Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ukraine

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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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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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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Our Agonized President

Sigh. Here we go again. The law professor turned president is having another one of his endless policy reviews. Previously he agonized over, inter alia, whether to surge troops in Afghanistan (yes—but with a timeline and a force cap), whether to arm the Syrian resistance (not really), and whether to attack Bashar Assad for crossing the “red line” on chemical weapons use (yes then no). Now the issue is whether to send Ukraine “defensive” but “lethal” weapons.

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Sigh. Here we go again. The law professor turned president is having another one of his endless policy reviews. Previously he agonized over, inter alia, whether to surge troops in Afghanistan (yes—but with a timeline and a force cap), whether to arm the Syrian resistance (not really), and whether to attack Bashar Assad for crossing the “red line” on chemical weapons use (yes then no). Now the issue is whether to send Ukraine “defensive” but “lethal” weapons.

As in past administration policy reviews, word is leaking out about which insiders favor which course of action. Now, for example, both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry have signaled they favor sending arms. But their views don’t necessarily count for much. After all in 2012, Secretary of Defense Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton, and CIA Director Petraeus all favored arming the Syrian rebels and Obama still said no.

In such important matters, Obama appears to be increasingly disdainful of his professional policy advisers, turning inside to a handful of insiders such as Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, and Ben Rhodes—and relying, of course, primarily upon his own formidable intellect even if that intellect has frequently led him astray. Thus we are once again being treated to the spectacle of Obama struggling mightily to make up his mind while trying to put off a decision for as long as humanly possible. In the case of Ukraine, this means endless consultations with German Chancellor Merkel (who opposes arming the Ukrainians), and waiting for fruitless negotiations between the EU and Russia to play out for the umpteenth time.

Is it any wonder, then, that Russia has been advancing so readily? Vladimir Putin doesn’t agonize—he acts decisively and with great determination. Knowing what he wants, and knowing also that the Leader of the Free World is too busy agonizing to effectively oppose his imperialist designs, Putin has managed to wrest away from Kiev not only Crimea but much of the eastern part of the country too. And that land grab continues unabated while Obama wrings his hands over whether to let the Ukrainians fight for their freedom.

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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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Russia Should Pay Reparations After Ukraine

Last week, Max Boot wrote that the United States should arm Ukraine; I wholeheartedly agree. Russia’s aggression is inexcusable and should not result in any concession. Signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, Russia had, after all, recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty including over the Crimean peninsula.

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Last week, Max Boot wrote that the United States should arm Ukraine; I wholeheartedly agree. Russia’s aggression is inexcusable and should not result in any concession. Signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, Russia had, after all, recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty including over the Crimean peninsula.

In the face of invasion, European leaders regularly prioritize quiet over justice. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande seem perfectly willing to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps giving such autonomy to Eastern Ukraine that it effectively becomes a Russian protectorate.

There should be no appeasement and no forced Ukrainian concession. Western leaders can seek a win-win situation but, in effect, what that means is Putin wins, Ukraine loses.

When I taught briefly at Yale University, a colleague developed a brilliant system to handle that school’s notorious grade-grubbing: Be willing to entertain any review of an exam grade or paper. If the student was correct and the professor or assistant had made a mistake, the grade would be adjusted upward. But, if after review, there had been no mistake in the grade, then the student’s grade would be lowered a letter grade. It did not take long for students to realize that the risk of seeking benefit did not often outweigh the gain. That might be a minor anecdote, but the logic transcends much grander topics.

Simply put, any attempt at reward must carry risk. Take the Arab-Israeli conflict: Arab armies sought to eliminate the Jewish state in 1946, 1967, and 1973. To initiate conflict and not lose territory as a result simply convinces dictators (who needn’t be accountable to their citizens in elections) that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by war.

The same now holds true with Putin. Boot is correct that the United States should arm the Ukrainians. Frankly, the United States should arm the Georgians as well, and ensure that the Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, and Baltic states have everything they need to deter Russia or, short of that, turn their countries into graveyards for the Russians should Putin once again decide to divert attention from his own failings and economic mismanagement by invading other countries to distract Russians with whipped up nationalism.

But, it should not end there: The goal—one which should not be compromised by any diplomacy—should be the punishment of aggression, not merely return to the status quo ante. This is not to invite ethnic cleansing; borders changed in the past but the population might remain, just as a minority under a different suzerain.

Nor should the West demand a repeat anything of the scale of territorial concessions and reparations made of Germany after World War I; after all, there is general historical consensus that such humiliation of Germany helped fuel the populism which contributed to Adolf Hitler’s rise.

That said, the West should not be afraid of biting punishment. After all, despite what the Ron and Rand PaulPat Buchanan-Russian nationalist set might argue, the West did not humiliate Russia after the Soviet Union’s fall; rather, according to the Congressional Research Service, it contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and trade. Perhaps the problem was not American arrogance, but rather its magnanimity.

So, after arming Ukraine and pursuing Ukrainian victory until Russia’s aggression is no longer sustainable, what might be demanded of Russia in way of reparations in exchange for peace and an end to international sanctions?

In the first decade of the Soviet Union, Soviet authorities awarded the Klintsovsky, Novozybkovsky, and Starodubsky districts of what would become the Bryansk Oblast to Russia, despite Ukrainian claims. Perhaps it is time to discuss their return to Ukraine.

Putin has become accustomed to making wild demands at the negotiating table. No matter what compromise Putin might subsequently make—and he seldom makes any—he still comes out on top because American and European diplomats’ opening position is simply a return to the day before Russia initiated hostility and so any compromise whatsoever ends in Putin’s behavior and rewards his bluster and aggression. It’s time for a change in tactics. Putin must learn aggression will have a cost to his dreams of a great Russia, and Russians must understand the disastrous path which aggressive Russian nationalism holds.

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The Crisis of American Strategy

President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

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President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

The reason “leading from behind” stuck is, plainly, because it is true. “Leading from behind” is another way of saying “following.” And that is precisely what the Obama administration has done. But Obama’s own stubbornness has impeded his attempts to shake this catchphrase. Rather than actually changing strategy to better assert American leadership, he has spent his time and energy finding creative ways to counter it with rhetoric, not action. And he has failed.

This is evident in the administration’s advance PR for Obama’s new National Security Strategy, his second (and almost certainly last) during his time in office, which is being released today. The administration sent deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes out to spin the New York Times, an exceedingly unwise choice, as his comments make clear:

“There is this line of criticism that we are not leading, and it makes no sense,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Who built the effort against ISIL? Who organized the sanctions on Russia? Who put together the international approach on Ebola?”

He’s right about Ebola. But the administration’s confused and clumsy anti-ISIS effort is thus far a failure, as is the administration’s staggeringly weak approach to Russia. Rhodes wants Obama to take credit for colossal failures, because that’s all they’ve got. It is, however, a kind of clever defense of Obama if taken to its logical conclusion: Do you really want Obama to “lead” when this is what happens?

Meanwhile Foreign Policy magazine chose to focus on the phrase “strategic patience”–another piece of transparent, Orwellian spin. What “strategic patience” means in practice is that the administration thinks letting countries like Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria collapse does no harm to American strategic interests, or at least that the harm it does is outweighed by the benefit of watching the international state system disintegrate. (The administration really hasn’t thought this through.)

But in Obama’s defense, if you stick around on Foreign Policy’s website you can see one reason there is such a lack of strategic vision in America. The magazine conducts an annual survey of “America’s top International Relations scholars on foreign-policy research,” and this year’s shows that the ivory tower, at least with regard to international relations, is experiencing a rather horrid intellectual crisis.

For all you can say about Obama’s National Security Strategy, it stems from a better understanding of events than the field of international-relations scholars. In one question, they were asked to list the top foreign-policy issues for the next ten years. Here’s the result:

1. Global climate change 40.96%

2. Armed conflict in Middle East 26.81%

3. Failed or failing states 22.29%

4. China’s rising military power 21.54%

5. Transnational terrorism 21.23%

6. Renewed Russian assertiveness 17.47%

7. Global poverty 16.42%

8. Global wealth disparities 15.66%

9. China’s economic influence 15.51%

10. Proliferation of WMD 14.01%

10. Transnational political violence 14.01%

As you can see, Foreign Policy appears to have accidentally polled the international-relations scholars on Earth-2, a planet where the sun just invaded Ukraine, economic inequality is beheading prisoners in Iraq and Syria, and poverty just hacked America’s second-largest health insurer.

Is inequality a larger foreign-policy issue than transnational political violence and nuclear proliferation? Yes, according to America’s top international-relations scholars; no, according to anyone with a modicum of common sense and access to a newspaper. When you think of it this way, considering Obama’s academic pedigree, it’s a surprise his foreign policy hasn’t been even more of a disaster.

There are some other fun nuggets in the FP survey. For example, they asked the esteemed scholars of this alternate reality, “Who was the most effective U.S. secretary of state of the past 50 years?” I wish I were kidding when I say this was the list they came up with:

1. Henry Kissinger 32.21%

2. Don’t know 18.32%

3. James Baker 17.71%

4. Madeleine Albright 8.70%

4. Hillary Clinton 8.70%

6. George Shultz 5.65%

7. Dean Rusk 3.51%

8. Warren Christopher 1.53%

8. Cyrus Vance 1.53%

10. Colin Powell 1.07%

11. Condoleezza Rice 0.46%

12. Lawrence Eagleburger 0.31%

13. John Kerry 0.31%

There was much mocking of John Kerry on Twitter for coming in dead last here. But I think the rest of the poll vindicates him. Any survey that finds George Shultz on a lower rung than Hillary Clinton is deserving of exactly zero credibility. (Also, “don’t know” coming in at No. 2? International-relations scholars don’t have opinions on America’s high-level diplomacy? OK then.)

What we’re seeing, both within the Obama administration and in the broader academic world, is a shocking dearth of strategic thinking in favor of the various passing fads of conventional wisdom and political correctness. And as the postwar international system continues its collapse, the consequences are plain to see.

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U.S., Germany, and France to Putin: The World Is Too Weak to Stop You

Vladimir Putin may be reckless, but he seems to be guided by one valuable strategic rule when picking fights in Europe: divide the west to conquer the east. And dividing the west doesn’t just mean dividing Western Europe among itself; it also means dividing Western Europe from the rest of the West. It broadens the (likely apocryphal) Kissinger quote about calling Europe, and updates it for modern times. If you want to talk to “the West,” whom do you call?

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Vladimir Putin may be reckless, but he seems to be guided by one valuable strategic rule when picking fights in Europe: divide the west to conquer the east. And dividing the west doesn’t just mean dividing Western Europe among itself; it also means dividing Western Europe from the rest of the West. It broadens the (likely apocryphal) Kissinger quote about calling Europe, and updates it for modern times. If you want to talk to “the West,” whom do you call?

The sudden rush of new peace conferences to solve the conflict in Ukraine prove this point. This New York Times rundown of the various meetings and pressers and conferences is thorough but also thoroughly maddening. It is headlined “U.S. Joins Europe in Efforts to End Fighting in Ukraine,” but good luck finding any semblance of a workable solution in any of the proposals and declarations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande met in Kiev with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. No progress seems to have been made in halting or turning back the Russian invasion in Ukraine’s east. But that’s not surprising when you consider what the aim of the Franco-German trip was in the first place. As the Wall Street Journal noted today:

The trip also comes as political momentum grows in the U.S. to deliver weapons to Ukrainian forces—a step that the German and French leaders oppose because they say it would only lead to more violence.

So the purpose of German and French diplomatic intervention was to stop the U.S. from helping Ukraine too much. Mission accomplished.

Not that the U.S. is ready to take that step anyway. There continue to be Obama administration figures who support arming Ukraine, but until that group includes President Obama, this is all they’re going to get, as the Times reported:

Mr. Kerry, who announced $16.4 million in humanitarian assistance for eastern Ukraine, plans to press for a new cease-fire.

In a joint appearance with Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Kerry said that France, Germany and the United States were united in supporting a peaceful resolution to the conflict. And he called for Russia to agree to a cease-fire.

“Our choice is a peaceful solution, but Russia needs to make its choices,” Mr. Kerry said.

Russia, in fact, has made its choice–repeatedly. That choice has been a relatively easy one for Putin because no one is willing to defend Ukraine. What would possibly give American officials the idea that Putin would retreat without real resistance? That’s where what is possibly the most damning line in the Times story comes in:

The Obama administration’s hope is that its widely reported deliberations over whether to send defensive weapons to Ukraine and about additional economic sanctions will induce Russia to agree to a halt in the fighting and, ultimately, to a political agreement within the framework of the Minsk accord.

This is strategic ineptitude of the first order. Obama’s defenders like to scoff at the notion of “credibility”–that Obama retreating on a red line in, say, Syria would enter the calculus of someone like Putin when considering American opposition to his invasions of Ukraine. We are told that “credibility” is overrated, but it’s more accurate to say it’s simply unquantifiable.

But you have to ask yourself: why would Vladimir Putin believe Obama’s threats when he doesn’t follow through? You have to make a rational calculation, and right now the smart money will always be on Obama bluffing. It’s just who he is; he says things but doesn’t mean them. The sound of his own voice is pleasing to him, but the content is irrelevant.

Additionally, Obama keeps undercutting any such threat. One way he does this is in the implied threat itself: Obama thinks leaking that the administration is debating arming Ukraine will spook Putin, but that very leak is based on the fact that Obama is personally opposed to arming Ukraine, so it’s toothless.

More importantly, the administration keeps undercutting the idea that the aid would help anyway. On Tuesday, CBS’s Mark Knoller tweeted the administration’s justification for not giving Ukraine military aid. He wrote: “On Ukraine, WH says its (sic) not possible for US to put Ukraine on par militarily with Russia. Stands by objective of diplomatic resolution.”

So here’s Obama’s opinion: Ukraine should not get military aid from the West because even with American help, Russia would still mop the floor with them. And this, according to the Times, is what Obama thinks will intimidate Putin into signing a peace treaty. I’ll offer the president some free advice: telling Putin the world is too weak to stop him isn’t very intimidating.

Yet even if the West got Putin to sign on to a new agreement, nothing will have been accomplished. Putin has been violating the last ceasefire agreement, because there’s no one to enforce it. What Obama, Merkel, and Hollande are working for, then, is a non-solution–an agreement that would allow everyone involved to pretend it’s more than it is, and which would implicitly (if not explicitly) accept Putin’s previous land grabs in Ukraine while asking him nicely–on the honor system–to stop taking more land.

You can see what bothers the Ukrainians about this. They are at war, and high-level delegations from France, Germany, and the United States all flew in to tell them, personally, that they’re a lost cause. They either don’t realize it or don’t seem to care, but three major Western powers just went out of their way to ostentatiously humiliate their besieged ally on the world stage.

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Arm Ukraine

As this news report makes clear, Ukrainian rebels are feeling good about themselves. Bolstered by an infusion of Russian weaponry and Russian military and intelligence personnel in disguise, they are once more on the offensive against the army of the lawfully elected government of Ukraine. Having already seized much of eastern Ukraine, they are looking to enlarge their gangster state, possibly even creating a land bridge to Crimea, which has already been stolen by the Kremlin.

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As this news report makes clear, Ukrainian rebels are feeling good about themselves. Bolstered by an infusion of Russian weaponry and Russian military and intelligence personnel in disguise, they are once more on the offensive against the army of the lawfully elected government of Ukraine. Having already seized much of eastern Ukraine, they are looking to enlarge their gangster state, possibly even creating a land bridge to Crimea, which has already been stolen by the Kremlin.

The Ukrainian government has been hard-put to resist this onslaught because it is denied access to the kinds of sophisticated weapons that the Russians routinely provide for the rebels. It’s nice to read that the White House is “open” to reopening discussions about whether to send military aid to Ukraine. But the time for debate is past. There is no time for the kind of agonizing, drawn-out policymaking process that the professorial president favors. Ukraine is in urgent need of help right now.

A distinguished group of former government officials, including former NATO commander Adm. Jim Stavridis, Obama’s former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, Obama’s former NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Clinton’s former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, have just issued a report calling for the provision of arms to Ukraine. They write:

The U.S. government should provide Ukraine $1 billion in military assistance as soon as possible in 2015, followed by additional tranches of $1billion in FY 2016 and FY 2017.

Additional non-lethal assistance should include: counterbattery radars, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs),
electronic counter-measures for use against opposing UAVs, secure communications capabilities, armored
Humvees and medical support equipment.

Lethal defensive military assistance should include light anti-armor missiles, given the large numbers of armored vehicles that the Russians have deployed in Donetsk and Luhansk and the abysmal condition of the Ukrainian military’s light anti-armor weapons.

It is hard to argue with the pedigrees of the authors or the wisdom of their conclusions. It is all the more mystifying that the Obama administration has refused to implement their advice, which undoubtedly has been offered privately long before the publication of this report.

The administration has been paralyzed by specious arguments that providing arms would “escalate” the conflict and make a “negotiated solution” impossible. But the refusal to help Ukraine has given Russia a green-light to escalate as much as Vladimir Putin desires–and he has an obvious incentive to keep stoking the fires of conflict to distract his own populace from a dismal economic outlook brought about by falling oil prices and Western sanctions. By contrast, arming the legitimate government of Ukraine has the potential to actually bring Putin and his goons to negotiate in good faith. But first they must be convinced that they cannot continue making gains at gunpoint.

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If Iran Gets Nukes, Will Obama Be Satisfied with Imposing “Costs?”

President Obama’s interview with Fareed Zakaria, aired yesterday on CNN, had been teased out last week with excerpts on the president’s response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress. It was the least important part of the interview; all schoolyard drama, no substance. Which is precisely why CNN used it as viewer bait. But in the full interview, the president actually said something quite important. Though the comment was about Ukraine, it has significant implications for the effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

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President Obama’s interview with Fareed Zakaria, aired yesterday on CNN, had been teased out last week with excerpts on the president’s response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress. It was the least important part of the interview; all schoolyard drama, no substance. Which is precisely why CNN used it as viewer bait. But in the full interview, the president actually said something quite important. Though the comment was about Ukraine, it has significant implications for the effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Admittedly, what the president said wasn’t exactly new. It was a new riff on an old song. But its timing offers a window into how the president approaches conflict resolution around the world. “Would it be fair to say,” Zakaria asked the president, “that with regard to Russia your policy has been pretty effective in imposing real costs on the Russian economy, but it has not deterred Vladimir Putin from creating instability in Ukraine?” The president agreed: “I think that’s entirely fair.” But then he went back to a familiar well: “And I think that is a testament to the bad decisions that Mr. Putin is making on behalf of his country.”

He went on to say this:

There’s no formula in which this ends up being good for Russia. The annexation of Crimea is a cost, not a benefit to Russia. The days, in which conquest of land somehow was a formula for great nation status is over. The power of countries today is measured by your knowledge, your skills, your ability to export goods to invent new products and new services, your influence. And none of those things are provided by his strategy. Now, but what is absolutely true is that if you have a leader who continually drives past the off ramps that we’ve provided, given the size of the Russian military, given the fact that Ukraine is not a NATO country, and so as a consequence there are clear limits in terms of what we would do militarily, Mr. Putin has not been stopped so far.

The obvious takeaway is that what Obama said isn’t true, nor is it close to being true. It is, in fact, an astoundingly silly view of the world, which explains quite a bit about why the president’s approach to foreign policy has been so disastrous. It’s also contradictory; after all, if the “power of countries today is measured” in part by “your influence,” then Russia gets more than a passing grade. Additionally, we should all hope that with an Obama-Biden-Kerry team at the helm, power isn’t “measured by your knowledge.”

But the president’s statement is completed by his next sentence:

To those who would suggest that we need to do more, what I’ve said to them is that we can exact higher and higher costs and that’s exactly what we’re doing, and we can bring diplomatic pressure to bear.

This is the key to understanding Obama’s strategy, such as it is, to these conflicts. Obama’s goal is not to prevent nor reverse the rogue states’ actions. He aims not to turn Russia back nor even really stop what’s going on in eastern Ukraine. He simply wants Putin to one day regret his actions. He wants to exact “costs”–and that’s all.

The administration is reportedly considering giving real support to Ukrainian forces, a development that would be far too late to undo most of the damage but might stop Ukraine from slowly disintegrating. Yet they are still not ready to pull the trigger, apparently, and we all know how well the administration’s plan to arm the Syrian rebels–delayed, bungled, and abandoned–worked out. More likely, the president is simply looking for a way to be able to say he did more than he did.

Which is why the “cost” theory Obama’s so fond of should worry those opposed to a nuclear Iran, among other conflicts. Obama is not generally a fan of sanctions; on both Russia and Iran, he’s been an obstacle to meaningful sanctions. But when he does begrudgingly sign sanctions legislation he’s unable to prevent, he likes to think his work is done.

That’s the point of Obama’s protestation that “we can exact higher and higher costs.” Russia will still get to do what it wants and take what it wants, but Obama hopes it will cost them some cash. What’s alarming about this (as opposed to just insulting, which it is to the Ukrainians) is that if it were applied to Iran, it would mean Obama sees sanctions and penalties as an end in themselves, not as a tactic to help obtain a specific outcome.

That would mean an Iranian nuke (or the Iranians being beyond the point of no return) and Obama would sit there smirking about it on CNN talking about all the costs Iran has accumulated in order to get that bomb. He would admonish Iran that they may have achieved nuclear capability, but great nations aren’t measured by their power and prestige, they’re measured by whether Barack Obama thinks they’ve made prudent financial investments.

If Obama wants to write a column for the Financial Times, he’d still be wrong. But he’d leave a lot less rubble in his wake.

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The Sanctions That Scare Putin

Just as European nations expressed their eagerness to ratchet down their already weak sanctions on Russia, pro-Russian rebels have once again stepped up their offensive in Ukraine. They have taken Donetsk airport and appear to be pushing south toward Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov whose capture would bring them close to linking up the eastern parts of Ukraine already held by their forces with Crimea, earlier seized and annexed by Russia.

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Just as European nations expressed their eagerness to ratchet down their already weak sanctions on Russia, pro-Russian rebels have once again stepped up their offensive in Ukraine. They have taken Donetsk airport and appear to be pushing south toward Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov whose capture would bring them close to linking up the eastern parts of Ukraine already held by their forces with Crimea, earlier seized and annexed by Russia.

Putin, naturally, is in full disinformation mode. He claims that the Ukrainian army is really “a foreign legion — in this particular case NATO’s foreign legion, which of course does not pursue the objective of serving Ukraine’s national interests.”

This is straight out of the old KGB playbook, propagating a Big Lie which, in this case, happens to be the reverse of the truth: The rebels in Ukraine are more nearly a “foreign legion” than their adversaries are. The Ukrainian army, after all, fights for a popularly elected government with the support of the vast majority of Ukrainians, even Russian-speakers, who don’t want their country dismembered.

The rebels, on the other hand, are sponsored and controlled by the Kremlin which buttresses their ranks with Russian special forces and intelligence operatives, not to mention providing copious firepower in the form of artillery, tanks, and anti-aircraft missiles. By contrast the Ukrainians receive no weapons at all from the US or its NATO allies, so scared are the Western powers of “provoking” Russia by allowing the Ukrainians to defend themselves. The lack of actual American support for Ukraine makes a mockery of President Obama’s hollow boast in his State of the Union address: “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.”

If we continue opposing Russian aggression as we’ve been doing, there may not be any Ukraine left to defend before long.

What would a more effective response consist of? Well, for a start, ship the Ukrainians all the weapons they need to defend their own territory and also provide training and intelligence for them. Meanwhile, it’s imperative to step up the sanctions regime on Russia which obviously is not affecting its propensity toward criminal behavior.

At Davos, Andrei Kostin, the CEO of Russia’s second-largest bank VTB, inadvertently pointed the way forward when he warned of the dire consequences should the West decide to cut off Russia from the SWIFT system which enables banks to conduct international transactions: “If there is no Swift, there is no banking . . . relationship, it means that the countries are on the verge of war, or they are definitely in a cold war,” Kostin said.

What Kostin said is hyperbole: It’s hard to imagine Putin declaring war on the United States because Russia was cut out of the SWIFT system. But it is hyperbole that suggests the real trepidation such a move inspires in elite Russian circles. Which is precisely why the U.S. and its European partners need to give Russia a SWIFT kick in the derriere. Certainly the existing sanctions are not getting Putin’s attention.

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Obama’s Yalta Syndrome

President Obama may have been hoping to get some momentum back last night with a stridently partisan campaign-style speech. But it appears the media are losing patience with this game, finally. Both NBC News and MSNBC’s commentators were incredulous over Obama’s interpretation of world affairs. And the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker dropped a dreaded phrase into his analysis of Obama’s conception of his foreign policy: “What he did not mention was that….”

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President Obama may have been hoping to get some momentum back last night with a stridently partisan campaign-style speech. But it appears the media are losing patience with this game, finally. Both NBC News and MSNBC’s commentators were incredulous over Obama’s interpretation of world affairs. And the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker dropped a dreaded phrase into his analysis of Obama’s conception of his foreign policy: “What he did not mention was that….”

You know Obama’s having a tough run when the New York Times hits him with a yes, but. In this case, what Obama did not mention was that “Russia maintains control of Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine, and continues to support pro-Russian separatists who are at war with Ukraine’s government despite a cease-fire that has failed to stop violence.”

Obama had been bragging about simply waiting Vladimir Putin out until the Russian economy started (or continued) to crumble. But Baker’s next sentence shows what is so unsound about Obama’s approach to foreign affairs: “Russia’s economy has indeed taken a huge hit, in large part because of the fall in oil prices, but so far Mr. Putin shows few signs of backing down.”

That, in fact, is what the divide is all about, because Obama considers that a victory while most of the reality-based community disagrees. To Obama, what happens to insignificant states–as he sees them, at least–isn’t important. This is a kind of great-power politics stripped of all nuance. It’s what someone who wants to practice great-power politics but doesn’t really understand international affairs would think constitutes such a policy.

To Obama, it’s the large states–or as he sees them, important states–that matter. Because Obama is a follower, not a leader, he gravitates toward the strong horse. He does not want to be in conflict with Russia, whatever that means for Russia’s ability to crush nearby states that the U.S. has promised to protect. Obama’s foreign policy suffers from Yalta syndrome.

And it’s the reason for what was really the centerpiece of Baker’s Times article on Obama’s unrealistic foreign policy: ISIS and the war on terror. Here’s how the article begins:

Under the original plan, this was to be the State of the Union address in which President Obama would be able to go before the nation and declare that he had fulfilled his vow to end two overseas wars. Only the wars did not exactly cooperate.

Mr. Obama pulled American troops out of Iraq in 2011 and ordered all “combat forces” out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But before he could seize the mantle of peacemaker in Tuesday night’s speech, the rise of a terrorist group called the Islamic State prompted Mr. Obama to send forces back to Iraq, and security challenges in Afghanistan led him to leave a slightly larger residual force.

The total American military commitment overseas has shrunk significantly since Mr. Obama took office, with just 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, down from 180,000 six years ago. The situation in both countries, however, is not as clean or as settled as the president had hoped. Instead of ending American wars abroad, he now faces the prospect of finishing his presidency in two years with at least one of them still unresolved.

Even that understates it just a bit, but it’s mostly on-target. If the president ended or almost ended the two long wars the U.S. military has been engaged in, why isn’t he a peacemaker? The standard answer, which is correct but not quite complete, is that ending a war isn’t the same thing as winning a war; if you leave the job unfinished, it will be almost impossible to credibly pretend otherwise.

But it’s also because of the particular age in which Obama was elected to be that very peacemaker. Terrorism has long been with us, but 9/11 did change our recognition of the threat and thus our posture toward it. Land wars feel like a relic–even though Russia is proving they still occur, and will continue to occur. Asymmetric warfare, however, is much more difficult to avoid, as events both in the U.S. and especially in Europe of late have shown.

The spread of ISIS has nudged Obama even more into the arms of the country he sees as the Muslim world’s strong horse: Iran. We are now aligned with Iran’s client in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, a man the president previously insisted must be deposed from power. And we are in pursuit of the same near-term goal in Iraq: the defeat of ISIS.

And Obama has made it quite clear he intends to kick the nuclear can down the road far enough for it to be his successor’s problem (just as he, to be fair, inherited it from his predecessor). What he doesn’t want is conflict with Iran. If that means chaos in Yemen and slaughter in Syria while Iran gets away with exporting revolutionary terror–well, it is what it is. And if that means Iran displacing some of the hard-earned American influence in Iraq–well, what can you do. And if that means continuing to consign Lebanon to Hezbollah’s control, or trying not to pay much attention to another of Iran’s enemies dropping dead in a foreign country–you get the point.

The Georgians watching South Ossetia apprehensively are paying attention. Surely so are the states in China’s near abroad. For that matter, Poland too is getting nervous. They know a Yalta when they see one.

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Loose Nukes and Empty Promises: Ukraine’s Hard Lesson

In the spring of 2012, the GOP’s foreign-policy elder statesman, Dick Lugar, was soundly defeated in a Republican Senate primary by Richard Mourdock, bringing an end to a six-term senatorial career. And when Mourdock needed help on the campaign trail for the general election, Lugar was unavailable. He was on his farewell tour–not on Capitol Hill but, according to Politico, in “Surovatikha, about 300 miles east of Moscow,” where “the two-time Foreign Relations Committee chairman dined in a dismantling facility as Russian officials ripped apart strategic missiles.” It was oddly appropriate as a send-off not only to Lugar, but also for U.S.-Russian Cold War-era cooperation since relegated to the scrap heap along with those missiles.

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In the spring of 2012, the GOP’s foreign-policy elder statesman, Dick Lugar, was soundly defeated in a Republican Senate primary by Richard Mourdock, bringing an end to a six-term senatorial career. And when Mourdock needed help on the campaign trail for the general election, Lugar was unavailable. He was on his farewell tour–not on Capitol Hill but, according to Politico, in “Surovatikha, about 300 miles east of Moscow,” where “the two-time Foreign Relations Committee chairman dined in a dismantling facility as Russian officials ripped apart strategic missiles.” It was oddly appropriate as a send-off not only to Lugar, but also for U.S.-Russian Cold War-era cooperation since relegated to the scrap heap along with those missiles.

Lugar’s legacy rested on the joint efforts he spearheaded at the collapse of the Soviet Union to secure nuclear material across the empire. The program, whose mantelpiece featured the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction at its center, was successful but unfinished. And now it is finished.

Not completed, mind you. On the contrary, the regime of Vladimir Putin has consistently chipped away at elements of the weapons-reduction program as relations between the two countries deteriorated. There is still plenty more work to be done, but the Russians officially put the Obama administration on notice that the remaining work, if it’s done at all, will be done by Russia. Cooperation will continue outside of Russia in other former Soviet countries, however.

The Boston Globe reveals the contents of that notice, as it was delivered to American officials at a meeting in December in Moscow:

In the previously undisclosed discussions, the Russians informed the Americans that they were refusing any more US help protecting their largest stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium from being stolen or sold on the black market. The declaration effectively ended one of the most successful areas of cooperation between the former Cold War adversaries.

“I think it greatly increases the risk of catastrophic terrorism,” said Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia and an architect of the “cooperative threat reduction” programs of the 1990s.

Official word came in a terse, three-page agreement signed on Dec. 16. A copy was obtained by the Globe, and a description of the Moscow meeting was provided by three people who attended the session or were briefed on it. They declined to be identified for security reasons. …

Specialists said the final meeting was a dismaying development in a joint effort that the United States has invested some $2 billion in and had been a symbol of the thaw between East and West and of global efforts to prevent the spread of doomsday weapons. An additional $100 million had been budgeted for the effort this year and many of the programs were envisioned to continue at least through 2018.

To be sure, none of this was much of a surprise. Two weeks after Politico chronicled Lugar’s trip to the Russian east Vladimir Putin thanked him for his service by announcing the cancellation of Lugar’s great achievement. Even then, a deputy foreign minister had said, “This is not news.”

Then in November 2014, the Russians signaled that the end was near for nuclear cooperation more broadly. That appears to be what was put in writing a month later, and what is being reported now by the Globe.

There is some bitter irony here. The deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations picked up even more steam with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Ukrainian territory, followed by additional invasions in Ukraine’s east. The West hit Russia with modest sanctions but nothing especially serious, and Putin played the aggrieved party by backing further away from cooperation with the West.

Yet the invasions of Ukraine seem to have been made possible by the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which was part of the East-West collaboration to rid the Soviet sphere of unsecured or uncontrolled nuclear material. In an effort to secure dangerous weapons, Ukraine gave up the nukes it inherited from the Soviet Union in return for a pledge from the U.S., UK, and Russia that Ukraine’s sovereignty would be respected. Ukraine would give up its nukes, that is, if there was no reason for Ukraine to have nukes.

In retrospect, this was naïve. “For a brief period, Ukraine was the world’s third-largest nuclear power,” noted Bloomberg in March of last year. It is unlikely the world’s third-largest nuclear power would be invaded by the world’s largest just to prove a point. That’s the thing about security: it doesn’t come from a piece of paper. For a country like Ukraine, caught between East and West, such a deal (and its inevitable dissolution) was a teaching moment. They learned that Russia knows facts on the ground trump memoranda, and plan accordingly. And they learned that the West, at least in the post-Cold War era, can’t be relied upon when the chips are down.

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Putin’s Gambit and the Future of Ukraine

Throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I’ve referred to the “Georgia precedent”: the idea that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed Vladimir Putin how much he could get away with in terms of violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. In truth, the Georgia precedent is about more than the invasion, which was, in Georgia’s case, the culmination of about a decade of Russia’s asymmetrical warfare and boosting separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia essentially followed the same playbook in Ukraine, but took it one step further and actually annexed territory. Now Putin may be about to do the same in Georgia.

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Throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I’ve referred to the “Georgia precedent”: the idea that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed Vladimir Putin how much he could get away with in terms of violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. In truth, the Georgia precedent is about more than the invasion, which was, in Georgia’s case, the culmination of about a decade of Russia’s asymmetrical warfare and boosting separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia essentially followed the same playbook in Ukraine, but took it one step further and actually annexed territory. Now Putin may be about to do the same in Georgia.

Over at Quartz, Steve LeVine points to news of Russia and South Ossetia signing an integration treaty. Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment explains at Carnegie’s website that much of this is formality: Russia was already effectively in control of South Ossetia. And as I’ve pointed out in the past, Russia had staffed key posts in the breakaway provinces and even distributed Russian passports. Nonetheless, this is clearly an escalation in the “frozen” conflict. Here’s de Waal:

The document goes much further than the treaty signed between Abkhazia and Russia in November. The Abkhaz re-drafted their treaty to keep several elements of their de facto sovereignty. The South Ossetian version, also written by Kremlin adviser and spin-doctor Vladislav Surkov, envisages the Ossetians conducting an “agreed-upon foreign policy” and hands over full control of their security and borders to Russia. South Ossetia is being swallowed up.

The treaty should come as no surprise. Moscow has been fully in control of South Ossetia since it recognized it as independent in 2008. Compared to Abkhazia, the population is tiny. South Ossetia had 100,000 citizens in 1989 but, after years of conflict and the flight of most of the Georgian population, just 21,000 people voted in the parliamentary election last June. The anomaly represented by South Ossetia’s supposed independent statehood, while North Ossetia, with a population of 700,000 is a mere autonomous region of Russia, has never been so glaring.

The obvious question is: Why is Putin doing this–or at least, why now? Only Putin knows for sure, but it does demonstrate how differently the conflict is viewed from Washington and from Moscow.

It further exposes the Obama administration’s “off-ramp” delusions. President Obama has operated under the impression that Putin is looking for a way out. In his estimation, Putin didn’t realize what he was getting himself into, acted rashly, and needed a way to save face that didn’t look like a retreat. That obviously failed. So the next idea was to essentially accept Putin’s land grabs and merely try to get him not to take any more.

As Josh Rogin reported last month, the Obama administration has been working on new “outreach” to Moscow. Believing that sanctions on Russia are having their desired effect, the administration has, apparently, been willing to offer Putin a pretty sweet deal: he gets to keep what he’s already taken. Here’s Rogin:

In several conversations with Lavrov, Kerry has floated an offer to Russia that would pave the way for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions. Kerry’s conditions included Russia adhering to September’s Minsk agreement and ceasing direct military support for the Ukrainian separatists. The issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.

It’s true that the West is not going to dislodge Russia from Crimea. But there is still reasonable opposition to any agreement that would seem to bestow the West’s acceptance of the Crimean occupation and annexation on the criminal Putin regime. This opposition mainly stems from moral outrage, but now the Russian integration treaty with South Ossetia gives the West strategic reason to oppose treating Crimea as officially a fait accompli.

What Putin is demonstrating is, first of all, patience. But also bad faith. If the West treats the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine–where Russian-armed and directed separatists shot down a passenger plane, remember–as the only aspect of the larger conflict in Ukraine that is open to negotiation and adjustment, Putin will pocket the concession of Crimea. Then he will simply wait out the president.

That will be the easiest part of all. As Max wrote earlier, Obama seems to want to drag out various foreign conflicts long enough to hand off to his successor. But just as in Georgia, Putin can be expected to escalate once again when he thinks the time is right. In other words, if the West agrees to merely pause the conflict in eastern Ukraine right now, they are still abandoning Ukraine to Russia. Putin will see it as a victory in eastern Ukraine too, not just in Crimea. And we’ll have given him no reason to think otherwise.

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Turkey Helps Russia’s Ambition in Georgia

Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, there was Russia’s invasion of Georgia. And, just as it was years later in Ukraine, part of the Russian strategy was to recognize the independence of separatist states wholly dependent on Russian largesse in territories Russian troops seized. In Ukraine, for example, there was briefly independent Crimea and, of course, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics. And, in Georgia, Russia has set up the proxy states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Beyond Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific island nation of Nauru recognize the independence of the breakaway states, although other Russian-backed breakaway states—Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria—also maintain “embassies” in the Russian puppet states.

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Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, there was Russia’s invasion of Georgia. And, just as it was years later in Ukraine, part of the Russian strategy was to recognize the independence of separatist states wholly dependent on Russian largesse in territories Russian troops seized. In Ukraine, for example, there was briefly independent Crimea and, of course, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics. And, in Georgia, Russia has set up the proxy states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Beyond Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific island nation of Nauru recognize the independence of the breakaway states, although other Russian-backed breakaway states—Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria—also maintain “embassies” in the Russian puppet states.

Enter Turkey, a member of NATO, a defensive alliance created in order to resist Russian aggression. Sergei Kapanadze, director of the Tbilisi-based Georgia’s Reforms Associates and a former deputy foreign minister of Georgia, has an important article out in the latest issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly, the top journal of contemporary Turkish politics and studies, examining Turkish trade with Abkhazia.

What he finds is that while Turkish officials pay lip service to Georgia’s territorial integrity, Turkish trade with the Russian-backed breakaway state is booming. Senior Turkish Foreign Ministry officials have visited Abkhazia to discuss developing relations, and in June 2014, a delegation of Turkish parliamentarians visited Abkhazia as well. Kapanadze wrote that 60 percent of Abkazian imports come from Turkey, while 45 percent of its exports go to Turkey. In other words, Turkey’s willingness to make a quick buck on Abkhazia effectively subsidizes Russian aggression and the fiction of Abkhazian independence. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, Kapanadze estimates the trade volume between Turkey and Abkhazia in 2013 as $600 million. That might not seem like much, but that’s more than the total trade balance between the United States and Georgia ($425.8 million) the same year. Turkey, meanwhile, complains when the Georgian navy stops Turkish smuggling ships.

It’s imperative to stop and roll back Russian aggression wherever it occurs. NATO is the chief defensive alliance to fulfill that mission. How sad it is, then, that Turkey once again shows that when it comes to fighting aggression, taking money from dictators means more than principles such as liberty, democracy, and freedom. Turkey may be a NATO member, but it simply is on the wrong side of the fight.

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2014’s Big Winners: Putin and ISIS

It tells you something about the increasing irrelevance of news magazines that I entirely missed the fact that Time had designated “Ebola fighters” as their “Person of the Year”.  A feel good choice, but not the one I would have made after a year filled with one calamity after another. For my “Man of the Year”  (to use the original form invented by Time founder Henry Luce) I would split the honor between two rogues: Vladimir Putin, self-proclaimed president of Russia, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State. Both have had a very good year–which for the rest of us means a very bad year.

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It tells you something about the increasing irrelevance of news magazines that I entirely missed the fact that Time had designated “Ebola fighters” as their “Person of the Year”.  A feel good choice, but not the one I would have made after a year filled with one calamity after another. For my “Man of the Year”  (to use the original form invented by Time founder Henry Luce) I would split the honor between two rogues: Vladimir Putin, self-proclaimed president of Russia, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State. Both have had a very good year–which for the rest of us means a very bad year.

Putin began 2014 facing growing protests after he had had engineered his return to the presidency in 2012 after a four year interregnum as prime minister. Things went from bad to worse from his perspective when his ally in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by popular protests after his decision to seek a close relationship with Russia rather than with the European Union. Yanukovych’s downfall could well have presaged Putin’s own. But rather than waiting for a “color” revolution to topple him, the crafty Russian dictator seized the initiative.

Using plainclothes Russian soldiers, spies, and stooges (a.k.a. “little green men”), he fomented an insurgency where none had previously existed in Crimea. By March Crimeans had voted in a rigged election to be annexed by Moscow, and Putin had a major nationalist achievement to distract attention back home. Putin followed up this initial triumph by fomenting another insurgency in eastern Ukraine that succeeded in detaching substantial portions of the east from Kiev’s control.

To be sure Putin has paid a price for his blatant violation of international law; the ruble has gone into freefall and the Russian economy is imploding, in part because of international sanctions and in part because of falling oil prices. But Putin appears to be stronger than ever–and as clever as ever in defeating his foes.

The latest evidence of his amoral brilliance is the manner in which he dealt with Russia’s leading pro-democracy leader, Aleksei Navalny, who had been indicted on trumped-up charges of fraud. Rather than sending Navalny to prison where he could become a martyr, Putin’s handpicked judge gave him a suspended sentence while sending his entirely innocent brother Oleg to prison as a hostage for Aleksei’s good behavior.

Even more sinister and almost as clever has been Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who in the past year has managed to dramatically revive the fortunes of the group once known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. This organization suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of US forces and Sunni tribesmen in 2007-2008.  Taking over after the death of his predecessor in 2010, Baghdadi (a nom de guerre for Ibrahim al-Badri) revived its fortunes by taking advantage of the Syrian civil war. Then, having created a base in the Syrian town of Raqqa, Baghdadi moved back into his native Iraq, taking control of Fallujah in January 2014 and of Mosul in June. He then proclaimed an Islamic State stretching across the borders of Iraq and Syria and defended by an army estimated to be 20,000 to 30,000 strong and armed with heavy weapons seized from the poorly led and motivated Iraqi Security Forces.

Baghdadi may have miscalculated the impact of televised beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers–these atrocities helped draw a visibly reluctant President Obama into the fray in a small and limited way–but he has succeeded brilliantly at galvanizing support from extremists around the Muslim world. ISIS, in fact, is starting to eclipse “Al Qaeda” as the leading brand among jihadist terrorist groups.

So congratulations, Vlad and Abu Bakr, on having been won the honor of being designated my Men of the Year for your success at promoting oppression. Your selection, of course, reflects deep discredit on the statesmen of the West–principally President Obama–who allowed you to go from triumph to triumph.

We can only hope that you have over-reached in your aggression and that 2015 will see a more concerted response to the evil that you represent than has been the case so far. Because I’m not sure the international system as we know it can survive another year of your triumphs.

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