Opinion

The Great Debate

To blunt Russia, time for American natural gas diplomacy

The American natural gas revolution has boosted economic competitiveness, and helped reduce U.S. carbon emissions to their lowest levels in 20 years. The question is now whether the United States will leverage this energy bounty to advance its foreign policy goals during the most serious East-West crisis in a generation.

Russian’s intervention in Crimea and looming threats against eastern Ukraine underscore Europe’s energy vulnerability. Roughly 80 percent of Russian exported gas to the EU passes through pipelines in Ukraine, which Moscow has turned off twice in recent years.

A shale gas revolution in Europe could help to limit the EU’s energy vulnerability to Russia. But while there are great hopes for the safe and environmentally responsible development of unconventional gas in the UK, Poland, and elsewhere, a reliable source of shale gas in Europe may still be a decade away.

That is why Europe has turned to imports of liquified natural gas, tripling its imports in the last decade. Unfortunately, U.S. exports of LNG are not part of this equation. Under present law, the U.S. Department of Energy must approve the exports of LNG to countries lacking a free trade agreement with the United States, including NATO allies and members of the EU. That approval process is lengthy and can be opaque. The U.S.-EU trade agreement, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is under active negotiation, but difficult issues remain, the talks are at an early stage, and it is unlikely that a treaty would be brought to the Senate for approval before the mid-term elections.

Enabling a steady flow of gas from the United States to Europe would benefit both regions — geopolitically, environmentally and economically. It would bolster transatlantic solidarity and help to form a united U.S.-EU response to Russian intervention in Crimea. The Obama administration’s efforts to gain support for economic sanctions against Russia will surely attract criticism from those Europeans who are concerned about Russian retaliation and exploitation of European dependency on Russian natural gas. Natural gas from the U.S. will not eliminate Russian leverage, but together with substantial supplies already on the market and other sources from Qatar and Norway, it could reduce Russia’s stranglehold on European energy requirements.

Putin’s gangland politics

Russian President Vladimir Putin calls them his “brothers” — this group of burly motorcyclists who see themselves as road warriors fighting for the greater glory of Mother Russia. They’re known as the Night Wolves, and Putin himself has ridden with them on that icon of American wanderlust, a Harley-Davidson.

Even as Russia was preparing to send troops to Crimea to reclaim the peninsula from Ukraine’s new government, the Night Wolves announced that they would ride to the troubled region to whip up support for their powerful brother and Harley devotee.

Clad in leather and sporting their best squint-eyed, make-my-day defiant stares, the Night Wolves had a message for Ukraine’s anti-Russian dissidents: Protest at risk of your health.

The power of sanctions against Putin on Ukraine

In a crisis moving extremely fast, it is dangerous to say this, but I’m at least somewhat less concerned about this upheaval in Ukraine than other people seem to be, for a couple of reasons.

One, to be blunt, is that Ukraine is not in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States is not militarily obliged to come to the defense of a country that is, in some degree, in peril. For Americans, that is some solace — for we have had more than enough of war in recent years. (I am, for similar reasons, against inviting Ukraine into NATO in the future — unless the basic character of the alliance changes and even Russia could be a part — which would clearly require some change in Russia as well.)

We do, of course, owe Ukrainians assistance. Not just for their 1990s decision to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union, but for their contributions to the war in Iraq and their commitment to democracy and to peaceful relations among states. So I am hardly suggesting that we ignore the high stakes here, or the Ukrainian people’s legitimate desires for self-determination and economic progress.

Putin’s anti-Olympic creed

The Putin era in Russia, now in its 15th year, has given birth to the ongoing diplomatic challenge of reading what’s going on behind the Kremlin leader’s steely eyes.

President George W. Bush famously perceived something trustworthy and sympathetic in President Vladimir Putin in 2001, while former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his new memoir, recalls seeing “a stone-cold killer.” But there is no doubt what was preoccupying the Russian president during the closing ceremonies in Sochi on Sunday: the upheaval underway 250 miles to the west, the distance to the border between Russia and Ukraine — where Viktor Yanukovich’s government had just been toppled.

The grassroots revolution has yet to be color-coded, and its outcome is far from clear.  Thursday, Yanukovich announced from Moscow that he was still president of the country he had fled, and the Russian air force went to combat alert along the Ukrainian border. Early Friday, Ukrainian officials claimed that Russian soldiers had seized two airfields in Crimea and condemned Russia for committing an act of occupation.

Obama’s options for Syria

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council demanded that Syria’s government and its armed opponents end attacks on civilians, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and battle lines, and protect minorities. The Security Council also called for the lifting of sieges against civilians and said that it would take additional measures if the two parties did not comply.

Even if fully implemented, this welcome push on humanitarian issues will not end the violence in Syria, or resolve a conflict that has left over 120,000 people dead and one-third of the population displaced. More action is needed if a political solution is to be found and a serious peace process initiated. The American people won’t support deployment of U.S. troops. Russia will veto any new U.N. Security Council resolution with teeth. But Washington should consider other diplomatic, assistance, financial and military options.

Diplomatic options now include formally terminating the U.N. negotiating effort, which has so far failed to reach any kind of agreement, even on an agenda. The U.S., a prime mover behind the talks, could announce that it would reopen them only if President Assad agrees to discuss concrete steps towards a democratic transition, which he has so far failed to do.

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.

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.

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