Opinion

The Great Debate

Russians love their children, too – but that alone won’t stop a nuclear war

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Back when most of today’s Western decision-makers were in college, Sting had a hit song with “Russians.” It began:

In Europe and America, there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Khrushchev said we will bury you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too

It sometimes seems that most Western analysis of Russia has the sophistication of this song.

The simplicity of the idea that all humans are essentially the same, and that a common understanding is thus always within reach, is seductive. Its appeal stems from the fact that few things are harder than knowing someone whose views of the world are profoundly different from yours. This is why it has been so difficult for a veritable army of Western experts to explain or predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, a narrative has emerged in the West that seems to provide a basis for understanding and negotiating with Putin. According to it, Russia is pursuing its strategic interest in keeping Ukraine unallied with the West  because it needs a “buffer zone” between itself and members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some analysts have gone so far as to essentially blame the entire crisis on the West, which, so goes the narrative, ignored Russia for too long. NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 without so much as paying lip service to bringing Russia in on the decision. It expanded in 2004 to include three Baltic states that border Russia, disregarding Russia’s express opposition. And when the West reached for Ukraine, the sleeping bear had finally had enough and so it reared up.

NATO could have trouble combatting Putin’s military strategy

A Canadian Air Task Force jets CF-18 stands in the Siauliai air base

Since Russian troops seized Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula in late February, and separatists backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin began waging a bloody insurgency in the country’s east, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has walked a fine line.

The transatlantic military alliance has sent hundreds of troops to Ukraine to train alongside Kiev’s forces. But at a major summit in early September, NATO declined to offer Ukraine membership. The alliance doesn’t really want to go to war over Ukraine.

If Russia were to expand its coercive campaign, however, and invade neighboring Estonia — where a security officer is said to have been abducted by Russian forces, a little more than a week ago — NATO’s 27 other member states would have little choice but to deploy troops in combat. They are obligated under Article 5 of NATO’s 1949 founding charter to defend each other from attack.

Plans to stop Russia show NATO and the West are in denial

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For more than six months now, since Russia annexed Crimea, Western politicians and analysts have been asking what can make Vladimir Putin stop or retreat. It’s the wrong question, and the policies that have flowed from the resulting debate have been misguided, because they are based on the fallacy that the West can do something to influence Putin’s actions.

Putin has always been a master of the public lie, both of the bold-faced variety and the mixed-message variety, and for the last six months he has used this skill to keep the West playing catch-up in Ukraine. It’s a game the West is losing.

Western politicians, for their part, have heeded only those of Putin’s statements that they want to hear — or at least ones that make sense in their picture of the world. Leaders have chosen to believe that Russia invaded Ukraine to protect vital strategic interests: the need for a “buffer state” between itself and NATO. They have validated Putin’s avowed concern about the fate of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. And right now, they are going along with a charade Putin is playing out regarding cease-fire negotiations with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko – negotiations that Putin’s press secretary managed to disavow minutes after the fateful telephone conversation concluded on Wednesday.

from Edward Hadas:

Russia-Ukraine conflict shows money isn’t the root of all war

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Many people think politics is really a branch of economics. When the United States invaded Iraq in 1991, the common cry was that it was all about oil. On the same thinking, rich countries were indifferent to the brutal civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – which has cost 5.4 million lives, according to the International Rescue Committee – because the economic stakes were too low to matter. This economic reductionism goes on in developed countries too. Pundits and pollsters argue that elections are won and lost above all else on the economy.

Such ideas can be traced back to the philosopher Karl Marx. He believed that material considerations motivated everything people do, including how they are governed. In modern surveys, people routinely say that the desire for better jobs or higher incomes is not what drives their voting behaviour. On Marx’s view, these respondents are either lying, or in denial. They may not realise that economic discontents and aspirations drive their action – and all of history.

Followers of this dialectic should be disconcerted by current events. Only a die-hard Trotskyite could see economic issues behind the conflicts in Ukraine and Iraq.

Five smart takes explain the Russia-Ukraine conflict from square one

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Ever since the Ukrainian revolution in February this year, the Eastern European country has witnessed spiraling political instability and bloodshed.

Former President Viktor Yanukovich, a Kremlin ally, was driven out by demonstrators in the city’s Independence Square after he refused to sign a political and trade accord with the European Union, which would have brought Ukraine closer to the West.

So far, the conflict has led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia2,593 civilian deaths — not including the 298 victims onboard when Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down by an antiaircraft missile — and more than 730,000 kicked out of their homes, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many cities eastern cities, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, where the majority of fighting is taking place, are heavily damaged.

As if things weren’t Badenov: Even in good times, Russians are villains in Hollywood

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The fact that Moscow is behaving badly — with President Vladimir Putin meddling in Ukraine’s presidential affairs last December, annexing Crimea in March and now, despite denials, likely supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine — has validated Americans’ view of “evil” Soviets lurking in the new Russian empire. Even before Putin took back Crimea, more than 60 percent of Americans regarded Russia as a bad guy on the world stage.

Politics is largely to blame, but Hollywood may be the true villain in this drama. American culture never adapted to Moscow’s friendlier face. Though the Cold War was over, movie executives decided to ignore that memo. Russia may have been trying to leave behind its bad old days, but in the movies, Russians were still the bad guys.

In Air Force One (1997 – six years after the Soviet Union’s dissolution), a Russian nationalist psycho hijacks the plane of the U.S. president (Harrison Ford) in order to overthrow post-Soviet democracies. In The Saint (1997), based on a suave 1960s British television series starring Roger Moore, the heavy is a communist mafioso intent on diverting Russia from its new liberal course.

Ukraine fight shows how far Russia’s star has fallen from Soviet ‘glory’


How far the Soviet star has fallen A statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, stands near Sputnik in the first gallery of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow. REUTERS/Jason Fields Russia's just not the same under President Vladimir Putin. It wasn't long ago that Russia didn’t need to paint its military convoys a pale white to cross international boundaries. The trucks and tanks were green and boldly emblazoned with red stars — not crosses — on their sides and turrets. And when they …

View “How far the Soviet star has fallen” on Spundge

Pity Moscow’s foodies as Putin’s sanctions bite deep

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I find Vladimir Putin annoying at the best of times, but this month my distaste has blossomed into unbridled loathing. By imposing sanctions on food imports from the United States, European Union, Canada and Japan, Russia’s kefir-drinking head of state scuppered my chances of making a decent plate of cacio i pepe or a batch of brownies for the next calendar year. The specter of Soviet-era scarcity is already making itself felt in eerie ways in supermarkets all over Moscow.

An entire section of the once expansive dairy aisle at one market is empty and shuttered with a sign citing “technical difficulties” where once Irish butter, French creme fraiche and Finnish skim milk stood proudly alongside Russian sour cream, kefir and milk. The Indian host of a sushi restaurant in my neighborhood, hugely popular with Japanese businessmen and diplomats, shook his head in despair, as he relies heavily on fish imports from Norway for his delectable sashimi and sushi. Heading back to Moscow from Italy yesterday, I loaded up my suitcase with 10 pounds of parmesan, vacuum-packed smoked ham and elegant jars of sage, rosemary, basil and mushroom pesto. Less than a week ago, they were all available at select grocery stores and wholesalers. Now, everyone is scrambling.

“Uh…uh..agh…aghhhhhhhh….?” was all my buddy, Michelle, who is a chef at the American Embassy, could spurt when she heard the news. She couldn’t stop long to chat; she was on her way to loop through all the upscale supermarkets to stockpile the Belgian baking chocolate she relies upon to make her legendary cakes and cookies.

Putin’s already paying dearly for Ukraine – and looks willing to sacrifice much more

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted a “go it alone” approach throughout the Ukraine crisis and regularly describes his country as “independent” and nonaligned. But Moscow is not as isolated as Putin makes out. The fact that he cannot see this reality — or chooses to ignore it — has produced a series of decisions that has seriously undermined Russia’s global role.

For the past two decades, Moscow has viewed its foray into global institutions as a major success. It has increasingly integrated into the global economy.  Those achievements, however, now present Putin with a major dilemma.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia signed multiple treaties and joined numerous international organizations, including the Council of Europe, the G7 (which became the G8) and the World Trade Organization.

Putin’s Ukraine invasion threat is more than a bluff — but not his preference

A Ukrainian serviceman uses a pair of binoculars as he guards a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve

Ukrainian troops have made huge headway routing the separatists in the east. They are in the process of choking off the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, to which many of the separatists have retreated. The Ukrainian military appears primed to besiege the cities. As Ukraine has gained, Putin has prepared Russia for invasion: as of Monday, Ukraine says there are 45,000 combat-ready troops are amassed at the border. The chance that Russia invades is certainly going up.

But it’s still Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Plan B. Here’s why that’s the case … and what could change his mind.

At all costs, Vladimir Putin wants to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. That requires two guarantees: 1) that Russian influence over southeast Ukraine will remain intact, and 2) that Russia has a de facto veto over Ukrainian NATO membership. The way he gets these guarantees is through deep federalization, where Ukraine’s eastern regions can set their own foreign economic policy and veto approaches to NATO. Of course, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is completely unwilling and unable to concede this. So Putin can get it the hard way (intervention), or the harder way (invasion).

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