Archive for category Russia
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Kiev this coming weekend, her first visit to Ukraine since the crisis began. The Germans have been in an active dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for weeks, Last weekend German foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted a meeting with his French, Russian and Ukrainian counterparts to discuss how to end the crisis.
At this point, the Germans have successfully dissuaded Russia from expanding the conflict, even as the Ukrainian army clears pro-Russian separatists from the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev’s forces are rapidly defeating the separatists though fear of a Russian invasion is real. This is the first real test of German’s ability to take a leadership role in using soft power to try to diffuse a potentially devastating crisis.
Some might wonder why the US is acquiescing to European leadership here. Shouldn’t we be pressuring the Russians and asserting America’s role as leader of the western world? In a word, no. In fact, the title ‘leader of the western world’ is passe. While there is a European based civilization generally known as the “West,” it is a cultural construct. The West as a unified international force ceased to exist with the end of the Cold War. The world is no longer divided into neat blocs. Perhaps the point where this became crystal clear was in 2002-03 when France and Germany worked with Russia to stymie US efforts to get UN approval for the Iraq war.
More to the point, the US has little at stake in Ukraine. While politicians may wax poetically about stopping Putin, this isn’t the Cold War. Ukraine was part of the old USSR after all, we’re not about to risk all out nuclear war because of separatists in east Ukraine, or even a Russian invasion. In 2008 when Russia took South Ossetia, President Bush resisted calls to come to the aid of Georgia (South Ossetia was a Russian part of Georgia wanted to join Russian North Ossetia), even though Georgia actively supported the US in Iraq. We have no vested interest in the Russian near abroad; for Russia, it’s their primary focus.
Germany, on the other hand, has real interests. It gets natural gas from Russia, it’s promoting democracy and European stability, and it wants to make sure there isn’t another move to a Europe divided into blocs, even if this time it’s the Russian bloc and the EU bloc. While the US has little with which to pressure Russia, Germany is a main trade and investment partner of Russia, and the ambiguous relationship between the two countries goes way back. If Russia’s economy is to grow and modernize, it needs a close relationship with Germany.
The Germans understand that pressuring Putin with tough talk and threats is counter productive. The American penchant to pull no rhetorical punches in condemning Russian support for the separatists serves no useful purpose other than to create an emotional backlash in Russia – a backlash Putin wants to take advantage of. The Europeans prefer quiet pressure: the promise of closer economic ties as a carrot alongside the potential stick of increased sanctions.
Will it work? The odds are better than one might think. While Russia has the power to invade Ukraine and annex eastern portions, it’s not really in their interest. Those are poor parts of Ukraine which would be costly to administer, and the already vulnerable Russian economy would be hit by sharper western sanctions. If they hold back, Putin will have his nationalist bone fides questioned – something which could harm his popularity. But he’d likely expand economic ties with Europe, which Russia needs.
In all of this, it appears likely the EU is ready to accept that the Crimea is again part of Russia. That allows Putin to claim a victory even as he backs down, and historically the Crimea is more Russian than Ukrainian anyway. The longer this drags out without a Russian invasion, the better the odds that the crisis will end quietly rather than escalate to an all out Russian-Ukrainian war.
It’s really up to Putin – and no one is sure on what he’s basing his calculus. In any event, the leading role of Europe in negotiating and dealing with the crisis, with the US in the background, is an example of how the new multi-polar global polity operates. Europe thought they could deal with Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s and failed. Now the challenge is clear – find a way out of the Ukrainian crisis without it devolving to war.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
John Kerry first became a household name when he had the courage to come home from Vietnam, a decorated hero, and tell the truth about what was happening there. Protesting a meaningless war, he helped form “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” which included testimony to Congress and a protest wherein veterans including himself threw their medals over a fence at the Capital building. Kerry said: “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all. ”
Later, of course, he went into politics and became a highly regarded Massachusetts Senator, and the 2004 Democratic candidate for President. Though he was slandered in that campaign with false allegations about his military service, he fought a close election, losing to President George W. Bush 50.7% to 48.3%. In losing, he still garnered more votes than anyone else in history at the time, except for President Bush.
Kerry was active in the Senate, maintaining his principles. He and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin flew to Nicaragua shortly after his 1984 election to the Senate, visiting Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. The US was actively engaged in policies against Nicaragua, and Kerry along with Christopher Dodd investigated and helped bring to light the illegal activities of the Iran-Contra affair. He did vote to authorize military force against Iraq, but was critical of the way President Bush handled the war. Still, that vote represents a blemish on his career.
On February 1, 2013 Senator Kerry became Secretary of State Kerry. The man who was once seen as a dangerous critic of US foreign policy is now the primary architect of that policy. He has shown that he intends to be active and true to his principles.
This has generated criticism. His efforts to broker a deal with Iran have been criticized in France and Israel. His work with Russia has been dismissed as being naive. But the critics all share one trait: they assume diplomacy can’t work. Many people have a very black and white view of reality. Certain countries are the “bad guys” and “our enemies,” so only naive fools will engage them.
Such a view is absurd. Mao Zedong was vehement in his hatred for the US and threats against American hegemony. His rhetoric made the anti-Israel barbs of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad look mild. Yet President Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened relations with China, allowing China to replace Taiwan on the UN Security Council, which helped lead to positive change in China. That was heavily criticized, but Nixon’s credentials as an anti-Communist helped him mollify the critics (hence the colloquialism ‘only Nixon could go to China’).
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was once the most hated man on the planet by the American government. He masterminded terrorist attacks which killed Americans, and the Reagan Administration tried to eliminate him in an attack on his house. Later, though, diplomacy led him to abandon his nuclear program and try to get on the good side of the West. Many on the right were critical of UN efforts to help the Libyan rebels, preferring Gaddafi stay in power.
The point: diplomacy is about trying to turn enemies into, if not friends, at least people we can deal with.
John Kerry has logged 250,000 miles as Secretary of State, visiting 35 countries. His desire to try to find solutions to long standing problems in the Mideast and elsewhere have caused many in Washington to criticize him. Unlike his predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry goes less for the showy displays and more for substance. One gets the sense that she never wanted to do anything that would later harm a Presidential bid, such as being seen as too open to an agreement with Iran. Kerry is not limited by political ambition, he can go where his principles lead.
President Obama has given Kerry considerable latitude in pursuing his foreign policy goals, largely because the two share similar principles. Since Kerry doesn’t have to worry about what Washington insiders say, he can take their shots, working on extremely complex issues. If he can’t succeed, he gets blamed. If he does manage to reach agreements, the President can step in and get the glory. That’s the job of a Secretary of State, and Kerry understands it.
Yet while his efforts have been rather quiet, mostly underneath the media radar screen, he appears to be on a mission to do good – to be true to the principles that led him to speak out against atrocities taking place in Vietnam. Who knows? In the next three years he might be able to accomplish more as a hard working Secretary of State getting into the diplomatic trenches than he would have as President had he won in 2004.
And if so that would be fitting closure to his career. His began by protesting against a pointless war that killed over a million people, with the major consequence being a decline in US power and moral authority. Perhaps it might end with him guiding US foreign policy in a way that promotes peace and works to limit human suffering. At this point in time John Kerry is the right man for the job.
President Obama’s patience on Syria is yielding perhaps the best policy outcome, even though the process is causing especially the far right to froth at the mouth in condemning Obama for “weakness” or “ineptitude” or a host of things. Of course, within the GOP you have Senator Rand Paul saying that Obama wants to “ally with al qaeda” by opposing Assad, while Senator McCain wants to “help the anti-Assad rebellion.” That means that Paul says fellow Republican John McCain wants to “ally with al qaeda.” And they criticize Obama?
A few points about the Syria case so far. The core of the White House response has been consistent and clear: 1) the US and the international community should not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government against civilians; 2) it is not in the US national interest to get involved in a bloody, on going war in Syria, nor is it in the US national interest to “go it alone” if the rest of the international community does not want to act in enforcement of the norms against WMD; and 3) the United States cannot act effectively if the country is not on board, meaning that Congress must approve any action taken.
The critics of Obama make the error of black and white thinking. They think that if the US believes number 1 to be true, then the US has no choice but to act. Not acting would be weakness, or sacrificing principle. That’s the kind of “all or nothing” thinking that led us to the debacle in Iraq. We may oppose the act of a foreign dictator but choose not to intervene – there have been horrific acts undertaken over the last century, rarely have we intervened. The US has only intervened when it is in the US interest.
However in this case President Obama is dealing with a world that is much different than that of the past; instead of leading the “West” in a bipolar world, the US is major power in a multi-polar world which operates under different principles than before. The Cold War world is past, both at home and abroad the US faces a fundamentally altered foreign policy reality.
- McCain’s not happy with the new GOP isolationists – Paul and McCain
The division between McCain and Paul illustrate the transformation. Paul represents an “isolationist Republican” of the kind not seen since the early post-war years. At that time anti-Communism morphed the party into a hawkish interventionist stance, one that has been pretty consistent through the Iraq War. McCain represents a “Cold War Republican” whose view of the US is that of a global leader of the West, shaping world politics to fit American values and interests. That role was possible in a bipolar world where other “western” states ad no real choice but to support the US. They relied on the US for self-defense and for preserving the global free trade system upon which post-war growth was based. The US could call the shots and expect others to jump.
Obama isn’t the first to realize the world has changed. President Clinton found it extremely difficult to put his Kosovo coalition together, and President Bush had active opposition from France and Germany to his Iraq plans. They colluded with Russia, something that obviously would have never happened in the Cold War. The fact of the matter is the US is now a powerful player in a multi-polar world, with the East-West divide a thing of the past. McCain’s Cold War mentality is obsolete.
The US cannot demand support from the “rest of the West” nor expect to receive it. The debacle in Iraq shows the limits of US military power, and assures that other states neither fear nor worry about the consequences of opposing the US. To be sure, Assad himself fears a US military attack, but also knows that the US no longer is a dominant world power.
Moreover, politics at home are fractured, and it’s hardly Obama’s fault. Assad’s ability to play the American right wing and get them to all but embrace him is an example of a domestic political situation where the far right oppose Obama so virulently that they do not want to have a united foreign policy. McCain isn’t part of that group – he and others like Senator Graham, who have been harsh in their criticism of Obama on other fronts, are ready to support the President now. They just find a party more extreme and virulent than in the past.
Mix the weakened state of the US on the world stage with the fractured and dysfunctional politics at home, and the US simply is not the world power it used to be. It’s not Obama’s fault, or Bush’s fault or any one person’s fault – it’s a result of global and domestic political dynamics that have been building for over twenty years.
Yet despite that, Obama may end up with a real success on Syria – limited international action without risking US prestige and soldiers, advancing at least somewhat the norm against chemical weapons while pressuring the Syrian government. He’s handling the situation with finesse, patience, and a dose of realism. He understands the constraints, and seems to comprehend that the world of 2013 is part of a new foreign policy era. The naysaying pundits can throw out their ad hominems, but the President appears immune to their sting.
Their names are Nadezhda “Nadya”Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina. They are on trial for disturbing the peace (or ‘hooliganism’!) in Moscow. “I am not afraid of your poorly concealed fraud of a verdict in this so-called court because it can deprive me of my freedom,” Maria Alyokhina said. “No one will take my inner freedom away.”
The women symbolize the divisions in Russian culture and politics, and as such their trial has come under intense focus. They are part of a punk a group called Pussy Riot, which formed in 2011 as a collective of about ten members who perform provocative songs in provocative locals, usually masked with colorful balaclavas, and using pseudonyms when giving interviews. As they put it: “What we have in common is impudence, politically loaded lyrics, the importance of feminist discourse and a non-standard female image.”
On February 21, 2012 members of the group went to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow with short dresses, colorful balaclavas and sang a “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary to make Putin go away. The Orthodox Russian Patriarch Kirill, who had already urged believers to vote for Putin, called the President when he saw the video to make sure the women be arrested. They have been held in extended detention since March, and will be sentenced August 17. Two of the women have small children, and they have gained support from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
Pussy Riot was formed as part of the anti-Putin protests that emerged last winter, and represent a Russian youth angered by the return to authoritarianism that Putin represents. They want an open and free Russia, and Pussy Riot reflects an audacious in your face attack on politics as usual. In a country where traditional taboos are still strong — sexism remains rampant and anti-LBGT feelings are intense, for example — they’re the new generation demanding change.
The response of the Russian Orthodox church has been one of anger, with demands that the women be punished for blasphemy and an assault on the Russian soul. That sounds silly — and, to be blunt, it is silly — but there is a segment of traditional Russian society appalled by what the women did. The Orthodox Church is still a powerful institution and Putin needs to make sure it stays on his side.
The women have pleaded not guilty, claiming they were not trying to be offensive. They were responding to Kirill’s instructions to vote for Putin. The Courtroom prosecutor Nikiforov told the Judge that by swearing in church the girls had “abused God.” But the girls claim that not only is Russia a secular state, but that they want dialogue. “I’m Orthodox,” said Maria, “why does that mean I should vote for Putin?” Kirill who has called Putin’s rule in Russia “a miracle from God,” yearns to rekindle the old Czarist era connection of Church and State.
In the Capital of Moscow there is general support for the group. The trial has gathered large crowds who often cheer the defendants or laugh at the prosecutor. At times the Judge had to plead for quiet, telling those gathered that “this is not a threater.” When they laughed at some of the claims the prosecutor made, courtroom observers were told this was “no laughing matter.”
Ultimately Putin will decide the fate of these women — it’s his country, and his court. That’s part of what they are protesting! In London to watch some of the Olympics he said he thought they should be “treated leniently.” But no one doubts that the sentence depends on what he wants, not the judge in the case.
The case is important. Russia stands at a cross roads. Putin, having weathered the winter protests against his re-election, would like to see Russia return to business as usual: Power in his hands and a partnership with the Orthodox church to keep the public in line. Profits from oil and gas going to give the people enough largesse to keep their support, and some market openness to make it worth the while of the middle class to support the regime.
And the youth? They’ll get older. They’ll realize that it’s not worth rocking the boat. But women like Nadia, Katya, and Maria reflect a youth that sees the wider world, and understands what a free Russia could become. They don’t want post-Soviet Russia to continue the slide into Czarist like leadership and control. Putin apparently had enough, and decided to use a show trial of the three women to strike terror into would be protesters to force the youth into submission.
A successful show trial requires the authorities to control the show – to script it and make certain the public learns about it in a way that achieves the desired result. That’s not happening. Public interest in the trial has made it a sensation. The world watches, while Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and host of musicians and human rights activists world wide speak out. The Russian youth follow on Facebook and Youtube, and the trial has become a symbol of the stark division between the traditional world of the Orthodox church and the globalized modern ambitions of Russia’s young people . Quite possibly Putin won’t be able to keep all these things under control.
The trial originally was video streamed to make sure other would be protesters could see what might happen to them if they anger the authorities. But that backfired; the women refused to be docile, they and their attorneys asked tough questions and helped make the witnesses for the church look ridiculous. Video streaming was stopped, but it was too late – the trial had become a farce. The judge moved to a smaller court room, and to wrap the case up more quickly the proceedings were dragged on for over 12 hours a day with the women getting little water or food while in their glass “cage.” The result was to amplify the inhumane treatment of three young women.
So the world watches, Russia watches and Putin squirms. This case shows the regime’s vulnerability. The fact they so misjudged the impact of this show trial makes it clear they don’t understand the forces they’re dealing with. They have a late Soviet mentality in a world that is much different than that of the 20th Century.
The bizarre almost comical testimony of the church witnesses show a miscalculation of immense proportions. They were meant to create a sense of anger at the women for defying honored Russian religious traditions; instead they made the church comes off as petty, the state as authoritarian. The show trial actually demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Putin regime.
No one knows for sure what direction Russia will take moving forward. Putin controls the media, the courts, the military and the police. Russian history suggests the state will prevail at the cost of human liberty. But this is a new era. Globalization and the social media led information revolution are changing the rules of the game, as long time dictators like Mubarak, Gadaffi and Assad have learned. Right now three heroic young women refuse to back down and have come to symbolize the desire for an open, tolerant, free Russia. Perhaps their actions can inspire others to join.
On December 14, 1825 (or December 26 with the new calendar) a society of military officers led 3000 soldiers in an uprising against the ascension to the throne of Czar Nicholas I, who was replacing his father Czar Alexander I. They were hoping to bring liberal reforms to Russia, believing their system to be out of date and stagnant. Czar Nicholas I, who was destined to become a brutal and conservative Czar, put down the revolt, and since the uprising took place in December the upstarts were called ‘the Decembrists.’ (Pssst – if you googled this hoping for something about the band the Decembrists, this isn’t the page for you).
It is now nearly 200 years later and a new group of Decembrists are trying to bring change to Russia — young people angry about the November election which saw United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev win a majority of seats in the State Duma, though with far, far fewer votes than in 2007. In that election they had 64% of the vote, this time it was officially 49%. Most are convinced that the actual total was much less. Medvedev called it proof that Russia was democratic, since they lost so many seats, but many in Russia believe the result was rigged.
And they have reason to believe that. As the election was taking place election monitors were suddenly told to leave; they could no longer monitor the election voting and counting. That’s the equivalent to having student in an exam grab her text book and tell the professor to leave as she finishes the test — it’s tantamount to announcing that you’re going to cheat.
In Russia social media is driving a growing call to go to the streets and force the election to be held again, as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has demanded. Saturday in Moscow 50,000 people gathered, protesting peacefully. The police were said to be numerous and friendly — Putin clearly doesn’t want images of Russian police crushing protesters, but it’s also clear that the government doesn’t know what to do.
Putin’s essentially kept the media under control and relies on the fact that Russians historically do not defy authority. Even the famous Russian revolution of 1917 was actually a coup d’etat, not a true popular uprising. Protests of opposition leaders and public calls for calm on the day after the election seemed effective; protests were relatively mild — and the pro-United Russia rallies were relatively large.
However, there is a growing discontent and call for action among the Russian youth that suggest that perhaps like so many other movements this year, from Cairo to Wall Street, the dissatisfied may have more support and staying power than the elite anticipate. To be sure, December is a horrible time to start a mass protest movement in Moscow. Temperatures already can dip well below zero and it’ll only get colder as time goes on. If the heat of the Arab desert helps ignite the blood of the protesters there, the Russian winter might cool the enthusiasm in Moscow.
Still, what if? What if growing protests start to threaten the stability of Putin-Medvedev state? Where could these protests lead?
One thing Moscow’s police will prevent is the occupation of a public place. One reason the movements in Cairo and elsewhere were so successful is they could occupy 24/7 a public spot to give protests an identity and on going presence. People could join or leave as they saw fit, they didn’t have to organize every event. That’s unlikely to happen in Moscow and probably in the rest of Russia.
Russian demographics are very different than the youth-centric Arab world. The median age is 38 and they’re experiencing negative population growth. On the other hand the youth are well educated, modern and connected. They are also very angry about what is happening to their country. Until recently leaving Russia was a goal of many young folk, figuring that the corrupt patronage system of United Russia would simply persist, leaving limited opportunity.
Putin, for his part, claims to want to revitalize and modernize the economy. But with the money flowing in due to high oil and gas prices, the temptation to give into corruption — corruption that has been a part of Russian politics and life for decades — is high. Putin had been riding a wave of popularity as Russians were disgusted with the flagrant growth of wealth of the so-called “oligarchs” or “new Russians” in the 90s, when the country suffered poverty and massive disruption as communism fell while oil prices were low.
Putin took them on and they either had to sell their assets back to the state and take a diminished role or, as in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, end up in prison. Khodorkovsky was a multi-billionaire determined to take on Putin’s effort to reassert state control. He is now in jail.
The fall of the oligarchs and the rise of oil and gas prices improved life for Russians who saw the chaotic anarchy of the Yeltsin years give way to stability and economic growth. Even those who realized that high oil and gas prices were the main cause of improved conditions gave Putin the benefit of the doubt. The oligarchs had acted like the worst caricatures of capitalism and most thought the state needed to get involved to bring the Russian economy into the 21st Century and stabilize democracy.
With Putin’s determination to seek the Presidency for a third term, playing a kind of tag team match with Medvedev, many Russians have had enough. Especially the youth see oil money being squandered to line the pockets of the elites while Russia’s economy remains under developed and corrupt.
Communism fell twenty years ago this month — on December 25, 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union, nearly to the day 166 years after the Czar Nicholas put down the Decembrists. The youth now have grown up in a post-Communist era, hearing promises of better times to come as connections and media access to Europe and the West grows. They realize that their leaders have yet to have grasped the promise of democracy and economic modernism; that the old KGB agent Vladimir Putin is too wedded to the tactics of the past to really guide Russia into a better future.
So now they are taking to the streets. Czar Nicholas easily disposed of the Decembrist revolt of 1825, so far the collapse of communism in December of 1991 has yet to yield a modern vibrant Russia. As protesters try to take things into their own hands, defying Russia’s tradition of authrotarian rule and public docility, the world watches to see if the winds of change are going to sweep from the heat of the Arabian dessert to the steppes of the Russian tundra.
Back on January 19 this year I wrote a blog post speculating on whether the Tunisian revolt could possibly spread around the Arab world. It seemed very unlikely at the time, it went against everything people thought and expected about countries like Egypt and Libya. But something’s up. The world is in motion, change is real. Perhaps the Decembrists of 2011 can start a true Russian transformation.