Commentary Magazine


Topic: Vladimir Putin

A “Berlin Airlift” for the Ukrainian Winter

Russian aggression remains very much in the headlines, as President Vladimir Putin last week re-opened the southern front and more recently reportedly bragged that he could capture the Ukraine in just a couple weeks. Max Boot rightly writes that the gestures NATO envisions won’t deter Putin. The problem with American and perhaps NATO policy goes deeper, however.

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Russian aggression remains very much in the headlines, as President Vladimir Putin last week re-opened the southern front and more recently reportedly bragged that he could capture the Ukraine in just a couple weeks. Max Boot rightly writes that the gestures NATO envisions won’t deter Putin. The problem with American and perhaps NATO policy goes deeper, however.

So much policy in recent years has been based on wishful thinking. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preferred to see problems in U.S.-Russian relations as rooted more with their predecessors than with Putin himself, hence the investment in the “reset.” There continued years of denial about Putin’s true intentions, all the while making compromises and offering concessions based on the deluded notion that Putin was more partner than pariah. When Putin invaded Crimea, when he shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, and when he continued his push into his neighbor, Obama simply reacted with a patchwork of statements and superficial pronouncements until the television cameras moved on. Indeed, if there is one core principle to the Obama doctrine, it is not leading from behind (for that would imply leading), but rather simply reacting to world events in a scattershot fashion.

It’s time to be proactive. Putin can boast that he can take the Ukrainian capital Kiev in two weeks, but he really doesn’t need to. After all, Ukraine remains overwhelmingly dependent upon Russian gas shipments to power its factories and heat its homes during the winter. If Putin simply turns a nozzle, he can freeze Ukrainians into submission. Everyone sees the winter coming, and yet there does not appear to be much planning within U.S. policy circles about how to prevent Russian hardball with energy shipments.

It’s time to talk about a “Berlin Airlift” of escorted shipments of fuel into Ukraine. Such an operation would be difficult, but then again, so was the Berlin Airlift. American warships can enter the Black Sea on routine patrol, and Romania can contribute and provide basing and logistical support, if not active partnership. If the United States could reflag Kuwaiti tankers to protect them, so too could the United States re-flag tankers bound for the Ukraine.

There is no doubt that any Ukraine flotilla would be expensive. It is also true that European officials—and especially Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany—construct their policies more on mercantile considerations than on principles. But then again, if economics always trumped freedom, there would have been no Berlin Airlift and the Cold War would have taken a far worse turn. But looming problems require more than posturing and press conference; they require proactive resolutions. Alas, time is running out to construct such a solution and to prevent Putin from transforming Ukraine into the vassal he envisions.

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NATO’s Gesture Won’t Deter Putin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

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

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

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

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ukraine in the Shadow of Molotov-Ribbentrop

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

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

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

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

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

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“This Is Now a War with Russia”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Was Putin’s Syria Advice Really Trenchant?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Russian Invasion on the Horizon?

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

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

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

In other words, Russia had invaded Ukraine. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine’s response:

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

And then the requisite moral equivalence from the Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sanctions and Appeasement: 1941 and 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who will be Turkey’s Medvedev?

As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prepares to move to the presidential palace and to transform that office from its former ceremonial and constitutional role into that of strongman policymaker, there will be a change in the premiership.

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As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prepares to move to the presidential palace and to transform that office from its former ceremonial and constitutional role into that of strongman policymaker, there will be a change in the premiership.

Erdoğan has announced that he will choose his successor on August 21. Several names have been floated. When I was in Turkey earlier this, several people suggested that Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan might take the post. On paper he seems qualified: he was previously minister of foreign affairs and also minister of finance, and in his deputy premiership, he also has special responsibility for the treasury. That may also be his undoing. Erdoğan is politically savvy but he does not have any firm grasp of the economy. Certainly, he implemented no-nonsense reforms which were long overdue and for that he gets credit, but he also was fortunate enough to hold power against the backdrop of a demographic dividend and in the aftermath of massive currency devaluation. The Turkish economy had hit rock bottom shortly before Erdoğan’s Islamist party won election. Rebounds are often time of great prosperity, especially if the starting point is the economy’s nadir. Today, however, the Turkish economy is tenuous at best. Currency devaluation has undercut Turks’ buying power, and personal debt is up more than 3,000 percent. People are living on credit, and eventually the banks will call in the debt or risk failure. Against this backdrop, Babacan has sought reforms that Erdoğan neither wants nor understands.

Others have suggested that Ahmet Davutoğlu, architect of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy. Davutoğlu’s policy has on the face of things been a disaster: He has embraced Hamas over the Palestinian Authority; looks at Israel with anti-Semitic disdain; was for Assad before he was against him; oversaw perhaps the covert Turkish flirtation with ISIS; and cast his lot with the Muslim Brotherhood over Egypt. In short, he has made Turkey into a pariah in the region, but his ideological radicalism and fealty to Erdoğan’s ambitions to be sultan in reality if not in name, makes him another prime candidate.

Others suggest Bülent Arınç, another Erdoğan deputy who, while serving as parliamentary speaker once warned the constitutional court that the AKP could dissolve them if they kept finding AKP legislation unconstitutional. He, too, has the right ideological pedigree. Other candidates might also take the prize, all of them handpicked for their loyalty to Erdoğan.

Make no mistake, though: It doesn’t matter who becomes Turkey’s Dmitry Medvedev because just as in Russia, the premiership will be irrelevant. Erdoğan has become the Turkish equivalent of Vladimir Putin. He is an authoritarian dictator, a strong man, and internally as intolerant as the Islamic State even if he too refined to show it directly. That the premiership no longer matters in Turkey, that any appointment will be as irrelevant as Putin’s placeholder was in Russia, shows just how far Turkey has fallen. It is now just another third world dictatorship, and will ultimately be just as much a failure. Unfortunately, the damage Erdoğan can do before that happens will remain considerable.

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Is Putin’s Next Move Against Azerbaijan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is this new? No, not really:

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

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

So what happened? The Obama administration decided to care:

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

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

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

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Will the Russian Army March into Ukraine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Putin Doctrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putin, Europe, and Historical Amnesia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Britain’s Latest Rebuke to Putin Is Personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Is Aeroflot Still Flying?

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

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

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

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

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

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Downing of Plane Shows West Cannot Ignore Russia-Ukraine Escalation

On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighter aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 which had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 people on board were killed. President Reagan swiftly condemned “this crime against humanity,” which only redoubled his desire to bring down the “evil empire” (as he had called the Soviet Union earlier that year).

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On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighter aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 which had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 people on board were killed. President Reagan swiftly condemned “this crime against humanity,” which only redoubled his desire to bring down the “evil empire” (as he had called the Soviet Union earlier that year).

We can only hope for similar moral clarity today from the U.S. and Europe in the aftermath of the equally outrageous shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine with 295 people on board including more than 20 American citizens. The exact circumstances remain murky, but there is a strong circumstantial case, based on what we already know, that this was the work of pro-Russian separatist rebels who had been provided by the Kremlin with an advanced Buk anti-aircraft missile system. As Julia Ioffe of the New Republic notes, “there are now screenshots floating around the Russian-language internet from what seems to be the Facebook page of Igor Strelkov, a rebel leader in eastern Ukraine, showing plumes of smoke and bragging about shooting down a Ukrainian military Antonov plane shortly before MaH 17 fell. ‘Don’t fly in our skies,’ he reportedly wrote. If that’s true, it would seem rebels downed the jetliner, having mistaken it for a Ukrainian military jet.”

Certainly it would not be surprising to see the rebels, or their Russian sponsors, shooting down suspected Ukrainian aircraft. In fact, just before the Malaysian airliner went down, the Ukrainian government had accused a Russian fighter plane of shooting down one of its own fighters in Ukrainian airspace on Wednesday. Just a few days before that, Ukraine accused Russian rebels of shooting down a Ukrainian transport aircraft.

This is becoming rather too regular an occurrence to be ignored. The deaths of all those innocent passengers and crew aboard the Malaysian aircraft, who were in no way party to this conflict, makes it impossible for the West to look away from Russian aggression or for Russia to escape culpability. Even if the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft was accidental and not ordered by the Kremlin, as seems likely, Vladimir Putin is nevertheless ultimately responsible. If you hand a bazooka to a hyperactive teenager and he destroys your neighbor’s house, the person providing the weapon is just as culpable as the one firing it.

And there is no doubt that anti-aircraft missiles, along with tanks and other advanced weaponry, have been provided to pro-Russian separatists, many of them Russian citizens and even members of the Russian intelligence and military services, by the Russian state. You don’t pick up an anti-aircraft missile at your local military surplus store the way you might an AK-47.

The question now is what we–meaning we in the West–are going to do about this outrageous act of villainy. John McCain said that if Russian involvement is proved, there will be “hell to pay.” I certainly hope so. What would this “hell” consist of?

No one is contemplating the use of Western military force against Russia or even Russian separatists in Ukraine, but certainly there is much that the U.S. and its European allies could do to provide military equipment and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to enable them to defeat Putin’s minions–something that we have been afraid to do until now for fear of triggering Russian escalation. As if shooting down civilian aircraft isn’t escalation enough.

There is also a need, as I have written before, to station substantial numbers of American ground forces in frontline NATO states including Poland and the Baltics to make clear that they will stand up to Russian aggression if directed their way. Seeing U.S. troops on his doorstep is pretty much the last thing Putin wants, and that’s precisely why we should do so. In addition the U.S. needs to end its ill-considered military drawdown and rebuild our strength to confront our enemies as Ronald Reagan did.

Finally the U.S. and Europe need to beef up their limited slate of sanctions against Russia. Just yesterday President Obama announced fresh sanctions against several Russian financial institutions and oil and gas producers which are, inter alia, being barred from the U.S. market. This stops well short of the “sectoral” sanctions on the Russian financial and energy sectors that President Obama had previously threatened, and the European Union pusillanimously refused to go even that far. The EU only promised to block future loans for projects in Russia by European development banks. Perhaps now the EU will get off its knees and join the U.S. in truly broad sanctions that will do real damage to the Russian economy.

Oh and perhaps now the French government will consider not delivering to Russia two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that will considerably enhance Moscow’s ability to terrorize its neighbors.

I say “perhaps” advisedly because this is what should happen–but probably won’t. Even now there will be voices of detente cautioning that we don’t want to “isolate” or “corner” Russia. But if the murder of 295 innocents is not enough for the West to finally stand up to Russia’s barely disguised aggression in Ukraine, it is hard to know what it will take.

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Poroshenko Stands Up to Putin. Can He Count on the West?

Whenever tempers flare in the Middle East, a bit of a news diversion is inevitably created. And the significant foreign-policy news that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now is that Ukraine’s new government has put Vladimir Putin on his heels. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, ended the unilateral ceasefire with the rebels, a move that appears to have caught Russia off-guard. The New York Times reports:

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Whenever tempers flare in the Middle East, a bit of a news diversion is inevitably created. And the significant foreign-policy news that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now is that Ukraine’s new government has put Vladimir Putin on his heels. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, ended the unilateral ceasefire with the rebels, a move that appears to have caught Russia off-guard. The New York Times reports:

In a stern warning that cited civilian casualties in war-torn eastern Ukraine, Russia on Wednesday demanded that the Ukrainian government reinstate a cease-fire and halt its military operation aimed at suppressing the pro-Russian separatist insurrection that has laid siege to the region for more than three months.

“Again we resolutely demand that the Ukrainian authorities — provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct — to stop shelling peaceful cities and villages in their own country, to return to a real cease-fire in order to save human lives,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The statement went on to accuse the government of President Petro O. Poroshenko of the “physical annihilation of citizens of their own country” and, citing the evacuation of an orphanage in the Luhansk region, said, “the Ukrainian authorities do not even care about the fate of small children.”

Even in the context of the deeply embittered relations between the Kremlin and the government in Kiev, the Russian statement was unusually harsh and signaled blistering outrage in Moscow over the renewed military effort to end the rebellion.

Indeed it was harsh. The parenthetical phrase “provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct” is diplospeak for “they have gone completely insane.” But as an accompanying Times editorial points out, it’s not clear Poroshenko had much of a choice.

The ceasefire was, after all, unilateral. Poroshenko would no doubt like to stop the violence with means other than civil war, and he is attempting to do so. This is understandable: a civil war has a way of perpetuating itself. Once a central government commits militarily to routing rebels, it can be difficult to know when the war is officially, or should be, “over.” It also can require ongoing security and surveillance of restive populations, which can have the unintended and paradoxical effect of treating a rebellious corner of the country as a breakaway province while insisting it is part of the whole.

On top of all this, such a task becomes even more complex for a new government, and doubly so for a new government with a weak army. The last thing Kiev would want to do is demonstrate that the rebels, aided by Moscow, are on a level playing field (or more). But they also can’t let yet another province just slip away without a fight. It would not only humiliate Kiev (again); it would also show Ukraine to be less than a sovereign country, a nation being looted for parts.

The Times editorialists praise the West for restraint until now, but warn the U.S. and Europe that Poroshenko has made his decision to ally with the West and they must not abandon him:

Mr. Poroshenko also has little room left to maneuver. Having signed a trade pact with the European Union that his ousted predecessor rejected, and now having sent troops to quell the rebellion in the east, he has committed Ukraine to a struggle that is bound to be long and painful. Russia has already raised Ukrainian gas prices and has threatened “serious consequences” over the trade agreement, and things are likely to get worse, economically and militarily, before any potential advantages of the European Union agreement kick in.

The United States and Europe have been right, so far, to moderate their response and to give diplomacy every chance. Nobody wants a trade war; certainly not Europe, with its heavy dependence on Russian energy, and not the American businesses that have begun lobbying against sanctions. And every effort must be made to convince the Russians that this is not about “deterrence.” But the agreement that Ukraine signed, along with Georgia and Moldova, is not only about trade. It’s also a commitment by the West to support them in their progress toward a higher standard of governance. Washington and Brussels have drawn lines and threatened serious sanctions, and the time has come to show they mean it.

That strikes me as a key point. The catalyst for the uprising in Ukraine was the fight over whether Kiev would sign a trade deal with Europe. The protests that erupted from a last-minute turn back to Moscow ended up bringing down the government and led to a Russian invasion and now a Russian-supported rebellion.

Ukraine has signed the deal, officially throwing in its lot with Europe at high (and still mounting) costs in the near term. The West must put its money where its mouth is and make sure they don’t send the message that it’s better to let Moscow dictate your foreign policy than gamble on the democracies of Europe and America.

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Polish Complaint About U.S. Has Merit

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

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Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

Moscow’s motive in seeking to undermine Polish-U.S. relations at a time when its aggression against Ukraine has the democracies of Eastern Europe worrying about the future is clear. Poles are rightly obsessing about Russia’s possible meddling in their internal affairs and whether the center-right pro-Western government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk will survive this crisis. Yet the more important question for Americans is whether Sikorski’s colorful and, at times, vulgar, backlash at what he feels has been the Obama administration’s cavalier attitude toward its Polish ally is justified.

Predictably, isolationists and critics of U.S. engagement on behalf of the embattled democracies bordering Russia are labeling Sikorski as an ungrateful wretch. The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison claims that the U.S. is already doing everything it can for Poland and that Sikorski’s complaint about the “worthless alliance” is contradicted by the facts since U.S. presidents have repeatedly pledged this country to the defense of Poland since it joined NATO after the Cold War.

But what Larison and anyone else inclined to dismiss Sikorski’s lament need to understand is that Poland’s situation and history require more than the routine pro-forma reassurances Warsaw has gotten from Washington. After five and half years of U.S. retreat under President Obama, including repeated instances in which it has cut off the Poles and other regional democrats at the knees, it’s little wonder that Sikorski is questioning the value of his country’s alliance with the U.S. Moreover, the fact that one of the most pro-American figures in Eastern European politics is speaking in this manner, even if it did come from an off-the-record illegal tape, ought to alarm Americans who think the president’s feckless appeasement of Russia doesn’t have consequences.

Sikorski is not just any Polish politician. He is a distinguished journalist who was educated in the West and left Poland during the period of Soviet dominance during the Cold War. Since his return to his country he has shown himself to be a consistent voice in favor of a strong alliance with the West and the United States that would guarantee defense of the freedom of his nation and others in the region. But in the last few years he has had to contend with an Obama administration more intent on their farcical attempt to “reset” relations with Russia than in shoring up ties to friendly nations like Poland that are threatened by Moscow. Obama’s cancellation of the plan to install missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009 was the first indication that he had little interest in bolstering Eastern European democracies against Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. Since then relations with Poland have been continuously undermined by the administration’s desire to avoid tension with the Putin regime.

The futility of such efforts was demonstrated this year as Putin reacted to the fall of an ally in Ukraine with the seizure of Crimea and efforts to undermine that country’s sovereignty over its eastern regions that border Russia. Since then the U.S. talked the talk about supporting democracy and resisting aggression. President Obama even visited Poland this spring to restate his willingness to defend that country. But it’s hard to argue with Sikorski’s question about whether the Polish effort to play along with U.S. diplomacy on this and other issues has done more harm than good. If Poles assume that the Americans will save them from winding up under the thumb of a resurgent Russian empire, Sikorski seems to think Obama’s record proves this belief to be a hindrance to improving the situation.

As the recorded conversation apparently took place before the attacks on Ukraine began and the growing antagonism between the U.S. and Russia, perhaps Poles feel a bit better about American intentions today. But if, as many suspect, the release of the tapes is a Russian ploy to topple a pro-American government in Warsaw, perhaps Sikorski’s worries about Poland’s future are not as off the mark as some are suggesting. What Putin wants is to line his borders with governments that are oriented toward Moscow rather than the West. While the inclusion of Poland and the Baltic republics in NATO ought to make any Russian plans for re-writing the outcome of the Cold War a pipe dream, Moscow’s adventurism and Obama’s “lead from behind” response to other international crises is rightly causing many in the region to question America’s ability to stay the course.

Rather than joining in the gang tackle of Sikorski, Americans should be pondering how it is that their government has alienated so many allies while engaging in futile efforts at engaging our foes. The U.S. alliance with Poland may not be worthless, but there is little question that it is worth a lot less since Barack Obama became president.

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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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