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“Three Questions For Ukraine Hawks”: There Are Real And Specific Questions We’d Better Ask Ourselves Before We Jump In

Watch an hour of cable—and I’m talking MSNBC; forget Fox—and you might well come away from the hyper-ventilations thinking that we will or should go to war over Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea. Listen: Nobody’s going to war over Crimea. This isn’t 1853. Yes, it matters to us how Crimea may once again become a part of Russia, and we don’t like it a bit, but let’s face it, it doesn’t really matter to us in cold, hard, realpolitik terms, whether Crimea is a part of Russia. It’s used as a naval base, and Russia’s had that all along.

Now Ukraine, that’s different. Or so everyone on TV says. But when everyone starts saying something, I start doubting. After all, a decade ago, nearly “everyone”—every “grown up,” that is, every person who took a “properly expansive” view of American security in the post 9/11 age—said we needed to topple a dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11. So: Is Ukraine different? We may decide that yes, it is, but there are some real and specific questions we’d better ask ourselves before we just automatically make that declaration.

One way we decide these things is by looking at the historical record, and the historical record practically screams no, Ukraine is not different, is not a vital American or Western interest. Soviet Russia annexed Ukraine in 1922, after a war that had commenced in 1917, when the Bolsheviks took Moscow. The borders of Ukraine changed many times over the years. Even its capital was moved from Kharkiv in the east to Kiev in the west. At the end of World War II, the USSR expanded Ukraine again, as Stalin unilaterally redrew the Curzon Line to take in Eastern Galicia and Lvov, Poland, which became and still is Lviv, Ukraine.

There were further alterations after the war. In 1954, as we all now know, Crimea became part of Ukraine (staying within the USSR). If the Western countries objected to any of these moves, they objected lightly and only formally. Roosevelt and Churchill pestered Stalin about the Lvov/Lviv situation at Yalta, but Uncle Joe wasn’t having it, and they left it alone.

So historically, Ukraine hasn’t been something the West regarded as worth fussing over very much. In more recent years, after the USSR’s collapse, Russia asserted that Ukraine and, for that matter, all 14 former satellite SSR’s were within the Russian sphere of influence. They even coined a term for it: the “near abroad.” Not all Americans have accepted the idea that the near abroad falls strictly within the Russian sphere of influence, by any means. When John McCain and Joe Biden and others thunder about bringing Georgia into NATO, they’re rejecting the idea explicitly. But like it or not, three presidents have basically accepted the idea—none more so than George W. Bush, who confronted Putin about his 2008 Georgia incursion (both happened to be in Beijing for the Olympics) and whose administration took a few steps but who never imposed sanctions, as Barack Obama has now. Bush’s green light to Putin shone far brighter than Obama’s has.

Of course, history changes. The fact that we never cared about Ukraine before doesn’t by definition mean that we shouldn’t care about it today. First, there is the matter of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the United States, Britain and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s existing borders in exchange for it giving up its nukes. The Obama administration declared Russia in violation of that concord on March 1. More broadly, Putin is a despicable tyrant who wants glory for Mother Russia. If “glory” means swallowing back up those 14 former SSRs, then he does have to be countered. The Obama administration and the European Union should certainly impose tougher sanctions, and in the American case, on more than seven people. Maybe NATO troops should train Ukrainians, too—maybe not on Ukrainian soil, but somewhere in Europe. There are other similar steps that can be taken short of sending in a slew of “advisors” (special ops people) and military materiel just yet, like helping Ukraine get this new National Guard up and running.

But let’s just think hard about this. There’s nothing easier for pundits or commentators on cable to stomp the table about how Putin is playing us and running rings around Obama and he’s a madman who must be stopped. Our former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, said yesterday after Putin’s duma speech that the post-Cold War era was over. McFaul has been a reliable guide through these rapids, but that’s nonsense. We aren’t in a new Cold War. Spend five minutes ruminating on what happened during the Cold War and what sparked it, and you should be able to clear your head of such combustible notions. We’re a long way from that yet.

I’d like to hear everyone tossing around those kind of rhetorical lightning bolts answer, in a calm voice, three questions: One, why should Ukraine, which never before was a realpolitik first-order concern of the United States, be one now? Two, what exact sacrifices are we willing to make to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity? And three, what broader risks might those acceptable sacrifices entail, and are they worth it?

There might be very good answers to all three questions. But our political culture has a very bad habit of not wanting to discuss them much. That’s a habit we need to change.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Ukraine | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“McCain’s Cold War Confusion”: Keeping Track Of The Senator’s Competing Postures

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made his latest Sunday show appearance yesterday, having just completed a trip to Ukraine, and though much of the senator’s rhetoric was expected, there was one thing that stood out for me.

Not surprisingly, McCain is concerned about the crisis and sees Crimea’s departure from Ukraine as “a fait accompli.” But the Arizona Republican also told CNN he does not want to see a “re-ignition of the Cold War.” McCain added:

“[W]e need to give long-term military assistance plan, because, God knows what Vladimir Putin will do next, because he believes that Ukraine is a vital part of his vision of the Russian empire and we need to understand that and act accordingly.

“And again, no boots on the ground. It is not the Cold War over again.”

Wait, so McCain doesn’t believe this is the Cold War all over again?

Keeping track of the senator’s competing postures is getting a little confusing. It wasn’t too long ago, for example, when McCain declared, “The Cold War is over.”

Last week, he changed course, telling msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell, “[Obama administration officials] have been near delusional in thinking the Cold War was over. Maybe the president thinks the Cold War is over, but Vladimir Putin doesn’t. And that’s what this is all about.”

And then yesterday, McCain apparently went back to his old position, pulling off the hard-to-execute flip-flop-flip – which, in all likelihood, will have no bearing on his Beltway credibility. How can he accuse the White House of being “delusional” on March 7 for having the same belief McCain endorsed on March 16?

On a related note, the senator had a 1,000-word op-ed in the New York Times over the weekend, complaining that President Obama “has made America look weak.”

For five years, Americans have been told that “the tide of war is receding,” that we can pull back from the world at little cost to our interests and values. This has fed a perception that the United States is weak, and to people like Mr. Putin, weakness is provocative. […]

Mr. Putin also saw a lack of resolve in President Obama’s actions beyond Europe. In Afghanistan and Iraq, military decisions have appeared driven more by a desire to withdraw than to succeed. Defense budgets have been slashed based on hope, not strategy. Iran and China have bullied America’s allies at no discernible cost. Perhaps worst of all, Bashar al-Assad crossed President Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons in Syria, and nothing happened to him.

This is a deeply odd take on a variety of levels. Of particular interest. Obama has said many times that “the tide of war is receding,” in reference to two of the longest hot-war conflicts in American history: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ending these conflicts has made the United States appear “weak”?

It’s hard not to get the sense that McCain believes Vladimir Putin’s aggressive moves in Ukraine are the result of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

As for the rest of the op-ed, McCain proceeded to urge the Obama administration to take a series of steps, which can generally be broken down into vague platitudes (the United States “should work with our allies” and “reassure shaken friends”) and steps the president is already taking (“boycotting the Group of 8 summit meeting in Sochi”).

It’s an underwhelming perspective.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 17, 2014

March 18, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, John McCain | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Testing Treason’s Perimeter”: Why Neocons Love The Strongman

Say this for Rudy Giuliani: He gave away the game with his now-infamous admiring comments on Fox News two days ago about Vladimir Putin. “He makes a decision and he executes it, quickly,” the former mayor said. “Then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader. President Obama, he’s got to think about it. He’s got to go over it again. He’s got to talk to more people about it.”

Giuliani, once a genuinely moderate Republican (go look up his mayoral immigration record) and a man whom aides used to describe a long time ago as the one figure capable of pulling the national GOP back toward the center (I swear, I had those conversations), has served for some time now as little more than a right-wing standup comic—and a staggeringly hypocritical one at that. I’ll never forget his St. Paul convention speech, when he defended Sarah Palin by mocking Barack Obama and the Democrats for not thinking her hometown was “cosmopolitan enough.” This from a man who, while ostensibly campaigning against Hillary Clinton in 1999 and 2000 to represent all of New York state in the U.S. Senate, I think literally never spent a single night upstate. Zoom—as soon as the event in Albany or Schenectady was over, it was on the plane and right back to the emotional safety of the Upper East Side.

A standup comic often serves as his audience’s id, and so it is in this case. The neocons, on some emotional level, prefer Putin to Obama. He’s rugged. He goes shirtless. He knows his way around a Kalashnikov. He “wrestles bears and drills for oil,” as Palin put it Monday night, also on Fox. Palin, of course, is a pretty id-dy figure in her own right. She and Giuliani can say what some others who live and operate in Washington may feel constrained from saying. But every time John Bolton and Charles Krauthammer and Lindsey Graham and others carry on about Obama’s weakness, they’re also implying that he’s not half the man Putin is. And in neocon world, it always comes down to who’s the manlier man (although this makes Osama bin Laden a manlier man than Bush or Cheney, and Obama a manlier man than all of them, but never mind).

Now of course these people can’t openly cheer for Putin, because that would constitute outright treason, but they can test treason’s perimeter fence and probe it for weaknesses. I don’t quite think they want war with Russia; Russia ain’t Iraq. And obviously I don’t believe that if it came to that they’d be against their own country.

But that said, they are certainly undermining the commander in chief at a pivotal moment—not merely protesting his policies, but denouncing his character.

And don’t we suspect that they’re doing this because there’s a little part of them that wants a full-blown crisis? Of course there is. A crisis would vindicate them. A crisis would make the neocons—at risk of being flushed down history’s toilet by Rand Paul, who’s suddenly being called “front runner” by more and more people—relevant inside the Republican Party again.

What good would a settlement do them? Putin keeping the Crimea and stopping there, and that being the end of it? Why, they’d be reduced to carrying on about the Crimea as if it mattered to the United States one way or the other who ran it. Settlements are so kiss-your-sister. Settlements are for… community organizers.

No, they thirst for crisis. They can attribute it to Obama’s “weakness.” They can work in some shots at Hillary Clinton and try to hang it around her neck, since the Benghazi noose has shown an infuriating habit of slipping loose. And they can say to America, “See? You need us.”

The reality is that America needs their advice like it needs John Travolta’s pronunciation guide. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that if President Romney were in the Oval Office and John Bolton at Foggy Bottom and all the Doug Feiths and Randy Scheunemanns and ex-deputies to Rumsfeld and Wolfie filling all the key positions, the situation would be far worse than it is. Romney would have spent the last year goading Putin. We’d already have been at a boiling point over Syria—whereas under Obama, at least Russia agreed on paper that Bashar al-Assad should turn over his stock of chemical weapons. A NATO membership card for Georgia would have been in the works, if not already chiseled, and an expanded and souped-up missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe would have been announced. Basically, everything the United States could do to play right into every one of Putin’s lurid, paranoid fantasies about America’s true aims in the world (i.e., crush Russia), the Romney administration would have done, almost undoubtedly leading him to have behaved more obstreperously than he already has, and at an earlier point.

I’m not doing any dances over how the Obama administration has handled this situation (and why just $1 billion in aid? We should be matching Putin’s $15 billion). The European Union’s posture, it’s worth noting, has been far more abysmal than the administration’s, and it’s mattered far more too, since the Europe vs. Asia tension is at the heart of Putin’s concerns about Ukraine (read this excellent and concise rundown of the EU’s five huge errors in its recent dealings with the country). There’s blame to go around.

But most of the blame rests on the manly shoulders of the megalomaniac who is most responsible for creating this situation (and let’s remember to save some for Viktor Yanukovych, and even a little for Ukraine’s current government). For the neocons to blame Obama for the actions of a madman, incessantly using adjectives that are meant to communicate to the world that the president of the United States can be steamrolled, and possibly should be for his own good, is close to anti-American. But they can’t blame Putin. He’s their doppelganger, psychologically. He is them, and they are him. Woe betide the world if they ever do face each other.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 5, 2014

March 6, 2014 Posted by | Neo-Cons, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Vladimir Putin’s New Axis of Evil”: Liberal Russians, Ukrainian ‘Fascists’, And America

After being the “Man Responsible for Russia’s Victory at the Olympics,” President Vladimir Putin became the “Man Responsible for Protecting Russians Everywhere.”

In a country where insecurity and crushed ambitions are the foundation of national identity, the idea resonates well with a lot of people. The fine print, however, they should’ve read by now: Putin is the defender of Russians anywhere, as long as they’re not in Russia.

A growing number of right-leaning Russians, known for their resentment of Putin due to his lax stance on Central Asian immigrants and his support of the Muslim republics of Northern Caucasus, are praising the invasion. To many of them, this regime’s shortcomings can now be overlooked, overshadowed as they are by the image of a “Great Russia” finally reunited with its prodigal sibling, Ukraine. No one really cares what happens in Russia, as long as this country still has the balls to send a military force outside of its borders to protect ethnic Russians. The fact that Russia often can’t provide security for its citizens—mostly ethnic Russians—within its own borders, often losing in its never-ending war on homegrown terror, fades away at the prospect of a territorial gain and a victorious war.

With Ukraine, the Kremlin is creating its own axis of evil: America, the “fascists” who seized power in Kiev, and their liberal Russian supporters.

Russia’s vehement anti-American rhetoric is nothing new. However, combined with assaulting a far less powerful country in a moment of crisis, it’s akin to talking shit to the captain of the football team, while giving a beatdown to a member of the chess club who is having an asthma attack. (This isn’t to say that Georgia or Ukraine, or the next country Russia decides to invade, can’t put up a fight. They can. They just won’t win.)

Still, Russia is best at fighting enemies within. Already there are numerous calls to identify those Russians who oppose the invasion—“the fifth column,” as pro-Kremlin bloggers label anti-war protestors. Their photos are passed around on Twitter, information on these people is exchanged—names, phones, sometimes addresses; threats are made. These are cyber threats for now, but there’s no telling when they could become actions, and those who make their sentiments public get the trademark Kremlin treatment of beatings and mock trials for crimes they didn’t commit. A country as great as Russia can’t afford to have people who oppose its “reclaiming” of another state’s territory. Numerous Kremlin mouthpieces ask those who oppose the invasion to leave the country or face consequences of being a traitor. In their minds, only a crazy proxy of American Imperialism can say that it doesn’t benefit Russia to invade Ukraine.

In reality, there is little benefit for Russia in invading a sovereign state. Moral and legal issues aside—and they’ve never really been “issues” here, anyway—even if there isn’t going to be a war, the invasion is going to put a huge strain on Russia’s weak economy. But beyond warp-speed capital flight, the plunging rate of local currency, and probable economic sanctions that are going to follow, there are more costs to invading Ukraine.

Putin has to show his new subjects that he’s a benevolent king. So Crimea and whatever part of cash-stripped Ukraine he’s going to chop off are going to get a huge influx of Russian taxpayer money to help secure popular support, and get local elites hooked on Kremlin cash.

After Putin all but annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, Moscow desperately needed for these two breakaway republics to be recognized as sovereign states. It offered generous aid packages to the island nation of Nauru and Nicaragua in exchange for their recognition of the newly “liberated” republics, and was ready to pay anyone who would buy into the story a solid chunk of cash. There’s no telling who is going to side with Russia on its Ukraine gambit, but it sure as hell isn’t going to be free.

When the dust settles, the lack of any long-term strategy on Kremlin’s part will become unmistakable. The newly acquired republics become nothing but a financial liability for Moscow, and possible hotbeds for future conflicts. Just like it happened with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin is left with corrupt local governments, refugees, and brain-dead economies on permanent life support from Moscow. But as long as Russia got to parade its tanks, threaten everyone around them, and search enemies within their ranks, to them, it was absolutely worth it.


By: Andrew Ryvkin, The New Republic, March 2, 2014

March 5, 2014 Posted by | Russia, Ukraine | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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