Commentary Magazine


Topic: Vladimir Putin

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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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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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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Why Americans Seem So Torn on Foreign Policy

Though comparisons between Russian leaders today and 20th century monsters like Hitler and Stalin are generally–and rightfully–resisted or corrected when used in the U.S., it’s impossible to understand the conflict in Ukraine without making room for the sense of history that hangs over Europe. Der Spiegel reports on German veterans who recognize too much of the scenes in Ukraine from their own time serving there seventy years ago (though the Germans were the invaders that time). And the New York Times notices a once-forgotten Moscow Cold War museum now swamped by visitors “drawn as much by history as by the sense that the combustible, post-World War II conflict between East and West has come roaring back to life.”

This also makes it easier to understand European nerves over American inaction. If they see the possibility of a massive war engulfing Europe’s major powers, they must also see American war-weariness and retrenchment chic as distinct but not tangibly different, for their own purposes, from the American isolationism they remember as well. So in one sense, they could be heartened by the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll which, as Max notes, shows an American public confused and hesitant about America’s role in the world but not isolationist. But that optimism is based on the sense that Americans are open to persuasion on foreign involvement, which leads to the crucial question: who is doing the persuading?

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Though comparisons between Russian leaders today and 20th century monsters like Hitler and Stalin are generally–and rightfully–resisted or corrected when used in the U.S., it’s impossible to understand the conflict in Ukraine without making room for the sense of history that hangs over Europe. Der Spiegel reports on German veterans who recognize too much of the scenes in Ukraine from their own time serving there seventy years ago (though the Germans were the invaders that time). And the New York Times notices a once-forgotten Moscow Cold War museum now swamped by visitors “drawn as much by history as by the sense that the combustible, post-World War II conflict between East and West has come roaring back to life.”

This also makes it easier to understand European nerves over American inaction. If they see the possibility of a massive war engulfing Europe’s major powers, they must also see American war-weariness and retrenchment chic as distinct but not tangibly different, for their own purposes, from the American isolationism they remember as well. So in one sense, they could be heartened by the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll which, as Max notes, shows an American public confused and hesitant about America’s role in the world but not isolationist. But that optimism is based on the sense that Americans are open to persuasion on foreign involvement, which leads to the crucial question: who is doing the persuading?

Max notes the central contradiction in the results: the pollsters asked Americans what they thought (in addition to a bevy of other issues) about foreign policy, and Americans responded, essentially, that they have no idea. They succumbed to a kind of magical thinking on foreign policy in which they want the U.S. to pull back from the world without creating a vacuum–a logical impossibility. They appear frustrated that when America plays a reduced role in world affairs its influence is replaced by Vladimir Putin instead of unicorns and labradoodles (I’m paraphrasing slightly).

But on some level that confusion is understandable because the president of the United States is arguing out loud with the straw men in his head, claiming that the alternative to toothless sanctions is total world war. Americans at home may see this as the amusing inanity of an ideologue who is losing an argument, but it’s doubtful the Europeans are laughing. It turns out there is some middle ground between treating Putin like Gilly from Saturday Night Live and nuking Moscow, though you wouldn’t know it from the commander in chief.

The fact of the matter is, as I’ve noted from time to time, the president has a unique ability to shape public opinion on foreign policy, more so than on domestic policy. Americans have internalized the president as both the leader of the free world and the commander in chief of the armed forces of the planet’s only superpower. So the public is not going to be easily persuaded on the goodness of American power projection by this administration.

Looking forward, again, Europeans are probably not too encouraged. The Democrats are seeking to succeed Obama with Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state who presided over the failed Russian “reset,” chewed out allies like Israel, and expressed regret to Pakistan–which cooperates with anti-American terrorists and sheltered Osama bin Laden–for past American policy. On the right, the debate looks to be more interesting, not least because unlike the Democrats the Republicans do want to have an actual debate, not a coronation.

Sentiments like those expressed in the poll are reflected in the way the Republican race for the nomination has taken shape so far. The president’s abject failures have opened space for those who can present a serious alternative. That means that Republicans with the most success so far have been those like Scott Walker and Rand Paul, with the former proving conservative governance can fix even deep and costly liberal mismanagement and the latter making a thoughtful case for individual liberty in the face of liberal attacks on basic freedoms.

But the effect on the foreign-policy debate has been muted. Paul advocates retrenchment (though without the apology tour, one suspects) and has warned not to “tweak Russia.” Others like Walker seem to disagree with Paul on foreign policy but as the governor of a Midwestern state locked in a battle with government unions in the midst of the dismal Obama economy, the issue doesn’t exactly come up very often. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who possesses one of the stronger resumes of the potential 2016 class, has started branching out a bit more into foreign affairs but remains mired in a debate over education policy back home. Others are facing similar circumstances, with the high-profile exception of Marco Rubio. The Florida senator has dropped a bit in the polls recently, but he has not shied away from displaying his fluency in foreign affairs or striking a contrast to Paul’s perspective.

So yes, Americans are inclined toward the maintenance of a peaceable world order, and they are persuadable on the need for America to protect that order with a robust presence on the world stage. But they’re not going to get there on their own.

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Will Latest Russia Revelation Prompt Tougher Response from Obama?

Now they know that we know that they know. That’s the takeaway from Josh Rogin’s follow-up scoop on John Kerry’s address to the Trilateral Commission (this one co-authored with Eli Lake), in which Kerry reveals the administration has proof Russian officials are closely involved in fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine. The question is, will it impact the administration’s policy now that the White House knows that the public knows that the White House knows Russia is involved?

Of course, Russia’s involvement is not a surprise; everyone “knew,” on some level, precisely what Vladimir Putin was up to. But having proof is different, and having that proof in the hands of the administration is different as well, and so is the public knowing that the proof is in the hands of the administration, and that any policy recommendations are made with the full knowledge of Russian interventionism in Ukraine. Here’s Rogin with the crux of Kerry’s condemnation of Russia:

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Now they know that we know that they know. That’s the takeaway from Josh Rogin’s follow-up scoop on John Kerry’s address to the Trilateral Commission (this one co-authored with Eli Lake), in which Kerry reveals the administration has proof Russian officials are closely involved in fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine. The question is, will it impact the administration’s policy now that the White House knows that the public knows that the White House knows Russia is involved?

Of course, Russia’s involvement is not a surprise; everyone “knew,” on some level, precisely what Vladimir Putin was up to. But having proof is different, and having that proof in the hands of the administration is different as well, and so is the public knowing that the proof is in the hands of the administration, and that any policy recommendations are made with the full knowledge of Russian interventionism in Ukraine. Here’s Rogin with the crux of Kerry’s condemnation of Russia:

“Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language. We know exactly who’s giving those orders, we know where they are coming from,” Kerry said at a private meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Washington. A recording of Kerry’s remarks was obtained by The Daily Beast.

Kerry didn’t name specific Russian officials implicated in the recordings. But he claimed that the intercepts provided proof of the Russians deliberately fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine—and lying about it to U.S. officials and the public.

“It’s not an accident that you have some of the same people identified who were in Crimea and in Georgia and who are now in east Ukraine,” said Kerry. “This is insulting to everybody’s intelligence, let alone to our notions about how we ought to be behaving in the 21st century. It’s thuggism, it’s rogue state-ism. It’s the worst order of behavior.”

The proof, as Kerry describes it, is helpful in a strategic sense since it would be easier to identify Russian troublemakers elsewhere in Moscow’s near abroad–Moldova, say–if they move on to other targets the way they did in invading Georgia and then Ukraine. And that latter point raises another issue here. This is about more than dueling protests and raising voices.

The New York Times illustrates the escalation of the conflict in a tale of two Ukrainian cities–Kharkiv, where the mayor was left in critical condition after an assassination attempt, and Konstantinovka, where power seemingly switched hands. The disturbing aspect to this is that neither of these two cities is a locus of violence compared to other parts of eastern Ukraine. The Times reports:

The crisis in eastern Ukraine took dark turns on Monday as the mayor of the country’s second-largest city was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt and masked antigovernment militants seized control of this city almost effortlessly, laying bare the limits of the interim government’s control.

The violence was followed by a pro-government rally in the eastern city of Donetsk that was broken up by a rival pro-Russian crowd that beat and scattered the demonstrators shortly after they gathered, while the police stepped aside and looked on.

One Ukrainian soldier was killed by an explosion in the Donetsk region and another wounded as they cleared an obstacle, the Defense Ministry said, in a statement suggesting its troops may have for the first time been struck by an improvised roadside bomb.

Taken together, the events pointed to the further enfeeblement of the interim government in Kiev, which came to power after chasing President Viktor F. Yanukovych from office in February.

They also provided further evidence of the near irrelevance of a diplomatic agreement reached in Geneva this month aimed at defusing what remains a still escalating crisis.

As Jonathan wrote earlier, the situation in Ukraine seems to be a drag on President Obama’s approval ratings, with his handling of the crisis finding fewer takers than his handling of the ObamaCare fiasco. The Times story offers a clue why that is. The president has taken to insisting he has neither the time nor the inclination to explain himself before launching into bizarre rants accusing his critics of being warmongers. The alternative to total war, according to the president and his allies, is the administration’s “smart diplomacy.”

But even his fellow antiwar voices in the press are ridiculing the deal his administration struck in Ukraine as being of “near irrelevance” and the government the White House is supposedly helping to stand up showing signs of “further enfeeblement.” The whole thing is a very sad, very dangerous, and increasingly bloody saga of American diffidence.

And Kerry’s comments (should) complicate this further for the White House because the Post/ABC poll was conducted before Rogin’s latest scoop. The public was already dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s provocations, but now they’ve been told that the administration knew how much of this Moscow was directly responsible for.

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Putin and His Billions

The New York Times on Sunday had a fascinating article on Vladimir Putin’s personal fortune, which has been estimated as high as $40 billion. What made the article truly dismaying, however, was not its detailed speculation about the extent to which Putin has looted the Russian state. This was depressing but hardly shocking. 

I was far more dismayed by this sentence: “So far, the American government has not imposed sanctions on Mr. Putin himself, and officials said they would not in the short term, reasoning that personally targeting a head of state would amount to a ‘nuclear’ escalation, as several put it.”

So let me get this straight: Putin can invade neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine. He can oppress his own people and steal from them. He can shore up a murderous despot in Syria and block effective action against the Iranian mullahs over their nuclear program. But the West thinks that trying to sanction and freeze his ill-gotten billions is too risky an escalation?

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The New York Times on Sunday had a fascinating article on Vladimir Putin’s personal fortune, which has been estimated as high as $40 billion. What made the article truly dismaying, however, was not its detailed speculation about the extent to which Putin has looted the Russian state. This was depressing but hardly shocking. 

I was far more dismayed by this sentence: “So far, the American government has not imposed sanctions on Mr. Putin himself, and officials said they would not in the short term, reasoning that personally targeting a head of state would amount to a ‘nuclear’ escalation, as several put it.”

So let me get this straight: Putin can invade neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine. He can oppress his own people and steal from them. He can shore up a murderous despot in Syria and block effective action against the Iranian mullahs over their nuclear program. But the West thinks that trying to sanction and freeze his ill-gotten billions is too risky an escalation?

If you want to know why Putin is able to get away with his brazen aggression, here it is in a nutshell: a fundamental failure of will on the part of the U.S. and its European allies. Obviously nobody favors nuclear or even conventional military retaliation–we are not going to war with Russia unless it crosses some future line. 

But surely Putin has already crossed enough lines to justify the most severe possible economic sanctions we can inflict–including doing everything possible to deny him and his cronies the use of their illicitly acquired fortunes. The fact that we are willing to impose limited sanctions on some Putin pals but not on the master of the Kremlin himself says volumes about how fecklessly we are acting in the face of continuing and escalating aggression.

The big difference between the current masters of the Kremlin and their Soviet predecessors is that today’s crew are much more vulnerable to Western retaliation because they have so much money and property stored in the West. But it seems we are voluntarily giving up this leverage until sometime in the future. Are we waiting for Putin to invade Poland?

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So Much for Self-Determination in Crimea

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

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Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

Now, Putin is waving his stick once again, signing a decree banning the leader of Crimea’s Tatars from his homeland for five years. Perhaps he was upset that the Tatars were taking a page from Putin’s own playbook and demanding a referendum for their own freedom from Russia. What’s good for the goose obviously isn’t good for the gander. Perhaps if Russia is unilaterally banning the Tatar leader from Crimea and its wonderful beaches, Europe should show solidarity and respond by banning members of Russia’s ruling “United Russia” party from their summers in the Riviera or the Algarve. The financial loss to business could be more than offset by a concerted advertising campaign to encourage Ukrainians and other Europeans to take their place. After all, many would be more than happy to enjoy the resorts absent the loud Russians who put the stereotype of the “Ugly Americans” to shame.

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Finish the Sentence, Mr. Vice President

With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

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With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

If the substance of Biden’s remarks was to encourage the Ukrainians to defend their territory against Russian aggression, as they have every right to do, the most important question facing the West now is: what exactly is President Obama prepared to do to back them up if, as seems entirely possible, Putin responds by sending in troops to seize whatever parts of Ukraine he covets? The answer from the administration isn’t exactly a secret. Since the U.S. won’t supply Ukraine with weapons or make credible threats to enforce real sanctions on Russia—as opposed to the laughable sanctions on individual Putin cronies that have already been enacted—there is no reason for Moscow to view Biden’s visit as a deterrent to further aggression. Indeed, by making those empty statements, Biden may have actually helped Putin further justify his slanders about the dispute with Ukraine being largely the result of American interference.

American diplomacy on the subject has been equally risible as the agreement worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has proven to be worth as much as the agreements he previously worked out with them on Syria and Iran.

No sane American would choose to ignite a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine. But the U.S. is obligated by treaty to defend those former outposts of the Russian empire that are now NATO members. Yet, like Biden’s bloviating, the decision to send a token number of U.S. troops to Poland for military exercises isn’t likely to impress Putin.

If this dilemma seems familiar, it should. Much like the position that the U.S. finds itself in with regard to Syria, President Obama has few options and none of them are good. Years of sending the wrong messages to Moscow can’t be undone with a few weak gestures at this late date. Just as the situation in Syria might have been improved by decisive U.S. action in the early stages of that civil war, making sure Putin understood that the U.S. would regard any repeat of Russian aggression against Georgia elsewhere as a game changer might have made a difference this year when a pro-Moscow puppet was toppled in Kiev. Instead, the farcical “Russia reset” championed by Hillary Clinton and continued by Kerry only made the current debacle more likely.

It bears repeating that the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine provided Putin with the same opportunity to seize Ukrainian territory he had this year. But he was then uncertain about international reaction to projecting force beyond his borders. Now he has no such doubts. And it is almost certainly too late to create any reason for Putin to hesitate in time to save Ukraine, though clearly the U.S. can and should do what it can to aid Ukrainian self-defense.

The debate about what to do about the crisis in Ukraine is a frustrating one and, because of the lack of decent options for the U.S. at this point, it could be used to bolster support for neo-isolationist positions that would call for Americans to stop caring about the fate of countries that are marked for partition by their more powerful neighbors. But the moral of the story is not that the U.S. shouldn’t seek to restrain Russia. It’s that Obama’s years of weakness have made it impossible for us to defend our interests and our friends. As Biden’s empty rhetoric echoes across Eastern Europe this week, those allies who look to their alliance with the U.S. as a foundation of their defense may be forgiven for worrying about the value of American promises.

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Turkey to Take Press Crackdown to New Level?

When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

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When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

Erdoğan’s record reinforces the fact that Turkey belongs nowhere near Europe. Liberal Turks will never again be in the majority in their country, and Erdoğan believes that so long as his Anatolian constituency blindly supports him, he can be the sultan in reality that he always was in spirit. Turks and Kurds deserve better, but until and unless they stand up more forcefully for their rights or until Turkey fractures–which, with current demographic trends and the Kurdish national resurgence Turkey eventually will–liberal Turks will never again know freedom in their own country.

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Putin to Ukraine: Pay Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Get Moscow’s Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putin’s Secrets and Lies

The irony of two newspapers, the Washington Post and the Guardian, winning a Pulitzer for Public Service for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden only gets richer. The only public service that Snowden is interested in performing, it seems, is to his new patron, Vladimir Putin, who runs an increasingly oppressive police state. Snowden just did a carefully scripted guest spot on one of Putin’s televised propaganda shows. 

The American traitor was beamed in via video link to obsequiously ask the Russian dictator: “Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than their subjects, under surveillance?”

This gave Putin the opportunity to give a highly disingenuous response designed to make his autocracy look better than our democracy:

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The irony of two newspapers, the Washington Post and the Guardian, winning a Pulitzer for Public Service for serving as a mouthpiece for Edward Snowden only gets richer. The only public service that Snowden is interested in performing, it seems, is to his new patron, Vladimir Putin, who runs an increasingly oppressive police state. Snowden just did a carefully scripted guest spot on one of Putin’s televised propaganda shows. 

The American traitor was beamed in via video link to obsequiously ask the Russian dictator: “Does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals? And do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify placing societies, rather than their subjects, under surveillance?”

This gave Putin the opportunity to give a highly disingenuous response designed to make his autocracy look better than our democracy:

Putin responded that Russia has a special service that bugs telephone conversations and Internet communications to fight crimes, including terrorism, but only with court permission and only “for specific citizens.”

“So, the mass character is something we do not have and cannot have,” Putin said in Russian. “On such a mass scale … we do not allow ourselves to do this, and we will never allow this. We do not have the money or the means to do that,” he said.

Uh, right. In fact, as the Washington Post notes, Putin’s answer was a blatant lie from start to finish. While there are in theory safeguards on surveillance in Russia, they are a mere formality which in no way inhibits Putin’s former employers at the FSB from spying on Russian citizens. “Russia even has its own version of PRISM, the clandestine mass electronic surveillance program that Snowden uncovered,” the Post notes. “It’s called SORM, and has been around since 1995. During Putin’s 14 years in Russian leadership, the scope of SORM has been expanded numerous times.”

It may be true that the Russia government is less advanced than the NSA in monitoring electronic communications, simply because Russia is not at the cutting edge of technology, but there is no question that its activities are more pervasive and more malign. While the NSA is only interested in intercepting terrorist communications or other threats to national security, the Russian state monitors potential or actual dissidents and clamps down on any opposition political activity. Those who challenge Putin’s power are liable to be locked up, exiled, silenced, or even killed. 

Yet Snowden, the supposed apostle of personal liberty, seems to have no problem shilling, like “Lord Haw Haw” or “Tokyo Rose” of World War II fame, for a dictatorship that oppresses its own people and invades neighboring countries. The only thing that could possibly make this situation any more nauseating would be if prominent Americans were to glamorize Snowden as a hero rather than the criminal and opportunist that he is. But that couldn’t possibly happen, could it?

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Edward Snowden, Putin Propagandist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The West Is Emboldening Putin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Obama Doctrine of Selective Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putin and Pyrrhic Victories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Siemens CEO’s Craven Photo-Op with Putin

The giant German engineering firm Siemens AG has, in common with other large German companies that have been around a long time, a deplorable history of having cooperated with the Nazi regime. The Anti-Defamation League notes:

Siemens ran factories at Ravensbrück and in the Auschwitz subcamp of Bobrek, among others, and the company supplied electrical parts to other concentration and death camps. In the camp factories, abysmal living and working conditions were ubiquitous: malnutrition and death were not uncommon. Recent scholarship has established how, despite German industry’s repeated denials, these camp factories were created, run, and supplied by the SS in conjunction with company officials — sometimes high-level employees.

So one would think that the current management of Siemens would have some sensitivity about embracing a modern-day dictator whose aggression has been compared to that of 1930s Germany. Apparently not. Even as the leaders of the West are struggling to isolate and punish Vladimir Putin for his illegal declaration of Anschluss with Crimea, the CEO of Siemens AG, Joe Kaeser, was meeting with Putin at his official residence outside Moscow.

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The giant German engineering firm Siemens AG has, in common with other large German companies that have been around a long time, a deplorable history of having cooperated with the Nazi regime. The Anti-Defamation League notes:

Siemens ran factories at Ravensbrück and in the Auschwitz subcamp of Bobrek, among others, and the company supplied electrical parts to other concentration and death camps. In the camp factories, abysmal living and working conditions were ubiquitous: malnutrition and death were not uncommon. Recent scholarship has established how, despite German industry’s repeated denials, these camp factories were created, run, and supplied by the SS in conjunction with company officials — sometimes high-level employees.

So one would think that the current management of Siemens would have some sensitivity about embracing a modern-day dictator whose aggression has been compared to that of 1930s Germany. Apparently not. Even as the leaders of the West are struggling to isolate and punish Vladimir Putin for his illegal declaration of Anschluss with Crimea, the CEO of Siemens AG, Joe Kaeser, was meeting with Putin at his official residence outside Moscow.

In a visit that was billed by newspapers as a “vote of confidence” in Putin, Kaeser posed alongside Putin and declared: “Siemens has been present in Russia since 1853—a presence that has survived many highs and low. We want to maintain the conversation even in today’s politically difficult times. For us, dialogue is a crucial part of a long-term relationship.”

It’s obvious what Kaeser is up to: He is trying to protect $2.99 billion in sales that his company had in Russia last year. Yet it is hard to make the case that Russia is a make-or-break market for this industrial giant since it accounts for only 2.9 percent of Siemens’ revenues. In short, Kaeser’s reprehensible embrace of an international outlaw who has violated Ukrainian sovereignty and routinely violates the civil liberties of his own people is not even compelled by the bottom line. It is completely craven toadying of the kind that Siemens may well regret some day–just as so many companies, including his own, came to regret the public-relations damage of having done business with Hitler or, in more recent times, with despots like Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Alas, the fact that Kaeser feels so free to almost literally embrace Putin shows how little will Europe has to confront the predator on its doorstep. Instead of reprimanding Kaeser, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who as a former citizen of East Germany should be more sensitive to dealing with ex-KGB thugs, simply said: “Business contacts are still taking place and I am not interested in seeing the situation escalate, but rather among towards a de-escalation.”

With such cravenness being displayed by the most powerful state in Europe, Putin must be getting the message loud and clear that his aggression is essentially cost-free.

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Gates’s Wise Words on Russia

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

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

Here is what Gates proposes to do instead:

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

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

Here is what Gates proposes to do instead:

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

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

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

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

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Russia Threatens More Than Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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