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No Proxy War Against Russia

Senator Ted Cruz thinks the United States should arm Ukraine so it can beat Russian-backed separatists in the east. As much as we’d love to help plucky Ukraine resist the giant bear to the north—and we have a solid precedent under our belts—it’s a terrible idea.

Backing the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s worked smashingly well. Moscow learned the hard way that it could no longer project enough hard power to shield its vassal states from local uprisings and everything fell apart almost instantly.

Afghanistan was hardly the only country in the Soviet sphere disgruntled with communist rule. Eastern Europeans never acquiesced to it in the first place. They had it imposed on them by the victorious Stalin atop the ashes of the Nazi regime. The Hungarian Revolution in 1956, which began as a seemingly harmless student revolt, brought down the local Russian puppet state. Moscow panicked, deployed thousands of soldiers and tanks, and reimposed the brutal old order. It did the same during the Prague Spring in 1968.

But after the debacle in Afghanistan, Russia lacked the resources and will to repeat it. Nothing could hold back the rising tide of mass discontent in Europe, and barely six months later the Berlin Wall fell.

But Ukraine isn’t Afghanistan, and it is not Hungary. It’s where Russian civilization was born, as the medieval state Kievan Rus in the 10th century. For Russians, losing Kiev to Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union was a bit like Jews losing Jerusalem. Their toleration of a sovereign Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet system was always conditional on Kiev taking orders from Moscow. As soon as that ended with the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych last year, so did its independence.

Russia will no sooner surrender to American-backed forces in Ukraine than we would surrender to a Russian-backed insurgency in Vermont. The situation is hardly analogous—unlike Vermont, Ukraine is a country—but from Vladimir Putin’s point of view it’s precisely analogous.

This is all about NATO expansion which scares the daylights out of the Russians. It shouldn’t, but it does, and it’s not hard to understand why. Just ask yourself how the British would feel if the USSR won the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact expanded to Paris and Brussels. London would feel like it’s “next.” London would have cause to feel like it’s “next.” That’s exactly how it looked from Moscow’s point of view when former vassals like Lithuania and Estonia joined up with Germany and France—and the United States.

It’s a paranoid analysis, but Russia has always been paranoid.

“I believe the Russians are mobilizing right now for a war that they think is going to happen in five or six years,” said US Army Commander in Europe Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges. “Not that they’re going to start a war in five or six years, but I think they are anticipating that things are going to happen, and that they will be in a war of some sort, of some scale, with somebody within the next five or six years.”

The solution from Russia’s point of view—as always—is to either control or destabilize as many “buffer” states as it can. Any of its smaller neighbors that get a little too uppity will find themselves undermined from within or outright invaded, and in the modern era they’re likely to find scraps of territory “annexed” by Moscow to indefinitely prevent them from joining NATO. No one in NATO wants to admit a nation as a new member state that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. It’s dangerous. That’s ultimately what Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was about, and it’s the main reason Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year.

Putin has already achieved his primary objective and doesn’t need to do much else at this point except not lose the rest of the war. If the United States gets even indirectly involved, he’ll just ramp it up. He needs to win in Ukraine far more than we do, and unlike us he’s more than willing to deploy his own forces directly.

There is no chance Ukraine could ever win a total war against Russia. All it can do is make continued Russian intervention too costly. While it may appear that arming Ukraine will make Russian intervention too costly, it will only inflame Moscow’s anxiety and make losing Ukraine too costly for Russia.

Maybe—maybe—if Kiev wins the war in the east on its own and cedes lost territory to Russia, a Ukrainian rump state could join NATO and prevent something like this from happening again in the future, but that’s only remotely possible if Putin doesn’t feel like he must best the West in his own “near abroad” or lose everything.

A Hip Finance Minister and His Indebted Country

Lesson one in gaining the upper hand: take your enemy by surprise. If you can’t overpower him, divert his attention. This week Yanis Varoufakis has shown exactly how it’s done. Greece’s new finance minister has been touring European capitals sporting a leather coat, no tie, and flashy one-liners perfect for viral distribution. Google “Varoufakis” and “coat” or “financial waterboarding” and you’ll see what I mean. But adopting the demeanor of a rock star, Varoufakis turned himself into a political celebrity, cleverly managing to distract the EU public from the fact that the purpose of his European tour was to beg Greece’s lenders to forgive some of its debt.

New Film Unveils Putin's Insatiable Mafia State

On a walking tour of a provincial Russian city a few years ago, my guide pointed out a handsome apartment block. “This is where the wealthy people live,” she said. “How do people get rich here?” I asked. “Organized crime,” she replied without missing a beat. At first the local governor was unhappy at being assigned to a backwater far from Moscow. Then he realized how much money he could make by substituting the state for the local mafia.

My guide’s matter-of-fact explanation about life in her town came back to me while watching Leviathan, a beautifully filmed, finely acted new movie by Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev that is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. 

ISIS Meets Steel

The idea that what happens in Syria stays in Syria is as dead as Saddam Hussein, but ISIS is meeting steel as it expands. 

The Lebanese army is facing as many as 3,000 fighters in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains along the Syrian border and Nicholas Blanford reports a war of attrition is taking place there. In late January the army “roasted” ISIS with artillery, according to a military advisor he spoke to, then picked up “the smoking remains.”

Meanwhile, the Jordanian air force flew devastating sorties over the Islamic State’s “capital” of Raqqa in Syria yesterday to retaliate for the gruesome murder of its fighter pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh.

Farther afield, ISIS attacked and killed at least 30 Egyptian security men in the Sinai and killed 10 at a hotel in the Libya’s capital Tripoli.

It should have been obvious from the very beginning that a terrorist army like ISIS threatens the entire region and points well beyond, but somehow it wasn’t. The prevailing view in the West held that ISIS and the Assad regime might somehow cancel each other out (as if war has ever worked that way in the past), but even right next door a large percentage Jordanians opposed their country’s involvement in this fight. Yet after ISIS put al-Kaseasbeh in a cage, burned him alive, and uploaded the video onto the Internet, everything changed. The mood in the capital Amman is eerily similar to that in New York City and Washington DC shortly after September 11, 2001. “These criminals aim to stamp out life and rights everywhere,” King Abdullah said. “Their hate and murder has reached Asia, Europe, Africa, America and Australia.”

Lebanon is also findings its spine. The army is entirely useless when the country’s various communities slug it out with each other. Everyone fears—correctly, I should add—that the army might fragment into opposing militias if the leadership takes one side or another in a sectarian conflict. It happened during the civil war and could easily happen again. But Lebanon isn’t Syria, and ISIS is opposed almost monolithically in Lebanon, even among their “natural” Sunni constituency.   

ISIS is expanding its deadly operations at an alarming rate, but it’s also finding out the hard way that not every country in the Middle East and North Africa is as soft a target as Syria and Iraq. Libya might be. It has been precarious, to say the least, ever since Moammar Qaddafi was lynched outside Misrata in 2011. But taking on Egypt, Jordan, and the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq is almost as perilous for ISIS as taking on the Israelis.

Lebanon is more vulnerable—its soldiers are not especially competent—but ISIS would require a diabolical miracle to make any headway in the parts of Lebanon where Christians, Shias, and Druze live. Every family in the country has at least one rifle in the closet, and they’d correctly see ISIS as a potentially genocidal threat to their existence.

Washington’s backing of anti-ISIS proxies in Syria may be a fool’s game this late in the war, but the Kurds, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Lebanese—and maybe even the Libyans—should receive all the help from the Pentagon they can get.

Brazil's President Rousseff and Workers Party Mired in Scandal

When Petrobras, Brazil’s premier national oil company, discovered huge deep-water oil fields along Brazil’s southern Atlantic coast in 2007, there was euphoria in the ruling Workers Party (PT). Then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared that Brazil had won “the lottery” and embarked on an ambitious strategy to implant the PT as Brazil’s dominant political force for years to come. Today, that strategy is in shambles. A huge corruption scandal has involved Petrobras, the emblem of Brazilian nationalism, in payoffs to politicians and kickbacks in contracts with Brazil’s most prominent contractors. This has shaken, to its foundations, the PT and the national government now headed by President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president. She was selected by da Silva to keep the presidential seat warm until he can run again in 2018. Rousseff was reelected to a second four-year term by a narrow margin last year. She now faces the bleak outlook of a declining economy, beset by foreign trade deficits, high inflation, and soaring public debts accumulated by reckless spending during her first term, as well as the Petrobras downfall.

Charlie Hebdo: The Balkan Connection

Officials in both the Paris State Prosecutor’s office and Bosnia’s Ministry of Defense have now confirmed that the ammunition used in the Charlie Hebdo attacks was produced in Bosnia, and officials now believe that the weapons used in the attacks may have come from Bosnia as well.

Estonia Adds E-Citizens—and Security

Much fuss has been made about the Estonian government’s debut of its e-citizenship program, which some 13,000 foreigners have already signed up for, and rightly so. The first measure of its kind, it will allow someone from any country to acquire Estonian citizenship and enjoy all of the accompanying freedoms and tax breaks. “Acquiring this status would allow, say, an Indian entrepreneur to establish an Estonian company that he runs from Dubai but which does the bulk of its business in Spain; he’d also be able to use his electronic signature to execute contracts with customers throughout the European Union—and pay no taxes by keeping his profits in Estonia,” Eric Schnurer writes in Foreign Affairs. Introducing e-citizenship is an undoubtedly shrewd move on Estonia’s part, one that will bring welcome business revenues to the small but resourceful Baltic state—Estonia hopes to gain 10 million citizens through the program—and set the standard for e-governance around the world.

Are US Tanks Headed for Poland?

What to do when one feels frightened of the big boys next door but knows that the rules prevent setting up a little fort to make oneself feel safer? Back in 1997, as we all know, NATO promised Russia that it wouldn’t build military bases in the former Warsaw Pact states that had chosen to join it. NATO will “carry out its collective defense and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces,” the so-called NATO Founding Act reads.

Moscow is Still Churlish About the Loss of East Germany

The Russian government is considering a proposal to condemn the “annexation” of East Germany by West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Even Vladimir Putin knows the only reason East Germany ever existed as a separate political entity is because the Russians occupied it an imposed a totalitarian puppet regime on its subjects.

The Russians are just mad that the rest of the world won’t recognize their annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, and Germany has been their favorite Euro punching bag since Hitler invaded the Motherland. 

Walter Russell Mead explained Putin’s psychology vis-à-vis Germany last week in The American Interest.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, western power in Europe rests on two platforms. There is the global American hegemony, and then there is Germany, which has emerged as America’s sub-hegemon in Europe. Putin thinks that the Germans aren’t wise enough to rule Europe well, strong enough to rule it by force, or rich enough to rule it through economics and that Washington doesn’t understand that or, if it does, that Washington itself is too distracted or too weak to care. Either way, from Putin’s point of view, Germany’s position is much, much weaker than either Berlin or Washington understands.

[…]

Putin sees Germany as the weaker, nearer, and, in the short term, more dangerous obstacle to his ambitions than the United States. His current policy is aimed incrementally at reducing American hegemony; it is directly aimed at disrupting what Putin sees as Germany’s attempt to create a new post-1990 order in its image and under its aegis.

Germany, of course, doesn’t threaten Russia even remotely. No nation threatens Russia right now even remotely. But Russians are conditioned to fearing neighbors beyond the buffer states they control, and they don’t control much of anything in Eastern Europe anymore except Belarus and Transnistria. Its enormous flat geography has left it vulnerable to invasions from every direction but the Arctic for centuries.

Russia is no more likely to do anything about West Germany’s “annexation” of East Germany decades ago than Germany or the U.S. will reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year. This silly rhetorical stunt is just a healthy reminder that—nevermind the geography—Russia is not part of Europe.

Murder, Cover Up in Argentina-Iran Deal?

The mysterious violent death of a federal prosecutor investigating alleged Iranian involvement in a 1994 terrorist atrocity has convulsed Argentina’s debilitated democracy, where President Cristina Kirchner presides over an authoritarian populist government that has defaulted on huge debts to its international creditors. The prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment with a bullet wound in his head and a .22 caliber revolver by his side. This was on January 13th, only five days after he had publicly accused Kirchner and her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, of negotiating an agreement with Iran in 2013 that would cover up an investigation of the terrorist action in exchange for Iranian purchase of Argentine commodities with advance payments to meet Argentina’s shortage of foreign reserves. Nisman has been the chief investigator since 2010 of the bombing of the Argentine Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, the capital. He was scheduled to testify on his charges before the Argentine Congress last week.

New Audio Book Available

My first book, The Road to Fatima Gate, is now available as an audiobook from Audible and Amazon.com.

It is narrated by the fantastic Steven Roy Grimsley who also narrated the audio versions of Where the West Ends and Resurrection.

The Truth About American Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s new film, American Sniper, is a blisteringly accurate portrayal of the American war in Iraq. Unlike most films in the genre, it sidesteps the politics and focuses on an individual: the late, small-town Texan, Chris Kyle, who joined the Navy SEALs after 9/11 and did four tours of duty in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. He is formally recognized as the deadliest sniper in American history, and the film, based on his bestselling memoir, dramatizes the war he felt duty-bound to fight and his emotionally wrenching return home, with post-traumatic stress.

The movie has become a flashpoint for liberal critics. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore dismissed the film out-of-hand because snipers, he says, are “cowards.” “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds,” comic actor Seth Rogen tweeted, referring to a fake Hitler propaganda film about a Nazi sniper, though he backtracked and said he actually liked the film, that it only reminded him of Nazi propaganda. Writing for the Guardian, Lindy West is fair to Eastwood and the film but cruel to its subject. Kyle, she says, was “a hate-filled killer” and “a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.”

The Navy confirms that Kyle shot and killed 160 combatants, most of whom indeed had brown skin. While he was alive, he said that he enjoyed his job. In one scene in the movie, Kyle, played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, refers to “savages,” and it’s not clear if he means Iraqis in general or just the enemies he’s fighting.

But let’s take a step back and leave the politics of aside. All psychologically normal people feel at least some hatred for the enemy in a war zone. This is true whether they’re on the “right” side or the “wrong” side. It’s not humanly possible to like or feel neutral toward people who are trying to kill you. Race hasn’t the faintest thing to do with it. Does anyone seriously believe Kyle would have felt differently if white Russians or Serbs, rather than “brown” Arabs, were shooting at him? How many residents of New York’s Upper West Side had a sympathetic or nuanced view of al-Qaida on September 11, 2001? Some did—inappropriately, in my view—but how many would have been able to keep it up if bombs exploded in New York City every day, year after year?

Kyle had other reasons to hate his enemies, aside from their desire to kill him. In American Sniper, we see him in Fallujah and Ramadi fighting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, the bloody precursor to ISIS. His immediate nemesis is “the Butcher,” a fictional character whose favorite weapon is a power drill. The Butcher confronts an Iraqi family who spoke to Americans and says “if you talk to them, you die with them.” He tortures their child to death with his drill.

Kyle kills a kid, too, but in a radically different context. The boy is running toward Americans with a live grenade in his hand. “They’ll fry you if you’re wrong,” his spotter tells him. “They’ll send you to Leavenworth.” He’s right. Kyle would have been fried, at least figuratively, if he shot an innocent, unarmed civilian—regardless of age—with premeditation. In a later scene, he has another child in his sights: the child picks up a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and aims it at an American Humvee. “Drop it,” Kyle says under his breath from far away. He doesn’t want to pull that trigger. He’ll shoot if he must to protect the lives of his fellow Americans, but the kid drops the RPG and Kyle slumps in relief. How different he is from the Butcher, who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing children to death—not even children of the American invaders, but Iraqi children.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Disinvited by Moscow

The embarrassment of being disinvited: many of us have experienced it upon learning that we’re no longer welcome to an event. But earlier this month a more public disinvitation, one of vastly larger consequence, took place in Brussels. A European Parliament delegation led by Gabrielius Landsbergis, a young member from Lithuania, learned that it would no longer be welcome to Moscow. As the Parliament’s rapporteur for Russia, Landsbergis essentially functions as the legislative body’s point person in relations with Moscow. The revocation followed a cordial invitation by Russia’s ambassador to the EU last November; back in those somewhat happier days, Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov had promised Landbergis’s group all the assistance they required and had offered to set up meeting with Russian officials.

Putin's War on Civilians Defines Terrorism

Russian President Vladimir Putin is rapidly cementing his reputation as a sponsor of terrorism in Ukraine. One could, with some stretch of the imagination, have qualified the earlier violence perpetrated by his proxies in eastern Ukraine as mere “separatism.” In a blog post on April 14, 2014, however, I suggested that it qualified as terrorism, and that Putin’s Russia was therefore a state sponsor of terrorism. I then provided the definition of terrorism found in Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 of the United States Code:

(1) the term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country;

(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents; and

(3) the term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or which has significant subgroups which practice, international terrorism.

Kissinger’s ‘Favorite Communist,’ President Napolitano of Italy, Resigns

There’s hardly an Italian who doesn’t sympathize with President Giorgio Napolitano’s decision to resign despite the fact that he has another five years left in his unprecedented second presidential term. Italy’s highly respected head of state is 89; if he served out his full time he would be 94 when he left office. And Napolitano has already left a legacy that includes distancing the presidency from the bedlam of Italian politics and earning the esteem of foreign leaders.  

It was a political deadlock that led to Napolitano agreeing to serve for a second six-year term in 2013 when the Italian Senate and lower house that elect the Italian president failed to agree on a successor, but Napolitano won’t be there to bail out the politicians again on January 29th, when voting starts for a new president. In the first three ballots a two-thirds majority is required to elect a candidate, after that a simple majority will suffice, and presidential elections tend to spill over to a fourth or fifth ballot, or even more.

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