Opinion

The Great Debate

Russians love their children, too – but that alone won’t stop a nuclear war

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Back when most of today’s Western decision-makers were in college, Sting had a hit song with “Russians.” It began:

In Europe and America, there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Khrushchev said we will bury you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too

It sometimes seems that most Western analysis of Russia has the sophistication of this song.

The simplicity of the idea that all humans are essentially the same, and that a common understanding is thus always within reach, is seductive. Its appeal stems from the fact that few things are harder than knowing someone whose views of the world are profoundly different from yours. This is why it has been so difficult for a veritable army of Western experts to explain or predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, a narrative has emerged in the West that seems to provide a basis for understanding and negotiating with Putin. According to it, Russia is pursuing its strategic interest in keeping Ukraine unallied with the West  because it needs a “buffer zone” between itself and members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some analysts have gone so far as to essentially blame the entire crisis on the West, which, so goes the narrative, ignored Russia for too long. NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 without so much as paying lip service to bringing Russia in on the decision. It expanded in 2004 to include three Baltic states that border Russia, disregarding Russia’s express opposition. And when the West reached for Ukraine, the sleeping bear had finally had enough and so it reared up.

NATO could have trouble combatting Putin’s military strategy

A Canadian Air Task Force jets CF-18 stands in the Siauliai air base

Since Russian troops seized Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula in late February, and separatists backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin began waging a bloody insurgency in the country’s east, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has walked a fine line.

The transatlantic military alliance has sent hundreds of troops to Ukraine to train alongside Kiev’s forces. But at a major summit in early September, NATO declined to offer Ukraine membership. The alliance doesn’t really want to go to war over Ukraine.

If Russia were to expand its coercive campaign, however, and invade neighboring Estonia — where a security officer is said to have been abducted by Russian forces, a little more than a week ago — NATO’s 27 other member states would have little choice but to deploy troops in combat. They are obligated under Article 5 of NATO’s 1949 founding charter to defend each other from attack.

Plans to stop Russia show NATO and the West are in denial

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For more than six months now, since Russia annexed Crimea, Western politicians and analysts have been asking what can make Vladimir Putin stop or retreat. It’s the wrong question, and the policies that have flowed from the resulting debate have been misguided, because they are based on the fallacy that the West can do something to influence Putin’s actions.

Putin has always been a master of the public lie, both of the bold-faced variety and the mixed-message variety, and for the last six months he has used this skill to keep the West playing catch-up in Ukraine. It’s a game the West is losing.

Western politicians, for their part, have heeded only those of Putin’s statements that they want to hear — or at least ones that make sense in their picture of the world. Leaders have chosen to believe that Russia invaded Ukraine to protect vital strategic interests: the need for a “buffer state” between itself and NATO. They have validated Putin’s avowed concern about the fate of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. And right now, they are going along with a charade Putin is playing out regarding cease-fire negotiations with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko – negotiations that Putin’s press secretary managed to disavow minutes after the fateful telephone conversation concluded on Wednesday.

Five smart takes explain the Russia-Ukraine conflict from square one

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Ever since the Ukrainian revolution in February this year, the Eastern European country has witnessed spiraling political instability and bloodshed.

Former President Viktor Yanukovich, a Kremlin ally, was driven out by demonstrators in the city’s Independence Square after he refused to sign a political and trade accord with the European Union, which would have brought Ukraine closer to the West.

So far, the conflict has led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia2,593 civilian deaths — not including the 298 victims onboard when Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down by an antiaircraft missile — and more than 730,000 kicked out of their homes, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many cities eastern cities, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, where the majority of fighting is taking place, are heavily damaged.

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 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.

U.S. spying on Germany: Making enemies out of allies, and for what?

German Chancellor Merkel attends a session of Bundestag in Berlin

What were they thinking?

In the wake of last fall’s revelation that the National Security Agency had wiretapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, the report of U.S. intelligence’s involvement in two other likely cases of spying on Germany is mind-boggling.

Now the story has taken a dramatic new turn, with Germany expelling the CIA chief of station in Berlin — an almost unprecedented step by an ally. This unusual action reflects how seriously the Merkel government takes these spying allegations.

What could the CIA hope to gain by infiltrating the BND, the German Federal Intelligence Service, knowing there was a chance that the operation might be exposed? What was worth this risk?

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.

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