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15 March 2014

Putin: The Mask Comes Off, But Will Anybody Care?

Russia appears to be deliberately fomenting more violence in Ukraine, possibly in advance of an invasion. Putin is no Hitler, but Hitler would recognize his moves.

By Walter Russell Mead

Violence is spreading throughout Ukraine on a course that looks exactly like conscious and deliberate Russian preparation for a wider war. Without telepathic powers it is impossible to know what is going on in the mind of the one man who can control developments in Ukraine, but overnight the chances of additional Russian military action against its helpless neighbor appeared to grow. On Friday in Donetsk conflict between pro-and anti-Russia groups left one man dead and 26 injured. Now in Kharkiv two more are dead in a similar way as clashes spread through the city. Pro-Russian groups, including it is said ‘rent-a-mob’ demonstrators bussed in from Russia, seem to be behind the violence. 

Moreover, there were scattered signs today that the next step is already upon us. Unconfirmed reports from local sources claim Russian troops landed in the Kherson region today—and were repelled. The story is starting to get picked up by news agencies, but rumors run rife at times like this. If true, it would mark the first direct military action by Russia outside Crimea and would be a major escalation of the most serious European international crisis since the Yugoslav wars. Here’s how the FT is reporting it:

Ukraine’s foreign ministry described the events as a “military invasion by Russia” and called on Russia to “immediately withdraw its military forces from the territory of Ukraine”. 

“Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia,” the ministry added in a statement. 

If that is what is happening, and the preponderance of evidence suggests that it is, Putin appears to be following the Adolf Hitler strategy manual pretty much to the letter. 

Putin is no Hitler, and from the standpoint of power he isn’t even a Brezhnev.  Still, his actions in Ukraine have been following Adolf’s playbook pretty closely. Adolf wanted to tear up the Treaty of Versailles. Putin is attempting to rip up the post-Cold War settlement in Europe and Central Asia. Like Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia is much weaker than its opponents, so it can’t achieve its goal through a direct military challenge against its primary enemies. Like Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia must be clever until it grows strong, and it must play on its enemies’ hesitations, divisions and weaknesses until and unless it is ready to take them on head to head.

“Keep them guessing” is rule number one. Nobody was better than Hitler at playing with his enemies’ minds. For every warlike speech, there was an invitation to a peace conference. For every uncompromising demand, there was a promise of lasting tranquillity once that last little troublesome problem had been negotiated safely away. He was so successful at it (and Stalin, too was good at this game) in part because his opponents so desperately wanted peace. French politicians like Leon Blum and British leaders like Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were as hungry for peace (it was the Depression after all, and both countries had suffered immensely in World War One) as Barack Obama and Francois Hollande are today. Commendably and properly, they wanted to fix their domestic economies, create a more just society at home, repair their infrastructure and cut their defense budgets. They were not in the mood for trouble overseas, and so a cold blooded con man found them to be easy marks. 

Putin has played on western illusions very successfully for a very long time. Remember all those ‘experts’ (many, alas, in government service) who thought that the Medvedev presidency represented a real shift in Russian politics? How shocked and disappointed people were when Putin stepped smoothly back into the top job? It is the oldest trick in the book: bait and switch. Humiliate John Kerry by making him cool his heels for three hours in the Kremlin, and then dangle hope of a cooperative relationship. Hold out a ‘helping hand’ when the Obama administration has gotten itself into an embarrassing predicament over its Syria red line, then kick Uncle Sam in the teeth at Geneva.

There was never a good reason to believe any of Putin’s talk of peace and cooperation. After the Cold War, America and its allies jammed NATO expansion down Russia’s throat. The European Union worked to expand right up to Russia’s frontiers while making it crystal clear that Russia could never be a member. Putin is no Hitler, but neither is he a Konrad Adenauer, determined to accept defeat and to cooperate wholeheartedly in building his country’s future within the lines drawn by the victors. And the US made Adenauer’s Germany a much better offer than it made Putin’s Russia. You would have to be living in what the Germans call das Wolkenkuckkucksheim, cloud-cuckoo-land, to believe that a man like Putin would passively accept the post-Cold War order. 

But cloud-cuckoo-land is exactly where many westerners live, in a resolutely post-historical world where foreign policy is about development, human rights, non-proliferation and trade. If Putin tells us he lives there too, we are hungry to believe him. We don’t want to live in a difficult world. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were having a fabulous time in cloud-cuckoo-land back in the 1930s and many of them clung to their illusions until the last possible moment. We want to live in a stable and secure world order but we don’t want to make the sacrifices world order requires—and so we will gaze deeply into the eyes of anybody who is willing to tell us what we most want to hear.

Hitler’s situation was like Putin’s in another way. Like Russia now, Germany in the 1930s was weaker than its western opponents, but its leader had much more power to change course. Hitler’s Germany was an opportunistic predator; it could move quickly, change direction on a dime, and lay plans in secret. His western opponents ran democratic governments where everything moved very slowly, secrets were regularly published in the press and big foreign policy moves were telegraphed well in advance. Hitler used what he had, and took advantage of his supreme personal power and control of the press to make Germany a much more aggressive and dynamic international actor than his lazy, contented and slow-moving opponents. Hitler could move at speed that made his rivals’ heads spin and frequently left them gaping in flat footed amazement at his quick strikes and rapid changes of course. He knew that surprise was one of his chief advantages and he used it to the hilt. 

President Putin is not a stupid man. He knows that Russia faces stronger but slower moving opponents. He knows that deception, misdirection and surprise are among his most effective tools. We must expect him to use them often and to use them well. The west ended up looking utterly flatfooted and clueless as Putin moved into Crimea just as it did in 2008 when he moved into Georgia. That is the way Russia wants it.

This use of surprise, by the way, can be very far reaching. Hitler stunned the west by signing his famous non-aggression pact with Stalin, dividing eastern Europe between them. He then surprised Stalin again by attacking him in June of 1941. For people like Hitler and, in his very different way, Putin, blitzkrieg is a tactic for diplomacy and not just for war. We would be total fools not to suppose that Putin and his closest associates are looking for game changing diplomatic moves that would spoil America’s day. 

Putin is using another one of Hitler’s favorite methods in Ukraine: turn your ethnic minorities in other countries into a Trojan horse— whether or not that is what those people actually want. Hitler did this with the Sudeten Germans in what is now the Czech Republic. The FT again:

Russia said on Saturday it was looking at requests for help from civilians in Ukraine, a statement which appeared to resemble those made two weeks ago in justification of its military incursion into Crimea. 

“Russia is receiving numerous requests for protecting civilians. These requests will be given consideration,” the foreign ministry said. It added a string of claims that Ukrainian militants and mercenaries were threatening civilians, which could not immediately be verified. 

There is nothing here that couldn’t have been taken directly out of Adolf’s Guide for Aspiring Hegemons.

Using another instrument that Putin shares with the German, a well tuned, centrally controlled and well funded state propaganda machine with international outlets, you then elevate the ‘mistreatment’ of that minority into a major issue. You scream and rant and rave, demand redress, and fill the airwaves with your warnings and your laments. You can always organize at least some of them to march and wave flags. When the other country’s police (or, better yet, angry counter-mobs) respond, you raise the temperature. Oppression! Murder! Genocide! 

It worked for Hitler in the Munich crisis, and it is exactly the card Putin has played in Crimea and perhaps will play in other parts of the ex-Soviet space. After using the German minority in Czechoslovakia as a tool, Hitler gave the west a brief respite (more soft talk about peace) before turning to his next target: Poland. Once again, it was the German minority that gave him his opening. Polish thugs were trampling on their rights. Their protests were being crushed by heartless barbarians. Babies were being ripped from their mothers’ wombs by bloodthirsty Polish mobs. Whatever.

Again, it was Hitler’s propagandist Goebbels who taught the world an important lesson: when you lie, go big. This has been exactly what Russian propaganda over Ukraine has done. And if it works here, we can expect to see the same kind of thing tried elsewhere: in Central Asia, perhaps, when Putin decides the time has come to reunite the Russian motherland with the gas and oil wealth of countries like Kazakhstan. The Baltic republics, already familiar with Putin’s play of the Russian minority card, are braced for more trouble, and well they should be. 

This is why the latest news from eastern Ukraine is so ominous: in the Adolf Hitler playbook, stirring up ethnic strife is something you do when the time has come to intervene. If Putin’s plan was to send troops into eastern Ukraine, we’d see Russian speakers in the streets protesting, sometimes with violence, and demanding ‘protection’.  “Defending Russian nationals from fascist mobs when the Ukrainian government is unwilling or unable to do so” is just the kind of fig leaf Putin needs; as of today, he’s got it.

But when dealing with a calculating player who has read people like Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, studied under the grandmasters of the old KGB and knows how Adolf did it, we shouldn’t be too confident that we know what’s coming next. Deception, disinformation and disguise are vital to Putin’s kind of foreign policy, and it is very much in his interest to keep us off-base and baffled as much as he can. With that caveat, it’s worth noting what the three likeliest alternatives are. 

First, the violence could be a preparation for an invasion that has already been decided in the Kremlin. This is unlikely to happen before the referendum in Crimea — Russia won’t want to upstage its own propaganda spectacle. Let a thumping majority (however acquired) vote for annexation, and then more violence takes place in eastern Ukraine… then boom. More riots, more incursions, more referendums.

Second, it could be that no invasion is intended or wanted at this time. Instead, Russia wants both to demonstrate its power to create crises inside Ukraine and to make the country as ungovernable as possible. A number of western commentators have been consoling themselves with the ‘Putin is trapped’ approach to Ukraine, but looking at the west’s situation the trap may be on our end. We are the ones who now have some kind of obligation to keep Ukraine’s corrupt and incompetent government alive and to keep its chronically lame, oligarch-dominated economy from withering away. We are also the ones who will be blamed if (when) economic miracles fail to occur. 

We can also be blackmailed. Are we going to pay Gazprom’s outrageous gas bill for Ukraine, or are we going to let the country freeze in the dark next winter? If the West has taken on the role of paymaster and protector of the Ukrainian state, do we expect Putin to make this any cheaper or easier for us?

 Meanwhile, unrest in the east can make Ukraine a much, much more expensive and difficult client for the west — and also increases the nervousness in the Baltic republics and former Warsaw Pact countries. Putin may think that a destabilized Ukraine where he can stir the pot at will is a pretty good thing for Russia — and he can quietly wait to see what develops as he plans his next steps. If nothing else, Ukraine’s is going to make people in places like Kazakhstan pay a lot more attention to Russia’s wishes than before. Let Ukraine simmer and flip your Soviet reconstruction focus to the east. The west didn’t lift a finger to protect Ukraine; the Kazhaks and others will feel very much left alone in a small room with a large bear.

Third, it’s also possible that Moscow is moving opportunistically. It may not have a long term plan, but sees the advantages of stirring things up in eastern Ukraine. Scaring Ukraine and the west is a good thing in itself. And who knows— it may turn out that further opportunities develop. 

Any one of these scenarios is plausible, and any one of them offers Putin the prospect of a clear, prestige-enhancing win. The second two look like the smartest plays from the Kremlin’s point of view, but the west would be foolish to assume that Putin calculates the odds in the same ways we do.

We must hope that western leaders finally wake up to the nature of the opponent they face. Putin, I say again, is no Hitler. He isn’t as powerful as Hitler and he isn’t as evil as Hitler. Compared to Stalin, he’s a choirboy. But he’s a smart and able adversary of the west who believes that world politics is a zero sum game. He believes that Russia can only survive and thrive by reconstitution a great power between China and Germany, and that this can only be done by rolling back the post-Cold War expansion of western power across the old Warsaw Pact and the former Soviet Union. 

Dealing effectively with Putin doesn’t require a new Cold War. American foreign policy doesn’t have to become, and shouldn’t become Russo-centric. But unless we take counsel with our allies and put the kind of intellectual and political energy into blocking Russian moves that Russia puts into thinking them through and making them, the world will become a significantly uglier place and it will be much harder to get some important things done.

The biggest cost to Putin of his Crimean adventure may not be the western sanctions, but rather the way that his Ukraine policy makes it harder for him to go back to gulling a complacent west. Not that he won’t try. Once he’s taken as much of Ukraine as he thinks he can get at this point, he is likely to launch a peace offensive, aiming to separate the Germans and the other Europeans from the Americans and let time weaken the outrage that now rolls through the west. Unfortunately, there will be people who are ready to be gulled yet again, but the quick vision the world has seen of the real nature of Putin’s policy and his ruthlessness will make at least some of the people harder to fool once more.

Drop Dead, Insane McVain!

'I will say to my friends who were objecting to this – and there are a number of them on my side – you can call yourself Republicans; that’s fine because that’s your voter registration. Don’t call yourself Reagan Republicans. Ronald Reagan would never – would never – let this kind of aggression go responded to by the American people.'

- Senator John McCain, Senate floor, 14 March 2014

Fuck off and die already, Insane McVain. It is the IMF ‘fix’ that is irrelevant to the Ukrainian aid package, which has already been passed by the House. It was the White House that insisted on the IMF ‘fix’ being attached. Obama has been trying to get it through since 2010 to no avail. He figured that he would attach it to the Ukraine package because no way people like you would say no and, right on cue, you stand up and condemn your own party. He plays you like a Stradivarius. 

You are a disgrace and I truly wish that you would either retire or die. You are vile and make me physically ill. I am absolutely disgusted every time I hear your name or see your face.

You are not content only to be a nasty piece of work either.  You have to be a dead wrong one, too.

A history lesson courtesy of Dan Drezner:

Daniel W. Drezner @dandrezner 

It's true, kids.  When Poland cracked down on Solidarity, Reagan immediately dispatched the 82nd Airborne to Warsaw.  Wait... #ReaganFP

Daniel W. Drezner @dandrezner

It's true, kids.  When the Soviets shot down KAL 007, Reagan immediately tightened CoCom sanctions against the USSR.  Wait... #ReaganFP

Daniel W. Drezner @dandrezner
It's true, kids.  When terrorists seized TWA flight 847, Reagan absolutely refused to negotiate the release of hostages.  Wait... #ReaganFP

Daniel W. Drezner @dandrezner
It's true, kids.  When Hezbollah took U.S. citizens hostage and then suicide-bombed Marines, Reagan stood firm in Beirut.   Wait... #ReaganFP

Daniel W. Drezner @dandrezner
It's true, kids.   My point with the #ReaganFP tweets is not to bash Reagan.  My point is that Reagan would've bashed Russia on Crimea and then... tolerated it.

Can anyone envision Ronald Reagan arm-in-arm with al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists?

Me neither.

'The United States must look beyond Mr. Putin. His regime may appear imposing, but it is rotting inside. His Russia is not a great power on par with America. It is a gas station run by a corrupt, autocratic regime.  And eventually, Russians will come for Mr. Putin in the same way and for the same reasons that Ukrainians came for Viktor F. Yanukovych.'

- Senator John McCain, Obama Has Made America Look Weak, The New York Times, 14 March 2014

Well, then, that settles it. ‘President’ Putin will die an old man and receive a state funeral on a scale approaching that given to Kim Jong-il. McCain is becoming as good a prognosticator as Biden.  Unfortunately, McCain doesn't even have Biden's 'Aw shucks and malarkey' charm.  He's just an angry, spiteful, resentful, vain, and hateful person, who reserves his most vicious venom for those that are, obstensibly, on his 'side.'

It's unbelievable that he was the presidential nominee of any major American political party only 6 years ago.

Sir, you are no Ronald Reagan.

Cold War Revisionism and the Defence of Obama’s Ukraine Blunder

russian parade

14 March 2014

We're Still Paying The Price For Woodrow Wilson's Failure In The Ukraine

A Russian flag inside the entrance to Crimea's regional parliament building in Simferopol on 13 March 2014

By James G. Neuger 

Woodrow Wilson didn’t care much for an independent Ukraine. 

Wilson went to the post-World War I peace conference committed to “self-determination” for other parts of eastern Europe, while keeping Ukraine tied to Moscow in the hope that a rebuilt Russian empire would reverse the Bolshevik takeover.

Wilson’s tactics in 1919, and the West’s ambivalence toward Ukraine after it finally broke free of Soviet control in 1991, show the limited options available to the U.S. and its allies in response to Vladimir Putin’s claim -- backed up by armed force Ukraine’s southern region of Crimea.

 “Catherine the Great conquered the Crimea in the 18th century just to make Russia a great power,” said Carole Fink, emeritus professor at the Ohio State University and author of “Cold War: An International History.” “Putin is responding to the tumult in Ukraine in a similarly great power strategic fashion.”

The next act in Crimea’s history comes tomorrow, when voters in the majority Russian-speaking region decide whether to sever links with Ukraine’s central government and pledge allegiance to the Kremlin. Western powers have denounced the hastily organized referendum as illegal. 

Some 59 percent of Crimea’s 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Russians, incubating the same conflicts between majority rights and minority rule that bedeviled the nation-builders -- and empire-dismantlers -- at the Paris peace conference after World War I.

Statehood Clamor

That war felled the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, bequeathing to the Allied victors a panoply of ethnic and cultural identities clamoring for statehood. The peace pitted Wilson’s “imperative principle” of self-government for formerly subject peoples against what the U.S. president dismissed as the European diplomatic ritual of drawing lines on maps in secret.Wilson was less principled on Ukraine. His opposition to a sovereign Ukrainian state was backed by the British and French, supporters of anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war that followed the communist seizure of power in Moscow in 1917.

Ballot boxes with the coat of arms of Crimea at a polling station in the municipality of Dobroe, near Simferopol, Ukraine

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George said he had glimpsed a Ukrainian only once in his life “and I am not sure that I want to see any more,” Margaret MacMillan wrote in her 2001 book, “Peacemakers.” 

While the Paris peacemakers bestowed statehood on the likes of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Ukraine was left to be fought over by Poland and Russia. Poland seized swathes of Ukraine’s territory and the rest became part of the Soviet Union when it was founded in 1922.

Wilsonian Moment

Nor were Wilson’s ideals extended to the African, Middle Eastern and Asian colonies of European powers. 

One supplicant inspired by what Wilson called “the sacredness of the right of self-determination” was Nguyen Tat Thanh. The man later known as Ho Chi Minh petitioned the conference to grant Indochina independence from France. Wilson never replied, according to “The Wilsonian Moment,” a 2007 book by Erez Manela, a Harvard University history professor.

A man walks past a poster reading "On March 16 we will choose either... or..." and depicting Crimea in red with a swastika and covered in barbed wire, left, and Crimea with the colors of the Russian flag in Sevastopol

Ukraine’s proximity to Russia in geography, culture and commerce, and its distance from allied capitals, continues to heighten the Kremlin’s sense of national interest and give it greater leverage. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rebuke of Russia’s pursuit of “unilateral geopolitical interests” this week was both a denunciation and acknowledgment that there is little that can stop Putin from using force.

Liberator Putin

The question now is whether Crimea’s probable vote for attachment to Russia will ignite secessionist sentiment elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, with Putin posing as the liberator of ethnic Russians eager to shake off rule by the central government in Kiev.

The evidence is mixed, said Tetyana Malyarenko, a law professor at Donetsk State University of Management in eastern Ukraine. The area around Donetsk is unlikely to rebel, she said, because it “is comparatively rich, comparable with Kiev, with a growing middle class and young people sharing western liberal values."

In Luhansk on Ukraine’s eastern fringes, separatist fervor is stronger. Malyarenko said that coal-mining territory tends to feel ignored by the central government and has “no strong local economic elite, interested in Western markets.”

Linguistic Map

The ethnic and linguistic map matters because long after minority protections were enshrined in the industrial world’s constitutions, politics in Ukraine remains defined by the duel between Ukrainians in the west and the Russian-speaking minority in the east.

Country-wide, Ukrainians make up 78 percent of the population and Russians 17 percent, according to the latest census, in 2001. The ratios flip in Crimea, consisting of 59 percent Russians, 24 percent Ukrainians and 12 percent Crimean Tatars, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group once persecuted by Stalin.

Ukraine’s parliament played cultural politics in the immediate aftermath of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster from office, only for the tactic to backfire. Lawmakers on Feb. 23 sought to downgrade the status of Russian as an official language. That drew the ire of President Putin, who claimed that the rights of ethnic Russians were under threat.

Language Law

Less than a week later, pro-Russian forces appeared in Crimea, seizing airports and other facilities, even though the interim president eventually blocked the new language law. Today, the peninsula is effectively cut off from the Ukrainian mainland.

The Kiev parliament’s aggravation of Russian sensibilities highlights the crisis facing Ukraine, said Gwendolyn Sasse, a professor of eastern European politics at Oxford University.

“It doesn’t justify the actions Russia has taken, but it does justify concerns about the current interim government in Kiev,” she said. “What we currently see is not a national unity government.”

Crimea was the crisis that didn’t happen in the 1990s. Moves to grant it greater autonomy were under way when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the weakened Russia under Boris Yeltsin was unable or unwilling to press the claims of the region’s Russian speakers.

How today’s bolder Russia will advance those claims after the referendum is a matter of speculation.

Putin is unlikely to follow Wilson’s advice, in a speech to Congress on Feb. 11, 1918, that “peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were mere chattels and pawns in a game.”

Then again, Wilson didn’t always follow it either.