Opinion

The Great Debate

Sanctions finally find Russia’s Achilles heel

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gestures as he chairs a government meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama were reportedly engaged in a heated telephone conversation last Thursday when Putin noted in passing that an aircraft had gone down in Ukraine. The tragic crash of the Malaysian airliner in rebel-held eastern Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines, but it is important to remember what agitated Putin and prompted the phone call in the first place — sanctions.

Sanctions against Russia have been the centerpiece of the U.S. response to Putin’s interference in Ukraine. While they primarily have been directed against prominent friends of Putin and their businesses, the underlying target has been a weak Russian economy.  The sanctions have definitely found Russia’s Achilles’ heel, and with harsher sanctions looming in the aftermath of flight MA17, Putin is finding it increasingly difficult to craft an effective reply.

Obama had raised the ante for Russia the day before the Malaysian airliner disaster by unexpectedly announcing a new round of sanctions. The designated enterprises included several major Russian banks (Gazprombank, VEB), energy companies (Rosneft, Novatek) and arms manufacturers. They were not, however, the full sectoral sanctions that Putin dreads the most. These would essentially exclude Russia from the international financial system and restrict major technological transfers. Though key Russian banks and energy companies are now prohibited from receiving medium or long-term dollar financing, U.S. companies are not otherwise prohibited from conducting business with them.

But even by hinting as to what sectoral sanctions might look like, Obama has upset Russia’s economic calculations. Obama is often criticized for not backing up the “red lines” that he draws. But in Ukraine, Obama essentially has drawn a “gray line” — demanding Russia take certain actions to end the crisis. No one knows when this gray line is crossed, however. So these new sanctions only heighten the uncertainty — and risk — of doing business in Russia.

Russian President Putin and German Chancellor Merkel walk during a meeting in Rio de JaneiroThe market responded immediately, with dramatic declines in the Russian ruble and the Moscow stock market. In addition, the sanctions only exacerbated an already difficult situation for Russian companies. Syndicated loans for Russian commodities producers are down more than 80 percent over the past six months. The appetite for Russian bonds has also decreased considerably in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. So the current round of sanctions made a bad situation worse.

The war in Gaza threatens Egypt too

A Palestinian woman wearing clothes stained with the blood of other relatives, who medics said were wounded in Israeli shelling, cries at a hospital in Gaza City

Cairo’s efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, according to conventional wisdom, have largely been dictated by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s animosity toward Hamas. After all, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi’s government has declared a terrorist organization and regards as a serious threat.

That is why, this argument goes, the Egyptian ceasefire proposal ignored Hamas’ conditions and why the Israelis so quickly supported it. The proposal called for an immediate ceasefire. Only then would the terms be negotiated, including Hamas’ demands for an end to Israeli attacks, an end to the blockade of Gaza and the release of rearrested Palestinians who were freed in a prisoner 2011 exchange.

The story is far more complicated, however, for both Sisi and Egypt. Because the longer the war goes on, the more Gaza becomes a domestic problem for the Egyptian president. One he does not want.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

I’m Ronald Reagan! No, I’m Reagan! No, over here, I’m the real Reagan!

 Rand Paul introduces U.S. Senate Republican Leader Sen. McConnell to crowd of campaign supporters after McConnell defeated Tea Party challenger Bevin in state Republican primary elections in Louisville

Did anyone hear the crack of a starting pistol? Nor me. But the race to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 is on.

Of course Reince Priebus, the GOP chairman, has been trying to keep the contest under close control since the party’s 2012 presidential primaries became a cable comedy sensation.

Perhaps he should have told the prospective candidates. The most eager wannabes, keen to take an early lead, have jumped the gun. Though it is too early to tell how the race will unfold, let alone who will win, we are already getting a taste of the themes, the policies and, above all, the complexion of the primaries to come. If the vituperative mood of the opening salvoes is anything to go by, we are in for fireworks.

from Stories I’d like to see:

The facts on Iron Dome, suing over Flight 17 and reviving the VA

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod

1. Figuring out the Iron Dome:

As I kept reading and seeing television reports last week about how the Iron Dome missile defense system was doing such a good job protecting Israel from Hamas’ rockets, this intriguing story by the highly regarded veteran journalist James Fallows appeared on the Atlantic website.

Fallows points to other reports suggesting that the system’s success might have been greatly exaggerated and, in fact, that in the midst of war, reporters – he singles out this Washington Post story -- often get seduced by military officials and weapons makers into overstating how effective some new piece of weaponry has been.

So, there is obviously a lot more work to be done here figuring out just how good the Iron Dome really is.

Life — if you can call it that — under Israel’s Iron Dome

 Israelis take cover on the side of a road as a siren sounds warning of incoming rockets outside the northern Gaza Strip

I’ve become pretty great at rocket dodging. As a New Yorker living in Tel Aviv while researching a book, I never thought I’d say that. And yet it’s true: since Hamas began firing rockets into Tel Aviv on July 8, I’ve learned to move quickly.

Out jogging when a siren blares? I have 90 seconds to find the nearest building with a bunker or drop down in a ditch, hands over my head. Driving a car? I have 90 seconds to pull over, get out and lie on the pavement, hands over my head.

Since Hamas began tossing rockets indiscriminately at Israel — hoping that the Iron Dome will miss at least one of them — I’ve started a tally.

Keeping a city-by-the-sea from becoming a city in it

skyline1908

Virtually every big rainstorm in New York now seems to be accompanied by a flash-flood alert sent to cellphones. And scientists recently reported that a vast section of Antarctica’s ice sheet, now melting, might bring on as much as a 10-foot rise in the world’s sea levels in the coming decades.

While the nation debates the appropriate response, the coastal cities threatened most by climate change — particularly New York — must somehow address the problem themselves.

New York, at least, has begun. After Hurricane Sandy’s catastrophic impact in late 2012, it became obvious that the city must be able to minimize the serious damage caused by future climate “events” and bounce back.

from Breakingviews:

Time Warner can justifiably hold out for more

By Jeffrey Goldfarb

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Time Warner can justifiably hold out for more. Though the $80 billion takeover bid from Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox includes a 20 percent premium, his quarry may well have been on track to achieve that on its own with a bit more time. The Looney Toons-to-HBO group’s Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes has a reasonable degree of negotiating power.

A 35-year Time Warner veteran who became boss in 2008, he is well versed in the ways of deal-making. Bewkes lived through the creation of the conglomerate, including the acquisitions of Warner Communications and Turner Broadcasting and the notorious merger with AOL. He also spearheaded some of the subsequent dismantling, whereby the company jettisoned theme parks, music, books, sports teams, the internet unit, cable operations and ultimately the magazines that originally begat the empire.

After MH17: The technical fix that could protect civilian airliners from missile attacks

Site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen at the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

The awful crash of Malaysian Flight 17 in the eastern Ukraine combat zone seems likely to have been caused by a long-range surface-to-air missile. At this writing, who launched the missile remains undetermined. Regardless of who’s guilty — why is a modern software-driven weapon capable of striking a civilian jet in the first place?

All commercial airliners send out transponder signals that identify them as civilian. In most cases, what’s employed is a protocol called Mode C, which is not used by military aircraft.

transponder

Modern radar-guided long-range anti-aircraft missiles — like the one apparently used to shoot down Malaysian Flight 17, like the one the U.S. cruiser Vincennes used in 1988 accidentally to shoot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 civilians — don’t pay any attention to what mode a target’s transponder is in. They lock onto a radar image chosen by the gunner, then once launched relentlessly seek the target.

What’s behind the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, and what happens next? Five smart views.

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

On Thursday Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, with 298 people on board, was shot down over Grabovo, Ukraine, by what officials have described as a Russian-made antiaircraft missile. As investigators uncover details of the attack — including the origins of the missile — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in the Ukraine crisis will come under renewed scrutiny. Below are five takes on what happened and why, as well as what the consequences will be.

 The Daily Beast: Why Putin let MH17 get shot down
James Miller questions why Putin would allow the separatists to have a weapon capable of downing a commercial plane, without controlling how it was used. “This is an advanced and battle-proven series of highly sophisticated vehicles which coordinate to track targets with radar and fire missiles so advanced that they were designed to knock smart bombs and cruise missiles out of the sky. Whoever launched this weapon was highly trained and extremely well-equipped.” He explains how the owners of the Buk surface-to-air missile system, which likely brought down the plane, could have confused a commercial airliner for a military jet. (The system works properly, Miller says, when used in tandem with various radar systems.) “Putin’s urgency in Ukraine has turned to recklessness,” writes Miller, and Thursday’s events epitomize that recklessness.

The New Republic: The crash of Malaysia Flight 17 is a game changer: This conflict is now officially out of control
If pro-Russia separatists are indeed responsible for the downed plane, writes The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe, the conflict will enter a new phase, “one that directly threatens European security. The plane, let’s recall, was flying from Amsterdam.”

In Iran talks, ‘no deal’ bests ‘bad deal’ for U.S.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at talks between the foreign ministers of the six powers negotiating with Tehran on its nuclear program in Vienna

With only days to go before the original July 20 deadline for negotiations over the future Iran’s nuclear program, there is scant sign that a breakthrough is imminent. The reason is simple: Iranian leaders’ refusal to move from what a senior Obama administration official recently described as “unworkable and inadequate positions that would not in fact assure that their program is exclusively peaceful.”

The stakes of the Vienna nuclear talks could not be higher. Although the past months have witnessed the proliferation of alarming new threats in the Middle East, including the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant across Iraq and Syria, these dangers are not equal to the catastrophic, transformational consequences of the Iranian regime, the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, acquiring nuclear weapons.

If an agreement with Iran fails to materialize by Sunday, some will likely criticize it as a foreign-policy setback for the Obama administration, raising the specter of an additional national security crisis at a time when Washington is already stretched thin by many other challenges. For that reason, despite the administration’s oft-stated insistence that “no deal” is preferable to a “bad deal,” these critics will urge greater flexibility on key terms and conditions with Tehran going forward.

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