Archive for category Putin

What Next in Ukraine

crash

The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine put the Ukraine crisis back into the world’s attention, and marked a dramatic escalation in the seriousness of the crisis.  295 people were killed, a civilian airliner shot down, and Russia appears to be at least indirectly responsible through its arming of the separatists.   So where do we go from here?

Here’s the situation: Vlad the improviser stumbled into his Ukraine policy with a series of reactions to the downfall of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych.  Suddenly Ukraine shifted from a tilt toward Russia to a strong lean towards Europe, and Putin’s reaction was to grab Crimea, and then foment unrest in the ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine.   Personally, I get the Crimea gambit.  Crimea was traditionally Russian and give to Ukraine by a misguided Khrushchev in 1954.   But the rest?

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down.    Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down. Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

For Putin, who was losing his luster at home, it was an unexpected political opportunity.   He could play the Russian nationalist anti-American card and watch his popularity grow.   Though the West feared an effort to grab all of eastern Ukraine, Putin instead tried to maintain a balancing act.

Knowing that the Russian economy in the era of globalization needs to keep reasonably healthy ties with the EU, he avoided the massive land grab that could have forced the EU into more draconian anti-Russia sanctions.   However, he also sent units from Russian intelligence there to start/support an indigenous uprising, knowing it might flounder, but counting on it destabilizing the hated Ukrainian government and helping keep his nationalist bona fides in place.

For awhile, it seemed to work.   The West seemed to be losing interest in the conflict, especially as it was clear the Russian separatists were not faring well against the Ukrainian military.  At home his stoking of Russian nationalism kept his popularity high. The balancing act seemed to be a bit of political genius.

However, supporting a rebellion is tricky.   While Putin might have been OK with the crisis dragging out indefinitely, the rebels were fighting for a cause.  Angry that Russia seemed to be “deserting them” (read: just giving them weapons and support, but not actively participating in the effort to build New Russia), they exercised more autonomy and, as we know, brought down Malaysian Flight 17.

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

So what now?  First, the US has to recognize that there are limited options and all require serious cooperation and even leadership from the EU.  While some in the US huff that Obama hasn’t done enough, blaming the American President for what goes on in the rest of the world, the reality is that US power is limited.

The key is that Russian President Putin knows that the Soviet Union fell primarily because its economy was isolated.   Globalization began in earnest in the 80s, and the rapid connections in the West combined with the economic failures of Communism in the Soviet bloc made economic disintegration inevitable.    If Putin severed ties and focused on building his own internal empire, the result would be disaster.

Moreover, Russia’s future is very much connected to the EU, and Germany in particular.   Earlier this month Germans, already incensed by the monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for years, kicked out a CIA agent who was spying on Germany from the US embassy.   German Chancellor Merkel is clearly not an American proxy; the Germans have become more independent in crafting a foreign policy to serve European interests.  The Cold War is long dead.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

It is Germany and the EU that can put the most pressure on Putin, and Merkel’s leverage with the Russian President has been increased by this tragedy.   Not only are the Europeans feeling more pressure than ever to turn up the heat on Russia, but Putin has to recognize that his balancing act is a very dangerous one.

President Obama needs to keep rhetorical pressure on Russia and be in close consultation with Merkel, crafting a plan to both pressure the Russian leader but also give him a face saving way to withdraw support from the rebels.   What we do not need is rah rah Cold War style chest thumping, nor do we need to up the ante by dramatically increasing military aid for Ukraine.   That would force Putin into holding firm – he will not allow himself to be seen as giving in to the US.  At best, it would only deepen and lengthen the duration of the crisis.  At first, things could spin out of control.

That’s in no one’s interest, saving the hyper-nationalists on either side.   A gradual reduction in tension, with action more behind the scenes than in the public eye, is the best way out.   So far, the Obama Administration has behaved admirably, keeping up pressure but not being belligerent.   More importantly, the US has learned that we do not need to lead, especially not when our direct interests are not at stake.

Ultimately it is up to Putin – he is a very vain politician, and the West needs to construct a path to de-escalate the crisis so that he saves face.   Recognizing that the Crimea is part of Russia is perhaps part of the calculus.   Putin giving up on any further annexation of eastern Ukraine must be another.

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Obama’s Foreign Policy

critics

A recent meme from the right has been that President Obama has failed at foreign policy.    FOX News, Townhall, the Weekly Standard — the usual partisan suspects — say President Obama has a “non-existent” foreign policy and should take the blame when things go bad in Ukraine, Syria or Iraq.   In what President Reagan once derided as a “blame America first” tendency, the critics want to blame Obama for everything that goes wrong in the world.

In reality, his Presidency has been a foreign policy success on a number of fronts, most importantly extricating the US from two costly wars and responding to a new multi-polar international environment wherein the role of the US is different than at any time in our history.   That is what irks the critics; America’s role in the world is changing and they want to blame the President.   That is misguided and hypocritical.

The criticisms from the right (I’ll deal with the left’s critique in a later post) fall in three categories:

1.  Obama is not actively using American power.   Obama is blamed for “enticing” Putin to act in Ukraine because he perceived Obama as weak or unwilling to act.   Syria’s horrible civil war is Obama’s fault because the US has not been able to stop it.   This criticism essentially says that the global villains sense Obama’s weakness and “detachment” from foreign affairs and thus are willing to stir up trouble.

foreignpolicy

2.  Obama is siding with the wrong people.  In Libya, when Obama did use force to end a civil war, he was accused of helping Islamic extremists who were part of the anti-Qaddafi opposition.   Similarly, when the US didn’t come to the aid of Mubarak to keep him in power in Egypt, the critics said that embracing the Arab Spring would be to embrace Islamic extremism.  Better to keep corrupt dictators in power than risk these rebellions.  They point to the difficult transitions in the region as proof that it would have been better to keep the dictatorships in power.

3.  Obama isn’t as supportive of Israel as he should be; his inability to get the peace process going again is a result of weakness.  Never mind that the peace process fell apart during the Clinton Administration.   While Bush was in office violence suicide bombing and war riveted the region.  Nope, to the critics any lack of progress is all Obama’s fault.   The same group has been vocal about Iran, saying Iran is akin to Nazi Germany, and not allowing Israel to take out its nuclear sites risks a future holocaust.

Uff-da!

 

The first criticism comes primarily from neo-conservatives, people who supported the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   They do not accept that the world now is one that the US can’t simply shape at will.  That is what they thought we could do in Iraq – use US power to spread democracy and shape a region to better fit our values.    The war against Iraq was won; the effort to reshape the region failed spectacularly.   Many of these critics, such as Charles Krauthammer and the critics at the Weekly Standard, are in denial that their world view have been discredited by history.

Beyond that, the idea that somehow a “tough” President would have scared Putin away from Ukraine borders on the delusionally absurd.   Putin acted out of weakness as his Ukraine policy fell apart with the ouster of Yanukovych.   Rambo could be President and Putin would have felt compelled to take Crimea and pressure Ukraine.   He knows the US and EU have no interest in war.  Yet President Obama has worked with the EU to craft a response more likely to succeed.   Russia’s future depends on connecting with the global economy; the USSR failed because it could not.

It's important to be on the right side of history as the Arab world begins a difficult transition

It’s important to be on the right side of history as the Arab world begins a difficult transition

It’s also absurd to think the US should have tried to stop the Arab Spring or continue support for thugs like Mubarak.   When a region with 50% of the population under 23, linked through the information revolution, show disgust for corrupt obsolete dictatorships, it would be disastrous for us to side with the dictators.  That part of the world is undertaking a real transition – our best bet is to be on the right side of history.

So the critics have a very weak case against the President.   They fail to offer viable alternatives, which is telling.  Their real problem is an inability to accept that world where the US is no longer the dominant power.   Over the last twenty years globalization has altered the nature of sovereignty and global politics.   The economic crisis in the US revealed structural weaknesses thirty years in the making.   The Iraq war showed the limits of US power and soured the public on interventionism.   The world is fundamentally different than it was in 1994.

If President Bush had accomplished this, he'd have been lauded as a hero.

If President Bush had accomplished this, he’d have been lauded as a hero.

Obama’s successes – getting Iran to agree to give up its capacity to build nuclear weapons with UN oversight, extricating the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, getting a deal with Russia to destroy large numbers of nuclear missiles, killing Osama Bin Laden while weakening al qaeda, improving economic cooperation after the 2008 catastrophe, and re-orienting US foreign policy for the new multi-polar world – are profound.   Obama’s multi-lateralism, hated especially by the neo-conservatives, is working.  The US is more respected and in a better strategic position now than we have been at any time since the end of the Cold War.  Despite inheriting two wars, the President has avoided any foreign policy debacle.

So all the critics can say is that “bad things happen in the world and we blame Obama.”  *shrug*

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John Kerry’s Diplomacy

 

kerry

Secretary Kerry’s patient diplomacy continues to win little victories for the Obama Administration.   Though he lacks the tough veneer of his predecessor, Kerry is proving to be an adept and successful diplomat.

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) claims Iran is ahead of schedule in following the agreement reached last year and took affect on January 20th.    The dilution of enriched uranium means that Iran probably does not have enough to make even one nuclear weapon, defusing what had been a tense situation.   Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says its in the interest of Iran to assure the world that Iran does not want to have nuclear weapons.   If the process stays on track  sanctions will be lifted and Iran will move towards fully rejoining the international community.

This is a success for the Obama Administration.   The problem of Iran’s nuclear program has been an issue for over a decade, with the potential of doing immense harm to the region and the world economy.   An attack on Iran by the US or Israel could lead to disastrous consequences.  The Pentagon was not happy about how it war gamed out, and there was fear Israel might go it alone.

The deal with Iran remains on track, which is in the mutual interest of Iran and the US

The deal with Iran remains on track, which is in the mutual interest of Iran and the US

Yet that was then – when Iran was part of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and the US war in Iraq created intense emotions and anti-Americanism.   Now anti-Americanism has waned and the emotion of the last decade has turned into realization that the Iranian economy is the real problem.   There is no benefit for Iran in maintaining a hard line, and the last election and recent demonstrations show the Guardian Council (the body of clerics that have the most power in Iran) that the public is unhappy.   They need to put the nuclear issue behind them and focus on the economy.

There could still be problems and missteps along the way, but for the first time in a long time concern over Iran’s nuclear program is fading.  Patient diplomacy by Obama and Secretary Kerry is paying off.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov make progress

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov make progress

The other place diplomacy seems to be working is in Ukraine – though this is still a very tense and uncertain situation.   Both have agreed in principle to eschew violence.   Ukraine will give full amnesty to all protesters except those who have committed capital offenses, while Russia agrees not to invade or use violence.   More details aren’t yet known, but while it is meant to de-escalate rather than solve the problem, it’s an important step in the right direction.

Those who say Putin wants to recreate a resurgent Russia are overstating the case.   Putin was humiliated by the defeat of Yanukovych earlier this year and it completely unsettled his effort to bring Ukraine closer to Russia.   Putin genuinely believes the new government is illegal, radical and illegitimate.   If an anti-American protest overthrew a pro-American government in Mexico, we might feel the same way.

No doubt Putin wants to find a way to allow eastern Ukraine to, if not become part of Russia, at least have more autonomy from Kiev to pursue closer relations with Russia.   That isn’t necessarily a bad idea; in a divided country, sometimes de-centralized power works best.  But Putin is not stupid.  He knows that in an era of globalization Russia cannot be isolated from the West – that kind of isolation is what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.   His challenge is to find a way out of this that both maintains Russia’s connections to the West (particularly the EU) and prevents an unacceptable outcome in Ukraine.

Today’s de-escalation agreement could allow a transition to talks on constitutional reform in Ukraine to keep the country unified, but allow autonomy on some economic fronts.   That may seem like a victory for Russia – and in the short term it would be.   But ultimately if the western part of Ukraine develops faster thanks to their EU ties, provinces in the east would have the power to look west.   They won’t be tied to Russia.

The situation in eastern Ukraine is tense

The situation in eastern Ukraine is tense

The US and EU has to use their clout to get Kiev to recognize that they won’t achieve a perfect outcome – Russian power and influence is real; compromise is necessary.   They then have to work out an arrangement with Russia that avoids any military action, and will allow for a peaceful resolution of the tumult in the east.    Even if the short term result allows the east to drift closer to Russia, as long as Ukraine is one country and the regions in the east remain autonomous from Russia, it’s an acceptable result.

Those who say Putin and Russia are “winning” and the US has lost its foreign policy edge are in the land of the absurd.   Not that long ago Russia controlled not only all of Ukraine, but the 15 Soviet Republics and a bunch of east European states.   That day is long gone.  Russia’s position vis-a-vis the US is severely weakened, and the best Russia can hope for is a little more regional influence.

For those who like to think about power and conflict, messy diplomacy may seem dissatisfying.   Better to bomb the Iranians to be sure, or risk war to stop Putin from Russian expansion!   But in reality both Russia and Iran have very strong motives to make sure they are connected to the global economy.  In the 21st Century, international isolation is defeat.   That’s why patient diplomacy can work.

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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.

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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.

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