Opinion

The Great Debate

Moscow fiddles, while Kiev burns

Timing is everything in politics, and this adage could not be truer for the whirlwind now enveloping Russia and Ukraine. Both countries are in the headlines — Russia for the coming $50 billion Winter Olympics extravaganza, and Ukraine for an economic and political collapse that has left the country on the cusp of revolution.

The confluence of these two events has created a unique set of circumstances unlikely to change until the Olympic flame is extinguished on February 23. For the prestige of hosting the Olympics — and the huge international spotlight that accompanies the spectacle — limits Moscow’s ability to act decisively toward Ukraine as it might have otherwise.

This unexpected inaction can be traced to a failure of Russian soft power and a large segment of the Ukrainian population’s unwillingness to be bought off.

Russia could still resort to tougher measures, including trade boycotts, energy cutoffs, even direct aid to the Ukrainian security services. But Moscow has chosen not to so far — in large part because the consequences of such actions are incendiary. If Russia were to intervene — and fail — its new status as a re-emerging power would be severely damaged.

The Ukrainian crisis seemingly turned in Russia’s favor only recently. Ukraine is broke, and President Victor Yanukovich used the debate over signing the European Union association agreement to solicit proposals for a possible bailout. Not surprisingly, there were not many bidders. Russia ultimately won with a relatively modest offer of $15 billion in loans and a reduction in energy prices.

Ukraine’s Protests: Not (yet) a revolution

In the three weeks since Ukraine formally suspended talks aimed at signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, two important facts have become clear.

First, it is now apparent that Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, had no effective strategy to resist intense pressure against the EU deal from Moscow. The Kremlin promised big cash loans, a gas discount and debt forgiveness, while explicitly threatening to block Ukraine’s access to the Russian market and implicitly threatening to stoke separatism in regions of the country.

Second, as street demonstrations gain momentum in Kiev and other cities, it has become clear that a strong, diverse and increasingly vocal plurality of Ukrainians will not accept their country’s continued isolation from the West. The authorities have confronted street protestors with shocking violence, and have offered no significant political concessions. Yet the prospect of real reform driven by the EU association has now become a key symbol for Ukraine’s national identity.

A new look at climate change

The annual United Nations climate change talks, which concluded last month in Warsaw, unfortunately found little common ground on carbon. The talks broke down over the world’s richest nations’ inability to agree with the poorest on how to address the financial costs of global climate change.

While disappointing, it’s not surprising. Developed countries like the United States and the nations of the European Union, which have wielded the largest carbon footprints over the past decades, are not as often the victims of climate-related disasters. In fact, the countries facing the most severe effects of climate change are often the poorest and most under-developed. They are forced to confront not only natural destruction but economic ruin.

Consider the Philippines, now recovering from Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the country last month. The rate of sea-level rise in the Philippine Sea is one of the fastest in the world — nearly 12 millimeters per year. Yet the Philippines contributes less than 1 percent of the total CO2 emitted in the world annually. This demonstrates the stunning inequality of climate change.

Obama: Building trade to build growth

The Obama administration has quietly embraced the most ambitious agenda on trade and investment liberalization in the past two decades.

The United States is currently juggling no fewer than five high-level trade negotiations: free trade talks with the European Union; the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks with a dozen Asia-Pacific countries; a new Information Technology Agreement covering trade in high-tech goods; negotiations on liberalizing services trade though the World Trade Organization, and a last-ditch effort this week to agree on new trade facilitation measures at the WTO ministerial meeting in Bali.

This about-face on trade from President Barack Obama’s first term is remarkable.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

No, austerity did not work

There have been a lot of sighs of relief in Europe lately, where countries like Britain and Spain, long in recession, have finally started to grow. Not by much, nor for long. But such is the political imperative to suggest that all the misery of fiscally tight economic policies was worth the pain that there are tentative claims the worst is now over and, ipso facto, austerity worked.

Hold on a minute. Growth is good. Growth is what allows countries to pay down their national debt by increasing economic activity, putting the unemployed to work and making people prosperous enough to pay taxes. But gross domestic product growth alone is not enough to provide adequate sustained prosperity if it does not also lead to significant job growth.

Take Spain, which has just emerged from two years of recession by posting a third quarter growth rate of 0.1 percent. Technically the Spanish slump is over. But a glance at their job figures shows the country has a long way to go before it can genuinely say it has escaped the diminishing effects of austerity -- in the form of tight fiscal policies, public spending cuts and labor and entitlement reforms -- imposed indirectly by Germany through the European Union.

In Syria, try banks before bombs

As President Barack Obama weighs the U.S. response to chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians, one soft power option should still be at top of his to-do list: cutting off access to the U.S. financial system to those doing business with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Russian banks and others are reported to be helping the Assad regime circumvent U.S. and EU sanctions by holding Syrian money while continuing to do business, legally, in the Europe Union and the United States. With a more aggressive and coordinated approach to financial sanctions, Obama could inflict serious capital damage on Assad’s enablers — without collateral damage in the form of slain or injured civilians.

Aggressive sanctions could be more effective than bombing in hastening the end of the Syrian civil war by imposing substantial financial costs on those who are propping up Assad — without enraging the Arab street.

Greek bailout sham

Driven by its bailout loan terms, the Greek Parliament recently voted to lay off 25,000 more public employees. The public has responded with demonstrations while striking public sector workers try to disrupt air and rail travel, law enforcement and medical care.

How did Greece get to this point, where creditors dictate what jobs the government should cut as a condition for continued bailout loans, and where its outraged citizens take to the streets? What are the chances that Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ newest plans to fire or cut salaries of thousands of government employees will work?

The fact is that Greece’s fortunes have been deteriorating since its entry into the Economic and Monetary Union and the ascension of corrupt politicians, who don’t care about the country’s future. Essentially, they have sold much of Greece’s wealth at bargain-basement prices and used the nation as collateral.

What Hollande can learn from Queen of Hearts

French President Francois Hollande’s predicament is, oddly enough, akin to one Alice faced in Lewis Carroll’s 19th century classic.

A year after taking power, Hollande is buffeted by the lowest popularity of any modern Gallic leader, a record number of jobless, a recession and shriveled business investment – while still needing to cut his budget deficit to hit European targets.

The protagonist of Alice in Wonderland, meanwhile, confused by her strange encounters down a rabbit hole, meets the Queen of Hearts, who tells her: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere, you must run twice as fast as that.”

For Russia, Syria is not in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with (clockwise, starting in top left.) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. REUTERS/FILES

A string of leaders and senior emissaries, seeking to prevent further escalation of the Syria crisis, has headed to Moscow recently to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now, most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon These leaders see Russia as the key to resolving the Syria quandary.

But to get Russia to cooperate on any stabilization plan, the United States and its allies will have to take into account Russia’s significant interests in the Mediterranean region.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Austerity is a moral issue

Security worker opens the door of a government job center as people wait to enter in Marbella, Spain, December 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

In the nearly five years since the worst financial crash since the Great Depression, the remedy for the world’s economic doldrums has swung from full-on Keynesianism to unforgiving austerity and back.

The initial Keynesian response halted the collapse in economic activity. But it was soon met by borrowers’ remorse in the shape of paying down debt and raising taxes without delay. In the last year, full-throttle austerity has fallen out of favor with those charged with monitoring the world economy.

  •