Category Archives: Crimea

Putin Acts, Obama Assesses

Aren’t you glad we have such a reflective President?
The White House on Monday said there was “overwhelming evidence” that Russia is stirring the unrest in eastern Ukraine, but President Obama hasn’t yet decided if further sanctions are warranted. That’s how the Associated Press put its dispatch from Washington on the crisis in Ukraine, and the juxtaposition is a perfect summary of the current state of U.S. foreign policy.

Vladimir Putin uses Russian special forces to cow a neighbor and steal territory, while Mr. Obama agonizes about what to do. “We are actively evaluating what is happening in eastern Ukraine, what actions Russia has taken, what transgressions they’ve engaged in,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “And we are working with our partners and assessing for ourselves what response we may choose.” This is from the same President who has been saying for weeks that any further Russian transgressions into Ukraine would be met with harsh sanctions. Mr. Putin must laugh out loud when he reads this stuff.

Meanwhile, the government in Kiev is getting the message that it had better fend for itself and has begun to meet one of the offers from Mr. Putin that it can’t refuse. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said he is now open to a national referendum that would grant greater autonomy to regions of the country. Mr. Putin wants to hive off eastern and southern Ukraine into what would essentially be a Russian protectorate and leave Kiev with a rump state. The U.S. has refused to send Ukraine lethal military aid, and Kiev may be looking to sue for peace to avoid an outright invasion.

We know Mr. Obama didn’t run for President to engage in great power politics, but it is still part of the job description. Is he still interested in doing his job?

Putin Acts, Obama Assesses –


Putin Acts, the West Talks

President Obama and European leaders are ratcheting up their rhetoric against Russia. Too bad Vladimir Putin is a man of action who hasn’t seen anything worth stopping his assault on Ukraine.

In the two weeks since Russia invaded Crimea, the U.S. has put a handful of unnamed officials in Moscow on a visa-ban list. The Europeans suspended talks on trade and visa liberalization. That’s about it. Both put off sanctions to give Russia time to “slow down and take the off ramp” in Crimea, in the favorite Western evasion. John Kerry will give diplomacy another shot in London Friday with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has lied throughout this crisis.

President Putin has in the meantime hit the gas pedal on his takeover of Crimea. The Kremlin’s local toughs, who took power by force, declared independence from Ukraine this week, cut off air links with Kiev and seized branches of the country’s banks. Despite Western pleas, the hasty and sham referendum on Crimea’s union with Russia will go ahead Sunday with some 20,000 Russian soldiers as observers.

The “off ramp” the Kremlin boss is taking is to the first naked land grab in Europe since World War II, and Crimea may only be the start. His old intelligence pals are working overtime to import secessionists into eastern Ukraine and perhaps give the Kremlin a pretext to intervene. Moscow’s defense ministry on Thursday admitted to a troop buildup along its border with Ukraine. Kiev itself is vulnerable, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in Washington this week.

Meanwhile, Western leaders have heard from business groups about the risks of confronting Moscow economically. The Kremlin has amplified the message by threatening to confiscate foreign assets in Russia. But commercial calculations have to be set aside here. The strategic choice in Ukraine is between preserving the post-Cold War order in Europe or accepting the new Putin rules.

The modern czar probably figured on some manageable pain from this gambit. Every previous time he has misbehaved, Western greed and weakness tempered the response. (See Georgia war, 2008.) Can Mr. Putin now swallow his neighbors and do business as before in the civilized world? After Sunday’s referendum, the EU and U.S. are expected to announce financial sanctions on officials who had a direct hand in the Crimea operation. The list is likely to be limited, and these people will be hailed as heroes in Russia and compensated by the Kremlin for any losses.

Any counterpunch by the West needs to hit close to Mr. Putin with financial sanctions. Mr. Obama could expand the number of Russians covered by the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which bans human-rights abusers from traveling to or banking in the U.S. His refusal to expand the Magnitsky list as promised in December was the latest signal of this Administration’s lack of concern for bad Russian behavior. As with Iran, the U.S. can deny Russian banks access to Western capital markets. The G-7 can impose quotas on imports of Russian metals, grain and possibly energy. These sanctions would push the Russian economy, set to grow 1% this year, into recession and “sharply” weaken the already weak ruble, according to Moscow-based Renaissance Capital.

Rich Russians keep most of their money in Europe’s banks, live in its capitals and send their kids to its schools. Punish Mr. Putin’s circle with asset freezes and travel restrictions and you endanger his regime. Four-fifths of Russia’s inward direct investment comes from the EU; half its exports go there. Vice President Joe Biden did something possibly useful this week by calling the president of Cyprus. This favorite Mediterranean destination for Russian capital is an important ally in opening up the financial front against Mr. Putin.

Europeans could also stop turning a blind eye to money laundering from the east. Earlier this week Austria arrested a Ukrainian energy oligarch closely connected to Moscow who is wanted in the U.S. A similar attitude adjustment toward rich, Kremlin-connected Russians is overdue across Europe, especially in the city often known as Londongrad.

Russia can also be squeezed through the international courts for absorbing Crimea. The Ukrainian government needs a legal strategy to file claims for billions of dollars in state and private property lost to Russia’s occupation. Aeroflot planes, overseas accounts and government real estate may be war reparations for Kiev one day.

The Kremlin says Russia will match Western measures tit-for-tat, and Mr. Putin no doubt means it. But Russia’s economy is barely the size of Italy’s. It has oil, gas and little else. Russian capital flees at every opportunity, and nervous outside investors have sent Russian equities down sharply. In other words, the pain of economic war will be far worse for Russia than for the rest of the world.

“If Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday. “No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.” Strong and welcome words, but Mr. Putin only understands the language of action.

Putin Acts, the West Talks –


Lessons in Democracy for Ukraine’s Neighbors

Lessons which I’m sure they will learn.
The world justifiably feels for Ukraine and finds itself scrambling to come up with an appropriate response to the Russian incursion. Yet even as a whole host of new democracies race to forget their pasts, one could see this Ukraine mess coming. If you are running any of the new democracies with difficult histories—Poland, any of the Baltic republics, Croatia, Hungary and others—what are you to make of the developments in Ukraine? What lessons are there for you and for your people? Here are three:

Weapons trump agreements. Ukraine now looks incredibly naïve to have agreed to give up its nuclear weapons. Ukraine, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, under which Russia, the U.K and the U.S. promised to respect Ukraine’s borders. They also agreed to abstain from the use or threat of force against Ukraine; to support Ukraine where an attempt is made to place pressure on it by economic coercion; and to bring any incident of aggression by a nuclear power before the U.N. Security Council. In return, Ukraine agreed to give up what was then the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The treaty clearly uses the term “assurances” in reference to the other signatories’ pledges, but Ukraine has always interpreted the assurances as “guarantees.”

It is arguable whether Ukraine had the wherewithal to maintain the weapons and even whether nuclear weapons are an effective deterrent against a conventional attack. But in hindsight, you can bet that Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov and his transition team rue the day Ukraine gave up its rusty but powerful nuclear deterrent in return for paper assurances.

Other states beware: Treaties of cooperation, partnership, mutual defense and even union work wonderfully in times of peace and plenty—when you don’t need them. All too often, though, such undertakings leave the weaker partners holding the empty bag in times of war or economic hardship.

As expensive as such advice is to follow, and as politically incorrect as it may seem, new democracies would be wise to look back to early last century for guidance and follow the admonition of President Theodore Roosevelt to “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that new democracies need to go on a weapons-buying spree, but they do need to think twice before giving up their military capabilities or letting them degrade. In short, if you are a new democracy living in a historically dangerous neighborhood, speak softly—but don’t give up your stick.

Make hay while the sun shines. Ukraine was handicapped by the remnants of a heavy and long-term Russian colonization policy. However, like many of the new democracies, it had 20 years to get its act together politically and economically—and chose not to. This assessment may sound rough but it is true, and not just for Ukraine. The citizens and politicians of Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia and a host of other countries have allowed inept leadership to squander the first two decades of their newly attained independence.

Instead of building on the national goodwill they inherited, which was ready to forgive many rookie leadership mistakes, the various leaders of Ukraine couldn’t get over their adolescent self-absorption and allowed graft, corruption, greed and legal mayhem to eat away at an already fragile state, weakening it financially and militarily to such a degree that its ultimate survival has been thrown in doubt.

It is difficult to build a prosperous new democracy on the foundations of a harsh and oppressive past. Yet it is exactly that harsh past which should make its new leaders more responsible, not less; more honest, not less; and more statesmanlike, not less. The crisis in Ukraine today is a crisis of leadership—in Ukraine, the EU, U.S. and Russia. While Ukraine cannot influence the leadership elsewhere, it can control the leaders it produces and lets run the country.

Nation-building is messy, and democracy can seem further away with each new “free” election, and good leadership further away with each new political party. Ukrainians (and people in some other countries with similar backgrounds and choices) need to ask themselves:

What have we done for 20 years to ensure that we are economically and militarily as strong as possible? Did we pick leaders because they told us the truth or because they told us what we wanted to hear? Did we hold leaders accountable, or did we blindly follow the party line? Did we always blame Russia for our problems, even when we were our own worst enemies? Did we see corruption in what others did, but not in what we did, which we classified as merely helping our families? Did we get involved, or did we sit idly by and complain?

None of the foregoing absolves Russia of its responsibility for its military aggression or us from our responsibility to help. It does highlight that Ukraine is weaker because of its own choices.

We are all potentially Ukraine. The “we” refers to any of the 20-plus new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe with a tumultuous past and an immature political present. We are not very different, and it can happen here. Many of us have frittered away the national dreams of generations, the goodwill of our countrymen and the good intentions of our friends and neighbors. That is nobody’s fault but ours. Let the sad example of Ukraine be a wake-up call.

Mr. Račić is the CEO of Indium, a Croatia-based management-consulting and business-development company.

Milan Racic: Lessons in Democracy for Ukraine’s Neighbors –


Noonan: Warnings From the Ukraine Crisis

A good read.
What has been happening in Ukraine is not a wake-up call precisely but a tugging at the attention, a demand to focus.

There’s a sense that in some new way we are watching the 21st century take its shape and express its central realities. Exactly 100 years ago, in August 1914, the facts that would shape the 20th century gathered and emerged in the Great War. History doesn’t repeat itself; you can’t, as they say, step into the same stream twice. But it does have an unseen circularity.

Sept. 11 started the century and brought forward the face of terrorism. It is still there and will continue to cause grave disruptions. Since then we have seen we are living in a time of uprisings, from the Mideast to Africa to the streets of Kiev. We are learning that history isn’t over in Europe, that East-West tensions can simmer and boil over, that the 20th century didn’t resolve as much as many had hoped.  A Mideast dictator last year used poison gas on his own population and strengthened his position. He’s winning. What does that tell the other dictators? What does it suggest about our future?

I keep thinking of two things that for me capture the moment and our trajectory. The first is a sentence from Don DeLillo’s prophetic 1991 novel, ” Mao II “: “The future belongs to crowds.” Movements will be massive. The street will rise and push. The street in Cairo, say, is full of young men who are jobless and unformed. They channel their energy into politics and street passions. If they had jobs they’d develop the habits of work—self-discipline, patience, a sense of building and belonging—that are so crucial to maintaining human society. But they don’t, so they won’t.

The second is the title of Tom Wolfe’s most recent book, “Back to Blood.” He was referring to tribalism, ethnicity, the enduring call of clan. But also just blood. Another enduring and even re-emergent force in human affairs.  We see Vladimir Putin as re-enacting the Cold War. He sees us as re-enacting American greatness. We see his actions as a throwback. He sees our denunciations as a strutting on the stage by a broken down, has-been actor.

Mr. Putin doesn’t move because of American presidents, he moves for his own reasons. But he does move when American presidents are weak. He moved on Georgia in August 2008 when George W. Bush was reeling from unwon wars, terrible polls and a looming economic catastrophe that all but children knew was coming. (It came the next month.) Mr. Bush was no longer formidable as a leader of the free world.

Mr. Putin moved on Ukraine when Barack Obama was no longer a charismatic character but a known quantity with low polls, failing support, a weak economy. He’d taken Mr. Obama’s measure during the Syria crisis and surely judged him not a shrewd international chess player but a secretly anxious professor who makes himself feel safe with the sound of his voice.

Mr. Putin didn’t go into Ukraine because of Mr. Obama. He just factored him in.

A great question for the future: Will Mr. Putin ever respect an American president again? He knows our political situation, knows we’re a 50-50 nation, would assume we’re blocked from consensus barring unusual circumstances such as a direct attack. He’s not impressed by our culture or our economy. He might also make inferences from America’s demographic shifts. If we are a more non-European nation than we were 30 years ago, might he think us less likely to be engaged by—and enraged by—unfortunate dramas playing out in Europe? Mr. Putin, as Henry Kissinger says, is a serious strategist acting on serious perceived imperatives. He would make a point of figuring out the facts of his potential foe.

Three points on his overall tactics, all of which suggest what we’ll be seeing more of in the future.

First, we tend to think the Big Lie in foreign policy as antique, pre-Internet, as dead as Goebbels. It is not. For days Mr. Putin insisted he went into Ukraine to protect innocent people from marauding fascists. To some degree it worked, including among a few foreign-policy professionals. Big lies can confuse the situation, fool the gullible, and buy time. Expect more of them.

Second, after the invasion Mr. Putin murked up the situation and again bought some time—and some tentativeness among his foes—by contributing to the idea that he was perhaps crazy—”in another world,” as Angela Merkel is reported to have told Mr. Obama. (Imagine the White House relief: It’s not our fault, you can’t anticipate a madman! I guess that’s why it leaked.) Mr. Putin helped spread the idea in his March 4 postinvasion news conference in Moscow. From the grimly hilarious account of The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe : “He was a rainbow of emotion: Serious! angry! bemused! flustered! confused! So confused. Victor Yanukovich is still acting president of Ukraine, but he can’t talk to Ukraine because Ukraine has no president.” It was apparently quite a performance.

But Mr. Putin isn’t crazy. Nor was Khrushchev when some of his communications were wild enough during the Cuban Missile Crisis that the Kennedy White House wondered if he was drunk or undergoing a coup. “We will bury you!” No, we will unsettle you. Mr. Putin may be psychologically interesting, but he’s not mad. Allowing the idea to circulate added to the confusion, bought time and kept people wondering. Expect more of this from Mr. Putin.

Third, there is the matter of the unmarked Russian troops. Reporters in the Crimea had to shout, “Where are you from?” to be certain who they were. That added a new level of menace.  And it had a feeling of foreshadowing the wars of the future. Normally nations make it clear: We are Japan bombing Pearl Harbor, look at the rising sun on our planes. We are the Soviets in Afghanistan, look at our lumbering tanks!

But we have entered a time of war by at least temporary stealth. If there were a huge, coordinated, destabilizing cyberattack on our core institutions, it could be a while before intelligence agencies knew for certain who did it, and with whose help. If an entity attempted to take down the electric grid it might be some time before we knew who exactly was responsible. The same with a chemical or biological attack on any great city. Who are you? Who sent you?  It could be hard to know unless someone quickly claimed responsibility, as al Qaeda did after 9/11. Otherwise we are looking at a new kind of war, in which the fog is thicker and aggressions cannot be responded to quickly.

The most obvious Ukraine point has to do with American foreign policy in the sixth year of the Obama era.

Not being George W. Bush is not a foreign policy. Not invading countries is not a foreign policy. Wishing to demonstrate your sophistication by announcing you are unencumbered by the false historical narratives of the past is not a foreign policy. Assuming the world will be nice if we’re not militarist is not a foreign policy.

What is our foreign policy? Disliking global warming?

Peggy Noonan: Warnings From the Ukraine Crisis –