Am I disappointed that Anthony Scaramucci is not letting us know anything at all, in his first White House briefing, about what stocks to buy. Sad, and low energy. President Trump, on the other hand, is getting brighter, cleaner, and more articulate every week. His interpretation of the Napoleonic wars, for example. Long story short, “Napoleon ended up a little bit bad,” or words to that effect, per his New York Times interview this week. Trump is way too articulate, bright, and clean to end up like Napoleon. No freezing Russian tundra for him, no way. Trump will never end up stuck to the seat of a frozen Siberian toilet. Believe me. The system works. Only the very shiniest golden toilet.
There used to be homes for penitent victims of seduction. The whole United States is, or probably will soon be, such a home–for just about all of us. I am not sure what the true story behind Trump’s utter loss of dignity vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin really is. I do know that Mr. Putin is openly laughing at Trump. H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, and Steve Mnuchin did not deny Putin’s claim that Trump accepted Putin’s denials of election hacking. Of course Putin is happy to pocket his victories and move on without “relitigating the past,” as Russian award-winner and U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson put it. And of course no one wants needless confrontation much less war with Russia. But when the president of Russia treats the president of the USA the same way Trump treats his own “lickspittle toadies” (as Josh Marshall writes) it is not a happy day for any American. At least not any American not getting lots of Russian cash.
What if President Ronald Reagan had gone to Berlin and said “we’re moving forward” instead of “tear down this wall”? “Not a lot of relitigating of the past,” reports Rex Tillerson about today’s meeting between the leaders of Russia and the United States. It’s hard to be at all sure about what happened today, but President Trump’s idea of how to represent America (and Western civilization?) is very different from that of Reagan and every other president in my lifetime. Is our president an accessory after the fact (or worse) to Russian espionage and subversion of our constitutional republic? Matt Yglesias has thoughts on that:
Meanwhile the best leader of the free world we have, Angela Merkel, rolls her eyes at Putin and Trump.
I am ready to show the next president the same courteousness and deference that he and Mitch McConnell gave President Obama.
I am prepared to take Trump’s tweets and other public statements just as seriously (or literally) as Vladimir Putin does.
It could just be accidental, all this drilling of the swamp. Maybe it’s not the result of KGB hypnosis administered years ago, maybe decades ago. Right–and Rick Perry might possibly remember the name of the federal department he is nominated to lead. As Jennifer Rubin points out in her Right Turn column in the Washington Post, if Trump had in fact been turned by Russian intelligence, what would he be doing differently than he is in fact doing?
Some say–Senator Harry Reid, for example–that Donald Trump, before he does any “extreme, extreme vetting” of other people, ought to take a naturalization test his own self. But Trump, believe me, just trust me, has as usual gone beyond the norm and flat-out self-deported. Some, actually many, thought he wanted to lose, just secretly. But few (because we are mostly losers) predicted that Trump would scram completely out of the country in the middle of summertime and into the frozen zone (per Vladimir Putin) of Transtrumpistan. Have a very, very nice, very long vacation, Mister.
Vladimir Putin today took a break from sub rosa subversion of former Soviet vassal states to demand the immediate surrender of a named chair in international law at Oxford University. Prime Minister David Cameron offered to refer the matter to an interdisciplinary faculty committee world-renowned for its passive-aggressive behavior. Putin, well aware that this was a neo-imperialist ruse, reiterated that only Oxford’s chair of international law would do. Any counter-offer of Cambridge, or another Oxford department, would be considered as a grave threat to Putin’s sovereign dignity. In another worrying sign, senior Russian officials rejected out of hand the suggestion by international observers that Putin might enjoy the Chair of Deconstructive Studies at Sciences Po in Paris, let alone the Anschluss Chair of Post-Fascist Studies at the University of Vienna, going so far as to charge that these offers were cynical attempts to encircle Holy Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit Washington later this week. I am confident she can both chew out President Obama over the NSA’s intrusions on her, and walk the important walk of responding with Obama to Putin’s intrusions on Ukraine. There is a formal equivalence in the sentence above, and I imagine Merkel is not amused at all that her cellphone was (is?) monitored by American signals intelligence. But Putin’s aggressive destabilization of Ukraine is, I think, a threat to the entire post-Cold War order in Europe. Russia was invited into groups such as the World Trade Organization and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, seven of whose observers are still being held captive in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists), but as a recent Carnegie Europe blog by Jan Techau points out, “the Kremlin does not seem to share the principles that the OSCE was designed to uphold.” Twenty-first century Russia, contrary to the red herring spread by its enablers and apologists, was included in Europe’s security architecture, says Techau (“Why European Security Works Better Without Russia,” 4/29/14). The “narrative of humiliation and justification that maintains that Russia has been ostracized, excluded, and conspired against” is “wrong on many levels.” The reason the OSCE is not working as designed is that “no matter what binding or nonbinding agreement Russia has entered into since the end of the Cold War, it has attempted to torpedo the deal from within,” and this applies also “to the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization, the other major multilateral forums Russia has joined in recent decades….The reason behind Russia’s behavior is its archaic understanding of what constitutes a sovereign nation….Moscow…adheres to the idea that a nation is fully sovereign only as long as it is strong enough to take care of its own security. This notion means that only a small handful of countries in the world can claim true independence….Russia…can never accept an architecture in which a country of lesser stature has an enforceable legal claim against–or even a formal veto power over–Russian objectives. That makes it amazingly unattractvie for almost anybody to enter any kind of legally binding, or even nonbinding, agreement with Russia.”
Jan Techau, unfortunately, has accurately appraised the behavior and standpoint of today’s Russia. Merkel and Obama have a tough job in that U.S. and German finance and business oligarchs seem to be lobbying hard for looking the other way. In another sense, though, it should be easy for the political leaders of Germany and the U.S. to see that they need to act based on a longer-term horizon than their economic elites seem able to imagine. Moreover, Obama and Merkel are aware that their “job creators” cannot “build it themselves” in that they need protection and support from government–and sometimes much more support than road maintenance. Sometimes governments in democratic regimes are compelled, based on a long-term strategic worldview, to defend their citizens against the rogue behavior of countries like Putin’s Russia. Doing so is not high-risk behavior, it is risk management and mitigation.
And meanwhile Obama might be well advised, since he is no longer running for office and only lives once, to reconsider some of his insupportable, petulant, and unworthy responses to the Snowden leaks. It is high time to acknowledge, which he has not yet done, that we have a surveillance state, as a German official said recently, “acting without any limits.”
Among the greatest hits of Vladimir Putin’s annual live call-in show (which was shorter than usual this year at 3 hours 58 minutes) were his declarations that he does not wish to be president-for-life and that Russia will surely come to a “mutual understanding” with Ukraine, his references to southern and eastern Ukraine as “novorossiya” (new Russia, following tsarist usage), and his laughing remark that he would not seize Alaska because it is too cold. Less noticed was his take on Russian memory politics: “it’s not 1937 or anything.” In other words, what is there to complain about when the state is not executing hundreds of thousands and sending millions to the gulag! Life is good!
(Hat tip to Anne Applebaum via rferl.org live blog; she also has an article on Slate.com explaining “Putin’s New Kind of War”: “forget D-Day or ‘shock and awe’: the Kremlin is reinventing invasions with thugs, criminals, and lies”)
The rule that “you break it, you own it” did not seem to apply very well to Ukraine in the twentieth century, and this 21st century does not seem to be starting out too well for them either. From the forced collectivization and starvation imposed on Ukrainian peasants by Stalin in the 1930s to the horrors of the Second World War when Ukraine was the “bloodland” (see Timothy Snyder’s book) between Hitler and Stalin, to the corruption and oligarchic bleeding of Ukraine in the twenty-some post-Soviet years, no one who broke Ukraine seemed to bother to own the project of repairing it.
The foreign policy “realism” of Kissinger et al continues to consign Ukraine to the netherworld of pawn status in the great power game. For “realists,” what matters is that Ukraine cannot be considered a “foreign country”–from the Russian perspective, that is, which counts far more than the “unrealistic” fiction that Ukraine and its 45 million inhabitants might actually possess sovereignty that anyone is bound to respect (hat tip to Lilia Shevtsova’s excellent recent article on the “Putin Doctrine”). And Putin has played on this assumption, thus having his cake and eating it too, by asserting, though not in these exact words, that Ukraine has no right to use violence even or especially to defend itself against Russian-sponsored violence. The notion that anyone would suffer inconvenience to protect Ukraine–even after it gave up nuclear weapons in a 1994 agreement signed by Russia, the US, and the UK–has not stopped, for example, UK prime minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha from enjoying a weeklong Easter break at a luxury yoga retreat in the Canary Islands. (Heaven help the Obamas if they went on a weeklong yoga retreat!) Ukraine is looking incapable (though today the fog of war has descended, making conclusions dicey) of defending itself militarily against subversion by Russian special forces in its eastern regions. The process of re-colonization of terrain that from an imperial Russian point of view was only “external” temporarily and accidentally seems to be going well for Putin so far, though he may not intend all the consequences that follow. Thus far it seems the “Pottery Barn rule” (attributed to Colin Powell, but not an actual Pottery Barn policy) will not soon apply to the Ukrainians.
It seems that traders in world markets have little concern that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be much of an impediment to anyone’s profitability, given that Ukraine is a “far-off country of which they know little,” to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain’s reaction to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. The bankers and hedge funds and bond traders do not see Putin coming for them. Right they may be, at least in the short and medium term, after which it will be somebody else’s problem, like global warming. The EU governance rules require unanimity, and sanctions are only as strong as whatever Cyprus and Bulgaria, let alone loyal-servant-of-the-City-of-London David Cameron, will approve.
President Obama and NATO can certainly protect their own sovereign space, but do they simply watch while Putin destabilizes and propagandizes Ukraine? The amoral logic of capitalism that makes sanctions hard to enact or enforce seems to be in Putin’s favor, but it could cut more than one way. How about dropping all sanctions that keep Iran from freely selling its natural gas? If western Europe and the U.S. are going to continue doing business with a guy like Vladimir Vladimirovich, why not do business with Rouhani? Let Iran and Russia knock themselves out competing and cutting energy prices. I may not have thought through all the possible consequences, I admit, but it seems worth considering, if only to get out of the mindset that the West is simply reacting rather than initiating.
Hat tip to Kyrgyzstan for stating the obvious: Yanukovych is no longer the legitimate president of Ukraine. The word “kyrgyz” means “we are forty,” referring to forty tribes that united against the Uighurs, says Wikipedia. Will the forty or so tribes of Europe unite in an effective response to Putin? They seem to have a collective action problem and a myopia problem. Maybe they could use a charismatic Kyrgyz leader to put them all inside a yurt until they get themselves together.
According to former Georgian President Saakashvili, speaking from Ukraine as quoted in today’s WSJ, Putin knows “exactly what to do” while in Ukraine “nobody knows quite what to do here, and it’s really messy.” If Putin’s actions were governed by Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule, “you break it, you own it,” he might be more cautious, but as Saakashvili observes, Putin is sowing chaos on purpose in order to chop Ukraine into pieces. He seems to have taken control of the Crimean region, while claiming the high ground of simply protecting the “rights” of ethnic Russians–and, as in Georgia in 2008, issuing plenty of Russian passports to sympathetic local people. Until today the Russian troops, or perhaps Russian “Blackwater” mercenaries, denied they were doing anything out of the ordinary. As a joke on Twitter described Crimean airport passport control: “Nationality?” “Russian.” “Occupation?” “No, no, just visiting.” But today the Russian Duma and Putin have come out of their closets, though still hypocritically paying tribute to virtuousness.
If I were in Yalta, or perhaps Kharkiv, the message I would probably get from radio and TV (if the connections were still open) would be that “fascists” and “brigands” had illegitimately overthrown the Ukrainian government (probably without saying much about Yanukovych, whom I doubt the Russians will allow to give many more news conferences) and that Mother Russia stands ready to help protect their neighbors in need. No sense of irony is apparent when far-right Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whom some would call neofascist, is sent to Crimea to remind the “little Russians” of their “fraternal” ties to greater Russia. If I were in Kiev or Lviv, I would probably hear a very different story, emphasizing the heavy hand of Putin and expressing the yearning to be closer to the sparkling westerners (!) in Krakow or Bratislava. The message I get from American and western European reporting is that Putin may perhaps be doing something deplorable and dangerous, but that much remains “unconfirmed.” True as far as it goes, but the gist of the story is clear enough.
Putin no doubt thinks Nikita Krushckev was a fool in 1954 to present Crimea as a “gift” to the Ukrainian SSR (Krushckev was at least half-Ukrainian), and it looks like he has now taken the gift back, with extra interest soon to be charged. John Boehner has implied, and John McCain has said outright, that President Obama is “incredibly naive” about Putin and that whatever happens that they don’t like will be his fault, although they propose no particular actions. For his part, President Obama remarked in a recently published New Yorker interview that he doesn’t really need George Kennan anymore–he might want to rethink that one. Christine Lagarde seems in no hurry to promise bailout money to a fragile new government in Kiev until they enact austerity measures sure to cripple that very government’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, Putin has the price of gas to hold over Ukrainians. Are Western Europeans ready to impose real costs on Putin by cutting off energy purchases from Russia and themselves suffer the inconvenience and cost of finding alternatives?
Krushckev probably did not think he was giving anything of value away in 1954. Putin is redressing that mistake, and perhaps more, in 2014. In 2013 he had the luxury of the moral high ground on several issues, while this year his kinship with the Night Wolves and the Berkut is no longer hidden sub rosa. As another tweet (#Russiainvadesukraine) put it, “Visit Russia before Russia visits you.”
P.S. Frank Costigliola’s NYT op-ed on Feb. 27 goes into detail on why President Obama and U.S. policymakers should pay attention to what George Kennan had to say about Russia and the Soviet Union.
Update Monday March 3: Though NPR tells us there is “no resistance” to Russian control of Crimea, they may be missing the significance of nonviolent noncooperation, as Shaun Walker and Graham Stack of the Guardian explain in a dispatch from Crimea, where the officers at Ukraine’s naval HQ refused to go along with the recent defector Berezovsky and he snapped at them “don’t ask provocative questions,” which is a fair summary of the Putinist mindset. Wives of Ukrainian military barricaded inside bases are taking food and, along with at least one Ukrainian Orthodox bishop, providing human shields. Putin may well provoke a shooting war, but for now there is an intense propaganda battle going on. (Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands, has a piece at nybooks.com on the “haze of propaganda” surrounding Ukraine. For a mid-20th century view on propaganda, see George Orwell’s 1947 preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm.) Samantha Power and Vitaly Churkin presented vivid contrast at an extraordinary Security Council meeting convoked by Ukraine’s UN ambassador Saturday night. Russia tried to take the session private! Samantha Power did a public service, in my opinion, simply by expressing more of the truth of the situation than the French or the British were willing to do. Putin has probably calculated correctly that Angela Merkel and Barack Obama and David Cameron are not prepared to do anything that would change his determination to repossess Crimea; the rest of Ukraine is on the table now.
Vladimir V. Putin, current President of Russia and future Visiting Professor of Philosophy of International Law, appears to have seized, at least for today, the white man’s burden of duty and rectitude from President Barack Obama. Is he going to be accepting complimentary lifetime memberships from Amnesty International and the ACLU next? Can we handle the truth that “exceptionalism” is largely a dangerous fantasy, coming from such an imperfect messenger as him?
I do not agree with the reaction of some that the op-ed should not have been printed. Putin’s name appears as the author, and he thus assumes responsibility for the contents. Who cares if Russian speechwriters or the Ketchum P.R. firm wrote or edited some or all of it? Barack Obama and (one hopes) John Kerry are perfectly capable of presenting evidence to counter Mr. Putin’s assertion, for example, that the poison gas didn’t come from the Syrian Army. They can also supply relevant context that Putin conveniently omitted. If Mr. Putin is taking advantage of worldwide suspicion of American veracity and arrogance, and who do we blame for that?–he is setting himself up to be judged by higher standards when Olympic time rolls around. Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker notes, by the way, that “American exceptionalism” was coined as a negative reference point by Stalin-era Russian propagandists!
It is at least possible that the sometimes Mr. Magooish spectacle, as some have noted, of the last few days’ diplomacy may yield some good results
- White House responds to Putin’s NYT op-ed (thelead.blogs.cnn.com)
- Putin warns US against unilateral military strike on Syria (thehindu.com)
- The Tsar of All the Concern Trolls (newyorker.com)