A policy of self-serving hypocrisy towards Russia

The United States has once again twisted itself into a rhetorical pretzel. As when it threatened military action against Syria if a “red line” was crossed, the Obama administration’s rhetoric about Russia and Ukraine goes far beyond what it will be willing and able to enforce.

Earlier this month, President Obama warned that America would “isolate Russia” if it grabbed more land, and yesterday, he suggested that more sanctions were possible. Likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Group of 7 nations were “prepared to go to the hilt” in order to isolate Russia.

But Washington’s rhetoric is dangerously excessive, for three main reasons: Ukraine is far more important to Vladimir V. Putin than it is to America; it will be hard for the United States and Europe to make good on their threats of crippling sanctions; and other countries could ultimately defang them…

The fundamental problem is that the Obama administration doesn’t want to bear the costs associated with an active foreign policy. That’s understandable. A December Pew poll revealed the lowest level of public support for an active American foreign policy since 1964.

This domestic pressure was on display in Syria. Mr. Obama’s error was not that he backed away from military action and accepted Russia’s proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The mistake was that he drew a red line that would have been more costly to back up than the United States was willing to tolerate. America lost credibility internationally for failing to make good on its threat.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is repeating this mistake in Ukraine…

“Isolating Russia” as if it were Iran or North Korea isn’t a threat America can feasibly make good on. Just because Mr. Putin is acting like the leader of a rogue state, his country cannot be considered as such. Russia boasts the world’s eighth-largest economy. Given the exposure of American corporations to Russia, there would be serious pushback from the private sector if Mr. Obama tried to relegate Russia to rogue-state status. The Obama administration needs to preach what it will ultimately practice. Otherwise Washington’s credibility will erode further as it walks back its words.

A more hard-line response is not the answer. Mr. Obama was right to rule out the military option; diplomacy is America’s only viable path forward…

The Obama administration should focus on supporting Kiev rather than punishing Moscow. That means using its leverage with Europe to ensure that this support sticks, and that Ukraine’s new government does nothing to provoke an extreme response. This will require an acknowledgment of Russia’s core interests and America’s limitations — and an end to empty threats.

There are about three historic levels to the context of this antagonistic complexity. Most of which is viewed with greater clarity outside the United States than within. Not unusual.

On the longest historic stage, Americans forget we acquired foreign territory much in the same way Albanians did Kosovo, Russians did Crimea. We moved in and colonized economic expansion and then used our [foreign] military might to guarantee the freedom of our colonists to secede. In case you never read a history book, that’s how we got Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah and a chunk of Wyoming and Colorado.

Nearer in time, lacking an adjacent border, the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq – especially the latter – didn’t have a damned thing to do with protecting our nation. Not on that scale, nothing to do with what we set out to accomplish and failed.

Pretending there is nothing comparable between the secession of Kosovo and the Crimea is patent leather revisionism. The voting population of Kosovo was skewed by incomers as much or more than Crimea – over a shorter period of time. The politics of each differs; but, international codes are cobbled together in an attempt to function independent of local politics. Whether they succeed at it or not.

Two-thirds of the Ukrainian Army in Crimea joined the Russians


Russian and Ukrainian sailors in WW2 uniforms practicing for celebration of Great Patriotic War
Getty Images/Sergei Supinsky

Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea have pulled off an impressive feat: ceding a large chunk of territory to an invading army without firing a shot. The question is whether they will be perceived as heroes, traitors or just a sad bunch of guys in ill-fitting camouflage betrayed by their commanders in Kiev.

Russian troops and local pro-Russian militias are now in control of most Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean peninsula, after bloodless “stormings” in which armored vehicles broke through garrison gates, some warning shots were sounded and, in some cases, stun grenades were used. Russian forces took pains not to harm any of their formal adversaries, and the 22,000 Ukrainian troops stationed on the peninsula managed to refrain from shooting at Russians. Only one Ukrainian serviceman has died since Russia invaded the peninsula with unmarked troops in early March, and it is not entirely clear who shot him in the neck.

For their peaceful abdication, the troops received praise from both sides. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked “those Ukrainian servicemen who did not go the way of bloodshed.” On Friday, acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said that “despite enormous losses, Ukrainian troops in the Crimea have done their duty,” which apparently consisted of buying time for Ukrainian armed forces elsewhere “to prepare for defense, to achieve full combat readiness and begin a partial mobilization.”

By “enormous losses,” Turchynov meant the hundreds and possibly thousands who have defected to Russia from the chronically underfinanced, underarmed and even underfed Ukrainian army. “I’ve been serving for 15 years, and in these 15 years the Ukrainian army has given me nothing, not even a dorm room,” warrant officer and Crimea native Maxim Shumeyev told the BBC’s Russian service. “As I served the Ukrainian people, so I remain to serve the people of the Crimea.”

To the extent that the Ukrainians defied the Russians, their efforts were largely symbolic. In one famous video, a small Ukrainian unit marches, unarmed and singing the national anthem, on three unbadged Russian soldiers sent to bar their way to the Belbek airbase. The march took courage, and the unit commander, Colonel Yuli Mamchur, quickly became a hero to many Ukrainians…

Ukrainian nationalists worship dead heroes who laid their lives on the altar of Ukraine’s freedom. The national anthem even has a line about doing so. The Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea understandably decided not to martyr themselves…

Perhaps, when forced to make their own decisions, the Ukrainian servicemen simply did not have the stomach for killing people they still considered their brothers. Many officers speak confident Russian and almost no Ukrainian. The banners of some Ukrainian military units date back to World War II, when Russians and Ukrainians fought the Nazis as a single army. The ultimate test proved that killing each other is the last thing Russians and Ukrainians will consider. That is a blessing for Putin and a curse for the nationalist government in Kiev.

The largest civilian group celebrating Crimea’s reentry into Russia are retirees. Senior citizens who lived through the Great Patriotic War or its immediate aftermath as part of a united front against fascism.

And, now, as Russians their pensions will double.

Henry Kissinger — on the the Ukraine crisis

Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.

Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.

Russia must accept that to try to force Ukraine into a satellite status, and thereby move Russia’s borders again, would doom Moscow to repeat its history of self-fulfilling cycles of reciprocal pressures with Europe and the United States.

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709 , were fought on Ukrainian soil. The Black Sea Fleet — Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean — is based by long-term lease in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.

The European Union must recognize that its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis. Foreign policy is the art of establishing priorities.

The Ukrainians are the decisive element. They live in a country with a complex history and a polyglot composition. The Western part was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939 , when Stalin and Hitler divided up the spoils. Crimea, 60 percent of whose population is Russian , became part of Ukraine only in 1954 , when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, awarded it as part of the 300th-year celebration of a Russian agreement with the Cossacks. The west is largely Catholic; the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian; the east speaks mostly Russian. Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or break up. To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe — into a cooperative international system…

A wise U.S. policy toward Ukraine would seek a way for the two parts of the country to cooperate with each other. We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction…Russia and the West, and least of all the various factions in Ukraine, have not acted on this principle. Each has made the situation worse. Russia would not be able to impose a military solution without isolating itself at a time when many of its borders are already precarious. For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one

Leaders of all sides should return to examining outcomes, not compete in posturing. The test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction. If some solution based on these or comparable elements is not achieved, the drift toward confrontation will accelerate. The time for that will come soon enough.

Of course, Kissinger may as well be describing Congress under the misleadership of what passes for a Republican Party, today. He speaks from memories of days when Republicans and Democrats had principled, educated, knowledgeable leaders. Days long gone.

Kissinger is not a diplomat I have a whole boatload of respect for. He rarely challenged the Cold War status quo in his years of service. What positive results attended his efforts resulted from a simple understanding that politics should trump war, trade brings more long-lasting change than imperial bullying.

Frankly, I doubt if anyone in the Confederate Club in Congress will even read his suggested principles. However, they are worth reading at least as a base for your understanding.

Crimea parliament votes to join Russia – referendum to follow

The Crimean parliament has voted to join Russia, with the Ukraine region’s deputy prime minister saying the decree was effective immediately and that Russian soldiers are the only legitimate forces in Crimea.

The parliament unanimously adopted a motion on Thursday for the strategic peninsula to join the Russian Federation…

The Crimea parliament also said a referendum on the region’s status was being brought forward to from March 30 to March 16. Temirgaliev said there would be two questions on the ballot.

“The first: Are you in favor of Crimea becoming a constituent territory of the Russian Federation. The second: Are you in favor of restoring Crimea’s 1992 constitution.” According to the 1992 constitution, Crimea is part of Ukraine but has relations with Kiev.

However, Al Jazeera’s Hoda Hamid, reporting from Sevastopol, said there were serious questions about the legitimacy of the parliament and prime minister.

“The prime minister came to power arguably at gunpoint when the parliament was taken over,” she said. “Then there is a question of legitimacy in the constitution, which says parliament cannot take such a decision…”

As opposed to the democratic thumbs up or thumbs down of insurgents occupying Independence Square in Kiev which validated the current Ukrainian Parliament, eh?

The Crimea parliament, which is afforded some autonomy under current Ukrainian law, voted 78 – 0 with eight abstentions in favour of holding the referendum.

The US president, Barack Obama, meanwhile issued an executive order on Thursday saying that Russia’s involvement in Crimea constituted “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”.

While Putin has about the same level of moral authority in global politics as, say, Dick Cheney, he foretold occurrences like the Crimean move to regain independence from Ukraine when the UN and the US recognized Kosovo. For, regardless of the historic circumstances leading to the move for independence, the context is much the same, e.g., a single ethnicity being the majority of a region and then taking that region into secession.

Nations, even states, which prate about democracy find themselves with their nickers bunched over this question time and again. The LDS Church, American Mormons, were forced to resettle from state-to-state until they picked up and moved to faraway Utah to live their own lives. The US Constitution was ignored by their Midwestern Christian neighbors who said they had a moral imperative to keep Mormons from voting. Still, the LDS hierarchy had to revise their ideology to join the union of the United States of America. And they had no Mormon next-door neighbor to acquire their new state. Kosovo, for example, has Albania – should they so choose. Crimea has Russia.

Again and again, the motivations for secession are often grounded either in hopes for profit – so many of my nationalist friends in Scotland; freedom from ethnic suppression – La Raza in the American Southwest or the Quebecois in Canada; or truly reactionary hatred – today’s Tea Party Confederates mostly in the American South but anywhere else that harbors militia-level paranoia.

Only the egregious deny the likelihood of Crimea voting to claim full independence from Ukraine, tried previously in 1992, and rejoin Russia. Crimea returned over 70% vote for Janukovych in the last election. Their joining to Ukraine was a welfare check to Kiev, payment from the Soviet Black Sea navy. Uncle Sugar will make up that welfare check and more until – and unless – some future election involving all of Ukraine displeases Washington. When Catholic western Ukraine decides it really is Poland…and Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine prefers independence from the west.

Then, we can play the same game all over again.

In many of these nations, from Scotland to Ukraine, I have old friends and relatives on both sides of the individual questions. Depending a lot on their influence on this old brain, my own position may fluctuate. I try to stick to whatever fits within my understanding of political economy. For a more detailed relation of the history of the Balkans and everything east of the Danube, I’d suggest wandering through Ina Vukic’ blog.