Opinion

The Great Debate

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.

G8 countries leaders attend a working session at the Lough Erne golf resort where the G8 summit is taking place in EnniskillenWhether Russia understood the underlying obligations that accompanied its memberships is unclear. The ink was not yet dry on Russia’s accession to the WTO, for example, when Putin demanded that member countries be allowed to introduce protectionist measures during times of global insecurity.

Yet the consensus in Russia was that membership bought Russia a vital seat at the table and increased its influence in world affairs. In addition, the United States and the European Union generally believed that it was better to have Russia inside — as opposed to outside — the international system of global governance even if Russia did not meet all the prerequisites for full membership.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

U.S. power: Waging cold wars without end

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Kabul

Suddenly, it seems, the world is at war.

In Iraq, armed and angry militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are at the gates of Baghdad. In Pakistan, government forces are mounting a ferocious campaign against the Taliban in North Waziristan. In Syria, the civil war drags on. These are “hot wars” involving the clashing of troops and weapons. Having escaped such “hot” conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, these are the sort of war Americans have made it plain they are not prepared to fight.

But there are other wars going on. In Yemen, a forgotten war against an al Qaeda outcrop continues, largely fought with lethal U.S. drones. In Ukraine, Moscow is undermining the Kiev government by stealth. Russian President Vladimir Putin, anxious not to press his luck after successfully snatching Crimea from Kiev, is like a fox sliding through the hen coop, careful not to set off the alarm. He is being countered by targeted sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. These are “cold wars” -- a contemporary variation on the 40-plus years of  Cold War fought to a standstill by the United States and the Soviet Union.

vietnam -- soldiersThe very nature of war has changed since the hauling down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As the Cold War raged with often imperceptible intensity, the two sides mounted “hot wars” by proxy in minor theaters -- the most prominent and punishing for the United States being Vietnam, a “cold war” first fought with teams of U.S. advisers, war materiel and money that became “hot.”

Brown v. Board of Ed: Key Cold War weapon

neier top -- better!!

The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, issued on May 17, 1954, is probably the most important judicial decision in American history.

This week, on its 60th anniversary, the landmark ruling is being celebrated for its historic role in committing the United States to ending legal racial segregation and establishing the courts as a forum in which to secure enhanced protection of rights. All subsequent court decisions advancing the rights of those who have suffered discrimination are built on Brown.

There is another reason, however, that the decision was especially important.  The Brown ruling greatly advanced the interests of the United States during the Cold War, when the nation was vying with the Soviet Union for global influence. The Truman administration recognized this in the early 1950s, when it filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court in December 1952, calling for the result that the court announced 17 months later.

Nuclear terrorism prevention at a crossroads

The crisis in Ukraine underscores the prescience of the international efforts to eliminate all nuclear weapons and weapon-grade material there after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their success lowered the danger of deadly nuclear assets falling into the wrong hands.

President Barack Obama and the more than 50 world leaders meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on Monday need to show the same vision. They must seek to eliminate the persistent weak links in the global nuclear security system that can make dangerous materials vulnerable to nuclear terrorists.

There has been progress in securing nuclear materials because of the two previous nuclear summits. Removal of weapons-grade material, for example, has accelerated in 12 countries.  But, unfortunately, the earlier summits focused on what is acceptable by consensus rather than on what is needed to prevent nuclear terrorism.

Putin’s imperial hangover

President Vladimir Putin’s impulsive incursion into Ukrainian territory has left Russia more isolated than at any time since the Cold War. Predictably, the European Union and the United States have loudly objected. More to the point, however, no country has rallied to Russia’s defense.

Such deafening silence reflects the degree to which Putin’s thinking is out of step with the modern world. With this action, Putin has revealed himself to be an imperial thinker in a post-colonial world.

Putin grew up at a time when Russia was the unquestioned center of a communist empire that had managed to suppress national challenges for decades. So while the rest of the world was dismantling their empires and transforming colonies into nations, the Soviet Union retained its empire until 1991. Putin — as the leading representative of the last Soviet generation — acquired the mindset of Russia’s natural hegemony and never accepted the post-Soviet republic’s place in the expanding community of nations.

Putin projects Russia’s unreal reality

In the summer of 1787, Catherine the Great of Russia set out to inspect the recent additions to her far-flung czardom, including the Crimean peninsula, annexed from the Ottoman Empire four years earlier.

Catherine’s lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, the governor-general of these new southern provinces, knew shabby landscapes wouldn’t satisfy the German-born empress, who set high standards for order. So he lined her route with wooden boards painted with cheerful housing façades, to hide the squalor of the serfs’ lives. On her return to St. Petersburg, Catherine announced she was pleased with her new territory’s bucolic riches.

Thus the Potemkin village was born, giving definition to most of Russia’s actions. In today’s Crimean tug of war between Ukraine and Russia, Catherine’s level of delusion about her surroundings helps explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view of the world he lives in. In trying to create his own reality on the ground, Putin imagines life not as it is, but as he wants it to be.

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.

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.

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

NSA as ‘Big Brother’? Not even close

Reader holding a copy of George Orwell’s 1984, June 9, 2013.  REUTERS/Toby Melville

When the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed details about the National Security Agency collecting phone data from telecommunications companies and U.S. government programs pulling in emails and photographs from internet businesses, suddenly “George Orwell” was leading the news.

The British essayist predicted it all, commentators asserted, and the United States now seems straight out of 1984, Orwell’s novel about a dystopian future. “Big Brother” had arrived.

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