Archive for March, 2014

The Saudi Problem

US President Barack Obama speaks alongsi

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.

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

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.

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

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.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year - which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year – which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

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.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Bashing the Poor

stewartpoor

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.

Poverty is always relative; you compare wealth within a country, not to some objective standard that applies to the third world and the past as well as now in the US.

Poverty is always relative; you compare wealth within a country, not to some objective standard that applies to the third world and the past as well as now in the US.

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.

Fox relies on the ignorance of Americans about just how skewed wealth distribution is towards the very wealthy, and how far it is from the ideal Americans hold.

Fox relies on the ignorance of Americans about just how skewed wealth distribution is towards the very wealthy, and how far it is from the ideal Americans hold.

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.

Through 1979 the wealth gap was decreasing, since then there has been a radical relative shift of wealth from poor to rich

Through 1979 the wealth gap was decreasing, since then there has been a radical relative shift of wealth from poor to rich

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.

After taxes and transfers the US has the biggest gap in wealth in the industrialized world.  Our tax system is the least progressive.

After taxes and transfers the US has the biggest gap in wealth in the industrialized world. Our tax system is the least progressive. GINI index measures wealth distribution; the lower the number the more equal the distribution.  It is used by the CIA and seen as the best measure, especially in a comparative sense.

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.

 

Although the wealthiest Americans are the wealthiest in the world, our median - the middle of earners - is not close.

Although the wealthiest Americans are the wealthiest in the world, our median – the middle of earners – is not close.  Our middle class is worse off than most middle classes in the industrialized world.

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.

Total debt  - public and private - is at unprecedented levels.  Only during the height of the great depression did it get close, and that was short.  This is a sign of endemic economic weakness.  Our foreign debt is 100% of our GDP - creating real vulnerability.

Total debt – public and private – is at unprecedented levels. Only during the height of the great depression did it get close, and that was short. This is a sign of endemic economic weakness. Our foreign debt is 100% of our GDP – creating real vulnerabilities.

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.

 

Hard to read:

Hard to read: Box one, Trump (as Bill the Cat): My God, this is such a quality country.  Little Girl: What do you mean, Mr. Trump?  (2) Trump:  My Palm Beach cottage has 118 rooms, how many rooms does your cottage have?  Girl:  One, but we have nine beds; Reynalda sleeps in a box.  (3)  Trump:  I have a boat, do you have a boat?  Girl: When the plumbing breaks our sofa floats.  (4)  Trump:  I have a dream, a dream that one day I might get six points on margin for the Eiffel tower deal.  (5)  Trump:  What do you dream about?  Girl:  Dinner.   (6)  Trump: And imagine in this great, quality nation, folks like you haven’t strong folks like me up by their intestines.  (7)  Doll:  Yet.  Girl: Hush.

 

 

27 Comments

Moscow’s Game

Pro-Russian protest in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk

Pro-Russian protest in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk

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.

Rival protesters clash in eastern Ukraine - sentiment is mixed

Rival protesters clash in eastern Ukraine – sentiment is mixed

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.

Many share this east Ukrainian woman's sentiment.

Many share this east Ukrainian woman’s sentiment.

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.

Pro-Russian protesters are gaining strength in eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian protesters are gaining strength in eastern Ukraine

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.

1 Comment

Like a James Bond Plot

The plot of Air Force One - where Hijackers take over the President's flight and Harrison Ford (the President) gets back control, is only slightly less unrealistic than what seems now to be happening!

The plot of Air Force One – where Hijackers take over the President’s flight and Harrison Ford (the President) gets back control, is only slightly less unrealistic than what seems now to be happening!

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?

This is a Banacek style mystery!

This is a Banacek style mystery!

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.

Hitting any of these oil ports, especially Ros Tanura, could be devastating to the world economy

Hitting any of these oil ports, especially Ras Tanura, could be devastating to the world economy

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.

1 Comment

Putin the Weak

The Boss

The Boss

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.

Yeltsin wanted a democratic market economy - what he got was out of control corruption and a parasitic oligarchy

Yeltsin wanted a democratic market economy – what he got was out of control corruption and a parasitic oligarchy

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.

Opponents like the band Pussy Riot reflect growing dissatisfaction of Russias youth about the direction Putin is taking the country.

Opponents like the band Pussy Riot reflect growing dissatisfaction of Russias youth about the direction Putin is taking the country.

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):

soviet republics

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 choice?  The Crimea drapped with a Russian flag, or one with a black swastika!

The choice? The Crimea drapped with a Russian flag, or one with a black swastika!

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.

1 Comment

Time To Seriously Consider a Divided Ukraine

Crimea's location on the Black Sea has been of historical strategic importance to Russia.

Crimea’s location on the Black Sea has been of historical strategic importance to Russia.

The reaction to Russia’s invasion of Crimea has been swift and harsh.   The EU and the US have unambiguously condemned the military action, and have talked of serious sanctions and consequences should Moscow not back down.   However, as time passes and it becomes clear that there is no easy way to get Russia to back down, it may be necessary to seriously consider dividing Ukraine.

Its almost surreal how there is a kind of collective amnesia about the 2008 war in which Russia attacked the independent state of Georgia, a close US ally and participant in the Iraq war, taking the Russian-speaking territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.   Those are still occupied by Russia almost six years late.   The events on the ground, outside the control of the US, created a situation where Russian action was virtually inevitable no matter who was in office.   Blaming Obama (or Bush in 2008) is ridiculous.

Second, this war represents the weakness of the Russian position.   While critics want to paint Putin as Hitler incarnate, planning to swoop next into Poland, the reality is that he is struggling to keep Russian influence in places where Russia has been dominant for quite some time.    When the USSR gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, there was no doubt where the power really lie – in Moscow.   Kiev, like Tbilisi, was subservient to the Kremlin.   That they can’t keep a fraction of their influence without using the military shows a country still in decline, not one resurgent.

Gates, a Republican told his party to tone down it's criticism of the President and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president."

Gates, a Republican told his party to tone down it’s criticism of the President and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president.”

Third, Republican attacks on the President are counter productive,  shallow and objectively wrong.   The response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula has been vitriolic among a few on the right.   Senator McCain said the US had a “feckless foreign policy” and Senator Graham claimed that Obama is “weak and indecisive” and “invited aggression.”

Driven by talk radio, Fox News, and the right wing blogosphere, the right has convinced themselves that Obama is a bumbling idiot with no experience, who does everything wrong, and maybe should be impeached.  That hyperbolic inbred Obama-phobia plays well among that group, but is both absurd and harmful to the country.   We need to have a serious domestic discussion about our options, interests and goals in dealing with far away crises like this one.  Consider:

1.  What options does the US have?  In reality, we’re not going to go to war over Crimea.   Neither are the Europeans.  Russia has troops on the ground and it’s in their backyard – their “near abroad.”  This means that the only feasible response involves economic, symbolic and diplomatic action.   This cannot be unilateral.  Such actions are only effective if they are multilateral and enforced.  That means the US has to work with the EU for a common position.

The 1854-55 Crimean War is remembered as a military disaster, even if it did yield the Red Cross and "the charge of the light brigade"

The 1854-55 Crimean War is remembered as a military disaster, even if it did yield the Red Cross and “the charge of the light brigade”

2.  Is it wrong to consider having the Ukraine give up territory?   Besides Georgia, Yugoslavia is another state where ethnic differences caused parts of that country to want independence from the core.   The international community opposed separatists in Yugoslavia for a long time, but ultimately realized that the country was untenable as one state.   Might it be untenable to have a Ukraine so divided between East and West – or Europe and Russia – that internal conflicts are unable to be settled?  Might it not be better to have a clearly western Ukraine whose people support NATO and EU, and a new state representing parts of the east that want to be closer to Russia?   Do we support existing lines on maps, or self-determination?

3.  If Russia is in decline with Putin acting desperately, shouldn’t we also consider not just “piling on” like the international community is now doing, but giving Putin a way out?  The Russians have a tradition of isolation from the West, and if Putin sees no choice he’ll play into that cultural history to keep a firm grip on power and assert regional Russian power.   Russians often have seen “being Russian” as a spiritual identity that is exceptional and must not be sacrificed for western norms.

The problem with not giving Russia a way to save face or gain something is that more regional conflicts could emerge, spreading instability.   Moreover, if Russia is isolated, any effort by the Russian people to try to open up their society would be endangered.  If isolated, domestic oppression would grow.   The hope of having economic interdependence ultimately open Russia’s politics would be dashed.   Finally, sanctions and enmity between Moscow and the West would have economic costs; it’s ultimately in nobody’s interest.

US Secretary of State Kerry and the EU's equivalent to a foreign minister, Catherine Ashton.

US Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s equivalent to a foreign minister, Catherine Ashton.

Americans have to accept that the world doesn’t run by idealistic legalism, and geopolitical events overseas often reflect the local realities that can’t be countered with simple slogans.

I believe negotiations should start aimed at allowing Russian speaking regions of the Ukraine vote on autonomy or remaining with Ukraine.  Right now this is not a popular position – the international community is piling on Russia, and domestic political name calling makes it hard to deal with the ambiguities and nuances of this case.   But I doubt that a divided Ukraine is sustainable.  Given globalization, there is no real benefit to controlling a bigger chunk of territory – whatever the nationalists in Kiev might say.  That kind of thinking is obsolete.

This map, shown in the post yesterday, shows the stark division.  The places with blue or dark blue could well choose to leave Ukraine.

This map, shown in the post yesterday, shows the stark division. The places with blue or dark blue could well choose to leave Ukraine.

 

4 Comments

Untangling Ukraine

Russian soldiers reportedly control the Crimea, a part of Ukraine

Russian soldiers reportedly control the Crimea, a part of Ukraine

Last week Ukrainians celebrated as their corrupt pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Kiev in the face of a popular revolt.  The Parliament met to ratify the popular uprising as Ukrainians celebrated – at least in the western part of the country.The eastern portion is mostly ethnic Russian, however, and while they don’t like Yanukovych, they reject the revolution in the West.  The current hot spot is the Crimea, which is over 85% ethnic Russian with very few ethnic Ukrainians.   Russia’s parliament gave President Putin approval to send Russian military forces to protect the interests of ethnic Russians in the Crimea.

So, what’s going on?

The Ukraine is a split country.  The eastern party is heavily ethnic Russian, while the west is primarily Ukrainian.  Moreover, the Crimea itself was given to the Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954, when it didn’t seem to matter what was actually in Russia.  13% of the Crimea’s population are ethnic Tartar, who were brutalized under Stalin and oppose being annexed by Russia.

Former President Yanukovych spoke from Rustov on Don (in Russia) calling the new interim government illegitimate, saying he should remain President until December per an agreement with the EU

Former President Yanukovych spoke from Rustov on Don (in Russia) calling the new interim government illegitimate, saying he should remain President until December per an agreement with the EU

In recent years the EU and Ukraine were working on an free trade and association agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the West, and yielded nearly $30 billion of aid and grants.  This was seen by many Ukrainians as a way to start needed economic and political reform.  Putin pressured Yanukovych to reject the EU agreement in favor of a closer trade relation with Russia, as Putin builds his own customs union, currently including Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.  If Ukraine joined that group, it would increase Russia’s economic clout in the region and stymie EU efforts to democratize and modernize Ukraine.

The Customs Union allows travel between the three states with just an internal passport, as well free trade.  It appears less a move towards free trade than an effort by Russia to piece by piece re-create as much of the old USSR as it can.   Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe and a mistake.   In August of last year Ukraine became an “observer” to the customs union, a first step towards joining.

The biggest obstacle to Russia’s plan was the imminent agreement between Ukraine and the EU.  To prevent Ukraine from signing the EU deal, Putin used a carrot and stick approach on Yanukovych.  Russia cut natural gas costs, promised $15 billion aid to Ukraine, but also closed the borders of the custom union to Ukrainian goods for a time.   Yanukovych ultimately scuttled the EU deal.

In early December protests started after Yanukovych announced there would be no deal with the EU

In early December protests started after Yanukovych announced there would be no deal with the EU

That act triggered a wave of protests that ultimately grew to a revolt forcing Yanukovych to leave the country.   Ukrainians in the West were horrified that the country would turn its back on the west in order to cozy up to an authoritarian regime in Russia.   What seemed a victory for Putin has suddenly turned into a crisis.   His response has been to invade Ukraine, but so far limited to the Crimea.

To Russian nationalists, the Crimea is an integral part of “Mother Russia.”  Yes, Ukraine has internationally recognized borders, and allowing Russia to change them with force violates fundamental tenets of international law.  However, the alternative might be civil war and bloodshed, for a conclusion that probably is no better.   The Crimea has been part of Ukraine for only 50 years, has hardly any ethnic Ukrainians, and would be a small price to pay to get true independence and the capacity to move towards the West.

Still, hardliners in Kiev do not want to give up any sovereignty, and there is fear that this could spiral into other conflicts.  If other former Soviet Republicans disintegrate into ethnic fragmentation the result could be cascading instability.

Yet when Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke from Georgia in 2008, it ironically made it easier for Georgia to pursue its own path without constant crises with Russia.  A Ukraine without the Crimea may be “freed” to turn to the west.   If Ukraine resists to try to keep the Crimea, that could be an incentive for Putin to up the ante, and take more of Ukraine – the places where ethnic Russians still make up a large part of the country.   So would Russia be satisfied with just the Crimea, or might it demand Ukraine be split on broader ethnic grounds?

The 2010 Presidential vote shows a bifurcated country; Yanukovych won the areas in blue

The 2010 Presidential vote shows a bifurcated country; Yanukovych won the areas in blue

Compare that map to this map of Ukrainian ethnicity – it is clear that the vote followed ethnic lines, meaning that Ukraine is an ethnically divided state.  It is not at all clear that it will be possible to avoid some kind of division, given that there appears to be no compromise between tilting west to the EU, or east to Russia.

Russians are a majority in the Crimea (brown area in the south)

Russians are a majority in the Crimea (brown area in the south)

The US and the EU have limited options.  While some hawks want to chug the 7th fleet into the Black Sea and announce complete support for the interim government in Kiev, it’s hard to see how escalating the affair would be American or EU interests, and easy to see how that could set up a path to an even more dangerous and volatile crisis.   It’s also almost impossible to envision Russia simply giving up on control of the Crimea.

I think a division of Ukraine in some way is the best solution.   Both parts of Ukraine have important pipelines, each have oil shale deposits which could be potentially lucrative.  The UN should call for a cease fire recognizing de facto Russian occupation of the Crimea.  If it becomes obvious that Russians in other parts of eastern Ukraine do not want to be with the western portion of the state, talks on a peaceful divorce from the Ukraine should begin, overseen by the UN.   While some will see that as a victory of Putin – Russia forcing the division of a sovereign state to expand its sphere of influence – it is it.  It shows that there are real limits to Putin’s goal of asserting regional hegemony; the western portion of Ukraine would over time be stronger and more prosperous.  That would bring western influence deeper into the region.

One thing is for sure, an escalation of the crisis and violence is not in anybody’s best interest.

18 Comments