Opinion

The Great Debate

Pity Moscow’s foodies as Putin’s sanctions bite deep

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I find Vladimir Putin annoying at the best of times, but this month my distaste has blossomed into unbridled loathing. By imposing sanctions on food imports from the United States, European Union, Canada and Japan, Russia’s kefir-drinking head of state scuppered my chances of making a decent plate of cacio i pepe or a batch of brownies for the next calendar year. The specter of Soviet-era scarcity is already making itself felt in eerie ways in supermarkets all over Moscow.

An entire section of the once expansive dairy aisle at one market is empty and shuttered with a sign citing “technical difficulties” where once Irish butter, French creme fraiche and Finnish skim milk stood proudly alongside Russian sour cream, kefir and milk. The Indian host of a sushi restaurant in my neighborhood, hugely popular with Japanese businessmen and diplomats, shook his head in despair, as he relies heavily on fish imports from Norway for his delectable sashimi and sushi. Heading back to Moscow from Italy yesterday, I loaded up my suitcase with 10 pounds of parmesan, vacuum-packed smoked ham and elegant jars of sage, rosemary, basil and mushroom pesto. Less than a week ago, they were all available at select grocery stores and wholesalers. Now, everyone is scrambling.

“Uh…uh..agh…aghhhhhhhh….?” was all my buddy, Michelle, who is a chef at the American Embassy, could spurt when she heard the news. She couldn’t stop long to chat; she was on her way to loop through all the upscale supermarkets to stockpile the Belgian baking chocolate she relies upon to make her legendary cakes and cookies.

With the food ban, Putin has also hammered the final nail into my professional coffin. I write about two things: humor and food in Russia. 2014 hasn’t been a bumper year for humor in Russia, and now the foodie story is all but pipped at the post.

And I was on a roll with the food story. I pen a blog called “The Moscovore: Culinary Adventures in the Russian Capital,” which gives me the best excuse in the world to spend the summer determinedly sampling all the cocktails on offer in Moscow’s tony eateries and call it “research.” I wrote articles for magazines about the rise of the “Federal” movement in Russian cuisine, detailing the very pleasing trend of hipster Russian chefs throwing off the yoke of Soviet-era stodgy fare, looking instead to pre-Revolutionary recipes for inspiration, updating them with new flavors and textures from the abundant international foodstuffs on offer in Russia. I led walking tours of Moscow’s farmers’ markets, initiating newly arrived expatriates into the secret kiosks selling Italian buffalo mozzarella and French fondant icing. I was actually playing with the idea of writing a cookbook …

In Iraq, U.S. is spending millions to blow up captured American war machines

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Last week was a weird one for American military hardware.

In the United States, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), AR-15s and camouflage body armor all made an appearance on the streets of a suburb in the heartland, helping to give a tense situation the push needed to turn into a week of riots. American citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, feeling they were being occupied by a foreign army, rather than their friendly neighborhood cop on the beat.

Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

MRAPs didn’t get a better rap overseas, either. In what’s still being called Iraq — at least for the sake of convenience — the U.S. Air Force has resumed bombing missions in the northern part of the “country.” The aim of the missions is stated as being the defense of a minority group known as the Yazidis, who practice a religion unique to themselves and are under threat by the Islamic State, a jihadi group that controls a large chunk of territory in Syria and Iraq.

The extremist cadre Islamic State — which has declared itself to be the new caliphate, representing God’s will on earth — has had an incredible string of military successes over the last few months. They’ve taken a lot of territory. They’ve slaughtered a lot of people, including civilians. They’ve imposed what they say is Islamic law — though many Islamic scholars would beg to disagree.

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.

Putin’s Ukraine invasion threat is more than a bluff — but not his preference

A Ukrainian serviceman uses a pair of binoculars as he guards a checkpoint near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve

Ukrainian troops have made huge headway routing the separatists in the east. They are in the process of choking off the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, to which many of the separatists have retreated. The Ukrainian military appears primed to besiege the cities. As Ukraine has gained, Putin has prepared Russia for invasion: as of Monday, Ukraine says there are 45,000 combat-ready troops are amassed at the border. The chance that Russia invades is certainly going up.

But it’s still Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Plan B. Here’s why that’s the case … and what could change his mind.

At all costs, Vladimir Putin wants to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. That requires two guarantees: 1) that Russian influence over southeast Ukraine will remain intact, and 2) that Russia has a de facto veto over Ukrainian NATO membership. The way he gets these guarantees is through deep federalization, where Ukraine’s eastern regions can set their own foreign economic policy and veto approaches to NATO. Of course, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is completely unwilling and unable to concede this. So Putin can get it the hard way (intervention), or the harder way (invasion).

Clashes with Russia point to globalization’s end

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As the European Union and the United States ramp up their sanctions on Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s plans for retaliation seem to include an attack on McDonald’s. There could not be a more powerful symbol that geopolitics is increasingly undoing the globalization of the world economy.

The burger chain was celebrated in the 1990s by the journalist Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention,” which argued that the spread of McDonald’s around the world would bring an end to war. But almost 25 years after a McDonald’s restaurant opened in Moscow, it seems that deep interdependence has not ended conflict between great powers – it has merely provided a new battlefield for it.

As in any relationship that turns sour, many of the things that initially tie the parties together are now being used to drive them apart. For the past two decades we have heard that the world is becoming a global village because of the breadth and depth of its trading and investment links, its nascent global governance and the networks of the information age. But those forces for interdependence are degenerating into their opposite; we could call it the three faces of ‘splinterdependence’:

Need to learn to launch a BUK missile quick? Look online.

A Buk M-23 air defence missile system is seen on display during the opening of the MAKS-2009 international air show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow

No one has admitted responsibility for firing the sophisticated missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 people over Ukraine on July 17. But untrained rebels could probably have done it with a little practice. There are even instructions online, making it possible for nearly anyone who comes into possession of one of these systems — anywhere in the world — to use it.

Washington and Kiev both blame Russian-backed separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic for attacking the plane with a 9k37 BUK missile system. These rebels had bragged about possessing the weapon before the attack.

The BUK is in the upper tier of the world’s antiaircraft weapons. It’s considerably more advanced and has more complicated procedures to fire than point-and-shoot, shoulder-fired missiles. Its missiles can climb to an altitude of 46,000 feet at Mach 3 speeds, packing more than a 154-pound high-explosive warhead.

Putin’s anti-American rhetoric now persuades his harshest critics

People I know in Russia, members of the intelligentsia and professionals who have long been critical of President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western stance, have suddenly turned into America-bashers. Many have been swept away by Putin’s arguments that the United States, not the Kremlin, is destabilizing Ukraine.

Since the current crisis broke in Ukraine over its efforts to side with the European Union rather than Russia, Putin has been at war with the United States. He seems intent on proving that a U.S.-centric world order is over and that Europe should decide on its own what its relations with Russia will be.

Putin’s big lie reached fever pitch after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went down over eastern Ukraine on July 17. Putin swiftly placed the blame on the Kiev government and its reputed U.S. masters — not even bothering to express proper condolences about the dead.

from Stories I’d like to see:

The Russian sanctions information gap

Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

There are so many gaps in the reporting about the effort to use economic sanctions against Russia to get President Vladimir Putin to pull back support for the Ukraine separatists that it makes sense to devote my whole column this week to listing them.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to identify the gaps than to do the reporting to fill them. Still, many are so obvious that it suggests that for all the resources spent on getting great video of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site, interviews with the victims’ families and reports from the war front in eastern Ukraine -- all important stories -- there is more heat than light being produced when it comes to the most critical, long-term question related to the Ukrainian conflict: If economic sanctions are the global economy’s modern substitute for using military force in repelling aggression, how is that playing out in the first test of that strategy against a global economic player like Russia?

The Dutch:

For starters, we need to see some reporting from the Netherlands, a country that, as we have been repeatedly reminded, lost a higher proportion of its population in the missile attack on the Malaysian airliner that left from the country’s flagship airport than America lost in the September 11 attacks.

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.

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.

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