Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russia

Hillary Clinton’s Bribery Scandal

Earlier this week I referred to Hillary Clinton’s “tangle of corruption.” It turns out I was being generous.

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Earlier this week I referred to Hillary Clinton’s “tangle of corruption.” It turns out I was being generous.

As the politically explosive story in the New York Times demonstrates, the depths of the Clintons’ corruption and avarice is stunning. The facts in the Times story are utterly damning and prima facie evidence of a conflict of interest. If foreign governments, including adversarial ones like Russia, paid the Clinton Foundation and/or Bill Clinton huge sums of money, they assured themselves favorable treatment. (Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was pursuing the purchase of a Uranium One, a uranium mining company.) What we’re talking about looks very much like bribery, as former Governor Mitt Romney told Hugh Hewitt.

It’s worth placing this revelation in context: The Clintons have known for years that Hillary would run for president–and yet they still undertook this transparently unethical and potentially politically catastrophic action. The same is true of Mrs. Clinton’s deletion of 30,000 emails, another breathtakingly inappropriate, and possibly illegal, act. (It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that some of those deleted emails included a discussion of Uranium One, the company the Russians assumed control over.)

All of this confirms what many of us have long believed: The Clintons are, in important respects, unethical and unscrupulous. They think the rules apply to other people but not them. They are self-indulgent, narcissistic, out of control. There don’t appear to be moral guardrails in place. They oversee a brutal political machine that destroys those who threaten their political viability.

The Clintons are so brazen in their transgressions and corruption that they are like figures from a Robert Penn Warren novel. But in this case, we’re dealing not with fiction but real life, not with make-believe characters but real people. One of them wants to win the presidency. But being engulfed by a bribery scandal won’t help her.

A recommendation to my Democratic friends: It’s time for Elizabeth Warren to start warming up in the bullpen.

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Why China Won’t Support “Snapback” Iran Sanctions

No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

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No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

President Barack Obama has famously promised “snapback” sanctions: If Iran doesn’t meet its obligations, then the sanctions that brought Tehran to the table will simply be restored. What Obama ignores, however, is that the United Nations is not an institution in which members leave national interests at the door in order to embrace lofty values, but rather a tool by which the world’s dictatorships launder their cravenness through the illusion of principle.

Hence, for snapback sanctions to be successful, Obama will needs Russian President Vladimir Putin or his representatives not only to agree that the Islamic Republic is in violation but also that snapping sanctions back in place is in Moscow’s interests. That will be a tough hurdle, given Russia’s military and nuclear investment in Iran. Regardless, the Kremlin believes it has found a win-win formula: Support Iran’s nuclear program and make billions of dollars selling goods to the Islamic Republic. If, however, the situation collapses and Israel or some other power launches military strikes on Iran, sending the price of oil and gas through the roof, then Moscow laughs its way to the bank.

China has traditionally approached both the Middle East and Middle Eastern issues at the United Nations with exceeding caution. When most countries vote up or down on issues, China abstains. The Iranian government, however, recognizes that to make China into a reliable ally, it needs to rope China into the Iranian economy in a way that re-sanctioning hurts. And that is exactly the effect of the deal that Iranian authorities have just announced.

Today, according to this Fars News Agency article (alas, still only in Persian), Behruz Kamalvandi, deputy director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that China will help Iran build a new nuclear power plant, a multibillion dollar exercise. But with Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry releasing nearly $12 billion in previously frozen assets, cash is no longer a problem.

Two years ago, I published an analysis for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office examining Iran’s diplomatic outreach toward Africa. What immediately became clear was that Tehran targeted those countries who sat as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council or were on the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In effect, Iran sought shamelessly to buy their votes.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Obama and Kerry may have overseen the normalization of Iran’s once-covert nuclear program, but the Islamic Republic knows that the United States is a democracy and that the diplomatic duo will soon be lounging in Hawaii or yachting off Nantucket. They do not know who will be in the White House next and so they want insurance; i.e., the Chinese vote in Tehran’s pocket. More importantly, Iran’s efforts to buy votes to ensure that sanctions never snap back is as good an indication as ever that Tehran plans to comply neither with the letter nor spirit of its nuclear agreements.

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Iran Sanctions and Missile Defense

That didn’t take long. It’s been less than two weeks since the unveiling of the “framework” agreement at Lausanne between Iran and the West, and already we are seeing one of the consequences of lifting sanctions, with Russia’s announcement that it would finally begin to deliver components of the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Tehran. The Iranians had bought the S-300 in 2007 for $800 million but the deal was suspended because of United Nations sanctions. Now, with the end of sanctions in sight, Russia is predictably rushing in to reap the benefits, regardless of the consequences of further beefing up Iran’s military might.

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That didn’t take long. It’s been less than two weeks since the unveiling of the “framework” agreement at Lausanne between Iran and the West, and already we are seeing one of the consequences of lifting sanctions, with Russia’s announcement that it would finally begin to deliver components of the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Tehran. The Iranians had bought the S-300 in 2007 for $800 million but the deal was suspended because of United Nations sanctions. Now, with the end of sanctions in sight, Russia is predictably rushing in to reap the benefits, regardless of the consequences of further beefing up Iran’s military might.

A couple of points are worth making.

First, this shows how easily sanctions crumble and how hard it is reassemble them in the future. The administration brags about “snap back” provisions in its negotiations with the Iranians, but does anyone seriously believe that a nation like Russia will ever vote on the UN Security Council to hold Iran accountable for violations of a nuclear accord, when by doing so Moscow would be hurting its own economic interests?

Second, this shows how much more formidable Iran will be with sanctions lifted. If Iran ever gets the S-300 operational, that will make air strikes on the Iranian nuclear complex much harder for the United States or Israel. And that’s just a start. Imagine how much military hardware—everything from rockets to tanks to complex cyber weapons—the Iranians will be able to buy with all sanctions lifted. Already Iran is a potent threat to its neighbors. Already Iran is on the verge of dominating the region from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. All of those trends will accelerate with Iran having billions more to spend on its hegemonic power grab.

As a result, the lifting of sanctions, should it occur, will be an irreversible step with momentous consequences for the future. No responsible leader in the West should contemplate such a drastic move unless Iran, at a minimum, makes a full accounting of its past nuclear-weapons work (without which it is impossible to judge its future compliance), agrees to export the uranium it has already enriched, agrees to permanent limits on its nuclear activities, and allows completely unfettered access to international inspections—none of which Iran has yet agreed to, at least not according to the public comments of the supreme leader.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout: Canary in the Coalmine

Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

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Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

Thus, the fundamental goal of three U.S. administrations, to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power that can threaten the United States and its treaty allies, has utterly failed. Two decades of intensive, repeated negotiation have resulted in the polar opposite of what Washington wanted. The nuclear non-proliferation model has been cracked, if not broken, and America’s ultimate security guarantee, “extended deterrence,” will now be called into question even more by nervous allies in Asia, and elsewhere.

Adm. Gortney’s announcement, which senior officials have been inching toward over the past year, now raises two distinct problems for U.S. policymakers, completely separate from the question of whether or not Pyongyang would ever use one of its nuclear weapons.

First, it is time to accept that we are moving into a future of nuclear proliferation, and therefore the increased likelihood of a nuclear event, be it an accident or a conscious act of aggression. In short, America’s holiday from nukes since the end of the Cold War is now over. In addition to smaller nuclear states, great power nuclear competition may well heat up. With Russia and China, two adversarial regimes, modernizing and increasing their nuclear forces, Americans and their allies will have to become used to nuclear saber rattling once again, as shown by recent comments from Vladimir Putin.

Will nuclear blackmail become a standard tool of statecraft in the 21st century? If so, will we simply ignore it, or decide to be more cautious in pursuing our interests? How do we begin thinking again about the unthinkable, yet also learn new lessons that may well have little connection to those from the Cold War, when there were primarily two stable nuclear blocs? We face, instead, a far more fragmented and complex nuclear future, in which aggressive, destabilizing rogue regimes will have control over the world’s most powerful weapons. What strategy will ensure the safety of the American homeland, and does the administration’s plans to slightly modernize, yet draw down our nuclear capability still make sense in this new world?

The second problem is how to deter would-be nuclear regimes, most obviously Iran, when the playbook for gaining nuclear weapons has now been written and published by the North Koreans. Pyongyang is the canary in the coalmine for nuclear proliferators. The failure of negotiation, the unwillingness of the United States to take serious steps to prevent proliferation, the wishful thinking on the part of diplomats and leaders from both parties, has led us to the threshold of a world far more terrifying than anything we’ve faced in a long time. The repeated assurances of U.S. officials that we would never permit nor accept a nuclear North Korea now ring hollow around the world. It can only be a balm to Tehran to look at our record, and to judge that both time and more sophisticated negotiating strategies are on their side.

Pundits are fond of saying that “elections have consequences.” So do policy failures. The consequences of two lost decades that have allowed one of the world’s most evil regimes to gain the ultimate weapon could be unthinkable. It is a black mark against the comfortable belief that “a bad deal is better than no deal.” Such statements only reveal the poverty of thinking among those who do not show the imagination to see how quickly the world can change for the worse, and how the spillover effects of our misguided approaches can themselves cause far greater disruption than the particular policy failure itself.

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Can U.S. Slash Military Budget When Russia’s Preparing for War?

The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

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The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

Perhaps President Obama believes he has solved the Iran problem, or is well on his way to doing so. But even if his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to insist her “reset” policy with Russia worked, Russian President Vladimir Putin poses an increasing threat to international security, as anyone in Georgia or Ukraine can attest. Obama may believe the situation has stabilized—after all, press attention has moved on—but it looks like the situation might soon go from bad to worse.

According to this analysis in The Interpreter, Russian military spending has increased sharply. Of course, it is pretty certain that the real budget is even higher than the official, sanitized version. According to the article, based on the analysis of Russian economist Andrey Illarionov as published on opposition leader Garry Kasparov’s website:

Between the time that Putin came to power up to January 2014, the Moscow economist and commentator says, Moscow has spent on average 2.5 to 3.2 percent of GDP on the military, with the figure tending to rise over time. During the first 13 years of his rule, Illarionov says, spending in constant prices went up 2.6 times…. After Putin made his final decision to intervene in Ukraine in February 2014, he says, Moscow’s military expenditures “were increased by more than twice,” a figure that suggested the Russian government intended not only to seize and occupy Crimea but all of what it calls “Novorossiya.” In February, March and April of last year, Russian military spending amounted to 6.7 percent of GDP and 27.7 percent of all budget expenditures.

The situation is getting worse. Here’s the alarming section:

According to Illarionov, official Russian government figures show that “the situation radically changed” in the first two months of this year, the latest period for which figures are available. Average monthly military spending increased 2.3 times, compared to the May-December 2014 period, 3.3. times compared to the last pre-war period, and 8.8 times compared to 2000. For those two months alone, he says, military spending was more than 1.3 trillion rubles – that is, more than 20 billion US dollars – and it constituted 43.3. percent of the federal budget and 12.7 percent of Russia’s admittedly diminished GDP.

So, the Russian economy is getting worse, yet Putin is rapidly expanding his defense budget. The question is to what end? Alas, it seems not to be a question which the White House cares to consider, although certainly the leaders of the Baltic States and Poland are. Perhaps Congress should as well, because continuing sequestration is leaving the United States dangerously unprepared to face a mounting crisis which, if Illarionov’s analysis is true, seems to be looming ever larger. Vladimir Putin exploits weakness and indecision, characteristics which for too long Obama has projected. The United States cannot afford sequestration. Rather than resolve budget deficits, sequestration will make them worse because such weakness is encouraging dictators to aggression in a manner which no U.S. president will be able to long ignore.

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Russia to Take Iran Deal to the Bank—By Selling Arms

Well, if President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are to be believed, then the preliminary framework accord that the P5+1 struck with Iran was truly historic, and will usher in a new era of peace.

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Well, if President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are to be believed, then the preliminary framework accord that the P5+1 struck with Iran was truly historic, and will usher in a new era of peace.

Someone may have forgotten to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin that. According to RIA Novosti (and translated by the Open Source Center):

Russia may resume the implementation of the contract to ship S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Iran if the UN Security Council lifts sanctions against Tehran, head of the Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade Igor Korotchenko was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti (part of the state-owned International News Agency Rossiya Segodnya) on 3 April. “The lifting of sanctions from Iran, including sanctions on arms trade – would be a perfectly logical development of the current situation. The contract to ship the latest modifications of the S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran is of key importance to Russia. That contract may be renewed on conditions that Moscow and Tehran find suitable,” Korotchenko said.

The S-300, of course, is one of the most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. In 2007, Iran agreed to purchase the S-300 for $800 million, but delayed the sale as a result of U.S. and European diplomatic pressure, ultimately suspending it in 2010, citing United Nations sanctions. Thanks to Kerry et al., it seems to be back on. Given Iran’s promise to export such weaponry, perhaps Obama simply hopes to add it as an agenda item at his after-the-fact Camp David consultation with the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders and, separately, in his telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Alas, the rest of the Middle East resides in the real world rather than a bubble of rhetoric. They understand that the tremendous infusion of power with which Obama bestowed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will cost lives. Who wins? Alas, only Putin, and of course his bank account.

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It’s Time to Reopen a Base on Iceland

In recent months, Russian probing and aggression against NATO has grown both more aggressive and more frequent. While NATO should be treated as a unitary whole and not an alliance of tiers, recent Russian aggression has targeted not only Scandinavia and the Baltics, but also Great Britain and the United States. The Russian navy has recently grown so bold as to shadow U.S. aircraft carriers and other ships as they leave port and enter international waters. The Russian submarine fleet is also growing: the Russian navy will upgrade ten nuclear submarines within the next five years. Alas, many NATO countries have let their capabilities slide. Great Britain, for example, recently had to request U.S. assistance to search for a Russian submarine suspected of infiltrated its waters off Scotland. Such Russian belligerence will only become worse if Russian strongman Vladimir Putin concludes President Barack Obama’s snubs toward NATO suggest ambivalence and weakness.

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In recent months, Russian probing and aggression against NATO has grown both more aggressive and more frequent. While NATO should be treated as a unitary whole and not an alliance of tiers, recent Russian aggression has targeted not only Scandinavia and the Baltics, but also Great Britain and the United States. The Russian navy has recently grown so bold as to shadow U.S. aircraft carriers and other ships as they leave port and enter international waters. The Russian submarine fleet is also growing: the Russian navy will upgrade ten nuclear submarines within the next five years. Alas, many NATO countries have let their capabilities slide. Great Britain, for example, recently had to request U.S. assistance to search for a Russian submarine suspected of infiltrated its waters off Scotland. Such Russian belligerence will only become worse if Russian strongman Vladimir Putin concludes President Barack Obama’s snubs toward NATO suggest ambivalence and weakness.

During the Cold War—that is the one Washington acknowledged rather than denied—Iceland and, specifically the U.S. base at Keflavik, became crucially important to U.S. defense. (Indeed, Iceland was center stage to one of Tom Clancy’s first Cold War thrillers). Soviet submarines heading into the North Atlantic would normally traverse the GIUK [Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom] gap, and American surveillance aircraft and other anti-submarine warfare platforms would operate in the area.

In 2006, I gave a guest lecture at the Naval Air Station Keflavik. As it turned out, I was one of the last ones: The U.S. closed the facility the same year, and the Icelandic government sold off much of the base to developers. At the time, perhaps, it was a tempting way to trim the fat. After all, money needed to come from somewhere to trim the burgeoning army of civilian a short period of time more than a decade ago, I was one of them). Still, with Russia resurgent, capabilities forfeited are once again necessary. Capabilities are not simply about hardware and training, but also an infrastructure of bases from which to operate.

President Obama likes to suggest he is not a unilateralist as he cartoonishly depicts his predecessor. But increasingly he seems to be more of a unilateralist, because rather than acknowledge the reality of the rest of the world, he pursues policies and structures a defensive strategy calibrated more to his personal fantasy of how he would like the world to be than what it has actually become. The lesson of giving up Keflavik should be a lesson against the backdrop of other cutbacks: Bases are essential, even in the 21st century, because the notion of megalomaniacal and aggressive dictatorships did not end at the millennium. It may be necessary to return to Iceland, for once again the Sixth Fleet will become a center for action, rather than simply waters the U.S. Navy transits through. Let us hope the Icelanders agree, for the security of North America depends on it.

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Obama Evolves on the Concept of Credibility

As Congress has attempted to assert its role in the ongoing Iran negotiations, one of the interesting objections from the Obama White House has been on the grounds that it will erode Obama’s credibility. It’s interesting because defenders of the White House’s various zigs and zags on foreign policy have argued against elevating intangibles like credibility where foreign affairs are concerned. To be clear, Obama’s defenders have not been entirely wrong; as I’ve argued before, there are always risks in trying to pin down evasive concepts like credibility. But it does mean that the White House’s new foreign-policy mantra, Don’t undermine me bro, rings a bit hollow.

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As Congress has attempted to assert its role in the ongoing Iran negotiations, one of the interesting objections from the Obama White House has been on the grounds that it will erode Obama’s credibility. It’s interesting because defenders of the White House’s various zigs and zags on foreign policy have argued against elevating intangibles like credibility where foreign affairs are concerned. To be clear, Obama’s defenders have not been entirely wrong; as I’ve argued before, there are always risks in trying to pin down evasive concepts like credibility. But it does mean that the White House’s new foreign-policy mantra, Don’t undermine me bro, rings a bit hollow.

The president’s most famous brush with the issue of credibility is, of course, Syria. In August 2012, Obama very clearly and very plainly said, regarding Syria: “We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

Any attempt to deny he set such a red line would be absurd, which is why he did exactly that. “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line,” Obama said once the red line was crossed. If a credibility gap were to open up, that would seem to be the time. In addition, Obama had gone from asserting that Bashar al-Assad would have to end his rule in Syria to making Assad a partner in the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, which would turn out to be a failure as well once Syria continued using chemical weapons.

But no, said the president: “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America’s and Congress’s credibility is on the line.” His credibility is not at risk, and if it were, so is yours. So there. The food’s no good and the portions are too small.

Next was Ukraine. The president’s dithering on Ukraine sent a dangerous message to Russia, didn’t it? And in fact, it sent a message about the president’s credibility more broadly, since the administration was trying to reassure countries in the Middle East about protecting them from an Iranian nuke and yet here was Ukraine, a country we (in the Budapest Memorandum) got to give up its own nukes on the promises its sovereignty would be respected. It turned out everybody lied–that’s got to deplete our credibility, right?

The Economist said yes, Peter Beinart said no, and Tom Rogan sided with The Economist:

For a start, take Dexter Filkins’s study of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force and an archetypal hardliner of the regime. In his meticulous analysis, Filkins shows how the sharp edge of Iranian strategy is shaped significantly by perceptions of American global resolve. Where America is seen to be resolute and determined, Iran is deterred. Where America is seen to be timid and uncertain, Iran is emboldened.

And perceptions of U.S. credibility among players who are not part of a foreign regime are also important. Take America’s adversaries in the Middle Eastern media. Opinion makers there now present Obama as the master of a rudderless agenda. These populist narratives are important — they mobilize political agendas in ways that are either favorable or problematic for the United States.

Point to Rogan, I would think. Do our past actions really not indicate a future course, especially under the same president? That might be why the administration has evolved, as the president might say, on the issue of credibility.

When Tom Cotton and 46 other senators wrote their open letter to the Iranian government asserting congressional authority over arms treaties, the White House responded with a statement from Vice President Biden: “This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments — a message that is as false as it is dangerous.” Credibility was back in vogue.

And it continued to be. Republican Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the White House Congress was considering new legislation that would give Congress a say on the agreement the president is negotiating with Iran. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough wrote back to Corker that the president would prefer to sign the deal first, present a fait accompli to the Congress, and grant Congress permission to rubber-stamp the deal. For credibility’s sake:

We believe that the legislation would likely have a profoundly negative impact on the ongoing negotiations–emboldening Iranian hard-liners, inviting a counter-productive response from the Iranian majiles; differentiating the U.S. position from our allies in the negotiations; and once again call into question our ability to negotiate this deal.

Put simply, the Obama administration wants it both ways on credibility. And for their own legacy, they should probably hope they’re wrong this time. After all, if credibility truly matters, the Obama administration’s legacy is going to consist of a Europe at war for the near future, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and general instability as states react to the president’s continuing incoherence on foreign affairs.

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Why Is Germany Undermining NATO?

The war between Russia and Ukraine does not involve NATO. But it may decide its future.

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The war between Russia and Ukraine does not involve NATO. But it may decide its future.

The central question surrounding Russia’s behavior of late is this: Would Vladimir Putin order the invasion of a NATO country? One of the main arguments for NATO’s continued importance is the fact that when Putin wants to make trouble and consolidate his influence in Russia’s near-abroad, he tends only to send the Russian army into countries that are not part of NATO.

In the case of Georgia, it was done explicitly to try to prevent Georgia’s accession to NATO, though it wasn’t imminent. The invasion of Ukraine was also at least in part an attempt to punish Ukraine for moving toward the West, spook it into further compliance with Putin’s will, and serve as an example to other states in the neighborhood that when you go out on that limb there is no one–not Europe, certainly not Russia–to catch you if you fall.

That is not to say Russia doesn’t come awfully close to crossing those lines. It kidnapped an Estonian officer last year from Estonian territory, for example, and had in the past hit Estonia with cyber attacks. And it freely assassinates critics of the Kremlin even in Western countries, with relative impunity. But the Russian tanks have yet to roll in to a NATO nation, which would have the right to invoke mutual defense obligations from other NATO nations–the U.S. military, in other words. And what would happen if it did?

Some think the mutual defense clause is, at this point, a relic and a bluff. Which is why the West’s unwillingness to give Ukraine any serious help is a bad sign for NATO’s command. If NATO is going to bluff, it doesn’t need the Germans announcing that it’s bluffing to the world. Which is what has been happening over the last week as the NATO-Germany rift is opening in public:

For months, [NATO Europe commander General Philip] Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove’s numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America’s NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the US Congress and in NATO.

The German government is alarmed. Are the Americans trying to thwart European efforts at mediation led by Chancellor Angela Merkel? Sources in the Chancellery have referred to Breedlove’s comments as “dangerous propaganda.” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even found it necessary recently to bring up Breedlove’s comments with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.

Having the Germans accuse NATO of “propaganda” because the latter is alarmed by Russia’s repeated invasions of Ukraine is among the surest signs yet that Western Europe is far more afraid of the Russian bear than the Ukrainians are. And of course the Germans are upset with the U.S. as well. That comment about “Americans trying to thwart” Europe’s peace efforts sound less like Berlin’s finest than Sputnik media script writers.

Speaking of Sputnik, the Kremlin propagandists are quite enjoying the Germans trying to scold NATO into not making trouble with Moscow:

Describing the conflict as a “surprise”, the publication points to the EU’s “growing resentment of Washington’s anti-Russian strategy”, adding that the “escalation against Russia is being fueled by ‘hawks’ in the US,” including former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.” …

General Breedlove’s statements prompted harsh criticism from Berlin, which blames NATO for hampering a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Yuk it up, fellas.

What’s happening here is very simple. Russia is running out of non-NATO countries in its neighborhood to invade. NATO can’t save Ukraine, but it’s pledged to save its member countries, which could be Putin’s next targets.

There are two ways the Ukraine endgame can protect NATO countries from having to find out if the alliance’s mutual defense provisions are just a pretty lie. The first is that whatever happens in Ukraine, if Europe appears serious about drawing lines in the sand then Russia might believe it cannot attack a NATO country without risking war with NATO–war with Europe and the U.S., that is. The second is if the cost of Russia’s adventure in Ukraine is made high enough, Moscow will have neither the will nor the resources to keep invading European countries.

The Germans think NATO is being too belligerent with regard to Ukraine, because they’re merely assuming that Ukraine is the end of it. That is both naïve and dangerous. And it signals to Moscow that Berlin doesn’t have the stomach for a fight. Considering Germany’s history, it would be a sad irony if the Germans were the ones to finally sink NATO’s credibility. Either way, if NATO’s credibility remains intact it’ll be no thanks to Chancellor Merkel.

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Ukraine, Iran, and the Threat of a Nuclear Middle East

One very important word was missing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday. Not that I blame him; inserting “Ukraine” into that particular speech would have been counterproductive. Yet without considering America’s Ukraine policy, it’s impossible to grasp quite how disastrous the emerging Iran deal really is.

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One very important word was missing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday. Not that I blame him; inserting “Ukraine” into that particular speech would have been counterproductive. Yet without considering America’s Ukraine policy, it’s impossible to grasp quite how disastrous the emerging Iran deal really is.

To understand why, consider the curious threat issued by an unnamed White House official last week, in the run-up to Netanyahu’s speech: “The dispute with Netanyahu prevents all possibility for discussing security guarantees for Israel as part of the emerging Iran deal.” That particular threat was empty, because Israel has never wanted security guarantees from this or any other administration; its policy has always been that it must be able to defend itself by itself. But if Washington was considering security guarantees for Israel, it’s surely considering them for its Arab allies, since they, unlike Israel, always have relied on America’s protection. In fact, there have been recurrent rumors that it might offer Arab states a nuclear umbrella as part of the deal, so they wouldn’t feel the need to develop nuclear capabilities themselves–something they have long threatened to do if Iran’s nuclear program isn’t stopped.

And a year ago, such a promise might have worked. After all, America’s guarantees had proven trustworthy in the past; see, for instance, 1991, when U.S. troops liberated Kuwait from Iraq’s invasion.

But last year, Russia invaded Ukraine, exactly 20 years after the latter gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a signed commitment by Washington, Moscow, and London to respect its “independence,” “sovereignty,” and “existing borders” and “refrain from the threat or use of force” against its “territorial integrity or political independence.” After swiftly annexing Crimea, Russia proceeded to foment rebellion in eastern Ukraine; the rebels now control sizable chunks of territory, thanks mainly to arms, money, and even “off-duty” troops from Russia.

And what have Ukraine’s other guarantors, America and Britain, done to uphold the commitment they signed in 1994? Absolute zilch. They refuse to even give Ukraine the arms it’s been begging for so it can try to fight back on its own.

Given the Ukrainian example, any Arab leader would be a fool to stake his country’s security on U.S. guarantees against Iran, which, like Russia, is a highly aggressive power. Iran already boasts of controlling four Arab capitals–Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and, most recently, Sana’a–and shows no signs of wanting to stop. So if Arab leaders think the emerging Iranian deal is a bad one, no U.S. guarantee will suffice to dissuade them from acquiring their own nukes.

And unfortunately, that’s what they do think. As evidence, just consider the cascade of Saudi commentators publicly begging Obama to heed, of all people, the head of a country they don’t even recognize. Like Al Arabiya editor-in-chief Faisal Abbas, who published a column yesterday titled, “President Obama, listen to Netanyahu on Iran,” which began as follows: “It is extremely rare for any reasonable person to ever agree with anything Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says or does. However, one must admit, Bibi did get it right, at least when it came to dealing with Iran.” Or columnist Ahmad al-Faraj, who wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah on Monday: “I am very glad of Netanyahu’s firm stance and [his decision] to speak against the nuclear agreement at the American Congress despite the Obama administration’s anger and fury. I believe that Netanyahu’s conduct will serve our interests, the people of the Gulf, much more than the foolish behavior of one of the worst American presidents.”

Clearly, letting Iran go nuclear would be terrible. But letting the entire Mideast–one of the world’s most unstable regions–go nuclear would be infinitely worse. And the only way any deal with Tehran can prevent that is if it’s acceptable to Iran’s Arab neighbors. Thanks to Ukraine, no U.S. security guarantee can compensate them for a deal they deem inadequate.

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What Will Nemtsov’s Assassination Mean for Hillary?

On February 27, Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and a liberal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead in the shadow of the Kremlin. It wasn’t the first time a Russian figure who ran afoul of Putin paid the ultimate price—think Sergei Magnitsky or Anna Politkovskaya—but it was among the most brazen attacks, or at least the most brazen attack that didn’t involve polonium. Unknown assailants killed Nemtsov, a critic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just two days before a major opposition rally. Any doubt that Vladimir Putin is anything but a cold, calculating psychopath, an aggressive despot who seeks not Russian greatness, but rather his own unquestioned power, should now be put to rest.

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On February 27, Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and a liberal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead in the shadow of the Kremlin. It wasn’t the first time a Russian figure who ran afoul of Putin paid the ultimate price—think Sergei Magnitsky or Anna Politkovskaya—but it was among the most brazen attacks, or at least the most brazen attack that didn’t involve polonium. Unknown assailants killed Nemtsov, a critic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just two days before a major opposition rally. Any doubt that Vladimir Putin is anything but a cold, calculating psychopath, an aggressive despot who seeks not Russian greatness, but rather his own unquestioned power, should now be put to rest.

Hillary Clinton rose to prominence not on her own merits as an elected leader, but rather as a first lady. She might be smart and talented, but her path to power was not her own. Granted, she leveraged her prominence to run and win a Senate seat in New York, but she approached the office with extreme caution and simply bided her time; she certainly will not go down as a great legislator. After surprising no one and running for the presidency in 2008, she got her chance when President Barack Obama appointed her to be his secretary of state. It is chiefly the legacy of these four years in office that provide the only window into Clinton’s executive experience and policy judgment.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but few secretaries of state appear to have been so quickly proved wrong on the major initiatives they oversaw. Like it or not, Clinton’s foreign-policy legacy—the experience she needs to prove that she is worthy of answering the 3 a.m. phone call—rests upon her tenure at the State Department. And it is here that the Russian reality might come crashing down upon Clinton’s presidential ambitions.

President Obama took the Iran issue as his own—asking the Iranian leadership figuratively to unclench its fist—leaving Clinton in charge of Russia. Clinton shaped and oversaw the so-called “reset.” The conceit of the reset was the belief on Obama and Clinton’s part that their predecessors had mishandled the Russian relationship and allowed it to derail. George W. Bush was far from perfect on the issue—his claim to have looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul showed poor judgment and misplaced trust—but he quickly calibrated his policies to reality as the real Putin showed through. Clinton’s reset at best reflected a willingness to forgive and forget the Russian occupation of Georgia and, at worst, showed a complete ignorance of Putin and his ambitions.

Had Clinton learned from her mistakes, she might not be tied to Putin today. But, even against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Clinton insisted that her reset policy was a success, that it somehow benefited the United States’s security and position in the world. Alas, the opposite is demonstrably true. Russia is far more aggressive today than it has been in decades. Russian bombers not only probe NATO defenses in Europe, but also may soon patrol the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Then, of course, there was the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). In order to win congressional approval for a deal riddled with holes, the State Department withheld information from Congress which detailed Russian cheating on previous agreements. Clinton’s point person on the new START was her undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, Ellen Tauscher. Tauscher subsequently left the State Department and joined the Atlantic Council, where she sought to further the reset with an initiative called “Mutually Assured Stability,” a silly name for an idea that treated Russian ambitions naively. There is no stability when the Kremlin sniffs weakness. What was incredible about Tauscher’s project was that she accepted Kremlin money to underwrite it. The Kremlin founded the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) to act as its representative in the NGO world. Clinton had hundreds of staffers, and dozens claimed to be her close aides, so can she really be held accountable for what Tauscher did after leaving the State Department? Normally, the answer would be no. But Clinton has since brought Tauscher back as a key aide in one of the shadow groups organizing her campaign. That suggests Clinton is doubling down on her embrace of Russia even as Putin shows his true colors.

Few presidential elections revolve around foreign policy. Americans tend to vote with their wallets. But 2016 may be an exception: Obama’s diplomatic and national-security strategy had now been tried and found wanting. Obama did not cause the Arab Spring, but his belief in leading from behind allowed wildfires in Libya and Syria to spin out of control. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reinforced a malaise not seen since the Carter years. Add into this mix that Clinton, if she runs, will have to run on her State Department tenure and it seems evident that foreign policy will matter in 2016. If Clinton cannot admit an error, that’s bad enough. If she truly believes her ideas and actions on Russia were to the benefit of international security, then that suggests a far greater question of judgment.

The more Putin embraces the paranoia and worldview of former Soviet Premier Josef Stalin—a comparison which will only be highlighted by Nemtsov’s murder—the more Clinton may find her State Department tenure not to be her greatest asset, but instead her Achilles’ heel.

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The Murder of Yet Another Putin Critic

In 1934 Sergei Kirov, an old Bolshevik who had been head of the Party organization in Leningrad, was assassinated with a shot to the back. Most of his NKVD bodyguards had been mysteriously removed before the murder. Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union’s absolute dictator, expressed shock at the murder and promised to investigate personally. Within weeks a disgruntled former party functionary was arrested, convicted, and that very night executed. Stalin then used the assassination as an excuse to purge Trotskyites and others who he claimed were a threat to the regime, and whom he blamed for Kirov’s death. In reality, the bulk of the historical evidence suggests that Stalin himself arranged the assassination because he viewed Kirov, like other old Bolsheviks, as a potential threat to his rule.

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In 1934 Sergei Kirov, an old Bolshevik who had been head of the Party organization in Leningrad, was assassinated with a shot to the back. Most of his NKVD bodyguards had been mysteriously removed before the murder. Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union’s absolute dictator, expressed shock at the murder and promised to investigate personally. Within weeks a disgruntled former party functionary was arrested, convicted, and that very night executed. Stalin then used the assassination as an excuse to purge Trotskyites and others who he claimed were a threat to the regime, and whom he blamed for Kirov’s death. In reality, the bulk of the historical evidence suggests that Stalin himself arranged the assassination because he viewed Kirov, like other old Bolsheviks, as a potential threat to his rule.

Sound familiar? On Friday, Boris Nemtsov, a leading critic of the Putin regime, was gunned down with four shots to the back within yards of the Kremlin, the most heavily patrolled and secured area in the entire country. Vladimir Putin promised to personally take charge of the investigation while immediately branding it a “provocation,” presumably designed by his enemies to unfairly implicate him. Before long the Kremlin-controlled media were dropping dark hints that the CIA or the Russian opposition–or maybe the two in cahoots–were responsible for killing Nemtsov to blacken Putin’s good name. Or perhaps, they speculated, Nemtsov was killed because of his own moral turpitude; he was said to be involved in a back-alley abortion or some such.

Putin is no Stalin, but he has been rehabilitating Stalin’s image in Russia and he gives the clear impression that he has learned a few tricks from one of the most brutal dictators in history. Like how to get rid of your opponents.

There is, in fact, a disturbing and obvious pattern of what happens to those who challenge Putin’s authority. The “lucky” ones like Mikhail Khodorkovsky are merely sentenced to prison on trumped up charges–a decade in the gulag in Khodorkovsky’s case. Or their relatives are sentenced to prison–the brother of opposition leader Alexei Navalny was recently sentenced to three and a half years in prison on trumped up charges. The unlucky ones are simply eliminated from the face of the earth.

As the Washington Post notes, Nemtsov “was by no means the first Putin opponent to be murdered in brazen fashion. Similar hits by gunmen killed the dissident lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova in Chechnya. A former KGB agent who turned on Mr. Putin, Alexander Litvinenko, was assassinated in London by agents who poisoned him with radioactive polonium.”

Putin treats other countries pretty much the same way he treats his own people. He has eliminated resistance in Chechnya with scorched-earth tactics. He has invaded Georgia and carved out Russian protectorates in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And now he has invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and turning eastern Ukraine over to Russian-backed rebels.

Why does he do it? Because he can. Because Putin is a deeply corrupt, deeply amoral man who is out to acquire as much wealth and power as possible. Not just for himself and his cronies, to be sure: He is also, in his fashion, a Russian patriot who views the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century,” and he is clearly bent on undoing it. He is determined, in other words, to resurrect if not exactly the Soviet Union (he is too much of a crony capitalist for that) then the Russian Empire with himself as its benevolent tsar.

No doubt Putin, like countless other despots throughout history, has convinced himself that his country will become “great” again only if he is its absolute leader. Just as Hitler reacted to the weakness of Wiemar Germany and Mao to the weakness of the warlord era in China, so Putin is reacting to the perceived weakness of the Yeltsin era in the 1990s. He no doubt sincerely believes that it is in the interest of all Russians to swallow weak neighboring states, and that anyone who stands in his way is a “traitor” and “Fifth Columnist”–the epithets used to brand the likes of Nemtsov and Navalny. Whether Nemtsov was killed on Kremlin orders or killed by some ultra-nationalist inspired by the Kremlin’s ultra-nationalist propaganda is immaterial: No matter how many layers of cut-outs Putin had between himself and the dark dead, he is still morally culpable.

Beyond being a moral monster, Putin is also a supreme opportunist. He advances when he senses weakness and retreats, at least temporarily, when he encounters staunch resistance. He hasn’t been encountering a lot of staunch resistance lately.

The Bush administration all but ignored his subjugation of Chechnya, which could be linked to the broader struggle against Islamist terrorism, and did almost nothing about his invasion of Georgia, which came when the administration was war-weary and on its way out. John McCain argued for a stiffer response and was laughed off the stage.

Predictably Barack Obama, who came into office promising a “reset” of relations with the man in the Kremlin, has been even more supine in the face of Putin’s blatant aggression in Ukraine. Obama refuses to supply Ukraine with the weapons needed to defend it from Putin’s aggression. He won’t even provide Ukraine with usable intelligence on where Russian troops and Russian rebels are located. Because he is afraid of “provoking” Putin.

Which is just what Putin is counting on. The murder of Nemtsov and the invasion of Ukraine are of a piece: they are barely disguised acts of aggression designed to show Putin’s adversaries, real or perceived, what happens if they oppose his corrupt, imperial designs. No question about it, he is a scary man. He is capable of anything–anything that he can get away with.

But he is not suicidal. Putin is not a member of ISIS who seeks death in opposing the West. He seeks a long, prosperous life for himself and his cronies. If he thought that his criminal actions would endanger the prospects of such a happy outcome, odds are he would pull back. But he has no reason to think that now.

Sure, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed some sanctions on Russia, but Putin is convinced that when oil prices return to $100 a barrel, Russia will be in good shape. The sanctions aren’t doing much to hurt Putin personally or his inner circle; they still control their ill-gotten billions not only in Russia but in places like the City of London, Switzerland, and Cyprus. It’s the little people who are getting crushed by the devaluation of the ruble, but, a la “1984,” they are being narcotized by the steady stream of Kremlin propaganda which is touting the aggression in Ukraine as the greatest thing that has ever happened to the long-suffering Russian people.

Only a few Russians such as Boris Nemtsov have been brave enough to expose Putin’s lies–to oppose the aggression in Ukraine and the corruption behind the Sochi Winter Olympics. But Nemtsov is now gone, and few will follow in his footsteps.

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Putin and Ukraine: The Ante Has Already Been Raised

It’s good to read that U.S. troops and armored personnel carriers rolled through an Estonian town on the border with Russia to celebrate Estonia’s independence. That’s a strong signal that Putin will not be able to swallow the Baltic states, which are NATO members, as easily as he swallowed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But it’s only the start of what needs to be done to contain the growing Russian threat.

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It’s good to read that U.S. troops and armored personnel carriers rolled through an Estonian town on the border with Russia to celebrate Estonia’s independence. That’s a strong signal that Putin will not be able to swallow the Baltic states, which are NATO members, as easily as he swallowed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But it’s only the start of what needs to be done to contain the growing Russian threat.

Instead of sending small U.S. units to the Baltic states for periodic exercises or parades, the U.S. needs to permanently station substantial forces–say a brigade combat team in each of the three Baltic republics–to make clear that there are certain “red lines” that cannot be crossed with impunity. Putin is an opportunist, striking where he sees that opposition is weak. The best way to avoid a conflict in the Baltics that could resemble those seen in Georgia or Ukraine is to make it crystal clear that aggression against these NATO members will mean a battle with the United States–something that Putin does not want.

Then there is still the continuing imperative to provide arms to the Ukrainians to allow them to defend themselves from Russian attacks. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, told Congress on Wednesday: “We have to be cognizant that if we arm the Ukrainians, it could cause positive results. It could cause negative results. But what we’re doing right now is not changing the results on the ground.” That’s as succinct a summary as I have heard of the situation.

It’s true that arming the Ukrainians could lead the Russians to “raise the ante.” But Russia has already sent a lot of military equipment and soldiers into Ukraine. As Breedlove said, “I would say that Mr. Putin has already set the bar and the ante very high.”

So, while there are obvious risks to arming the Ukrainians, there is even greater risk to simply doing nothing and letting Putin get away with his “salami-slice” tactics. And in the end the risk and cost of fighting the Russians won’t be borne by Americans–Putin isn’t going to launch ICBMs against Washington if Washington provides arms to the Ukrainians, as it previously provided arms to the Afghans fighting the Red Army in the 1980s. (Much as Moscow provided weapons to the North Koreans and North Vietnamese to fight Americans in prior decades.) The risk will be borne by Ukrainians. But if they are determined to fight for their country, no matter the cost, who are we to deny them the weapons to defend their freedom?

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How the Ukraine Ceasefire Encouraged More Violence–And Got It

The coverage of the repeated Russian invasions of Ukraine has proved that the plain meaning of words is among the war’s casualties. This is a common feature of Russian foreign policy. In 1999, the Russian military conducted a week of airstrikes on Chechnya and then sent in ground troops; the New York Times reported that the invasion “raised concern that Russia is on the verge of another full-scale war in Chechnya.” In November, it wasn’t until an all-out military incursion into Ukraine that, as the Times reported, “Western officials finally seemed ready to acknowledge that a cease-fire agreement signed in September had fallen apart.” And today the Times again adds to the list.

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The coverage of the repeated Russian invasions of Ukraine has proved that the plain meaning of words is among the war’s casualties. This is a common feature of Russian foreign policy. In 1999, the Russian military conducted a week of airstrikes on Chechnya and then sent in ground troops; the New York Times reported that the invasion “raised concern that Russia is on the verge of another full-scale war in Chechnya.” In November, it wasn’t until an all-out military incursion into Ukraine that, as the Times reported, “Western officials finally seemed ready to acknowledge that a cease-fire agreement signed in September had fallen apart.” And today the Times again adds to the list.

The headline on today’s report from Ukraine is “Ukrainian Soldiers’ Retreat From Eastern Town Raises Doubt for Truce.” The eastern town is Debaltseve, which had been a flash point in Russia’s attempt to achieve enough strategic contiguity in its breakaway Ukrainian territory, which straddles Donetsk and Luhansk. And they had to retreat because they were under enemy fire, not because they were in the mood for an ice cream cone or got bored holding territory. And they were under enemy fire several days into the latest ceasefire agreement.

Yet here is how the Times sets the scene:

Ukrainian soldiers were forced to fight their way out of the embattled town of Debaltseve in the early hours of Wednesday, casting further doubt on the credibility of a days-old cease-fire and eroding the promise of ending a war in Europe that has killed more than 5,000 people.

It was unclear Wednesday how many of the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the eastern Ukrainian town had survived the hellish retreat under enemy fire and avoided capture. President Petro O. Poroshenko put the figure at 80 percent, but since the Ukrainian military has never commented on its troop strength, the final accounting may never be known.

By midday on Wednesday, as limping and exhausted soldiers began showing up in Ukraine-held territory, it became clear that the Ukrainian forces had suffered major losses, both in equipment and human life.

“Many trucks left, and only a few arrived,” said one soldier, who offered only his rank, sergeant, and first name, Volodomyr, as he knelt on the sidewalk smoking. “A third of us made it, at most.”

Here’s the obvious question: What is a ceasefire? Because what the Times is describing isn’t a ceasefire; it’s a broken promise. Here’s another question: Aside from stopping the fighting, on what does the “credibility” of a ceasefire depend?

What we have here is not a ceasefire whose credibility is in doubt. What we have here is the continuation of a war. The ceasefire terms were agreed upon last Thursday. It was scheduled to go into effect Saturday at midnight. That left a couple of days when fighting was to be expected to intensify, as the two sides scrambled to hold as much land as possible when the buzzer sounded.

There were legitimate concerns, then, that the way the ceasefire was struck would incentivize an uptick in the very violence the European powers were trying to end. But that violence was expected before the ceasefire. The hope, and the risk, in agreeing to this kind of ceasefire was that it would only be a momentary increase in bloodletting, a price they were willing to pay if it meant that two days later there would be peace.

It was always a gamble. European leaders fell into a trap that often ensnares policymakers. It’s not so much about unintended consequences, though it’s related. It’s more about the danger in incentivizing a major change in the underlying conditions that the policy is designed to address. That’s why agreeing to a ceasefire that wouldn’t begin for days and would risk radically altering the status quo–indeed, it would encourage altering the status quo–was a policy that undermined its own prospects for success right away.

The Economist gets it about right here:

THE latest peace plan never had much chance. Shortly after signing it in Minsk, rebel leaders declared that Debaltseve, where several thousand Ukrainian troops were located, fell outside its terms. After the “ceasefire” started on February 15th, they continued their assault. By February 18th the flag of Novorossiya, the rebels’ pseudo-state, had been raised over the city centre. “It’s always tough to lose,” quipped Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, ordered a risky retreat and tried to paint the defeat as a victory, saying his troops’ swift escape had put Russia “to shame”.

No, the ceasefire never had much chance. Because it didn’t require the two sides to cease firing, at least not yet. And it was far too vague geographically to ever really require them to cease firing at all. Its vagueness was not an accident; European leaders made it clear they would not and could not stop Russia, and neither could Ukraine.

It was up to Vladimir Putin to decide where this round of fighting stopped. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that this round of fighting has yet to stop.

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A Russian Base for Cyprus?

The past few years have seen significant developments in the Eastern Mediterranean: Not only have significant gas reserves been discovered off the coast of Israel and Cyprus, but production has also begun in some fields. Turkey’s belligerence, an al-Qaeda and/or Islamic State presence in the Sinai Peninsula, civil war in Syria, Iranian shipment of anti-ship missiles to its proxies and its own declaration that the Eastern Mediterranean marks its strategic boundary, and Hezbollah openly declaring its drilling in underwater sabotage all add uncertainty to waters that had for decades been tranquil. The fact that Russia has dispatched a permanent naval task force to the Eastern Mediterranean highlights the fact that the waters will no longer be uncontested.

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The past few years have seen significant developments in the Eastern Mediterranean: Not only have significant gas reserves been discovered off the coast of Israel and Cyprus, but production has also begun in some fields. Turkey’s belligerence, an al-Qaeda and/or Islamic State presence in the Sinai Peninsula, civil war in Syria, Iranian shipment of anti-ship missiles to its proxies and its own declaration that the Eastern Mediterranean marks its strategic boundary, and Hezbollah openly declaring its drilling in underwater sabotage all add uncertainty to waters that had for decades been tranquil. The fact that Russia has dispatched a permanent naval task force to the Eastern Mediterranean highlights the fact that the waters will no longer be uncontested.

Against the backdrop of such changes and the Eastern Mediterranean’s increasing strategic importance, the United States has little permanent military infrastructure in the region. Hopefully, incoming Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will change that, but any augmentation of the U.S. presence wll take years, if not decades.

Alas, just as China has been filling the vacuum in Asia left by retreating U.S. power, and Iran has been doing likewise in the Middle East, so too is Russia making its move into the Eastern Mediterranean. In recent days, Cypriot papers have been awash with rumors that Cyprus might grant Russia use of its air and naval bases. Here, for example, is a report from Nicosia’s Cyprus Mail:

Local media reports on Tuesday [10 February] continued to suggest that Cyprus may grant Russia use of an airbase on the island as part of an updated defence agreement expected to be signed during President Nicos Anastasiades [Nikos Anastasiadis]’ visit to Moscow later this month… On Monday, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that the agreement to be signed in Moscow would allow the Russian air force to deploy from an airbase in Paphos, some 40km from the RAF airbase in Akrotiri. However RIA Novosti did say that the bilateral defence pact did not foresee creating a Russian military base here. “The issue of creating a Russian military base is not being discussed. We’re talking about providing the possibility of using an airbase in Paphos that other countries such as Germany and France use,” an Athens-based diplomatic source told the news agency….

Publicly, the question of access to the Paphos airbase and Limassol port has been raised only by Russian ambassador Nicosia Stanislav Osadchiy who has often expressed Moscow’s intention to reach a potential agreement with Cyprus for a military base on the island.

However, when Defense Minister Christoforos Fokaidis gave an interview to the Greek-language Cypriot paper Politis Tis Kyriakis, he pointedly avoided denying discussions about a Russian naval base, instead citing diplomatic sensitivity:

The president of the republic will soon visit Moscow and, according to information, will sign a military agreement. Will this agreement satisfy the Russian request for providing facilitations to the Russian Air Force and the Russian Navy with permanent presence?

[Fokaidis] You will allow me to not make any comment that may harm the ongoing diplomatic efforts. These issues are extremely sensitive and are being handled through the diplomatic channels within the framework of the government policy that wants Cyprus to be a credible partner in the European Union with whatever this entails but also a consistent friend with all the countries that consistently support the Republic of Cyprus.

Is there reaction by other countries about the military cooperation with Russia? I mostly refer to the EU and the United States.

[Fokaidis] It is well known that recently, because of the developments in Ukraine, a particularly negative climate toward Russia has developed. And it is even stronger in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe that see Russia as a threat. It would be wrong to disregard this element. We, I must tell you, work for the promotion of a dialogue between Russia and the EU. And this is not simply because Cyprus has traditionally close relations with Russia. Russia is a big country. And stability in Europe and the world cannot be ensured without Russia’s contribution. This is why it is in everyone’s interest that Russia comes closer to Europe and the Euro-Atlantic security system. The present circumstances, with the crisis in Ukraine, certainly do not help us approach this goal.

Turkish columnist Yusuf Kanli provided a bit more context:

Could it surprise anyone should someone come up with a claim that Greek Cypriots were offering bases to Russia? Will this be the first time such a flirtation will be in the cards? Was it not the Greek Cypriot Finance Minister Michael Sarris who visited Moscow in March 2013 to offer bases to Russia in exchange of much needed easy loans to overcome the worst financial crisis of south Cyprus in recent times? Did not those talks collapse when the Russians did not find Greek Cypriot offers juicy enough and ask for arrangements enjoyed by the British bases – that is to have sovereign bases on Cyprus…?

The latest euphoria over the Russian base on the Cyprus issue was because of a slip of the tongue of President Nikos Anastasiades. He did not even use the word “base” while briefing reporters about upcoming agreements with Russia. He said among the agreements to be signed, there will be one on “providing facilities for emergency and humanitarian operations to Russian aircraft carriers.” Of course there is a difference between “providing facilities” or “offering facilities to facilitate humanitarian operations” and “offering bases.”

So has Cyprus really offered the Turks a base or should Cypriot denials be taken at face value?

It would be naïve to discount the possibility that talks are underway. While President Obama and much of Europe approach diplomacy as an effort to compromise or find a win-win solution to problems, Russian President Vladimir Putin has always looked at international relations as a zero-sum game: For Russia to win, everyone else must lose. And it’s also beyond doubt that, under Putin, Russia’s military is resurgent. During the Cold War, the Soviet navy operated in the Mediterranean, and so it is natural that Putin would seek to restore that capability, as he restores the Soviet footprint elsewhere.

But what if the Cypriot deal is simply to provide the Russian navy with emergency services or other logistical support? Therefore, according to such logic, any agreement would simply be to provide facility access rather than a base. Here, however, it’s useful to remember that no matter how much Bahrain denies that its port is a U.S. naval base, it is, in effect, a U.S. naval base. Likewise, no matter how much the Chinese deny that Gwadar in Pakistan is anything more than a civilian, commercial project, it is being carefully designed to accommodate all the needs of the Chinese navy. Simply put, national security should not be sacrificed to semantics.

It is fashionable in diplomatic circles to deny that a new Cold War is underway. But there is something unfortunate about Obama administration policy in that it substitutes pronouncements about how it would like the world to be for any recognition of reality. The United States is in a new Cold War with Russia, and risks losing strategic ground every week it refuses to recognize Russian grand ambitions. Now, more than ever, the United States needs an Eastern Mediterranean strategy.

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Ukraine Deal: Keeping Russia In, U.S. Out

It is easy to look at the ceasefire agreement struck between Ukraine, Russian-backed forces, and their European interlocutors and wonder whether it really is an agreement at all, let a lone a successful conclusion to the all-night talks in Minsk. But it may have been successful by the key metric set by German and French leaders heading into the negotiations: foreclosing the possibility of serious American military aid to Ukraine.

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It is easy to look at the ceasefire agreement struck between Ukraine, Russian-backed forces, and their European interlocutors and wonder whether it really is an agreement at all, let a lone a successful conclusion to the all-night talks in Minsk. But it may have been successful by the key metric set by German and French leaders heading into the negotiations: foreclosing the possibility of serious American military aid to Ukraine.

The deal itself inspires mostly pessimism, despite French President Hollande’s grandiose declaration that the talks “consisted of a long night and a long morning, but we arrived at an accord on the cease-fire and the global end to the conflict,” according to the New York Times. In fact, that is a generous reading of events. The ceasefire is scheduled to go into effect this weekend, which means the next few days could see an escalation. The ceasefire was also imprecise, to say the least, about where the two (three?) sides would end up, so we can expect a scramble to create facts on the ground before the ceasefire technically begins.

Indeed, just three paragraphs before Hollande’s peace-for-our-time announcement, the Times had already explained why that’s almost surely not the case:

The cease-fire is scheduled to begin at midnight on Saturday, but the 13-point compact appeared fragile, with crucial issues like the location of the truce line and control of the border with Russia left unresolved. Over all, there seemed to be no guarantee that the problems that marred the cease-fire agreement reached here in September had been ironed out.

The very fact that it took more than 16 hours of intensive negotiations to reach an agreement, and that the leaders announced the accord in three separate news conferences, seemed to highlight the differences that remained.

So there’s a truce without a truce line and a border up for grabs while the fighting is permitted to continue until late night Saturday, after which the fighting might not stop anyway since the same kind of ceasefire was reached in September and, well, here we are.

That article is by Neil MacFarquhar. In a companion piece, the Times’s Andrew Roth published a “Q&A” on the details of the agreement. It does not add too much, but mostly serves as a useful reference point for the key areas of conflict. It contains three questions and their answers. The three questions are: “Can the cease-fire hold?” “Where will the new dividing lines be?” and “What about Ukraine’s border with Russia?”

The answer to the question about “dividing lines” really says it all:

The situation on the ground favors the separatists.

Ukrainian officials have said that the rebels gained control over more than 500 square kilometers, or almost 200 square miles, of additional territory since the September cease-fire deal. Under the new agreement, both sides are required to withdraw heavy artillery to create a 30-mile demilitarized buffer zone. But the agreement does not explicitly demarcate the line. Ukraine is required to withdraw from the “current front lines,” which may change by Saturday. Separatist forces are supposed to withdraw behind the September line.

Sure–because when you’re trying to stop an ongoing ground war in Europe by setting borders and boundaries, it’s usually enough just to let each side eyeball it and see where everybody ends up.

Although Putin has not yet abided by ceasefire directives, maybe this time he will. It’s possible. But this ceasefire agreement may in the end succeed only in preventing American military aid to Ukraine. That’s because the terms of the deal represent an acknowledgement by all sides that Ukraine has lost each round of Russia’s invasions, and that there won’t be any help from Europe on the way. That means it might just be too late for the U.S. to accomplish very much by getting involved now.

“Now,” in this context, actually means “in a few months.” As the Wall Street Journal reported, the weapons we’d give Ukraine would probably have to be ordered, and their recipients would need training. Russia, then, has some time now to take free shots and move that border some more. Right now, the area the pro-Russian “rebels” are operating in crosses the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Russian side will likely seek to carve out as secure a territory as possible before the ceasefire goes into effect.

And then what? Over at Foreign Policy, Mark Galeotti doesn’t rule out American arms for Kiev. But the real question is whether there is anything left to fight for. The agreement essentially ensures that eastern Ukraine will be either a frozen conflict or a breakaway Russian client. Ukrainian President Poroshenko will have to see to that for the full peace to take effect. That means Ukraine goes into this ceasefire conceding the areas under conflict to Moscow.

The message given to Poroshenko from his European “friends” was obviously: Get the best deal you can from Putin; no one has your back here. Even if they haven’t succeeded in bringing real peace to Europe, they may have succeeded in keeping America out.

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Will Ukraine Ceasefire Hold? Unlikely.

That was very exciting news from Minsk. In the words of the New York Times: “Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels reached a ceasefire agreement… the first step toward ending fighting in eastern Ukraine that has caused the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War ended.”

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That was very exciting news from Minsk. In the words of the New York Times: “Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels reached a ceasefire agreement… the first step toward ending fighting in eastern Ukraine that has caused the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War ended.”

You might be mistaken for thinking that’s a new story from today but actually it’s from September 5, 2014. Immediately after the signing of this previous ceasefire, the pro-Russian rebels violated it and fighting resumed over control of eastern Ukraine. With the battles escalating, representatives of Ukraine, France, Germany, and Russia once again convened in Minsk a few days ago and now have reached yet another ceasefire agreement.

Is there any reason to think that this agreement will hold any more than the last one did? Of course not. There are in fact holes big enough in the agreement to drive a Russian T-90 tank through it. The deal is to be implemented in stages with the most important and difficult bits coming many months from now.

As the Times notes, the accord “states that the process of restoring ‘full control of the state border by the government of Ukraine throughout the conflict area’ is to happen by the end of 2015. And it is only to happen then if constitutional reforms that will decentralize authority to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are first carried out and local elections held.” Naturally the pro-Russian rebels will never admit that any reforms carried out by Kiev are sufficient for them to give up control of “their” areas.

Moreover: “The accord calls for disarming illegal groups. But the separatists may maintain that their militias are not illegal and that therefore the provision does not apply to them.” The accord does not even address the issue of when, if ever, Russian forces and equipment are to withdraw from Ukraine.

In short, this is yet another meaningless piece of paper. Why has Putin signed it at all? Because he is cleverly zig-zagging from force to diplomacy to achieve his objectives. With credible threats coming from Washington that the Obama administration might finally rethink its stubborn refusal to arm Ukraine, Putin has found it expedient to pretend that peace is taking hold. He no doubt reckons this will dissuade Obama from sending arms, which the president has made clear he doesn’t really want to do anyway.

So Putin can then use the lull to further arm and train his puppet forces before they launch another big offensive. The Obama administration would be well advised to use the lull, if any, to train and arm the legitimate army of the democratically elected government of Ukraine–but odds are it won’t, because France and Germany don’t want us to do that and Obama has no stomach for a confrontation with the ruthless Putin.

It will would be a good thing if this ceasefire were really the first step toward the establishment of peace in Ukraine and the reestablishment of its territorial integrity. But that is highly doubtful. More likely it is just one more step toward the dismemberment of Ukraine and the triumph of the autocrat of the Kremlin.

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Update the State Sponsor of Terrorism List

At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

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At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

And it is doubtful that Obama will seek to stigmatize Sudan, Darfur and Sudan’s increasing support for the Lord’s Resistance Army notwithstanding. Syria’s another call—but Obama seems to be pivoting to reconciling with Bashar al-Assad despite the brutality of the last four years. With both Khartoum and Damascus, Obama might also argue that whatever the brutality of the regimes, they have focused their repression inward and have not engaged in international terrorism. To reach such a conclusion would, of course, require cherry-picking Sudanese assistance with weapons transfers to Palestinian terrorists and Syrian-sponsored violence inside Lebanon.

Clearly, Obama is treating the State Sponsor of Terrorism list subjectively rather than objectively. To be fair, George W. Bush did likewise: The only reason why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice removed North Korea from the list in 2008 was to try to jumpstart diplomacy in the hope that she could provide Bush with a foreign-policy success. North Korea was no more deserving of removal than Iran would be: While Bush administration officials insisted that Pyongyang had ceased its support for terror in the 1980s, the Congressional Research Service was reporting continued ties between North Korea on one hand, and both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah on the other.

In an ideal world, there would be no state sponsors of terror, but simply waving the diplomatic wand to remove states from the list does not end terror. Indeed, the whole purpose of designation is not to hamper diplomacy but to aid it: When states are listed on objective grounds, it provides diplomatic leverage to get them to reform.

Perhaps, then, it would be useful for the State Department not only to review those states on the list like Cuba and Iran which Obama wants removed, but also other states or entities whose recent behavior suggests they deserve inclusion.

Turkey is a clear example. There is ample evidence that Turkey has smuggled arms to Boko Haram, and there is also conclusive evidence that Turkey has also armed radical groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates and perhaps even ISIS in Syria.

Both Turkey and Qatar also overtly support Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be diplomatically inconvenient to designate two U.S. allies but, then again, it should be even more inconvenient to have allies who are unrepentant sponsors of terrorist groups.

By any objective measure, Russia should also be considered a state sponsor of terrorism: Whether it is providing arms used to shoot down civilian jets, or simply providing arms to militias which indiscriminately shell civilian targets, it is clear that Russia does not abide by the rule of law.

And, of course, if the Palestinian Authority wishes to be treated as a state, one membership they deserve is designation as a terror sponsor. Despite the Oslo Accords and subsequent interim agreements, the Palestinian Authority simply has not kept its hand clean: offering salaries to convicted terrorists—men and women who fully acknowledge their role in attacks targeting civilians—is evidence enough.

While Cuba remains an autocratic, corrupt regime, it is debatable whether they still are an international terror sponsor. What is not debatable, however, is that Venezuela is. And, so long as Algeria continues to aid and support the Polisario Front almost 25 years after that Cold War relic agreed to a ceasefire with Morocco, then Algeria too deserves to be listed as a terror sponsor. Pakistan, too, for all its assistance to the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups. And North Korea’s brief interlude off the list should end so long as it continues its relationship with Hezbollah and Syria, for whom it apparently still digs tunnels and builds other underground facilities.

Let’s hope that one day there will be no need for a State Sponsor of Terrorism list. But let’s also acknowledge that that day has yet to come. Alas, a true State Sponsor of Terrorism list would not include just two or three countries, but perhaps a dozen. Diplomatic sleights-of-hand might be the bread and butter of the Obama administration and State Department more broadly, but pretending terrorism has no sponsors does not actually do anything to stop terrorism. Quite the contrary, it just convinces terror sponsors in Algiers, Ankara, Caracas, Doha, Islamabad, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Ramallah that they face no accountability for their actions.

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We Have to Talk About Obama’s Ignorance

In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

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In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

BuzzFeed has posted the transcript of the interview, and when the subject turns to Russia, Obama said this:

You know, I don’t want to psychoanalyze Mr. Putin. I will say that he has a foot very much in the Soviet past. That’s how he came of age. He ran the KGB. Those were his formative experiences. So I think he looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence, I think he’s missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression. You know, I continue to hold out the prospect of Russia taking a diplomatic offering from what they’ve done in Ukraine. I think, to their credit, they’ve been able to compartmentalize and continue to work with us on issues like Iran’s nuclear program.

As people pointed out immediately, Obama is wrong about Putin and the KGB. Ben Judah, a journalist who recently wrote a book on Putin’s Russia, responded: “The interesting and informative thing about Obama’s view on Putin is how uninsightful and uniformed it is.”

Putin ran the FSB–the successor agency to the KGB–and the difference matters. But what also matters is the emerging pattern for Obama’s view of the world: he has no idea what he’s talking about. The president, as Sam Cooke sang, don’t know much about history. And it’s evident in each major area of conflict the president seeks to solve and ends up only exacerbating.

It is not my intention to run down a list of all Obama’s flubs. Everybody makes mistakes, and any politician whose words are as scrutinized as the president’s is going to have their share of slip-ups. Yes, Obama is a clumsy public speaker; but that’s not the problem, nor is it worth spending much time on.

The problem is that Obama tends to make mistakes that stem from a worldview often at odds with reality. Russia is a good example. Does it matter that Obama doesn’t know the basics of Vladimir Putin’s biography and the transition of post-Soviet state security? Yes, it does, because Obama’s habit of misreading Putin has been at the center of his administration’s failed Russia policy. And it matters with regard not only to Russia but to his broader foreign policy because Obama has a habit of not listening to anyone not named Jarrett. Obama appointed among the most qualified American ambassadors ever to represent the U.S. abroad in sending Michael McFaul to Moscow. But with or without McFaul, Obama let his own naïveté guide him.

Obama has also run into some trouble with history in the Middle East, where history is both exceedingly important and practically weaponized. The legitimacy of the Jewish state is of particular relevance to the conflict. So Obama was criticized widely for undermining that legitimacy in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, puzzling even Israel’s strident leftists. The speech was harder to defend than either his remarks to BuzzFeed or Vox because such speeches are not off the cuff; they are carefully scrutinized by the administration. When Obama could say exactly what he meant to say, in other words, this is what he chose to say.

It wasn’t the only time Obama revealed his ignorance of the Middle East and especially Israeli history, of course. And that ignorance has had consequences. Obama has learned nothing from the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a fact which was reflected quite clearly in his disastrous mishandling of the negotiations and their bloody aftermath. He didn’t understand Palestinian intentions, Israeli political reality, or the lessons from when the U.S. has played a beneficial role in the conflict in the past. The president can simply move on, but Israelis and Palestinians have to pay the price for his learning curve.

And the Vox errors echo throughout the president’s mishandling of the other great security challenge: Islamic terrorism. Such terrorism has contributed a great deal to the undoing of many of the gains in Iraq and the international state system. Here, for example, is a map tweeted out last week by Ian Bremmer, which shows, in his words, “Statelessness overlapping with radical Islam.” We can certainly argue over the chicken-or-egg quality to such an overlap, but the threat radical Islamic violence poses to global order is fairly obvious.

Yet it’s not just the history of Islam and of anti-Semitism that the president gets wrong when trying to spin away the threat of Islamist terror. He also created a firestorm with his faux history of the Crusades in order to draw a false moral equivalence that only obscures the threat.

In other words, it’s a comprehensive historical ignorance. And on matters of great significance–the major world religions, the Middle East, Russia. And the president’s unwillingness to grasp the past certainly gives reason for concern with Iran as well–a country whose government has used the façade of negotiations to its own anti-American ends for long enough to see the pattern.

They’re not just minor gaffes or verbal blunders. They serve as a window into the mind of a president who acts as if a history of the world before yesterday could fit on a postcard. We talk a lot about the defects of the president’s ideology, but not about his ignorance. The two are related, but the latter is lately the one causing a disproportionate amount of damage.

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The Obama-Merkel Press Conference: What Were They Thinking?

There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

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There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

The press conference was a mess. And its lack of purpose contributed mightily to that fact. The president and the chancellor are indeed two very important Western leaders–at certain times, and on certain issues, the two most important Western leaders. Ukraine is one such issue. The problem today was not that Merkel and Obama are meeting or that they’re talking to the press about it. The problem was that they called a press conference to say absolutely nothing.

The question that seemed to put this most into stark relief was when a German reporter asked Obama the following:

You said that you have not yet made a decision as to whether weapons ought to be delivered to Ukraine. What would be your red line? What would be the red line that needs to be crossed for you to decide [to arm the Ukrainians] and what do you think this will hold by way of a promise, because the chancellor said it will make matters worse? And what can the Nobel laureate Obama do to defuse this conflict?

Obama’s response could basically be broken down into three parts. The first was to push back on the idea that the Ukrainian military is being left to fend completely for itself:

It’s important to point out that we have been providing assistance to the Ukrainian military generally. That’s been part of a longstanding relationship between NATO and Ukraine. And our goal has not been for Ukraine to be equipped to carry on offensive operations, but to simply defend itself. And President Poroshenko has been very clear. He’s not interested in escalating violence; he is interested in having his country’s boundaries respected by its neighbor.

The second part is to concede that he’s basically given up on issuing red lines since he doesn’t mean them anyway:

So there’s not going to be any specific point at which I say, “Ah, clearly lethal defensive weapons would be appropriate here.” It is our ongoing analysis of what can we do to dissuade Russia from encroaching further and further on Ukrainian territory? Our hope is that is done through diplomatic means.

And finally, his indication that despite everything that’s happened, he hasn’t really adjusted his approach to Russia:

And I just want to emphasize here once again, for the benefit not just of the American people but for the German people, we are not looking for Russia to fail. We are not looking for Russia to be surrounded and contained and weakened. Our preference is for a strong, prosperous, vibrant, confident Russia, that can be a partner with us on a whole host of global challenges. And that’s how I operated throughout my first term in office.

What viewers saw here was a complete lack of urgency on the part of the two most important Western leaders with regard to Russia. That was the theme. And Merkel joined in later in the presser, with a plea for patience and hope that quickly devolved into a rambling, longwinded version of one of Obama’s favorite quotes about the arc of history bending toward justice.

Merkel was asked: “Can you understand the impatience of the Americans when they say we ought to now deliver weapons? And what makes you feel confident that diplomacy will carry the day?” She responded by counseling even more patience:

Whenever you have political conflicts such as the one that we have now between Russia and Ukraine, but also in many other conflicts around the world, it has always proved to be right to try again and again to solve such a conflict. We’ve spoken at some length about the Iranian conflict. Here, too, we are expected to try time and again. There’s always a point where you say well all of the options are on the table, we’ve gone back and forth. But then one has to think again.

It kept going downhill from there. Merkel brought in “the Middle East conflict” (presumably the Arab-Israeli conflict), which is certainly not the comparison you’re looking for if you live in eastern Ukraine. She then jumped to the division of Germany–a nearly five-decade split finally resolved near the end of the Cold War. Again, not remotely encouraging for anyone seeking to end the bloodshed in Ukraine.

It all brings the viewer back to the original question: What on earth was the point of this? All the press conference succeeded in doing was to tell Russia there was no red line and to tell Ukraine that the West was willing to wait half a century to see how this all shakes out. To those in Ukraine watching that press conference, it was probably terrifying. To our allies elsewhere, it was probably horrifying. But for those of us watching here in the States, it was simply mystifying.

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