Opinion

The Great Debate

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 promise to restore Russian self-respect, for example, which had been shattered by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the bitter loss of superpower status, has centered on bullying Europe. He is intent on cowing the continent into submissively accepting Russia’s sphere of “privileged interest” in all the “near abroad” states of the former Soviet Union.

He did this when he flexed his military muscle in Georgia in 2008, and also when he manipulated oil and gas prices and supplies in Ukraine in 2009. By invading Crimea to parade his power on the world stage, Putin has now convinced many people that Russia is back.

Cold War warmed over

Can we have a new Cold War without a communist threat?  Some important political players seem to think so.

One of them is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At his surreal press conference, Putin depicted the protest that overthrew the pro-Russian government in Ukraine as a plot by the West to undermine Russia. He even accused the United States of training the Kiev protesters: “I have a feeling that they sit somewhere in a lab in America . . . and conduct experiments, as if with rats, without understanding the consequences of what they are doing.”

Then there’s Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who seemed thrilled over the prospect of a new Cold War.  “We are all Ukrainians now!” McCain declared in what sounded like a call to arms. He even dragged out an article President Barack Obama wrote for a college publication more than 30 years ago. Obama had argued that “President Reagan’s defense buildup” had “distorted national priorities.

Putin’s gangland politics

Russian President Vladimir Putin calls them his “brothers” — this group of burly motorcyclists who see themselves as road warriors fighting for the greater glory of Mother Russia. They’re known as the Night Wolves, and Putin himself has ridden with them on that icon of American wanderlust, a Harley-Davidson.

Even as Russia was preparing to send troops to Crimea to reclaim the peninsula from Ukraine’s new government, the Night Wolves announced that they would ride to the troubled region to whip up support for their powerful brother and Harley devotee.

Clad in leather and sporting their best squint-eyed, make-my-day defiant stares, the Night Wolves had a message for Ukraine’s anti-Russian dissidents: Protest at risk of your health.

The power of sanctions against Putin on Ukraine

In a crisis moving extremely fast, it is dangerous to say this, but I’m at least somewhat less concerned about this upheaval in Ukraine than other people seem to be, for a couple of reasons.

One, to be blunt, is that Ukraine is not in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States is not militarily obliged to come to the defense of a country that is, in some degree, in peril. For Americans, that is some solace — for we have had more than enough of war in recent years. (I am, for similar reasons, against inviting Ukraine into NATO in the future — unless the basic character of the alliance changes and even Russia could be a part — which would clearly require some change in Russia as well.)

We do, of course, owe Ukrainians assistance. Not just for their 1990s decision to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union, but for their contributions to the war in Iraq and their commitment to democracy and to peaceful relations among states. So I am hardly suggesting that we ignore the high stakes here, or the Ukrainian people’s legitimate desires for self-determination and economic progress.

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.

Obama’s options for Syria

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council demanded that Syria’s government and its armed opponents end attacks on civilians, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and battle lines, and protect minorities. The Security Council also called for the lifting of sieges against civilians and said that it would take additional measures if the two parties did not comply.

Even if fully implemented, this welcome push on humanitarian issues will not end the violence in Syria, or resolve a conflict that has left over 120,000 people dead and one-third of the population displaced. More action is needed if a political solution is to be found and a serious peace process initiated. The American people won’t support deployment of U.S. troops. Russia will veto any new U.N. Security Council resolution with teeth. But Washington should consider other diplomatic, assistance, financial and military options.

Diplomatic options now include formally terminating the U.N. negotiating effort, which has so far failed to reach any kind of agreement, even on an agenda. The U.S., a prime mover behind the talks, could announce that it would reopen them only if President Assad agrees to discuss concrete steps towards a democratic transition, which he has so far failed to do.

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.

For Moscow, Ukraine is always ‘Little Russia’

Moscow — Ukraine has had two weeks to find a compromise in its Russia versus the West dispute. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been focused on promoting his soft image with the Winter Olympics in Sochi. With the games ending Sunday, however, time has run out and the crisis in Kiev and other cities is only getting worse.

If Putin uses Russian history as a guide, it would not be out of the question that Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. After all, Soviet leaders did just this to retain control during the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the 1968 Prague spring in Czechoslovakia.

For Putin stands to lose influence and his ability to affect policy in Ukraine if the opposition gains control. This is at the core of the current Ukraine crisis.

Ukraine after the Maidan

Writing the first draft of history is always difficult, especially when the opening act curtain has not officially fallen. Yet developments in Ukraine have now reached a critical turning point, with certain consequences likely to follow.

Historians will long debate the chain of events that provoked the February 18, 2014 confrontation. What we know is that the simmering demands of the opposition — over Ukraine’s thwarted path to Europe, the failure to re-instate the 2004 Constitution and President Victor Yanukovich’s insincere negotiations – all boiled over in a violent clash with the Ukrainian security services. The fight for Ukraine’s future was being resolved in the streets of Kiev – in live pictures transmitting around the globe.

Two symbols undoubtedly will emerge from the events of the last few days: a heroic Maidan and a bloody Yanukovich. Half the population will not accept the results, but it is also unlikely that Ukrainian opposition can impose its will on the country. So even if the Maidan were somehow to hold its ground and gain the upper hand — and it was still resisting at the time of this writing — a political consensus would still have to be found.

Putin’s Occupation Olympics

The upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi has naturally led to a critical look at the host country’s human rights record, with particular focus on issues such as the treatment of gays and journalists.

Yet in a less-noticed offense, Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the Olympics to advance his violations of international law — namely, as a tool for expanding Russia’s control over the occupied Georgian territory of Abkhazia. Despite the conquest of a neighboring nation — an action almost unheard of since World War Two and banned by the U.N. Charter — the international community has scarcely protested.

Russia has used the proximity of the Olympics to solidify its latest conquest. The main town of Abkhazia, Sukhumi, is a short drive from Sochi. Much of the materials for the massive Olympic construction projects — rock and cement — are taken from Abkhazia. Russia has quartered thousands of construction workers for the Games in Sukhumi, further blurring the lines between Georgian territory and Russia proper.

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