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.

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.

Is this why Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize?

In December 2009 the world was treated to the unexpected news that President Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Among those most surprised was Obama himself. Not many sitting American presidents have won the award. In fact, Obama was only the third.

Now, as Obama stumbles his way through a proposed military strike on the Syrian government, it seems the president has not paid nearly enough attention to the history of world leaders who have won this international honor. The list of Peace Prize winners impresses: Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Red Cross; American social reformer Jane Addams; George Marshall, the architect of peaceful post-World War Two Europe; Martin Luther King Jr.; Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to win a Nobel Peace Prize. The 26th president earned it the old fashioned way – with effort. Roosevelt’s journey to winning the 1906 prize began with his decision to put some teeth into the Court of Arbitration at The Hague, so that it would begin to serve its purpose of peacefully settling international disputes. The United States and Mexico submitted a dispute to the Court of Arbitration as an example to the world.

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.

Navalny: Russia’s opposition hero cult

Russia’s opposition has turned into a hero cult. What was a protest movement has morphed into a one-man show called Alexei Navalny.

The man who first fought Russian corruption with crowdsourcing is now running for mayor of Moscow. But for his 10,000 volunteers, mostly kids in their early 20s with no Soviet memories, he is already president.

His campaign “feedback sessions” resemble a rock star meeting the fans. When Navalny shows up, the volunteers chant his name. When he speaks they rush up, trying to get his signature or shake his hand.

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