Paul Kagame thinks so – or at least he made a case for it Monday as Rwanda marked twenty years since the outbreak of perhaps the most horrific genocide of history.
Within 100 days over 800,000 were killed, nearly three quarters of the ethnic Tutsi population in Rwanda.
Rwanda had been colonized the Belgians who took a minor social distinction – whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi – and turned it into a way to privilege some over others. Hutus and Tutsis had intermarried and got along peacefully for centuries. Now the Belgians claimed the Tutsis were “more evolved” and thus were entrusted with positions of privilege and power. They helped run the colony for the Belgians, and soon looked down at the “lower” Hutus.
It wasn’t just Belgian racism, but also a rather smart way to keep a colony under control. The Tutsis were the minority, and thus had to rely on the Belgians for protection and support. Alas, once democracy and independence came, the Hutu majority quickly grabbed all power and took revenge on the Tutsis for years of mistreatment. This led to protected conflict for over three decades before Hutu extremists decided the final solution would be to simply eliminate all Tutsis from Rwanda.
They did not fear western intervention. After all, a year earlier the US left Somalia after 18 army Rangers were killed when their black-hawk helicopter went done. As their bodies were dragged through the streets Americans were furious that US military personnel were even over there. In any event, Rwanda had a seat on the Security Council at the time, and it could gauge whether or not the UN had the stomach to intervene.
It almost worked. The UN had 3500 troops there to implement the Arusha accords designed to create a power sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis, but when the genocide began all but about 400 of those troops were pulled out. The US and UK wanted a complete withdrawal – UN blue helmet forces are not supposed to remain if there is no more peace to keep – but the UN mission commander General Romeo Dallaire refused to leave, since that would mean certain death to over 30,000 people under UN protection.
The story line usually goes like this: Dallaire begged for UN intervention to save Rwanda, the UN refused, and thus his small force with virtually no supplies could only protect a small portion of Tutsis. Salvation came when General Paul Kagame’s RPF – Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up mostly of Tutsis who had fled Rwanda after independence – invaded from Uganda and defeated the Rwandan military – the RPG. This shameful acceptance of the fastest genocide in history – one undertaken with guns and machetes at close range by large groups of Hutus, especially teens – was justified by saying the Rwandan government had no control and the Interhamwe militia was doing the damage. In reality, the military and Interhamwe worked together. France in fact supported and even supplied the Rwandan military during the three month genocide.
But here’s what Kagame said in his speech:
Rwanda was supposed to be a failed state. Watching the news today, it is not hard to imagine how we could have ended up. We could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate, with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood. We could have allowed the country to be physically divided, with groups deemed incompatible assigned to different corners. We could have been engulfed in a never-ending civil war with endless streams of refugees and our children sick and uneducated. But we did not end up like that. What prevented these alternative scenarios was the choices of the people of Rwanda.
It appears that Kagame is saying that if the UN had intervened, it could now be a failed state – that it would have been impossible to create the kind of future Rwandans now consider possible – one where ethnicity no longer is supposed to matter, and the Rwandans are one people.
To be sure, Kagame’s government talks a better game than it walks. Ethnic Tutsis dominate, there are human rights abuses, corruption, and no viable opposition. Some consider Kagame a dictator, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Yet given the conditions Rwanda found itself in twenty years ago, on going Hutu extremism based in the Congo, and the need to create a foundation for a long term peace, it would be wrong to judge too harshly. After all, too quick a move to total democracy can be a disaster if a country is not ready.
More intriguing is the possibility that while the motives were wrong, UN inaction actually was better for Rwanda. A quick brutal climax to a century of ethnic hostility and violence might be what Rwanda needed to create conditions where they could move beyond the damage done by the European colonizers. Yes 800,000 died, but if the UN had stopped the genocide early, how many would be continually dying in on going ethnic strife?
I don’t know. To me Rwanda has always been a classic case proving that sometimes military intervention is justifiable – that humanity must agree to say “never again” to genocide, and act forcefully to stop it. I still believe that – but Kagame’s remarks get me to wonder if maybe western intervention does more harm than good in places where western colonialism already destroyed existing peaceful political cultures, creating conflicts where none had existed. It’s worth thinking about.
The right wing has been obsessed with doing all they can to vilify and attack Obama. But if you pay attention these attacks are either broad and empty (personal attacks on him, his experience or motives) or simply wrong. The right wing was all over Obama because Putin attacked Crimea, showing real ignorance about Russian interest and world affairs, for example.
My goal here is not to argue against the babble on talk radio or the right wing blogosphere, but point out that President Obama is amassing a record that all but assures that his Presidency will be remembered as not only a success, but one of the greatest. The reasons full into four categories: 1) Policy success, including fundamental changes in the nature of public policy; 2) A successful foreign policy, shifting US interests to adjust to new political realities while extricating the US from two painful wars; 3) Economic success, preserving through the deepest economic crisis since the great depression; and 4) Personal and cultural factors – who he is, and the shifting culture of the times.
Domestic Policy: The White House was almost giddy as enrollments in Obamacare reached over 7 million, a number nobody thought they’d reach after the problems with the website roll out last year. It is almost inconceivable that this law will be repealed – the cost and disruption of doing so would be immense, and it would create a massive health care crisis. There will be reforms; once the GOP realizes the law is here to stay they’ll work on fixing problems in it rather than waging ideological jihad. But President Obama did what Nixon, Carter, and Clinton all failed to do: achieve a major health care overall to expand coverage to tens of millions (ultimately) uninsured, and slow the rate of health care cost increases.
Obama has amassed a series of other major policy victories that often get neglected, but will shape the nature of US politics in the 21st Century. He turned around the auto industry which stood on the brink of collapse in 2009. He got an economic stimulus package passed that started creating jobs, including for the first time in decades an increase in manufacturing jobs. Wall Street reform is major improvement on what we had before, and likely will protect the US from the kind of Wall Street induced crisis like that of 2008. Relatedly, the recapitalization of banks, while controversial, avoided an entire collapse of the credit market in the US and allowed for a quicker recovery than I expected – I thought in 2008 we were looking at a decade before the economy would come back.
He repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and his justice department gave considerable support to the growing move to legalize gay marriage by recognizing such marriages at the federal level, being on the right side of an irreversible cultural shift. He also worked to get the banks out of the student loan business, increase Pell grants, and make student loans easier and more accessible at a time when education is becoming more expensive. Also under Obama’s stewardship the US became the world’s leading producer of natural gas and oil for the first time since the early 70s.
Other policies involve significant education reform, toughening fuel efficiency standards, major credit card reform, improved veterans benefits, food safety, an emphasis on nutrition that may be turning around the obesity epidemic among the youth, federal regulation of tobacco, expanded national park service, massive investment in green technology (which will pay benefits long after Obama leaves office), new sentencing guidelines, and more. Obama has reshaped the policy landscape. That’s one reason the right is so beside itself hating him: he’s an effective leader that has altered the political environment and put the US on a fundamentally different path than had been the case six years ago.
Foreign Policy. The US has undertaken a quiet but very successful shift in foreign policy, including military downsizing, the Asian pivot, support for nascent democratic movements in the Mideast, and an effective effort to collaborate on international financial regulations. He ended the war in Iraq and is ending US involvement in Afghanistan, reoriented US missile defense, helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and supported South Sudan independence. Osama Bin Laden was eliminated, and al qaeda is a shadow of what it was in 2008. Due to unprecedented cooperation between countries (even ones not exactly friendly with each other) on intelligence about terrorism, terrorism has gone from being a threat feared by Americans daily to just a nuisance.
Perhaps most importantly by ending torture policies and having two very capable Secretaries of State – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – US prestige and clout is at its highest point since the end of the Cold War. President Obama is respected internationally, and has shown himself capable of engineering significant breakthroughs with Iran and – if reports are right – soon in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. When people claim that Putin’s taking the Crimea is a failure of Obama, they are grasping at straws. That is, as I noted, a sign of Putin’s weakness and desperation. Obama has reinvigorated US international leadership.
Economic success. When President Obama took office, the US was bleeding jobs, and the budget was out of control. Now the deficit is far lower than anyone predicted (federal spending has grown much more slowly than during the Bush Administration), and more jobs have been created than during the entire Bush Administration when the US was experiencing a bubble economy. The economy looks set to take off with increased job creation this summer, meaning that the book ends of Obama’s Presidency will be an inherited economic crisis of immense proportions at the start, and a growing and revived economy by the end.
Finally, when the GOP tried to hold the US economy hostage on the debt ceiling, Obama starred them down, refused to bend, and ultimately the GOP was forced into a humiliating retreat, being blamed for a government shut down, a downgrade in the US credit rating, and playing Russian roulette with US jobs. That was an example of the successful leadership that defines Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
Personal/cultural factors: Although the right has tried to find one, Obama has had a clean and scandal-free Presidency. He has shown himself to be a strong personal leader, using speeches, visits, and his own influence to guide policy. He is, of course, the first black President, and reflects an America that is more cosmopolitan, tolerant, and diverse. Just 20 years ago it would have been inconceivable that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency.
The so-called Tea Party in the US, made up of mostly older white folk (my demographic), reflects shock at the scope of this change. They believe they are losing America to some strange force which Obama – the black President with the funny name maybe born in Kenya – personifies. He’s not “one of us,” he went to a radical church, he travels, he’s well educated, he’s not a good old boy like “W”. In that, Obama is indeed symbolic the emerging culture shift. The process is just beginning, and Obama is destined to be associated with these changes. He took office as the old order collapsed in an economic crisis and failed wars; he’ll leave office with the country revived and heading down a different path. He symbolizes a pivot to a new direction for the 21st Century.
Just as most people now forget the attacks on Reagan by the left, or the vicious attacks on Clinton by the right – the two are both remembered fondly by most Americans – the attacks on Obama will fade from the collective memory. Within ten or twenty years it’ll be clear that his Presidency was not only successful, but ranks alongside America’s greatest Presidents.
President Obama will soon be in Riyadh, visiting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and no doubt hearing a litany of complaints about American policy towards the Mideast. While the stated purpose of the trip is to soothe the feelings of Saudi leaders who feel neglected and are discontent with American policy, one reality cannot be denied: The US and Saudi Arabia are seeing their interest diverge, and nothing the President can say will alter that. The Saudis have become more of a problem than a trusted ally.
One issue Saudi leaders will push involves Iran. The United States is trying to solve the Iranian crisis, on going since 2003, by improving relations with Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and working towards an agreement on Iranian nuclear weapons. The Saudis see Iran as their major rival in the region – a view they’ve held since Iran’s 1979 revolution – and would prefer that Iran remain a pariah state.
Both states straddle the Persian Gulf. Iran could threaten the strategic and economically vital straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage way through which most Persian Gulf oil flows. With Iraq now developing closer ties to Iran – Saudi leaders openly distrust and will not talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – they feel the balance of regional power is shifting away from them. In fact, the Iraqis complain that the Saudis are arming and funding Sunni groups fighting against Iraq’s central government. Some would argue that Saudi Arabia is at war with Iraq!
In that light, closer US – Iranian ties would cause the Saudis to worry about not only their regional power, but also the royal family’s hold on government. As the region changes, their traditional and very conservative rule becomes harder to maintain. And, as much as the West relies on Saudi oil, it may be in our interest to slowly sever the close alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.
First, compare life in Iran with life in Saudi Arabia. Most Americans assume Iran is a bit of a hell hole. Run by an Islamic fundamentalist government, people conjure up images of the Taliban or al qaeda. The reality is quite different. Iran is not only far more democratic than any Arab state (though Iraq is working towards democracy), but Saudi Arabia is where living conditions are defined by a fundamentalist view of Islam. Women cannot drive, they cannot go out publicly without their husband, they cannot work in office where men are present. They can’t even shop in stores which have men! Indeed, if we went by human rights concerns, we’d clearly be on the side of Iran over Saudi Arabia! The Saudis are second only to North Korea in terms of oppression.
In Saudi Arabia not only would such a protest not be allowed, but the woman pictured above would be arrested for simply being out of the house, head not fully covered, and in the company of men. In short, the Saudis have an archaic system that should dissuade us from doing business with them. We do business with them because they have oil. Lots of oil.
Yet Saudi oil isn’t as important as it used to be. The Saudis were the world’s number one producer of oil for decades. Last year, the US took their place. Thanks to natural gas development in the US, as well new oil finds, the United States is producing more domestic oil and gas than people thought possible just a decade ago. That doesn’t mean our troubles are over, but as we shift towards alternative energy sources and develop our own fossil fuels, the utter dependency on Saudi Arabia is weakened. We can afford to have them a bit upset.
Beyond that, they have no real alternative. Oil is a global commodity so they can’t punish only the US by cutting oil supplies. That affects everyone, especially the Saudis! They need to sell their oil to keep their economy afloat. They have not used their oil wealth to build a modern economy, they’ve simply spent it or bought off their population. When the oil runs out, they’ll have squandered an unbelievable opportunity – with our help.
The Arab Spring of 2011 was the start of a regional transition that will take decades. The Saudis, despite the brutality and repression of their secret police, are not immune. Their anachronistic Kingdom has persisted decades longer than it should have. It will not last deep into the 21st Century.
Therein lies the dilemma for the US. Actively supporting a dying Kingdom only makes it likely that the successors will be more fervently anti-American. That’s why Iranian-American relations have been so sour, the US had supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran from 1954-79. Yet as tensions continue with that other major energy producer, Russia, the US doesn’t want to needlessly anger the Saudis or risk some kind of crisis. So while our actions will reflect interests that are our own, and not those of the Saudis, expect friendly talk from the President.
Our interest is to mend relations with Iran, the true regional power, settle the dispute over Iranian nuclear energy, and work to support change in the Arab world. The Saudis would love to have us help overthrow Syria’s pro-Iranian government, but that is not in our interest. Change in the Arab world will come about over decades as the culture shifts, it won’t be achieved with just a change in government – look at the troubles Egypt has had since 2011.
So President Obama’s response to Saudi complaints should be to smile, say he understands, and that he’ll take Saudi suggestions seriously. He should have his advisers take vigorous notes about Saudi suggestions, promise his full attention, and then simply say goodbye. If there are symbolic gestures that can soothe their discontent, by all means, soothe. But overall the US should extricate itself from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and work to address the new realities of the Mideast.
Jon Stewart has recently taken on Fox New’s shameful and completely irrational effort to claim that the poor in America are moochers and are somehow ripping off the American people. After FOX news responded to the first report, Stewart doubled down and completely demolished Eric Bollingsworth’s effort to “school” Stewart. Why don’t pundits ever get that Stewart lives for such responses and uses them to create some of his best work?
Fox’s argument was straight forward. The poor in America are moochers. First, they aren’t really poor. They have refrigerators, they can use EBT cards at organic markets, purchasing stuff like “wild organic salmon.” To be poor, apparently, means you have to live in third world conditions, barely scrapping by. Government aid should be used to buy the cheapest food possible, preferrably expired, definitely not organic. And you shouldn’t have a television or any modern convenience since those aren’t actually necessary for survival. If you’re not suffering, you’re not really poor.
The second point is that the poor are able to game the system. But they can’t prove how often this happens. Instead they find anecdotal evidence, like “Surfer guy” who did truly abuse the system, and claim that he “literally represents millions of poor.” He doesn’t, they offer no proof that he does, they just try to ignite anger and emotion from their viewers.
Stewart’s ire is correctly tuned on Fox news here because they are engaged in a cheap propaganda ploy designed to support an ideology that argues against community or anything but the so-called “free market.” Never mind that free markets cannot exist without a strong, effective state. Unregulated markets collapse, because there is no check on the abuse of power by those with the most wealth and clout.
And, of course, poor people really live rough lives sometimes. I know poor students who work 40 hours a week, study, and have to live off the cheapest food possible. Yes, they do have refrigerators – and stoves, heat in winter, and cupboards. Compared to the third world, or American life in the early 1800s, they have conveniences beyond belief. They even have electric lights! Often they have computers (necessary to study) and even a TV. But that does not make for an easy go at things.
Single parents find the situation even more difficult. To work they need child care, child care is expensive. They want to feed their kids healthy food, but that’s more expensive. To get good food for their kids, they often sacrifice their own diet. They might have nice clothes for their kids and themselves – but usually that’s been purchased at a second hand or thrift store. Or perhaps they find cheap made in china toys and clothes at Walmart.
So when the poor are demonized as moochers, it’s really a “big lie.” The poor are worse off. This affects nutrition, makes it less likely they will get adequate health care, dental care, and educational opportunities. Yes, they will have a TV and a refrigerator, but won’t have access to what most of the country takes for granted.
I took my kids to swim at the fitness center today. I skied all winter with them, amazed at how they mastered the mountain (and scary jumps) at such young ages. I purchase shoes that help me avoid a recurrence of planter fasciitis. My wife and I eat out when we decide we want to, and sometimes take all four kids (each of us has two from a previous marriage). We’re hoping for a vacation this summer – nothing fancy, but getting away and doing something fun. We’ll go to water parks, buy camping equipment, even if we use it in the backyard. And while it was a stretch, we splurged on a hot tub.
Every well off family has these opportunities. The very wealthy have no boundaries, they can’t spend all their money on stuff, so they look to invest it to create more money. In theory that should be good for the economy, but in practice so much money seeking only to make more money inflated bubbles.
The poor struggle. Drive through rural Maine, or the rural south. Go into the inner city and look at living conditions. Talk to people who are struggling. It is perverse that a working class man not on welfare sees the single mother with an EBT card as the enemy, while the upper crust chuckle about how they rigged the game and make it seem like those with the least wealth and power are the problem! Fox news is their propaganda wing.
So if you look at the real picture, the very wealthy have been using deregulation and a warped ideology to try to convince those losing out that somehow less taxes and less regulation is good for them. More “freedom.” That, again, is the big lie. The most perverse aspect of all of this is how it’s built on massive debt. That has created an economy that while still huge, no longer is sustainable. Unless things change, Americans will soon look back at the 20th Century as the good old days now gone, nostalgic for the time America’s middle class was envied. Those days are already gone, America is no longer the best place to live in the industrialized world, especially for the poor and the middle class.
The reality of these statistics will ultimately shape the politics of this country. People are not going to take this, and they’re not going to take how wobbly our economy has become. A few can still believe that somehow America’s the envy of the world and has the best standard of living, but that’s simply not true any more – and things are likely to get worse.
It’s important to break the misguided ideology of free markets, ultra low taxes and deregulation. That does not increase freedom, it destroys the fabric of our society – and ultimately will send the US on a downward spiral.
The Russians intend to stay in Crimea for good – Putin has no desire to negotiate or allow Crimea to rejoin Ukraine. Moreover, the Crimeans probably prefer it that way. The West can threaten sanctions and issue travel bans, but Crimea is so integral to Russian history and Black Sea interests that they will not back down. It is a fiat accompli, the West ultimately will have to accept it. It’s not worth another Cold War.
Ultimately Putin wants the West and Ukraine to accept that Crimea is Russian. The key to getting that acceptance may be to spread unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Although, as pointed out in previous posts, eastern Ukraine is ethnically Russian, with Russian the primary language spoken, many see themselves as Ukrainian. Most do not approve of the revolt in Kiev or the new government, but are not necessarily keen to join Russia or declare autonomy. Many others would support separating from Kiev. The people there are divided.
This gives Russia a weapon in the fight to gain international acceptance of Crimea as a part of Russia. It is not hard for Russia to incite protest and violence in eastern Ukraine, to amass troops along the Ukrainian border, and create real fear that Russia is ready to divide Ukraine. The price for keeping Russia at bay may be for the West to accept that Crimea is lost to Ukraine.
There are reasons Moscow wouldn’t want to devour eastern Ukraine. The region is an economic backwater, even taking control of Crimea will be expensive for Russia. The diplomatic, economic and political consequences of an incursion deeper into Ukraine would be tough for Moscow to endure. Crimea is strategically important, eastern Ukraine is not.
Yet Moscow can support pro-Russian protests and make menacing noises about east Ukraine in a frighteningly believable manner, upping the ante and putting fear in the hearts of Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev. By now they realize that for all the rhetoric, neither the US nor the EU are willing to risk too much against Russia.
So as the new government in Kiev ponders its options, Putin might make a pitch – a guarantee not to invade eastern Ukraine and to cease any effort at destabilizing the region in exchange for Ukraine’s voluntary agreement to surrender all sovereign rights to Crimea. At this point Kiev is adamant they’ll never do that, but as the crisis continues, the deal may look good. Putin may even offer to assure the eastern Ukrainians that they should accept the Kiev government.
The US and EU could also exert pressure on Kiev to accept losing Crimea in exchange for more aid and support in their effort to westernize. If Kiev and Moscow reached an agreement, the argument that President Obama made – that the West would “never” accept the Crimean vote to join Russia – could be overcome. The US and EU can accept it if the Ukrainian government voluntarily makes a deal with Moscow to cede Crimea.
Moscow’s game is to make it in the interest of the West and Ukraine to accept the reality that Russia controls Crimea. The danger is that the pro-Russian protests could get out of control, creating a real crisis in eastern Ukraine. If that happens, Russia might be tempted to consider intervention, which would ratchet up the danger.
When I first heard about the Malaysian airlines “missing plane” with 239 on board, I didn’t pay much attention. Air crashes are actually rare, but when they happen everyone notices. There are far more automobile deaths (if you fly, the most dangerous part of the trip is the ride to the airport) and almost nobody notices.
Then things went from dull to really bizarre. The plane’s engines sent out signals that proved the plane was flying at least five hours after it disappeared from radar. The signals didn’t give much data, only proof the plane was still in the air, somewhere. Beyond that, the communication systems with the ground had been manually disengaged, something very difficult to do.
Then the reports said that the plane briefly rose to 45,000 feet, high enough to render the crew and passengers (anyone not prepared) unconscious. That way the hijackers could easily confiscate cell phones from passengers and restrain them – or maybe even kill them. They flew where there was little or no radar, and may have used “terrain masking” and other techniques to avoid detection.
To what end?
Two reactions. The first is politically incorrect – WOW, I’m impressed! The skill to implement such a plan, avoid detection and pull it off is really amazing. This is something from a James Bond film – where the super villain manages some bizarre act of sabotage, like stealing nuclear missiles. I can’t deny a little admiration for someone with the guts and cunning to pull off such a feat. Friedrich Nietzsche would approve.
But of course I am deep down a humanist who does not want terrorists to use this in some nefarious plot, so my second reaction is to hope that, like in James Bond films, there is some 007 like team rooting out the villains, ultimately saving the day.
Theories range from the pilot doing this as an act of protest against the Malaysian government to the first step of some al qaeda like attack, perhaps focused on shutting down Saudi oil ports like Ras Tanura.
We just don’t know. It’s creating a media drama unlike anything else recently. A mystery! Danger! Lives at stake! Conspiracy theories! My favorite – some anti-terror expert in the UK thinks its possible someone with a mobile phone could have taken control of the plane. Think what that would mean for airline safety! Right now it’s a fascinating story to watch unfold. Hopefully it’ll conclude with the passengers freed and little damage done.
As I’ve talked to people, read more, and really looked at Russia today, I realize that I was completely wrong in the last post in thinking we should consider allowing Ukraine to be divided. Eastern Ukrainians, especially the youth, do not want to join Russia and see themselves as Ukrainian, even if they are ethnic Russians. They want to look westward, not towards being part of a Russian dominated region likely doomed for authoritarianism and poor economic growth.
Putin became President at midnight on January 1, 2000. He has been in office long enough to get used to power and the perks that come with it. He has no intention of giving that up. That was evident in 2008 when he hand picked diminutive Dmitry Medvedev to become President when the Constitution did not allow him to serve three consecutive terms. Medvedev dutifully named Putin Prime Minister, and Putin continued to dominate.
However, comparisons of Putin to Hitler, or even old Soviet bureaucratic leaders like Brezhnev don’t hit the mark. Putin is more ambiguous. He quit the KGB on the second day of the KGB sponsored 1991 coup against Gorbachev because he sided with Yeltsin, not the old guard. He has sought to integrate Russia into the global economy and end the chaos of the Yeltsin era. He may even still see a democratic modern Russia as his ultimate goal – though a Russian democracy, not one imposed by or reflecting the culture of the West.
Yeltsin and Putin represent a sad cycle of post-Cold War Russian policy. Yeltsin went all out for reform and democracy, but didn’t realize that Russia was not prepared for that. Instead a class of oligarchs arose that acted the way the Communists said capitalists act: conspicuous consumption, massive wealth, and a disregard for the poor. As a small class got exceedingly wealthy, many more become impoverished or suffered under hyperinflation followed by stagnation. Add to that low oil prices in the 90s, and Yeltsin’s Russia fell into crisis and turmoil.
Putin, a surprise pick for Prime Minister in 1999, had been in politics only a decade. He worked his way up in rather minor roles until joining the Presidential staff in 1997. His responsibilities increased, and in 1999 he became Prime Minister. He was part of a group of advisers that pressured an increasingly out of touch, drunk and unhealthy Yeltsin to sacrifice power to those who wanted to end the experiment in out of control wild west capitalism.
In his first two terms he was immensely popular. He took on the oligarchs and re-established the dominance of the state. Higher oil prices helped, and Russian incomes rose for the first time since the collapse of the USSR. Cities like Moscow started to glisten, and it appeared that Russia was finally on the right path. Growth was 10% in Putin’s first year, and hovered at near 7% until 2008. Putin seemed to want to finally connect Russia with the global economy.
By 2014, however, Russia’s economy is stagnating despite high oil prices. The 2008 global economic crisis made clear that Russian growth had not been due to the construction of a sustainable economy, but primarily to high oil prices and speculation. Putin’s intentions may have been good, but since he didn’t see things through to real, stable reform, Russia is drifting towards weakness and internal dissent.
In that light, the loss of Ukraine put Putin and his inner circle in a position they found intolerable. Rather than keeping Russia’s sphere of influence and slowly broadening it, the Ukraine uprising meant Russian influence was suddenly drastically limited. The Customs Union connecting Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan was meant to be a beginning of rebuilding a Russian led zone outside the EU.
The Soviet Union had consisted of 15 Republics, with Russia the largest. On January 1, 1992 all fifteen became independent countries (light green and blue represents former Soviet Republics, the yellow and light yellow were independent states in the Soviet bloc):
A look at this map shows why Russia intervened in Ukraine. If the Ukraine moved toward the EU, the Russian “zone” in the West would be simply Belarus. Moreover, with new fracking technology, the Ukraine threatens to develop its own natural gas industry, competing with Russia. If Putin had succeeded in connecting Ukraine with the Customs Union, the Russian zone becomes much more formidable.
Taking Crimea may have been a step towards at least trying to divide Ukraine, but all the evidence I’m finding, including talks with Ukrainians, suggest that the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine aren’t keen to join Russia or be independent from Kiev. Indeed, the biggest pro-Russia demographic are the older folks – the ones whose thinking reflects Cold War experiences. The youth are looking West – that might be the only way for Ukraine to get out of deep economic difficulties.
I strongly doubt Putin will give up Crimea. It is of strategic importance on the Black Sea, and has only been part of Ukraine since 1954. After the USSR collapsed there were conflicts about the future of Crimea, and it joined Ukraine as an autonomous Republic with considerable rights of self-governance.
The Crimean referendum scheduled for March 16th is bizarre – there is no option to stay in Ukraine, just to join Russia immediately, or be autonomous from Ukraine (though worded trickily). Clearly the powers in Crimea and Russia want to be sure that the days of Crimea being Ukrainian are over.
So what should the US and EU do? Keep the pressure on Russia over Crimea, but recognize that it’s probably a lost cause. An autonomous Crimea is a better outcome than Russian annexation because the possibility would remain that it could someday rejoin Ukraine. The key is to prevent any other parts of Ukraine from leaving, and nip Russia incited nationalist protests in the bud. Then the US and EU need to do whatever they can to help the Ukrainians rebuild their economy and show eastern hold outs that life in Ukraine holds more promise than in Putin’s Russia.
Putin is no Stalin, perhaps a moment of weakness will convince him that true strength comes when one embraces the flow of history. He can try to cling to power in an ever weakening position, or he can become a true leader that guides his country to real reform.