Commentary Magazine


Topic: Vladimir Putin

Obama to Bibi: The Jerk Store Called, They’re Running Out of You!

After State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf dismissed Henry Kissinger and George Shultz’s critique of the Iran framework deal as “a lot of big words and big thoughts,” David Brooks responded by asking, “Are we in nursery school?” The evidence for answering that question in the affirmative continued to mount yesterday. Following on last month’s Twitter trolling of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (broadly criticized as mortifyingly undignified), the Obama administration did it again, proving once again the administration’s embarrassing immaturity and the fact that it is Obama who is keeping the public feud with Israel alive.

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After State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf dismissed Henry Kissinger and George Shultz’s critique of the Iran framework deal as “a lot of big words and big thoughts,” David Brooks responded by asking, “Are we in nursery school?” The evidence for answering that question in the affirmative continued to mount yesterday. Following on last month’s Twitter trolling of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (broadly criticized as mortifyingly undignified), the Obama administration did it again, proving once again the administration’s embarrassing immaturity and the fact that it is Obama who is keeping the public feud with Israel alive.

This time the White House tweeted out a picture that was expressly intended to mock Netanyahu’s famous bomb diagram at the UN in September 2012. At that time, Netanyahu used the picture to illustrate Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. The cartoon bomb appeared to backfire because it looked like something out of a Warner Bros. cartoon, no doubt leading the White House to hope an Acme anvil would drop out of the sky and onto the podium at that moment. But the illustration did at least draw attention to Netanyahu’s message, and succeeded in driving the conversation in the media.

Yesterday, the White House tweeted out the following picture:

whbomb

The “facts” in the diagram are mostly spin, though I don’t think anyone expects anything accurate out of the Obama administration’s press shop. The point of the diagram–the only point, since the picture isn’t actually informative and the president could have put out this information any number of ways–was to mock the Israeli prime minister on Twitter for something that happened in 2012.

Obama is essentially George Castanza finally coming up with what he believes is a great, though hilariously delayed, response to an earlier insult. Obama’s message to Bibi is: “The jerk store called, they’re running out of you!”

On a more serious note–though at this part we’ll surely lose the president and his spokespersons–does the Obama administration consider how this looks to the world? I doubt it. For example, the Russians just loved it–not because it was funny, but because the Kremlin-directed media expressed what appears to be Vladimir Putin’s uncontainable glee at watching the supposed leader of the free world (or at least Stephen Harper’s deputy leader of the free world, at this point) throw food at the Israeli prime minister in public.

If you’re an American adversary, you don’t even really have to do anything at this point. You can just sit and watch the Obama administration melt down under the weight of its own childish ignorance. Here’s Sputnik:

In three hours, the image had been retweeted nearly 700 times, with one user quipping “Apparently, the #WhiteHouse has hired #Netanyahu ‘s graphic design team.”

All in good fun. Except, you know, for the fact that the Obama administration apparently thinks a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is a big joke.

The last time the Obama administration did this was in early March. Its trolling then was more explicitly aimed at picking a fight with Netanyahu but, unlike this latest trolling, was at least above the intellectual maturity of a preschooler. The National Security Council tweeted out a column by Fareed Zakaria attempting to rebut Netanyahu. But the NSC’s tweet was more than just a link; it also added this administration’s trademark bitterness:

Yesterday’s trolling, ironically, actually confirmed Netanyahu’s success at controlling the conversation about Iranian nukes. The president has been trying to think of a comeback for two and a half years. And the picture, clearly, stuck in the minds of those who saw it.

If you’re thinking that, for an Ivy League-educated president of the United States, we’re sure using the word “trolling” an awful lot–well, yes. That’s one lesson of this whole affair. The president likes to troll allies on Twitter. Is there a better use of his time? I would imagine so.

But to realize that he would need a certain degree of self-awareness. It’s times like this the president’s tendency to hire young communications officials, inexperienced campaign hacks, and a Cabinet and inner circle of yes-men catches up with him.

The other lesson here is that it shows beyond all doubt (if anyone still had doubts) that Obama is the one who wants to keep this feud going, and publicly. At this point it’s obvious that Obama’s obsessive focus on Netanyahu’s campaign comments were merely a pretext to threaten to take action the administration was always planning on taking.

But this makes it crystal clear that when the administration gets all the mileage possible out of one manufactured controversy, and the prime minister hasn’t said anything they could harp on again, they’ll merely drop all pretense and just start taking potshots. Obama does not want this feud dropped, and he does not want reconciliation. He just wants to keep fighting. And our adversaries are just enjoying the show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s Time to Reopen a Base on Iceland

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

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

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

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

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

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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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What Will Nemtsov’s Assassination Mean for Hillary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Murder of Yet Another Putin Critic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putin and Ukraine: The Ante Has Already Been Raised

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How the Ukraine Ceasefire Encouraged More Violence–And Got It

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

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

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

Yet here is how the Times sets the scene:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Economist gets it about right here:

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

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

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

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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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We Have to Talk About Obama’s Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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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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New SecDef Must Address Eastern Mediterranean

Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, is expected to cruise through his confirmation hearings early this year. Unlike the controversial and inarticulate Chuck Hagel, apparently chosen because Obama felt camaraderie with him on a congressional trip and wanted to poke his opponents, Carter has broad bipartisan respect and clear mastery of the issues at hand. This is important not only because of the Pentagon’s budget crunch—cutbacks exacerbated by the inflexible mechanism of sequestration—but also because of the rise of new challenges the world over.

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Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, is expected to cruise through his confirmation hearings early this year. Unlike the controversial and inarticulate Chuck Hagel, apparently chosen because Obama felt camaraderie with him on a congressional trip and wanted to poke his opponents, Carter has broad bipartisan respect and clear mastery of the issues at hand. This is important not only because of the Pentagon’s budget crunch—cutbacks exacerbated by the inflexible mechanism of sequestration—but also because of the rise of new challenges the world over.

But being Secretary of Defense is not simply about reacting to the latest crises. It’s also about planning for future ones. In theory, that might be the purview of the National Security Council and State Department Policy Planning Staff, but neither have distinguished themselves under Obama; quite the contrary, they have become dumping grounds for political loyalists and followers rather than thinkers.

Carter’s greatest legacy may not yet be on the radar screen of senators and their staff who are already pouring over his record to prepare their questions. But, the rise of Greek leftist Alexis Tsipras should highlight both the growing importance of the Eastern Mediterranean and America’s relative vulnerability.

The discovery and development of gas fields off the coast of Cyprus and Israel have infused the Eastern Mediterranean with new importance. Its gas may account for only slightly more than half that of Alaska’s northern coast and less than half of that of Saudi Arabia, but Eastern Mediterranean gas is closer to its customers and in a less extreme environment.

The gas fields might be good for both Israel and Cyprus’s economy, but can also be a source for instability. After Houston-based Noble Energy began drilling in Cypriot waters in September 2011, Egemen Bağış, at the time Turkey’s European Union Affairs minister and, despite corruption allegations, still a top advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened, “This is what we have the navy for. We have trained our marines for this; we have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can be done.”

Meanwhile, in May 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the permanent deployment of a 16-ship Mediterranean task force. With President Obama apparently willing to acquiesce to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, Russian use of Syria’s Tartous Naval Base is assured. Add into the mix Hezbollah, which brags that it is training in underwater sabotage, the Lebanese government which is voicing a new maritime dispute with Israel over 330 square miles of offshore waters, Hamas, a resurgent Iranian navy, and al-Qaeda’s rise in the Sinai peninsula, and the Eastern Mediterranean has not been so contested since the height of the Cold War.

The United States has one naval base in the region, in Souda Bay, Crete. But with Tsipras’s rise, that’s up for grabs. If Tsipras doesn’t expel the United States completely, he may go the Philippines’ route and raise the rent exorbitantly to the point where it becomes untenable to continue.

The United States maintains numerous installations around the Persian Gulf: In Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Over the next decade, however, the Eastern Mediterranean will only grow in importance, as fracking will continue to break the relative importance of Persian Gulf energy exporters. How the United States should position its forces in the Mediterranean may not seem like a pressing problem, but decisions made during Carter’s watch will reverberate for decades. He should be up to the challenge. Let us hope that the Senate explores the issue.

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