Opinion

The Great Debate

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.

Instead, the Russian president disingenuously asked for transparency in the investigation into the downing of the plane. In his laconic statements, Putin promised cooperation but delivered little. He insisted issues of politics had to be kept out of the tragedy.

Such as the nature of autocratic propaganda: The lie has to be overwhelming.

Journalists work at a media centre as they cover Russian President Vladimir Putin's live broadcast nationwide phone-in, in MoscowIn his 14-plus years in power, Putin has honed this skill. In the Kremlin universe, when any conflict takes place around the globe, it is the West — particularly the United States — that is to blame. After hearing it repeatedly, this belief is now widely shared by the Russian public.

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.

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.

from Breakingviews:

Gazprom/Ukraine dispute is proxy for Putin’s whims

By Pierre Briançon 

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Europe has long been used to the perennial drama of “Ukraine versus Gazprom,” but this year’s version is not your run-of-the-mill gas price dispute. Making good on a longstanding threat, Gazprom has said it will deliver gas to Ukraine only if it has been pre-paid. This comes after the Russian energy group failed to settle a dispute with Naftogaz, its Kiev-backed counterpart, over what it claims are more than $4 billion of overdue bills.

As summer nears, the decision will have limited immediate consequences on Europe’s energy supplies. Gazprom says it will continue to provide gas to the rest of the continent and has the means to bypass Ukraine. The two sides may be headed to international arbitration – by far the best way to settle the dispute. Gazprom has some grounds for feeling that it has been too patient with its Ukrainian client.

Post Iraq, U.S. must rely on covert action

devine -- afghan-militia-1024x736

Covert actions are now crucial to U.S. foreign policy. After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington should rely more on CIA-driven covert operations and less on military force in the world’s hotspots.

Ukraine could be a case in point. For covert action means not just collecting information (espionage), but also political or paramilitary efforts that help support political organizations, local media and on occasion, insurgents. Under the CIA’s charter, the government maintains plausible deniability for all these actions.

I’ve long advocated for greater use of this tool of statecraft — and not only because I ran the CIA’s Afghanistan Task Force during the successful effort to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1986-87, along with many other covert operations during my 32 years at the intelligence agency.

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