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The Kremlin’s Influence Game

Does he or doesn’t he? (Work for the Russians, that is.) With the tensions between Russia and the West growing, Russian subversion seems to be everywhere, including the genteel world of think thanks and NGOs. It’s no surprise, then, that the European Center of Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA), a Polish think tank, is finding itself under suspicion of working for the Kremlin. After all, it publishes some highly pro-Russian articles and analyses, including a recent interview with Aleksandr Kofman, the foreign minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic (a.k.a. the pro-Russian breakaway region of Ukraine).

Ukrainian Jewish Leader on Russian Aggression

Josef Zissels is the chairman of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. He is sitting in the middle of a long table in the Ukrainian Restaurant in downtown New York. Before him is a bowl of borscht. As he eats, he shares his views of the current crisis in Ukraine with nine specialists and activists.

Zissels does not mince words. “There is no civil war in Ukraine,” he says. “There is a Russian aggression supported by local collaborators.” The war with Russia will be “long,” and Ukraine needs to construct a “militarist economy” like Israel’s. The Maidan Revolution had nothing to do with ethnicity, language, or religion. It was a “civilizational conflict” between those Ukrainians who supported Europe and those who supported Russia.

Has Putin Lost Germany?

A recently released German documentary about Vladimir Putin—Mensch Putin!—paints a decidedly unflattering picture of Russia’s leader. He is, according to the film, a disturbingly insecure man with a deeply rooted need to compensate for his inadequacies with manifestations of physical prowess and the exercise of power.

“So what else is new?” Putin’s many critics might ask.  The answer is: the film is German, produced by none other than the venerable ZDF, or Germany’s equivalent of BBC or PBS. That makes the film a touchstone of changing German attitudes toward Putin. The film updates former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s characterization of Putin as a “lupenreiner Demokrat” (“flawless democrat”) to something closer to Russia’s version of Hitler lite. What other German leader was a disturbingly insecure man with a deeply rooted need to compensate for his inadequacies with manifestations of physical prowess and the exercise of power? Germans will get the implied comparison, even if it remains unarticulated in the documentary.

Let Iraq Die: A Case for Partition

Iraq is finished, an expiring, cancerous nation on life support. Pulling the plug might be merciful. It might be cruel. But either way, it’s time to accept the fact that this country is likely to die and that we’ll all be better off when it does.

The Kurds in the north, who make up roughly twenty percent of the population, want out. They never wished to be part of Iraq in the first place. To this day, they still call the bathroom the “Winston Churchill,” in sarcastic homage to the former British prime minister who shackled them to Baghdad. Since the early 1990s, they’ve had their own government and autonomous region in the northern three provinces, and they held a referendum in 2005 in which 98.7 percent voted to secede and declare independence. The only reason they haven’t finally pulled the trigger is because it hasn’t been safe; the Turks—who fear the contagion of Kurdish independence inside their own country—have threatened to invade if they did.

The Sunni Arabs in the west, who make up another rough twenty percent of Iraq, aren’t itching for independence necessarily, but they sure as hell aren’t willing to live under the thumb of Shiite-dominated Baghdad any longer. Millions of them live now under the brutal totalitarian rule of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has declared its own state not only in a huge swath of Iraq but also in much of northeastern Syria. ISIS either controls or has a large presence in more than fifty percent of Iraq at the time of this writing.

Iraq’s Shiite majority, meanwhile, is terrified of its Sunni minority, which oppressed them mercilessly during Saddam Hussein’s terrifying rule and which now flies the black flag of al-Qaeda and promises unending massacres.

President Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq. For years—and for perfectly understandable reasons—he was very reluctant to wade into that country’s eternally dysfunctional internal problems, but even he was persuaded to declare war against ISIS in the fall of 2014 when its fighters made a beeline for Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and the only stable and America-friendly place in the country.

But however engaged the US chooses to be, the current war in Iraq is likely to drag on for years. If Iraq somehow manages to survive its current conflict in one piece, another will almost certainly follow. Its instability is both devastating and chronic. Far better at this point if Iraq simply terminates itself as a state and lets its various constituent groups peaceably go their own way, as Yugoslavia did after its own catastrophic series of wars in the 1990s.

In his limited response to ISIS after its seizure of Mosul in early June, Obama called for, among other things, Iraq’s “territorial integrity” to be respected.

Obviously it would have been preferable had ISIS not invaded from Syria and conquered Iraqi territory, but generally speaking there is nothing holy about Iraq’s current borders. It has never been a coherent nation-state. Nor, for that matter, has Syria. Both are geographic abstractions that never would have existed had European colonial mapmakers not created them in the early twentieth century for their own self-interested reasons, now long obsolete and forgotten. Had Middle Easterners drawn their own borders, whether or not they did so peacefully, the map would be strikingly different—and more organic.

As Lebanon Renaissance Foundation co-founder Eli Khoury put it, “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron. It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.”

Theoretically, Iraqis and Syrians still could have forged collective identities and ideals of patriotic nationalism between the time of their nations’ founding and now, but that didn’t happen in their neighborhood any more than it did in the former Yugoslavia. The dictators of Syria, Iraq, and Yugoslavia all tried to paper over the disunity in their countries with a theoretically binding international ideology—Baathist Arab nationalism, communism—but totalitarian regimes always crash in the end, and their ideologies inevitably go down along with them.

In the absence of tolerant pluralism and democratic political liberalism, the basic incoherence of these states guaranteed one of two outcomes. They’ll either be governed by “centralized iron,” as Khoury put it, or they’ll come apart at the seams. Centralized iron only holds incoherent nations together so long. Removing Hussein blew Iraq apart, and Syria blew apart even without its tyrant Bashar al-Assad being forced into exile or dragged from his palace.

Iraq’s current troubles began just one day after the US finished withdrawing its forces, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of planning terrorist attacks against Shiite targets and of murdering Shiite officials. Hashimi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan before security forces could grab him and now lives in Turkey.

In 2012, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, along with his son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan.

Is he guilty? Did he do it? I have no idea. Iraq has no shortage of vicious individuals, inside and outside the government, willing to use deadly force both overtly and covertly against rivals. Some of Hashimi’s bodyguards confessed, but it’s entirely possible they were coerced or even tortured.

Whether or not Hashimi was guilty, Shiite militias carried out death squad attacks against Sunnis all over Baghdad both before and after this happened. Iraq’s sectarian violence never entirely dissipated during the American occupation, and after the withdrawal it rose again.

The following year, Maliki’s government accused Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi of the same thing Hashimi had been accused of. Some of his bodyguards were also arrested and charged with committing terrorist acts. But now the conspiracy theories were getting ridiculous. Issawi was and is known as a reasonable and peaceable man. Accusing him and his people of terrorism is like accusing Alan Greenspan of operating his own secret prison on the side when he was running the Fed.

Issawi convinced plenty of the implosive chaos at the heart of the Maliki government when he said, “The tyrant of Baghdad will not keep quiet until he targets all of his opponents.” If the finance minister, of all people, could be accused of something like this, any Sunni leader or even civilian could be rounded up and placed in front of a Stalinist show trial.

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US Policy on Hong Kong Needs an Update

On February 27th, a bipartisan group in the US House of Representatives introduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. A companion bill is due to be introduced in the Senate soon as well. Both bills update US policy in response to last fall’s large-scale protests, dubbed the “Umbrella Movement” for the umbrellas that demonstrators used to shield themselves from tear gas. Protestors took over central Hong Kong streets after Beijing announced that it would screen candidates for the election of the territory’s top post—with loyalty to the Communist Party being a litmus test. 

Will Russia Buckle, Sell China Control of Its Oil Fields?

On Friday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich signaled that the Kremlin would be willing to give Chinese companies majority stakes in Russian oil and gas fields. “There used to be a psychological barrier,” he said, speaking from Krasnoyarsk, a city in energy-rich Siberia. “Now it doesn’t exist anymore. We are interested in maximum investments in new industries. China is an obvious investor for us.”

At present, Russia caps foreign ownership at 50 percent for oil fields where reserves exceed 70 million tons and gas fields containing more than 50 billion cubic meters in reserves. Yet that could change if the Chinese want bigger stakes. As Dvorkovich said, “If there is a request, we will consider it.”

In Ukraine: No Reform, No Investment

Here’s an idea for the European community. Instead of focusing on the fighting in the Ukraine, let’s talk about investments. Ukraine has plenty of people eager to work and improve their living standards, but companies aren’t investing, Dmitry Firtash told me at a meeting in Vienna this week. Firtash knows a thing or two about money, having accumulated between $673 million and $5 billion (estimates vary) in his quarter-century career as an oligarch. Though he’s also president of the Ukrainian Federation of Employers, he currently lives in Vienna: In fact, after being arrested by Austrian police on suspicions on money laundering last year (and released on bail soon thereafter), he’s stuck in Austria. The exact legal status of Firtash’s business dealings remain shrouded in mystery, but one thing is obvious: He’s keen to bring investments and jobs to his native country, where he’s a major, if controversial, investor and employer. “Any investor is a good investor,” he told me when I asked what sort of company would be particularly suited to do business in Ukraine. The country needs 300 billion euros, he estimates.

Iraq Wants More American Bombs Dropped on Iraq

My how things change. The Iraqi government is cheesed off at the United States right now because Washington isn’t dropping bombs on Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

“The Americans continue procrastinating about the time it will take to liberate the country.” That’s from Ali al-Alaa, an aid to the new prime minister Haider al-Abadi, to the New York Times yesterday.

Tikrit is occupied by ISIS. Baghdad wants it back. Washington would like to see Baghdad get it back, but the Pentagon has good reasons to keep its finger off the fire button right now. The Iraqi armed forces consist partly of Shia militias led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters who are firing artillery and even operating surveillance drones.

The Iranian-Iraqi coalition has made almost no progress at all in Tikrit. ISIS laced the area with mines and is dispatching suicide bombers with reckless abandon--another bit of irony. Iran’s Lebanese client Hezbollah pioneered suicide bombings in the Middle East during the 1980s, and now that very deplorable tactic is being used against its own architects closer to home.

Still, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey says Iranian support of Iraq’s push into Tikrit might be “a positive thing” if it doesn’t exacerbate sectarian tensions. Okay. But in what alternate universe will Iranian armed forces and undisciplined Shia militias not exacerbate sectarian tensions? Tikrit is a Sunni city—and a particularly hard one at that. ISIS massacred more than 1,000 of Baghdad’s soldiers there last year when it captured the city. The residents, whether or not they support ISIS, have every reason on earth to fear retribution. ISIS wouldn’t have been able to conquer Sunni territory in Iraq in the first place if people in that part of the country didn’t already think Tehran and its proxies wanted to subjugate them forever.  

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gets it right. “Sectarianism is what brought us to the point where we are,” he said in testimony on Capitol Hill, “and so I do look at it with concern. We are watching it very closely.”

The offense against Tikrit is a prologue to a planned Iraqi assault later this year against ISIS-held Mosul, the second-largest city in the country. The Iraqis would be well-advised to enlist the Kurdish Peshmerga as its primary backup instead of Iranians. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds don’t get along famously, but at least they aren’t divided by sect. (The overwhelming majority of the Kurds also are Sunnis.) And the Kurds are good fighters. They liberated the northern part of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s army after the first Persian Gulf War, and they’re holding their own against ISIS right now with American air cover.

So far they’re the only ground fighters in the region who can hold their own against ISIS. And the city of Mosul is practically walking distance from the border of their autonomous region. They’re even more motivated than Baghdad to keep the wolf away from their door.

In the meantime, the sectarian maelstrom that engulfed Iraq in civil war after the removal of Saddam Hussein is building again and will be with us indefinitely.

Conscription in the Baltics

When Germany suspended conscription in 2011, it seemed to spell the end of the people-based armed forces. For historical reasons, Germany had been perhaps the most ardent believer on a non-professional army. And there it was, returning to exactly that. (The result, one hastens to add, are armed forces that are not just professional but extremely respectful of every aspect of democracy.) So when even Germany decided that there was not enough reason to maintain armed forces focused on territorial defense—as conscription armies are—it was a sign that the era of the swift, mission-based armed forces, whose primary mission would be to assist in foreign hotspots such as Afghanistan, had arrived.

Brazil's Conundrum: Corruption and Economic Realities

Brazil, the jumbo democracy of Latin America, has been driven into an economic, political, and moral rut so deep that it is going to take profound changes in governance to recover the bright promise this key economy enjoyed until recent setbacks.

Brazil’s crisis is a perverse conjunction of economic stagnation, growing inflation, rampant corruption, unsustainable public indebtedness, and public sector incompetence. This is a homemade crisis brought about by misguided economic policies during the first four-year term of President Dilma Rousseff. During this period, Rousseff followed the advice of her populist advisers from the leftist Workers Party (PT), whose economic choices were guided mainly by the political objective of mustering electoral majorities by dispensing overgenerous, inadequately financed social programs, and by brazen political corruption.

Boris Nemtsov, 1959–2015

MOSCOW — This is probably the most difficult piece in my life.

Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov was a rarity in politics. Having raced up the political power ladder—member of Parliament at 30, regional governor at 32, senator at 34, first deputy prime minister at 38, leader of the parliamentary opposition at 40—he always maintained his honesty, his character, and his principles, never betraying his ideals or his friends.

He was the face of a different, freer, more hopeful, and more European Russia. A committed democrat and modernizer, who propelled his Nizhny Novgorod region to one of the leading economic positions in the country, helped to end the first war in Chechnya, and won election after election, Boris Nemtsov was the best president Russia never had. The most popular politician in the country, he was appointed deputy prime minister in 1997 and was openly talked about—including by the then president himself—as Boris Yeltsin’s likely successor in the Kremlin.

History decided otherwise.

Putin’s War and the Murder of Boris Nemtsov

The murder last Friday of Boris Nemtsov, as he was crossing a bridge a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, has silenced yet another brave critic of Vladimir Putin, who has turned Russia into such a great danger to itself and to the world. Unlike the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the human rights defender Natalya Estemirova, the auditor Sergei Magnitsky, and many other martyred critics of official violence in Putin’s Russia, Nemtsov was a political leader, a former deputy prime minister, and elected governor who was once considered a possible heir to the reform president Boris Yeltsin. He offered an alternative vision for Russia, one that Putin has systematically assaulted since he took power in 1999 in a restoration of Kremlin and FSB hard-liners.

Obama's Comprehensive Approach to Counterterrorism

In Washington last week, President Obama convened a conference with leaders from local and faith communities, the private sector, law enforcement, and foreign nations to discuss “countering violent extremism” (CVE), a catch-all term for pushing back against terrorist recruitment and propaganda. Only days after the CVE summit ended, newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter met with a similar group at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, including US military combatant commanders, regional military leaders, and representatives of partner states. The purpose of the meeting was to analyze the ongoing efforts to defeat the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and dive deep into the complex civil and military issues underlying the conflict.

ISIS' Next Target

ISIS has announced that Lebanon will be the next state to fall under the sway of its “caliphate.” According to Beirut's Daily Star newspaper, the only reason ISIS hasn't attacked yet in force is because they haven't decided on the mission's commander.

The Lebanese army is one of the least effective in the Middle East—and that's saying something in a region where the far more capable Syrian and Iraqi armies are utterly failing to safeguard what should be their own sovereign territory.

So France is going to send a three billion dollar package of weapons to Lebanon and the Saudis are going to pay for it. It won't solve the problem any more than a full-body cast will cure cancer, but it beats standing around and not even trying.

It may seem surprising at first that Riyadh is willing to fund a Lebanese Maginot Line. Saudi Arabia is the most culturally conservative Arab country and Lebanon is the most liberal, partly because of its one-third Christian minority, but also because Lebanon's Sunni Muslims are, for the most part, Mediterranean merchants rather than isolated desert-dwellers. They've been exposed to cosmopolitan ideas and culture for centuries while most Saudis outside the Hejaz region on the Red Sea have been hermetically sealed off from the wider world and its ways for millennia.

Despite the vast cultural differences between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, the Saudis want Beirut to remain exactly as it is—a freewheeling Arabic-speaking “Amsterdam” or “Hong Kong” on the Med. The Saudis vacation there in droves when they need a break from their fanatically conservative homeland. The country is like a pressure release valve. If they were to lose it, they'd have to holiday in France where they feel profoundly unwelcome.

But aside from all that, the Saudis feel just as uneasy about ISIS as everyone else. Never mind the ideological overlap between the upstart jihadists and the Wahhabi-backed monarchy. ISIS threatens every single government in the region. It would make permanent alliances with none and conquer all if it could.

The Lebanese, of course, are in far more immediate danger. They can feel ISIS' hot breath on their necks. The army has been scrapping with them along the Syrian border for some time now. A majority of Lebanon's population is either Christian, Shia, or Druze, and all three populations rightly see ISIS as a potentially genocidal threat to their very existence. Even the Sunnis, though, fear and loathe ISIS. Other than the nominal sectarian sameness—ISIS also is Sunni—Lebanon's culturally liberal Sunnis have little more in common with ISIS than the French or Italians do.

A serious invasion of Lebanon by ISIS could unleash a bloodbath that makes the civil war in Syria look like a bar fight with pool sticks and beer mugs. It would be tantamount to a Nazi invasion. Every family in Lebanon is armed to the gills thanks to the state being too weak and divided to provide basic security, but people anywhere in the world facing psychopathic mass-murderers will fight with kitchen knives and even their fingernails and teeth if they have to.

The only good thing that might emerge from an attempted ISIS invasion is that the eternally fractious Lebanese might finally realize they have enough in common with each other to band together for survival and kindle something that resembles a national identity for the first time in their history.

Foreign armies don't do well in Lebanon over the long term. The Israelis managed to invade and occupy a large part of the country during the civil war in 1982 and even exiled Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, but they ended up fighting a grinding counterinsurgency against Hezbollah until 2000. The Syrians invaded and dominated the rest of the country, but the biggest demonstrations in the history of the Middle East forced the Assad regime into a humiliating retreat in 2005. Those are just the most recent examples. At the mouth of the Dog River is a mural of sorts. Seventeen conquering armies carved inscriptions into the stone cliffs congratulating themselves for seizing new territory. All, Ozymandias-like, have been vanquished.

So ISIS will eventually lose if thrusts into Lebanon, but the cost could be unspeakable. Few of Lebanon's prior invaders murdered innocent people with such gleeful ferocity. If ISIS makes any headway at all in that country, the rest of us will see just how barbaric they really are when they violently encounter large numbers of people unlike themselves. And the odds that the West will get sucked even deeper into the great war of the Eastern Mediterranean will only loom larger. 

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

The Liberal Crack-up over ISIS

Has Chris Matthews joined the ranks of the dreaded neoconservatives?

Usually the MSNBC host has no time for foreign policy interventionists, national security hawks, and the other assorted defense intellectuals crudely classified under the “neocon” label. “There’s always a war that the neocons are looking forward to,” he grumbled in 2012. “Neocons,” he said that same year in a discussion of Mitt Romney’s presidential advisers, are “horrible, dangerous people.”

Just five months ago, Matthews lambasted none other than President Obama, not a man usually accused of falling under the spell of neoconservative influence, for his use of the word “homeland,” a term the towheaded pundit considered “totalitarian,” one “used by the neocons,” whom, Matthews said, “love it.”

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