Opinion

The Great Debate

Ukraine: Obama must escape the ‘Cold War syndrome’

When it comes to the mounting crisis in Ukraine, President Barack Obama is stuck playing an old role. Since World War Two, U.S. presidents have steadfastly held to the same course when it comes to Russia.

Obama is but the latest interpreter of the Truman Doctrine, which pledged the United States “to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.”

When President Harry S. Truman threw down that challenge to Congress in 1947, he didn’t use the phrase “Cold War.” He didn’t name the Soviet Union. But everyone knew what he was talking about.

Today, the communist “bloc” has vanished. The nuclear-powered rival that was determined to “bury” the West is no more. Russia competes cannily and strenuously with other nations, but has no economic, political or territorial interest in upending the world system. The United States needn’t — and shouldn’t — turn local struggles into a test of its own credibility and strength.

Yet that old dynamic continues — as this Ukraine crisis demonstrates. It’s being painted as a battle between the West and Russia. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, duly elected in 2010, is using the nation’s police forces to suppress dissidents seeking a fuller democracy and stronger ties to the European Union. Both the EU and Russia are anxious for a closer relationship with Ukraine. Many look to see what United States will do.

For Moscow, Ukraine is always ‘Little Russia’

Moscow — Ukraine has had two weeks to find a compromise in its Russia versus the West dispute. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been focused on promoting his soft image with the Winter Olympics in Sochi. With the games ending Sunday, however, time has run out and the crisis in Kiev and other cities is only getting worse.

If Putin uses Russian history as a guide, it would not be out of the question that Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. After all, Soviet leaders did just this to retain control during the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the 1968 Prague spring in Czechoslovakia.

For Putin stands to lose influence and his ability to affect policy in Ukraine if the opposition gains control. This is at the core of the current Ukraine crisis.

Ukraine after the Maidan

Writing the first draft of history is always difficult, especially when the opening act curtain has not officially fallen. Yet developments in Ukraine have now reached a critical turning point, with certain consequences likely to follow.

Historians will long debate the chain of events that provoked the February 18, 2014 confrontation. What we know is that the simmering demands of the opposition — over Ukraine’s thwarted path to Europe, the failure to re-instate the 2004 Constitution and President Victor Yanukovich’s insincere negotiations – all boiled over in a violent clash with the Ukrainian security services. The fight for Ukraine’s future was being resolved in the streets of Kiev – in live pictures transmitting around the globe.

Two symbols undoubtedly will emerge from the events of the last few days: a heroic Maidan and a bloody Yanukovich. Half the population will not accept the results, but it is also unlikely that Ukrainian opposition can impose its will on the country. So even if the Maidan were somehow to hold its ground and gain the upper hand — and it was still resisting at the time of this writing — a political consensus would still have to be found.

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.

Putin’s (un)happy new year

Russian President Vladimir Putin has bid farewell to 2013 with his state of the nation address, followed closely by his annual 4-plus-hour marathon news conference. He even managed to appear magnanimous, notably in his decision to pardon the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovksy.

He is setting the stage for the main event: the Sochi Olympics.

But as Putin subtly warned in his final 2013 appearances — and as the Volgograd bombings so graphically confirmed — major changes must come in the new year. Putin virtually admitted in his December speeches that the current path is not sustainable, while the Volgograd bombings have increased the urgency to face up to Russia’s problems.

The president particularly vented a growing frustration with Russia’s status quo. In his address, for example, Putin returned to the issue of Russia’s crippling capital flight and prevalent use of offshore structures to avoid Russian taxes. He emphasized that he raised this matter a year ago, but “since nothing significant has been achieved,” he proposed new measures to ensure that Russian-owned offshore companies pay their fair share in taxes for the privilege of conducting business in Russia.

International pressure works on Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected the grandest of guests for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi — presidents, billionaires, the global big players.

For years he had imagined the presidential box like this: Needling President Barack Obama that NASA now depends on Russian rockets to get American astronauts into orbit. Emphasizing to French President Francois Hollande that France would be better served in the business world if it dropped all references to human rights. Making deals with the German delegation over champagne, as the ice skaters pirouette below, around the Olympic flame.

Putin’s dream is slipping out of sight. Month after month of unrelenting bad news from Russia has started to bite.

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.

Russia: Where has all the money gone?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a good run over the past few months.

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, landed on his doorstep, a gift from the PR gods. Agreement on Syria went from no chance to golden opportunity in the course of one afternoon. Forbes dubbed Putin the most powerful man in the world. Yet all these successes obscure a basic fact: Russia is running out of money.

To be fair, Russia is far from broke. Revenues continue to stream in from oil and gas sales, and Moscow maintains healthy financial reserves for future rainy days. Russia also dislikes budget deficits and keeps its foreign debt down — a model of fiscal rectitude that most Western countries can only dream about.

Yet despite these accomplishments, the Russian government submitted an austere budget to the Duma in September that contemplated freezing government salaries and significant across-the-board cuts for most government agencies. Though the Duma restored some social spending in its budget amendments, Russia will be working under tight financial constraints for several years to come.

Blocking Syria’s chemical network

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifying recently before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was asked a crucial question: Who has been supplying Syria with its chemical weapons? “Well, the Russians supply them,” Hagel responded. “Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.”

The uncertainty of Hagel’s answer reveals a gaping hole in U.S. understanding of how these weapons proliferate, who helps their transfer and where they may turn up next.

Syria’s deadly chemical weapons, which the United Nations report confirms were used to kill at least 1,400 people last month — and which could still spark an American military attack if Syria refuses to turn over the weapons under a U.S.-Russian plan — are made in part from dual-use chemicals. Some of these chemicals are also components of beneficial products, including life-saving medicines, cosmetics and fertilizer.

A potential turning point for Syria

In the dizzying debate over U.S. military intervention in Syria, one key point of consensus stands out: Both the Obama administration and Congress recognize that the resolution to Syria’s conflict must come through a negotiated settlement. Key international actors share the same conclusion.

But how do we get there? Russia’s recent proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control could open a viable path to a long-sought diplomatic solution.

This initiative is a long shot. Yet, its potential payoff as a diplomatic breakthrough demands it be taken seriously. Not only would Syrian civilians be spared any unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention, but the Russian proposal’s successful implementation could be a real turning point.

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