Opinion

The Great Debate

Sanctions finally find Russia’s Achilles heel

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama were reportedly engaged in a heated telephone conversation last Thursday when Putin noted in passing that an aircraft had gone down in Ukraine. The tragic crash of the Malaysian airliner in rebel-held eastern Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines, but it is important to remember what agitated Putin and prompted the phone call in the first place — sanctions.

Sanctions against Russia have been the centerpiece of the U.S. response to Putin’s interference in Ukraine. While they primarily have been directed against prominent friends of Putin and their businesses, the underlying target has been a weak Russian economy.  The sanctions have definitely found Russia’s Achilles’ heel, and with harsher sanctions looming in the aftermath of flight MA17, Putin is finding it increasingly difficult to craft an effective reply.

Obama had raised the ante for Russia the day before the Malaysian airliner disaster by unexpectedly announcing a new round of sanctions. The designated enterprises included several major Russian banks (Gazprombank, VEB), energy companies (Rosneft, Novatek) and arms manufacturers. They were not, however, the full sectoral sanctions that Putin dreads the most. These would essentially exclude Russia from the international financial system and restrict major technological transfers. Though key Russian banks and energy companies are now prohibited from receiving medium or long-term dollar financing, U.S. companies are not otherwise prohibited from conducting business with them.

But even by hinting as to what sectoral sanctions might look like, Obama has upset Russia’s economic calculations. Obama is often criticized for not backing up the “red lines” that he draws. But in Ukraine, Obama essentially has drawn a “gray line” — demanding Russia take certain actions to end the crisis. No one knows when this gray line is crossed, however. So these new sanctions only heighten the uncertainty — and risk — of doing business in Russia.

Russian President Putin and German Chancellor Merkel walk during a meeting in Rio de JaneiroThe market responded immediately, with dramatic declines in the Russian ruble and the Moscow stock market. In addition, the sanctions only exacerbated an already difficult situation for Russian companies. Syndicated loans for Russian commodities producers are down more than 80 percent over the past six months. The appetite for Russian bonds has also decreased considerably in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. So the current round of sanctions made a bad situation worse.

from Stories I’d like to see:

The facts on Iron Dome, suing over Flight 17 and reviving the VA

An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod

1. Figuring out the Iron Dome:

As I kept reading and seeing television reports last week about how the Iron Dome missile defense system was doing such a good job protecting Israel from Hamas’ rockets, this intriguing story by the highly regarded veteran journalist James Fallows appeared on the Atlantic website.

Fallows points to other reports suggesting that the system’s success might have been greatly exaggerated and, in fact, that in the midst of war, reporters – he singles out this Washington Post story -- often get seduced by military officials and weapons makers into overstating how effective some new piece of weaponry has been.

So, there is obviously a lot more work to be done here figuring out just how good the Iron Dome really is.

After MH17: The technical fix that could protect civilian airliners from missile attacks

Site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen at the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

The awful crash of Malaysian Flight 17 in the eastern Ukraine combat zone seems likely to have been caused by a long-range surface-to-air missile. At this writing, who launched the missile remains undetermined. Regardless of who’s guilty — why is a modern software-driven weapon capable of striking a civilian jet in the first place?

All commercial airliners send out transponder signals that identify them as civilian. In most cases, what’s employed is a protocol called Mode C, which is not used by military aircraft.

transponder

Modern radar-guided long-range anti-aircraft missiles — like the one apparently used to shoot down Malaysian Flight 17, like the one the U.S. cruiser Vincennes used in 1988 accidentally to shoot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 civilians — don’t pay any attention to what mode a target’s transponder is in. They lock onto a radar image chosen by the gunner, then once launched relentlessly seek the target.

What’s behind the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, and what happens next? Five smart views.

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

On Thursday Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, with 298 people on board, was shot down over Grabovo, Ukraine, by what officials have described as a Russian-made antiaircraft missile. As investigators uncover details of the attack — including the origins of the missile — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in the Ukraine crisis will come under renewed scrutiny. Below are five takes on what happened and why, as well as what the consequences will be.

 The Daily Beast: Why Putin let MH17 get shot down
James Miller questions why Putin would allow the separatists to have a weapon capable of downing a commercial plane, without controlling how it was used. “This is an advanced and battle-proven series of highly sophisticated vehicles which coordinate to track targets with radar and fire missiles so advanced that they were designed to knock smart bombs and cruise missiles out of the sky. Whoever launched this weapon was highly trained and extremely well-equipped.” He explains how the owners of the Buk surface-to-air missile system, which likely brought down the plane, could have confused a commercial airliner for a military jet. (The system works properly, Miller says, when used in tandem with various radar systems.) “Putin’s urgency in Ukraine has turned to recklessness,” writes Miller, and Thursday’s events epitomize that recklessness.

The New Republic: The crash of Malaysia Flight 17 is a game changer: This conflict is now officially out of control
If pro-Russia separatists are indeed responsible for the downed plane, writes The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe, the conflict will enter a new phase, “one that directly threatens European security. The plane, let’s recall, was flying from Amsterdam.”

from John Lloyd:

Could Vladimir Putin give peace a chance in Ukraine and beyond?

RTR3WWOU.jpg

What would it take for Russia to walk a way from violence and seek peaceful coexistence with its neighbors? It's certainly hard to see a way out right now.

The dogs of war in the east have been let slip again. On Monday, Petro Poroshenko, the recently elected Ukrainian president, said a 10-day unilateral truce with the separatist, pro-Russian forces in the eastern part of his country had ended: Force would now be required to “free our lands.”

Ukrainian units were moved in to try to bring the cities and areas controlled by the heavily armed separatists under control. By Tuesday morning, the Ukrainian military was reporting air and artillery strikes.

from John Lloyd:

Are we at war? And why can’t we be sure anymore?

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron poses for group photograph taken with G8 leaders at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen

The question -- “Are we at war?” -- seems absurd. Surely, we would know it if we were. But maybe we’re in a new era -- and wars are creeping up on us.

In the decade after the collapse of communism, the United States and its allies seemed invulnerable to challenges, from military to technological to economic. All changed in the 2000s, the dawning of the third millennium: an Age of Disruption. Russia, under a president smarting publicly at the loss of the Soviet empire, has now delivered an answer to decline: aggressive claims on lost territories.

China, admired for its free-market-driven growth since the 1980s, is feared for the strategic expansion that now accompanies it. This happens in its own region: a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remains tense. It is also at work far beyond -- in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America -- where it seeks energy and natural resources.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

World War One: First war was impossible, then inevitable

British troops advance during the battle of the Somme in this 1916 handout picture

Why does the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand -- the event that lit the fuse of World War One 100 years ago Saturday -- still resonate so powerfully? Virtually nobody believes World War Three will be triggered by recent the military conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq or the China seas, yet many factors today mirror those that led to the catastrophe in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

The pace of globalization was almost as dramatic and confusing in 1914 as it is today. Fear of random terrorism was also widespread -- the black-hatted anarchist clutching a fizzing bomb was a cartoon cliché then just as the Islamic jihadist is today. Yet the crucial parallel may be the complacent certainty that economic interdependence and prosperity had made war inconceivable -- at least in Europe.

An undated archive picture shows German soldiers offering to surrender to French troops, seen from a listening post in a trench at Massiges, northeastern FranceA 1910 best-selling book, The Great Illusion, used economic arguments to demonstrate that territorial conquest had become unprofitable, and therefore global capitalism had removed the risk of major wars. This view, broadly analogous to the modern factoid that there has never been a war between two countries with a MacDonald’s outlet, became so well established that, less than a year before the Great War broke out, the Economist reassured its readers with an editorial titled “War Becomes Impossible in Civilized World.”

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.”

No matter what Putin says — Russian people have no appetite for war

People attend a rally called "We are together" to support the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea to Russia in Red Square in central Moscow

Russia and the West are again at odds, eying each other with suspicion over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support of armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Basic rules of the game for security, stability and prosperity in Europe and beyond are at stake. Some commentators are calling this a “new Cold War.”

But the crucial fact is that the public on each side does not have any appetite for a sustained conflict.

Attention has focused on the key leaders — President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin has used his acts of aggression to build public support. Yet the focus should be on whether the Russian people want renewed confrontation — or would even countenance something like a “new Cold War.”

Putin face-off: Make Schwarzenegger our man in Moscow

arnold & putin -- facing out!!

Russian President Vladimir Putin is star-struck.

He has the American action star Steven Seagal talking up Moscow’s Crimean policies. He extended Russian citizenship to the French movie icon Gérard Depardieu, who now owns a vineyard in Crimea. He basks in the ways that Russia’s cultural and artistic cognoscenti are supporting Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.

This offers the United States an unexpected opening. If Washington really wants to wield more influence over Putin, President Barack Obama need only place one call: to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Give “The Governator” a sequel as the next U.S. ambassador to Russia.

US actor Arnold Schwarzenegger poses for a picture in front of the Saint Basil cathedral on the Red ..Compare Schwarzenegger to Washington’s most recent ambassador, Michael McFaul. A Stanford political science professor, McFaul tended to follow his academic interests — focusing on building a civil society — which rubbed the Kremlin the wrong way and often hampered diplomatic efforts. Even John Tefft, a career diplomat and the former U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine who may be getting the Moscow post, is too well-known for his tough anti-Russian stance. He is unlikely to improve Washington’s relations with the Kremlin.

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