ukraine–coincidentally, the riots began on today’s date on the Jewish calendar–from which they were left indefensible. Back to the Haaretz story about violence in the wake of the fall of the Ukrainian power structure:

Three instructors from Ozma — a special project supported by the forum that sends Israeli security specialists to communities around the world where local Jews are under threat – will run the workshop. A similar workshop was held in Brussels last month.

The Ozma instructors are all former members of the Israeli security services with training in first aid. About thirty members of the Kiev Jewish community are expected to participate in the workshop. Besides teaching them self-defense techniques, the instructors will also focus on crisis management tactics required in emergency situations.

There is a prosperous, strong, democratic Jewish state that answers the call when Jews are in danger anywhere in the world. This gets at why, in addition to the obvious reasons, the noxious accusations of dual loyalty or undue Jewish influence on politics in the West ring so false. Among the great many things that Israel Lobby conspiracy theorists like to ignore is the fact that when they argue for a weaker, more isolated Israel they are arguing for weaker Jews around the world.

They may not intend this to be the case; it’s quite likely that their ignorance of politics and history has left them plainly unaware of the implications of their own ideas. But that’s the reality. When you combine this with the religious implications of the existence of Jewish sovereignty in Israel–a concept that pervades much of Jewish practice, from rituals to prayer services to religious education–you can begin to understand what Israel’s Independence Day means even for those who have yet to step within its borders.

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Assessing John Kerry

Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

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Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

Perhaps the only success to which Kerry can point is the deal for Syria to forfeit its chemical-weapons arsenal, never mind that a cynic could see the precedent as rogue leaders getting a free shot to kill 1,400 civilians before coming in from the cold. In recent weeks, however, even that deal appears to be less than meets the eye. Last month, the Syrian regime apparently again used chemical weapons, an incident blogged about at the time and an attack subsequently acknowledged by the State Department, even if the State Department spokesman declined to assess blame.

Subsequently, the Brown Moses Blog, which tends to be the most careful and credible open source resource on Syrian chemical weapons, has posted video outlining claims of a new attack in Al-Tamanah. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says Syria has complied with the removal or disposal of Syrian chemical material, it is important to remember that is based on what Syria has declared, and there is no way of knowing whether it includes all Syrian chemical munitions. Meanwhile, the OPCW has concluded “sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia” in the aftermath of apparent regime attacks on civilians in northern Syria. And so, while Kerry celebrates, Syrians suffocate.

Let us hope that Kerry can redeem himself. But if there’s one lesson he might learn as he assesses his tenure so far, it’s that he isn’t the center of the world and desire and rhetoric aren’t enough to win success. Perhaps he might look at his failures and recognize that many problems are more complicated than he—or the staff charged with preparing him—seems to recognize. In the meantime, while he assesses where the United States was diplomatically when he took office and where it is today, he might remember the maxim for doctors could just as easily apply to himself: First, do no harm.

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The Business of Statecraft and the Abandonment of Ukraine

The news in Ukraine gets bleaker, but a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. What has turned into a civil war in eastern Ukraine cannot go back to its designation as a series of “protests,” nor can Vladimir Putin’s Russia plausibly go back to feigning nonintervention. Pro-Russian forces have reportedly shot down two Ukrainian government helicopters, at least one of them with shoulder-fired missiles.

The Ukrainian intelligence service is claiming that those “separatists” probably didn’t have shoulder-fired missile launchers stocked away in the linen closet for a rainy day, a sentiment based on some pretty sound logic. This is not Occupy Slavyansk. And yet, the West–especially Europe, quelle surprise–is acting as if it were. As Angela Merkel meets today with President Obama in Washington to discuss the next steps in the synchronized frowning that has characterized the response to Russian aggression thus far, the Wall Street Journal reports she is delivering some bad news for Kiev, with a predictable explanation.

“Angela Merkel is carrying a clear message from Germany’s business lobby to the White House: No more sanctions,” according to the Journal. “Several of the biggest names in German business,” including Siemens, Adidas, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Bank, “have made their opposition to broader economic sanctions against Russia clear in recent weeks, both in public and in private.” The Journal goes on to explain that, essentially, we have a new answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question. If you want to talk to Europe, call the CEO of Adidas:

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The news in Ukraine gets bleaker, but a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. What has turned into a civil war in eastern Ukraine cannot go back to its designation as a series of “protests,” nor can Vladimir Putin’s Russia plausibly go back to feigning nonintervention. Pro-Russian forces have reportedly shot down two Ukrainian government helicopters, at least one of them with shoulder-fired missiles.

The Ukrainian intelligence service is claiming that those “separatists” probably didn’t have shoulder-fired missile launchers stocked away in the linen closet for a rainy day, a sentiment based on some pretty sound logic. This is not Occupy Slavyansk. And yet, the West–especially Europe, quelle surprise–is acting as if it were. As Angela Merkel meets today with President Obama in Washington to discuss the next steps in the synchronized frowning that has characterized the response to Russian aggression thus far, the Wall Street Journal reports she is delivering some bad news for Kiev, with a predictable explanation.

“Angela Merkel is carrying a clear message from Germany’s business lobby to the White House: No more sanctions,” according to the Journal. “Several of the biggest names in German business,” including Siemens, Adidas, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Bank, “have made their opposition to broader economic sanctions against Russia clear in recent weeks, both in public and in private.” The Journal goes on to explain that, essentially, we have a new answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question. If you want to talk to Europe, call the CEO of Adidas:

In most countries, it would be highly unusual for corporate executives to inject themselves into geopolitics and matters of national security with the forcefulness that a number of German business leaders have. But many of Germany’s largest companies have substantial Russian operations, built in some cases over decades, and worry that tough economic sanctions would rob them of a key growth market when their home market—Europe—is stagnant.

That has led to intense pressure on Berlin. Germany’s chancellor has repeatedly criticized Russia for its actions in Ukraine and warned the Kremlin it would face serious consequences if it doesn’t change course. Yet Ms. Merkel has stopped short of endorsing broader economic sanctions, opting instead to impose travel bans and asset freezes on individuals with close ties to the Kremlin.

It’s easy to begin, at least, with some sympathy for Merkel. Thanks to the EU’s fiscal troubles, Germany has taken the role of Europe’s financial backstop. It’s a mostly thankless job that earns the German government, when they try to fix the messes caused by other reckless European countries, obnoxious and offensive Nazi comparisons. This resistance to German hegemony is, for obvious reasons, coded into the continent’s DNA. Germany’s response has often been resignation to the role: to simply sign the checks while letting France command Europe’s military decisions.

Because of all that, Germany’s economic policy does not exist in a vacuum. Whether as penance for past sins or a paternal responsibility to Europe’s wayward sons, Germany must consider others when setting policy, ever mindful that Berlin can absorb losses others cannot.

However: there’s a limit to such excuses, and it’s not clear that long-term this would even be the right economic approach, let alone the right moral approach, which it plainly is not. After all, is constant political and military turmoil in major energy producers good for global markets and trade in the long run? And how will it affect European markets for expansionist powers to continue encroaching on Europe’s borders? (There are concerns Russia could target Moldova next, which is west of Ukraine.)

The state system in place is far from perfect, but allowing it to be undermined is unlikely to be good for business. After all, Merkel surely remembers how Germany came to be economically successful and the EU common market broadly integrated, and it began with throwing off the yoke of Russian tyranny and imperialism.

Merkel knows this not only because she is the head of government of the country that has basically become Europe’s central banker. She knows this because she grew up in East Germany. And here is where the moral and the material meet. It can’t be good for Europe’s economic future to yawn at Europe’s steady destabilization. But it certainly isn’t right. Merkel is where she is because there is no more East Germany, no more suffocating control by Moscow. Other independent states with sovereign borders deserve the same, no matter what the management at Adidas thinks.

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The Benghazi Distraction

The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

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The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Granted, those early talking points were off base. I will even grant that they may have been off-base for political rather than policy reasons: With an election two months away, and Obama doing his utmost to take credit for killing Osama bin Laden and finishing off al-Qaeda, the White House did not want to be blamed for a major terrorist attack. But this is not Watergate. It’s not even Iran-Contra. Unless something radically new emerges, it looks to me like the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in–a bit reminiscent of Bush administration denials in the summer of 2003 that Iraq faced a growing insurgency. 

If you listened to Bush spokesmen, you would have been told that Iraq only faced a few random attacks from “dead-enders” and they were of little broader concern. This was not just a question of PR–it was also a policy misjudgment with serious consequences because the Bush administration failed to adequately respond to a growing insurgency. But it wasn’t an impeachable offense and neither are the far less consequential Benghazi talking points. 

Republicans should focus on the shameful failures of Obama’s defense and foreign policy but Benghazi, in my view, is a distraction from the real issues–and it’s not even likely to help Republicans politically. It certainly did little good for Mitt Romney and I suspect Republicans are now dreaming if they think it will help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton. I just don’t see much evidence that most Americans–as opposed to Fox News Channel viewers–are focused on, or care about, this issue. Republicans would be better advised to focus on the bigger issues and rebuild their tattered foreign policy credibility, which is being damaged by the isolationist pronouncements of Rand Paul and his ilk.

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Ukraine Admits Defeat

Ukraine’s acting president yesterday confirmed what is now appallingly obvious: Russia has succeeded in invading and occupying eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s security forces have been helpless to dislodge the “green men”–a combination of local pro-Russian militants and Russian security forces–who have occupied many of the important public buildings in the east.

“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, acknowledged. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”

Now Putin and his minions are pressing their advantage by announcing a May 11 referendum on autonomy or possibly independence for the east. This is designed to preempt Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of May by presenting a fait accompli to whoever is elected Ukraine’s next president. In case Kiev gets any funny ideas about trying to retake its country, Putin is keeping more than 40,000 Russian troops on high alert close to the border and now he is demanding that “Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country.” Or else.

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Ukraine’s acting president yesterday confirmed what is now appallingly obvious: Russia has succeeded in invading and occupying eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s security forces have been helpless to dislodge the “green men”–a combination of local pro-Russian militants and Russian security forces–who have occupied many of the important public buildings in the east.

“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, acknowledged. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”

Now Putin and his minions are pressing their advantage by announcing a May 11 referendum on autonomy or possibly independence for the east. This is designed to preempt Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of May by presenting a fait accompli to whoever is elected Ukraine’s next president. In case Kiev gets any funny ideas about trying to retake its country, Putin is keeping more than 40,000 Russian troops on high alert close to the border and now he is demanding that “Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country.” Or else.

Just as depressing as Russia’s aggression is the toothless response from the West. The U.S. has been willing to sanction a few more Russians than the EU, but neither the U.S. nor EU is willing to target entire sectors of the Russian economy–not even the financial sector, which is especially vulnerable to being barred from doing business in the West. Thus the targets of the sanctions react with insouciance. Typical is this throwaway line:

“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest the U.S. delivers its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the recipient of a U.S. asset freeze and travel ban, said Tuesday, referring to the international space station. The United States relies on Russian space shuttle flights to launch astronauts into orbit.

Ha-ha. But the fact that Putin and his cronies are laughing at us tells us why they’re winning. They are not afraid of us, and we–especially the Europeans–are afraid of them. 

At this rate, the Baltic republics can expect their existence as independent and sovereign states to be threatened before long, notwithstanding their membership in NATO. In fact their very membership in NATO could prove a lure to Putin who may be tempted to confront the Western alliance with a fresh crisis to expose its haplessness. 

It’s still not too late to impose sanctions with bite. Whatever happens in Ukraine, it is vitally important to make Russia pay a steep price for its aggression if only to deter potential imitators around the world.

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Ronald Asmus’s Extraordinary Legacy

Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

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Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

Part of the reason NATO was an option at all in the early days was that the existing European structures were simply not up to the task of integrating and protecting the post-Soviet states. Initial hopes were that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could take stewardship of such an integration. But it was heavy on the cooperation and light on the security. Then there was the European Union, but France was opposed to opening its doors to full membership. “That left NATO,” Asmus writes.

There were a few turning points in NATO’s favor, some more famous than others. For Asmus, it was the Foreign Affairs article he authored along with two other colleagues at RAND in 1993 making the case for NATO enlargement. Another was a speech given around that time by Volker Ruehe, an up-and-coming German politician who had taken the defense portfolio in the German governing coalition. Ruehe, apparently without even telling the country’s foreign minister, gave a speech calling for NATO and the EU to put Central and Eastern European countries on the path to full membership. Asmus writes:

On the plane during the flight back to Cologne, one of Ruehe’s top military advisors remarked that it had been a mistake to give the speech and it would take Germany years to recover from the damage caused by the Minister’s comments. He was mistaken. Within several years every one of Ruehe’s core ideas would be embraced by the U.S. and would become official Alliance policy.

It was one of many examples that showed support for the alliance was always higher than it appeared, but also that the West (especially Europe) needed a good shove in the right direction every so often. The rest is, as they say, history.

Bill Clinton, too, deserves a fair amount of credit. Not only was he receptive to the ideas that led to NATO expansion, but he was a compelling spokesman for the cause. As the events in Ukraine this year and Georgia a few years ago showed, the countries most likely to be attacked by Russia are those without security guarantees from the West. Clinton made this point repeatedly. In 1997, Asmus notes, Clinton gave a speech to West Point graduates and declared that he wanted to expand NATO “to make it less likely that you will ever be called to fight in another war across the Atlantic.” Later that year Clinton met privately with a group of senators to gauge their support. “Extending a security guarantee is important,” Clinton told them. “No NATO member has ever been attacked.”

Joe Biden, too, made a powerful argument, telling skeptics like Jack Matlock and Michael Mandelbaum that not to enlarge NATO simply because there was no immediate threat from Russia was “a prescription for paralysis.” As we’ve seen in recent years, such complacency does indeed set in and grind progress to a halt.

And that is key to truly grasping the significance of what Asmus accomplished. Letting opportunities slip by, when it comes to European integration, often means there will be no second chance. Asmus saw an opportunity, made his case, and accomplished something historic before it was buried in bureaucratic inertia.

After the Senate overwhelmingly approved the expansion, Jan Nowak, the famed courier between the Polish underground resistance and Allied governments who was 84 years old at the time of the vote, approached Asmus from the Senate’s visitor’s galley. “I never thought,” he said with broad smile, “that I would live to see the day when Poland is not only free—but safe.” That was Asmus’s monumental achievement, and thanks to his determination it is America’s legacy.

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