Quantcast

Blogs

Vladimir Putin's Next Move

If Vladimir Putin invades Poland, I’ll eat my hat.

It’s not going to happen.

Even so, American ground troops are being deployed there as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. This is the West telling him STOP. He’s not going to invade a European Union or NATO state either way, but we’d end up sending a crazy-weak signal if all we did was collectively shrug.

Ukraine still isn’t in NATO, however, and probably never will be, so it’s still vulnerable. Putin can slice it and dice it all over again. The US won’t physically stop him for the same reason he won’t invade Poland. Nobody wants to blow up the world, especially not over this.

So Ukraine’s vulnerable. Pro-Russian militiamen are occupying dozens of government buildings, city halls, and police stations in the eastern part of the country where many ethnic Russians live. It’s hard to say for sure if Putin is egging these people on or if they’re acting on their own, envious of their cousins in Crimea who got to go “home” without moving. Either way, they’re serving Putin’s agenda.

By annexing Crimea, he proved to the world that he’s willing to mutilate Ukraine when it displeases him, which it very much did when it cast off his vassal, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.

He doesn’t need, and probably doesn’t want, to do it again. What he needs in Ukraine now is leverage, and the best way to get it is to hang another potential Russian invasion over Kiev like a Sword of Damocles.

Putin could take Eastern Ukraine, but it would do him no good. It’s the poorest part of the country and would turn into an instantaneous money pit for him, akin to the United States annexing Tijuana in Northern Mexico. He can’t possibly want that, not if he has any sense.

He’d lose all his leverage over Kiev. Even an unspoken threat of invasion, occupation, and annexation is enough to make Ukraine act with tremendous caution toward Moscow, but if Putin pulls the trigger, Kiev would have nothing left to lose.

And the odds that Ukraine, shorn of nearly all its ethnic Russians, would ever again elect a president who’s soft on Moscow would be virtually nil. Ukraine would slip from Putin’s sphere of influence so utterly that the only way he’d be able to get it back into his orbit would be by invading and conquering the whole country.

Never mind the price he’d pay internationally for that kind of stunt; invading and occupying the largest country in Europe would require more than a half-million troops and God-only-knows how much money. And for what purpose? Ukraine poses no national security threat whatsoever to Russia.

Still, a fight broke out with a pro-Russian militia in the far-eastern city of Sloyvansk yesterday, leaving at least three militiamen dead. The mayor is asking Putin to send peacekeepers, something the militiamen would almost certainly welcome. This sort of thing could easily get out of hand, especially if the pro-Russian militias decide to wreak as much havoc as possible to draw Putin in even if he’d rather stay home. Wars break out all the time that aren’t wanted or planned for.

It’s no big deal that Poland is asking for American ground troops. That’s just predictable, and prudent, geopolitical posturing. If Ukraine asks, though, that would be the time to start getting nervous.

The Ukraine Deal: Has Putin Realized He Overplayed His Hand?

Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula may have boosted his popularity, but that hasn’t prevented $64 billion from flowing out of the country since the beginning of 2014. “The capital outflow is a powerful statement about how the commercial sector feels about the situation,” said Finnish diplomat Jaakko Iloniemi, a former ambassador to Washington and now senior adviser to President Martti Ahtisaari.

Economic considerations may have been a factor in Thursday’s tentative deal in Geneva, even as Putin perhaps comes to the realization that he has “overplayed his hand,” Iloniemi said.

Iloniemi was in Washington this week to assess American thinking about the Ukraine crisis, having just visited Moscow for the same purpose. He said many Russian foreign policy specialists and intellectuals had expressed concern over Putin’s actions and intentions, but shared the Russian president’s view that European and American leadership lacked the toughness that would discourage him.

Kremlin 'Reforms' Usurp Local Elections, Self-Government

As the Russian Foreign Ministry continues to issue Orwellian statements demanding immediate “federalization” in Ukraine, the Kremlin is moving to dismantle what little remains of federalism and self-government in Russia. This week, the State Duma passed a bill that abolishes direct elections for mayors and legislative councils in 67 cities across the country, including 56 regional capitals. The leaders of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party who spearheaded the municipal “reform” did not even pretend to provide justification.

With federal and regional elections closely managed to avoid any surprises for the Kremlin, municipal polls remained the last opportunity for Russian citizens to express their views. In the past two years, the Kremlin faced a whole series of humiliating defeats in mayoral elections across Russia, including in Yaroslavl, Togliatti, Petrozavodsk, Yekaterinburg, and, just this month, Novosibirsk. It seems that the regime has had enough.

Mysterious Suicides in China's Leadership

A spate of suicides among officials in China has caught the country’s attention. Beijing’s censors have quickly moved to end speculation about the deaths, indicating the Communist Party’s sensitivity, but everyday people remain suspicious.

The body of Xu Yean, 58, of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, was discovered on April 8th in his Beijing office. He was the fourth high-ranking official to take his own life in recent months. 

To Embargo or Not

It's impossible to visit and write about Cuba without mentioning the US embargo, so I wrote a piece about it for the print edition of World Affairs. It's available online now. Here's the first part.

Aside from the Arab boycott against Israel, American sanctions against Cuba have lasted longer than any other embargo in the modern era.

The sanctions were imposed in stages in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro began economic warfare against the United States by nationalizing private US property on the island. Cuban communism survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, so in 1993 the purpose of the embargo was modified by the Cuban Democracy Act, stating that it will not be lifted unless and until the government in Havana respects the “internationally accepted standards of human rights” and “democratic values.”

For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective. The Chinese government, while less repressive nowadays than Cuba’s, likewise defies internationally accepted standards of human rights, yet it’s one of America’s biggest trading partners. And the embargo against Cuba gives the Castro regime the excuse it desperately needs for its citizens’ economic misery. As ever, it is all the fault of the Yanquis. Cuba’s people are poor not thanks to communism but because of America.

After spending a few weeks in Cuba in October and November, however, I came home feeling less certain that the embargo was an anachronism. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his less ideological brother Raúl a few years ago, and the regime finally realizes what has been obvious to everyone else for what seems like forever: communism is an epic failure. Change is at last on the horizon for the island, and there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—the embargo might help it finally arrive.

*

“I fully support the embargo and the travel ban,” Cuban exile Valentin Prieto says, “and am on record calling for it to be tightened and given some real teeth instead of allowing it to remain the paper tiger it is. The United States of America is the bastion of democracy and liberty in the world. Not only should we not have normal relations with repressive regimes, it is our moral obligation to ensure, by whatever means possible save for military action, that we in no way promote, fund, assist, ignore, or legitimize said repressive regimes.”

Professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida offers a counterpoint. “One argument in support of keeping the embargo,” he says, “is that it gives the United States leverage to force the Castros to make liberalizing changes. I think that argument has some merit. And Cuba did confiscate and expropriate American property. But I don’t think the embargo is effective. The regime can still get whatever it wants from Canada, from Europe, and so on. The US embargo is something of a myth.”

He has a point. The United States is Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner after Venezuela, China, Spain, and Brazil. Cuba gets more of its products from the United States even now than from Canada or Mexico. Sanctions are still in place—Cuba cannot buy everything, and it must pay in cash—but the embargo is hardly absolute.

The United States, however, purchases nothing from Cuba. Americans are for the most part prohibited by US law from traveling there. You can’t just buy a plane ticket to Havana and hang out on the beach. You have to go illegally through Mexico or book an expensive people-to-people tour through the mere handful of travel agents licensed to arrange such trips by the US Treasury Department. Journalists like me are exempt from these regulations, but I am still not allowed to buy Cuban rum or cigars and bring them back with me.

The embargo does harm the Cuban economy—after all, that’s the point—but the bankrupt communist system inflicts far more damage, and in any case the decision to break off economic relations was made not by the United States but by Fidel Castro.

“Cuba is ninety miles across the Florida Straits,” said Professor Cuzán, “and was increasingly integrated in the American market for a hundred years. Then Castro severed economic and commercial ties completely and shifted the entire economy toward the Soviet Union. That was insane. Then he tried to forge cultural ties with the Soviet Union and force Cubans to learn Russian. It was a crazy project and it ruined the country.”

Cuba isn’t yoked to Moscow any longer, now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but its economic system is still mostly communist. The government owns all major industries, including what in normal countries are small businesses like restaurants and bars, so the majority of Cubans work for the state. Salaries are capped at twenty dollars a month and supplemented with a ration card.

I asked a Cuban woman what she gets on that card. “Rice, beans, bread, eggs, cooking oil, and two pounds of chicken every couple of months. We used to get soap and detergent, but not anymore.”

Doctor and hospital visits are free, but Cuba never has enough medicine. I had to bring a whole bag full of supplies with me because even the simplest items like Band-Aids and antibiotics aren’t always available. Patients have to bring their own drugs, their own sheets, and even their own iodine—if they can find it—to the hospital with them.

Cuba is constantly short on food too. I was told in October that potatoes won’t be available again until January. That can’t be a result of the embargo. Cuba is a tropical island with excellent soil and a year-round growing season perfectly capable of producing its own potatoes. But the potato shortage is no surprise. I saw shockingly little agriculture in the countryside. Most fields are fallow. Those that still produce food are minuscule. Cows look like leather-wrapped skeletons. We have more and better agriculture in the Eastern Oregon desert, where the soil is poor, where only six inches of rain falls every year, and where the winters are long and shatteringly cold.

I heard no end of horror stories about soap shortages, both before and after I got there. A journalist friend of mine who visits Cuba semi-regularly brings little bars of hotel soap with him and hands them out to his interview subjects.

“They break down in tears when I give them soap,” he told me. “How often does that happen?” I said. “A hundred percent of the time,” he said.

Read the rest!

Putin’s Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism

Putin’s Russia has become what the US Department of State calls a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

Here’s how: After the Anschluss of Crimea, Putin had three options. He could invade all or parts of Ukraine, or hope that pro-Russian demonstrators would flood Ukraine’s streets and assert their “people power.” The first option has not been pursued, perhaps because it’s too risky. The second failed, as the vast majority of Ukraine’s southeastern citizens have remained indifferent or opposed to unification with Russia.

That left Putin with one remaining option: terrorism.

Here’s why Putin’s Russia qualifies as a state sponsor of terrorism. According to 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

If you liked this, please consider leaving a donation for the author:

Vietnam is Funded

I’ve raised the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring. Thanks so much to everybody who pitched in on Kickstarter.

I owe everyone a personal thank-you, but I should wait until the 30-day period ends to make sure I don’t miss anyone.

Your regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly.

Trading Barbs with Putin

One of Ukraine’s richest oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky, has just taken another rude poke at Russian President Vladimir Putin. And this time the Jewish Ukrainian businessman hasn’t just insulted Putin. By invoking Jewish support of Putin’s Ukrainian nationalist bogeyman—Stepan Bandera (1909–59)—Kolomoisky, who is president of the European Jewish Union and a leading Jewish philanthropist, has engaged in the ultimate provocation.

If you liked this, please consider leaving a donation for the author:

From Burgers to Banks, Russia Sanctions Start to Bite

Among the spate of unintended consequences of Vladimir Putin’s Crimean landgrab is the closure of the three highly popular McDonald’s outlets in the Black Sea peninsula—in Sebastopol, Simferopol, and Yalta, according to the Russia media. The 500 or so McDonald’s staff were given the choice of relocating to branches of the American fast food chain elsewhere in Ukraine, or accepting a severance package and not moving. Most of them opted to stay put, the reports say, doubtless in the expectation that the hamburgers would soon be sizzling again under Russian management, as affiliates of Russia’s own McDonald’s operation of more than 200 outlets (the one in Pushkin Square, in Moscow, has the distinction of being the world’s busiest).

More serious is the virtual disappearance from Crimea of the banking system as Ukrainian and foreign banks have closed their branches. PrivatBank, the largest bank in Ukraine, shuttered its 339 branches last month. But Russian banks are reluctant to step into the gap and establish a presence in the annexed territory for fear of being hit by future Western sanctions.

We’re at 70 Percent. Let’s Get to 100.

I’ve raised around 70 percent of the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring, but I won’t get any of it unless the project is 100 percent funded.

I’d like to get this wrapped up as soon as possible so I can plan my trip properly and get the prep work taken care of. I’ve already started that process, but I don’t want to move ahead at full speed until I know for sure I can go.

So if you haven’t pitched in yet, let’s get this done.

The toughest part about completing a successful Kickstarter campaign is getting the word out. I can reach lots of people with my blog, Twitter, and Facebook, but it will help if I can reach even more. There are thousands of people out there who would pledge a little money if they knew this project existed.

A new Web site called Kickdriver will allow me to reward those of you who have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts of your own if you tell your friends and followers what I’m up to. You can collect rewards from my past Kickstarter projects and even get complimentary electronic copies of my books that are for sale commercially.

It's easy. If you’re interested, sign up at Kickdriver and let’s get this done for our mutual benefit.

Most important, though, please pitch in if you haven’t already.

Thanks, everybody!

Could Russia Occupy Ukraine?

A Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine continues to worry Ukrainian and Western policymakers, despite statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Moscow has no such intentions. The illegal occupation of Crimea serves as one source of disbelief in Russian sincerity; a second source is Moscow’s refusal to recognize the Ukrainian government or the forthcoming May 25th presidential elections. A third is the continued placement of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. Estimates of their number have ranged widely, from 30,000 to 220,000, with most falling in the 50,000–80,000 range. (On April 4th, however, Ukraine’s first vice prime minister stated there were 10,000–15,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders and another 22,000 in Crimea.)

If you liked this, please consider leaving a donation for the author:

India Goes to the Polls

On Monday, voters started to go to the polls in what a recent Economist editorial called “the largest collective democratic act in history.” When voting ends on May 12th, Indians will have chosen a new parliament—and a new leader of their democracy, the world’s biggest.

Manmohan Singh, the 13th and current prime minister of India, is stepping down. His party, Indian National Congress, has dominated politics since independence in 1947. Yet it is now conducting a dispirited campaign under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the fourth generation of the country’s most famous political dynasty

Putin and the ‘Good Hitler’

Just when you think Vladimir Putin’s propaganda cannot sink any lower, it invariably does.

Andranik Migranyan is a seasoned Kremlin hand. A former member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, a cavalier of the presidentially bestowed Order of Honor, he currently heads the New York office of the so-called Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a Russian GONGO created on the initiative of Vladimir Putin in 2007 (it also has an office in Paris).

I Need a Kickstarter Boost

My Kickstarter project is 54 percent funded and I will only get money if it’s 100 percent funded.

Help me out, folks. You need me out of the office just as much as I need to get out of the office, but I can’t do it without resources. The journalism industry used to cover travel expenses, but that’s a thing of the past.

Taiwan Protests Engulfing Beijing

Over the weekend, citizens from around Taiwan converged on their capital of Taipei for demonstrations over a trade agreement with China. On Saturday, a few thousand citizens rallied to support the beleaguered President Ma Ying-jeou as he pushed for ratification of the unpopular pact. On Sunday, more than a hundred thousand citizens—estimates ranged from 116,000 to 700,000—turned out to “write history,” opposing the deal and supporting students who had taken over the legislature last month.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 18th, students broke into the Legislative Yuan and blocked the entrances with chairs. At the time, they said they would leave by the following Friday, but they have since decided to stay and remain in place. 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - blogs