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Interviewed on the Ricochet Podcast

James Lileks and Peter Robinson interviewed me earlier today on the Ricochet podcast about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You can listen here. I come in during the last 20 minutes or so.

Putin and Cronies Only Fear Targeted Sanctions

One can think of a few possible ways to change Vladimir Putin’s mind on the occupation of Ukraine. He may listen to public opinion: 73 percent of Russians, even according to the state-run VTsIOM polling agency, oppose intervention in Ukraine. He may be persuaded by Russian opposition leaders, who condemned the war as “madness of a deranged KGB officer” and a “reckless policy” that “goes against the interests of our country.” He may be swayed by Western moves to suspend military cooperation and threats by Western leaders to boycott the G8 summit in Sochi.

Ukraine's Chief Rabbi Refutes Putin's Anti-Semitic Charges

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters in Russia and the West have accused the Ukrainian opposition that led the fight against the criminal Yanukovych regime and the democratic Ukrainian government that succeeded that regime of being fascist, neo-Nazi, and anti-Semitic.

The following quotations—by Putin and his most unremitting academic supporter in New York City on the one hand, and by three of Ukraine’s leading Jewish officials on the other—should settle the issue. Putin is beyond redemption, of course, but Professor Cohen may want to take account of the evidence and, like a good revisionist historian, revise his views.

Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, March 4, 2014:

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Russia's Occupation Reeks of the Soviet Days

How would you like to be ruled by a gangster named “Goblin” who was “elected” by a parliament under the eyes of masked militiamen? That’s what Crimeans are getting.

SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE—Strip away the propaganda from the chaos in Crimea, and this much is certain: last Thursday morning a political farce played out here in the regional capital.

It started with anonymous gunmen storming parliament house in a bloodless pre-dawn raid. By sunrise, the Russian flag was flying high above an occupied government house.

Lawmakers were summoned, stripped of their cellphones as they entered the chamber. The Crimean media was banished. Then, behind closed doors, Crimea’s government was dismissed and a new one formed, with Sergey Akysonov, head of the Russian Unity party, installed as Crimea’s new premier.

It if was a crime, it was just the beginning. Akysonov’s ascent to power at the point of a gun presaged all that has happened since — the announcement of a referendum on Crimean independence and the slow, methodical fanning out of Russian forces throughout the peninsula, ostensibly to protect Russians here from a threat no one can seem to find.

But here’s the most interesting bit: Aksyonov’s sudden rise as Moscow’s crucial point man in Crimea has revived simmering allegations of an underworld past going back to the lawless 1990s, when Akysonov is said to have gone by the street name “Goblin,” a lieutenant in the Crimean crime syndicate Salem.

Years ago I assumed if Russian troops were to one day show up in Crimea that they’d be welcome by many locals as liberators. But I wasn’t counting on masked militias or “Goblin.”

Maybe a lot of these people are sufficiently spooked by what’s going on in Kiev and by hysterical claims that Russians are about to be persecuted by mobs of Ukrainian fascists. But they’re going to wake up to “Goblin” sooner or later and there’s reason to believe they aren’t going to like it—and not just because I wouldn’t like it. (Imagine—just try—if something like this happened in the United States.) Goblin’s party won a paltry four percent of the vote when it stood for election.

If Crimea wants to join Russia, this is the political science they should expect. At least they’ll know what they’re in for. 

Beijing–Hong Kong Tensions Rise After Stabbing

A senior Chinese official took to the airwaves in Hong Kong on Thursday to condemn the brutal stabbing attack on Kevin Lau, the former editor of Ming Pao, a local newspaper, who had been abruptly dismissed from his job in January. “We’re closely watching the attack … and strongly condemn the unlawful act of the criminals,” said Yang Jian, deputy director of China’s Liaison Office in the city. “We firmly support the Hong Kong government to spare no effort, arrest the culprits, and punish them in line with the law.”

The statement will do little to lessen the damage to Beijing’s reputation in Hong Kong, which has been a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic since 1997. Many in the city suspect that Mainland Chinese individuals or pro-Beijing thugs staged the near-fatal attack on Lau, who sponsored, among other things, exposés on the “hidden” wealth of Chinese leaders.

Pity the Vassals of Moscow

“Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” — George F. Kennan, America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union

Russia is justifying its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula by saying the ethnic Russians who live there are threatened by a nascent fascist regime in Kiev. The habits of Soviet propagandists die hard. What’s really going on here is simple. Vladimir Putin, like most Russian leaders before him, feels he must shove his weight around the “near abroad” to maximize his power and influence in the thin buffer between him and the West. Now that he’s without his vassal—mini-Putin, Viktor Yanukovych, is on the run—Moscow has to do the grunt work itself.

Russia has long been a paranoid land power. It’s huge, mostly flat, and wide open to invasion. Just to name a few examples, it was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century, Napoleon in the 19th, Nazi Germany in the 20th, and has been recently squeezed by NATO expansion in the former Soviet bloc. These events seared themselves into the Russian psyche. They breathe better with buffer states.

Whether we and the Ukrainians like it or not, Ukraine is still a buffer state within Moscow’s sphere of influence. The US has little more leverage there than Russia has in Canada. And since ethnic Russians outnumber ethnic Ukrainians in the Crimea by more than two-to-one, a Russian invasion of that part of the country is a bit like a French invasion of Quebec—troublesome indeed, and infuriating to the capital, but different from, say, a North Korean invasion of Quebec. That’s why Russia could take it without firing a shot and why nobody shot at the Russians.

Plenty of Crimeans are unhappy about it, of course. A fourth are ethnic Ukrainians, an eighth are Tatars, and one would have to be a truly obnoxious determinist to suggest every Russian on the peninsula is thrilled being occupied by a foreign army just because they speak the same language.

Ukrainians elsewhere in the country (especially outside the ethnically Russian east) are mobilizing for war.

The fact that Crimea has a large Russian population and is pro-Russian politically is no excuse for Putin to lop it off Ukraine. If the reason why is not obvious, ask yourself how you’d feel if the Mexican government seized San Antonio, Texas, and said, hey, it has a Hispanic majority, so it’s ours now. Or if the United States conquered and annexed Toronto and said, hey, we’re all English-speaking North Americans here with a common ancestry, so what’s the big deal?

That's basically what Russia is doing.

And that was Adolf Hitler’s justification for taking the German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in the run-up to World War II. Putin is not Hitler, but he’s pulling the same kind of stunt and expecting to get away with it for exactly the same reason. Nobody wants to blow up the world over this sort of thing.

It’s possible that Russia might take even Kiev if Putin thinks the response to seizing Crimea is sufficiently supine. I doubt it, personally, but I don’t know that he won’t. No one can know that.

He wouldn’t get much out of it, aside from a violent migraine, that he isn’t already getting by invading Crimea. Ukraine can’t fend off a full-blown Russian invasion, but it can make an invasion bloody and expensive. And what would Russians back home think? Ukrainians aren’t their enemies. There is little hatred between these two closely-related peoples.

Bullies drunk on power do reckless and unpredictable things sometimes, though, so the possibility of an all-out invasion—even if the odds are against it—can’t be ruled out.

So now what? The US and NATO are not going to declare war on Russia over Crimea or even Kiev, but that doesn’t mean Putin can just barge in wherever he wants. It goes without saying that the invasion of a European Union or NATO country is over the line and would be resisted with force. Putin surely knows that already. Everybody in Russia knows that.

What Putin does not necessarily know is whether or not the red line is closer to Moscow.

Kiev is almost certainly on Putin’s side of the red line, but no one has actually said that, so it’s ambiguous, as it should be. Ambiguity lends itself to restraint. Russian leaders tend more toward paranoia than American leaders at the best of times. And the expansion of NATO frightened the Russians as much as the expansion of the Warsaw Pact would have alarmed Americans had the Soviets won the Cold War.

So the last thing the West should do is tell Putin where the red line is located exactly. Want to prevent an explosion in far-eastern Europe? Let him think he’s in danger of crossing it now. Otherwise he may sense a green light from the West to swallow whatever he wants on his side of the EU. Let him see a yellow light, at least, if a red light is asking for too much.

There are various ways to signal a yellow if not a red. Retired Admiral James Stavridis shared a few ideas in Foreign Policy magazine. Michael Barone has more. Parking destroyers in the Black Sea off Yalta might be a good place to start. The US sent ships to that region when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. The Russians didn’t withdraw from occupied Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but at least they stopped where they were, withdrew from Gori, and left the capital Tbilisi alone.

It ought to go without saying that it’s not okay for nations to forcibly move other peoples’ borders around because they feel like it, but taking the long view, there may be an upside to all this. Ukraine shorn of its Russian-majority regions would become more pro-European as a matter of simple math. Most of Ukraine’s die-hard pro-Russians won’t participate in Ukrainian elections if they’re no longer part of the Ukrainian polity. And the fools who voted for the pro-Russian Yanukovych solely because the previous government was perceived as corrupt likely won't make that mistake again any time soon, not after getting invaded and dismembered by Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine could end up permanently divvied up in the future, with the Russian regions annexed by Moscow, either formally or de-facto, while the rest of the country, which naturally tilts more to the West, admitted to the European Union and NATO.

That’s a best-case scenario rather than a likely scenario. Ukraine in its current borders, though, surely won’t be admitted to the European Union or NATO, at least not before the Russian Federation liberalizes dramatically, because too many people in its political class are volunteer tools of Moscow.

Russian civilization was born more than a thousand years ago in Kiev in the medieval state of Kievan Rus. If that city ever gives the finger to Moscow once and for all and joins the EU and NATO, that would be something to see. It’s why Russia cares more about Ukraine than the West does and will probably get what it wants.

No one in charge of the fate of that country is asking what the Ukrainians want. They should, but they aren’t and they won’t. Such is the fate of the vassals of Moscow.

Will Putin's Invasion Backfire?

Back in the early 1990s, when the Russian chauvinist Vladimir Zhirinovsky first reared his loony head, analysts began discussing the “Weimar Russia” scenario. Accordingly, the chaos of the late-Gorbachev period (Weimar) would be followed by the emergence of a strong man à la Adolf Hitler (Zhirinovsky), who would impose order, consolidate the nation, and lead it to some imagined form of glory.

The scenario didn’t work for crazy Vlad, but it turned out to be useful in understanding subsequent developments in Russia. The chaotic period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s proved to be similar to Weimar Germany in the 1920s: in both cases, imperial collapse, economic hardship, and political humiliation were blamed on democracy and the democrats. And Vladimir Putin turned out to be Russia’s version of the Führer. Both came to power legally, developed cults of the personality, dismantled democracy and made the trains run on time, employed chauvinism and neo-imperialism to legitimize their rule, remilitarized their states and promised to make them great powers, and made it their mission to in-gather ethnic brethren in neighboring states.

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Washington’s Awkward Diplomatic Void

Two highly effective US ambassadors have quit their respective “frontline” diplomatic posts within a few days of each other, and in both cases the timing couldn’t be worse. Ambassador Gary Locke, an American of Chinese origin, fluent in Mandarin, left Beijing—where he was a popular envoy—after two and a half successful years. At the same time, Stanford University professor Michael McFaul, Washington’s man in Moscow, is leaving after a two-year stint even as Vladimir Putin orders troops to the Crimea to counter the popular uprising against Ukraine’s pro-Russian government.

Seasoned American diplomats can’t recall another time when the United States found itself bereft of an ambassador in both Beijing and Moscow at the same time. Former Democratic Senator Max Baucus has already been sworn in as Locke’s successor; initially, there was something of a scramble to get a new ambassador in place in Russia before the June G8 summit in Sochi, which Putin will host.

Obama is now threatening to boycott the summit to protest Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, and the administration may decide not to appoint a new US envoy to Moscow as a further sign of its opposition.

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Was Easy to Predict

So Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised. I’m hardly an expert on Ukrainian history or politics, but I’ve been there, and I’ve been to the Crimea, and this was just obvious. It was obvious to me even before Viktor Yanukovych became president.

I drove down there from Kiev in late 2009 with my friend Sean LaFreniere and wrote about it in my book, Where the West Ends.

The photograph on the book's cover, by the way, was taken in the Crimea.

Here’s a brief excerpt of what I wrote then.

Night fell before we reached the Crimea. Sean and I were both too tired to drive, so we pulled into a gas station to buy cans of Red Bull. CDs were on sale next to the soda and chips. Sean grabbed a couple at random, plus Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The dramatic intro, O Fortuna, seemed like the appropriate thing to listen to when arriving in the one part of Ukraine everyone knew might one day, through either war or secession, be reunited with Russia.

Crimea is in Ukraine, but it isn’t Ukrainian. This part of the country really is Russian. By this point I had learned the alphabet well enough that I could read, so I knew the gigantic words “Автономной Республики Крым” announced to all visitors at the border that Crimea is an autonomous republic.

Crimea has its own flag. It hosts the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet. It defiantly refuses to place itself within the Ukrainian time zone. Though it’s dead south of Kiev, it uses the more easterly Moscow time zone instead. It doesn’t have its own national anthem, but I heard the Russian national anthem playing loudly on the boardwalk of Yalta.

This is a town that is long past its prime. It’s undoubtedly a nicer place now than it was during the communist era, but, unlike Odessa, it’s provincial and tacky. Only a Russian could travel thousands of miles to vacation there without feeling a little let down and that’s only because Yalta is Russian and warm. Ukrainians go there because it’s nearby and warm.

Only a fourth of its citizens are ethnic Ukrainians. Less than a sixth are Crimean Tatars. Most of the rest are Russians. The government in Kiev has been trying for years to teach everyone in the country the Ukrainian language, but in Crimea it’s meeting the stiffest resistance.

One thing the peninsula has going for it, however, aside from an agreeable climate, is its spectacular scenery. While most of Ukraine is flatter than Iowa, the steep craggy Crimean Mountains shoot straight up out of the Black Sea, which shimmers in sun-drenched glory year-round. Even though Yalta is significantly north of the Mediterranean, the climate, at least for a narrow little band near the beach, is startlingly subtropical. It’s one of the only places in the world where a native Russian-speaking population can grow palm trees. It’s not only the language, but the political autonomy, and the general Russian-ness that set Crimea apart from Ukraine. It’s also those mountains and the trees and the moderate sea breeze.

Sean and I hadn’t booked a hotel, so we checked out a few places at random. The first was prohibitively expensive. The second, a chopped up former apartment building that must have been beautiful in its heyday, reeked of piss.

A third place was cheap, adequately clean, and had a large room with two beds, so we took it.

A Russian communist-era movie played on the TV. I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but it was at least passively propagandistic. The main characters, scientists in white lab coats, worked in a sparkling clean high-tech facility, the kind of place science fiction writers of the 1950s imagined were in our future. The movie portrayed an entirely staged idealized version of an advanced communist utopia without gulags, without long lines for potatoes, and without the NKVD. Ukrainians don’t need communist-produced re-runs. They, like the rest of us, need a serious film about Stalinism for a mass audience, a Schindler’s List of the Soviet Union.

In the morning we strolled the boardwalk. The weather was unseasonably cold, almost freezing even though it was only early November, but the sunshine and the palm trees gave the illusion of warmth. Yalta isn’t exactly Miami, but Crimeans really do enjoy a charmed climate, especially compared with the climate Russians suffer in everywhere else.

At the north end of the boardwalk stood an angry-looking statue of Vladimir Lenin. I had the feeling he was still up there not because he was a communist, but because he was Russian. Communism is as dead in Yalta these days as it is in Warsaw. Just a few hundred feet away, and comically in the direct line of sight of Lenin’s sculpted furious face, was a McDonald’s.

For dinner we found a place with translated menus. Yalta just barely gets enough Western tourists once in a while that it occurred to a few restaurant managers to have a handful of menus laying around in the back in other languages.

Two young college-age women a few tables away heard us speak English. They laughed. They giggled. They tittered. This went on for at least a half-hour. And they couldn’t stop staring. Sean and I were like zoo animals. An Arab, a black African, or an East Asian would have a hellish time visiting this place.

Yalta was nice in a basic sort of way, but it lacked the polish and vibrancy of Kiev and the relative cosmopolitanism of Odessa. No one should ever fly from the other side of the world just to go there. It reminded me of what Samuel Johnson once said about a bizarre volcanic basalt formation in Northern Ireland called the Giant’s Causeway. “Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see.”

*

Crimea is a de-facto independent Russian-speaking republic, but if it weren’t for Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev it would still be part of Russia. In 1954 he moved an internal Russian border around and placed Crimea in Ukraine. It didn’t seem like a fateful decision at the time, one no more significant than giving Idaho a slice of Montana. He had no idea any part of Ukraine, let alone all of it, would ever break loose from Moscow. He should have known it was possible since it had happened before, but he did not see it coming, or at any rate didn’t care, so this Russian-majority region is marooned outside of Russia.

Perhaps the only reason Russian leader Vladimir Putin hasn’t moved to “correct” Khrushchev’s mistake is because there isn’t much point. Ukraine’s current government headed up by Viktor Yanukovych was friendlier than the previous government of Viktor Yushchenko, which Putin did everything in his power (short of invasion) to smash.

Ukraine’s 2004 election was rigged. Yanukovych was declared the winner when the majority wanted the pro-Western Yushchenko instead, whom somebody almost fatally poisoned with dioxin. His face was hideously disfigured by the toxin for a while, but he slowly recovered. The results of that rigged election were reversed by the Orange Revolution, when general strikes broke out and thousands took to the streets and said no.

In 2009, Russia turned off its supply of natural gas and let Ukrainians freeze in the winter, purportedly because of a financial dispute over prices and debt. The punishment was preferable, of course, to Stalin confiscating Ukrainian food in 1921 and 1922, but the message was a familiar one: if you don’t follow dictates from Moscow, you will be punished.

The crisis likely wouldn’t have been triggered at all if Ukrainians had elected a pro-Russian government. Moscow was already cheesed off by Yushchenko’s noises about Ukrainian ascension to the European Union and NATO. The Russian media portrayed Ukraine as a traitor state over it. There wasn’t much Moscow could do to stop the likes of Lithuania and Poland from joining NATO, but it won’t likely ever let its Kievan Rus cousins leave without resistance.

These kinds of problems don’t exist between Russia and Crimea. It might mean war if they did, or if a stridently pro-Western government in Kiev expanded its writ a little too enthusiastically, but that hasn’t happened.

Moscow doesn’t actually care very much about Yalta. The city made history when Stalin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill met there at the end of World War II to agree about which parts of post-fascist Europe would be in the Western camp and which would be in the communist bloc, but it has been a backwater ever since even if it’s a slightly pleasant one nowadays.

What Moscow cares about in Crimea very much is Sevastopol. That’s where Russia’s Black Sea fleet makes its home. Neither Sean nor I dared take any photographs of it, not even discreetly from the car as we drove past. It’s not a good idea to take pictures of military installations anywhere in the world, especially not Russian military installations.

In Sevastopol, once again, I found myself forgetting I wasn’t in Russia. The overwhelming majority of people who live there are Russians. The language they speak is Russian. Actual Russian soldiers and sailors were all over the place.

When the Soviet Union cracked up and Ukraine declared independence, Russia initially refused to cede Sevastopol and Crimea at all and only later relented when it signed the Peace and Friendship treaty with Kiev. Moscow need not worry overly much. Its fleet’s lease won’t run out until 2042. And if Ukraine tries to revoke it, Russia will almost certainly seize it by force, most likely to cheers and applause by locals who would feel liberated. Ukraine barely holds onto the Crimea oblast as it is, and on even numbered days I can’t help but wonder how long even that is going to last.

Read the whole thing.


Putin Draws Wrong Lessons From Yanukovych

If the old maxim has it that the only lesson of history is that no one learns from it, dictators must be particularly slow learners. Despite the definitive record of recent history—from Nicolae Ceausescu to Slobodan Milosevic—that attempts to suppress public discontent with brute force only hasten a regime’s collapse, authoritarian leaders still try to repress the opposition away, inevitably with the same results. Ukraine’s hapless president, Viktor Yanukovych, is just the latest example.

It seems that Vladimir Putin wants to be next. At least this seems to be the course he is taking, having drawn exactly the wrong lessons from Ukraine’s latest revolution. With Russia’s educated urban middle-classes, the backbone of the 2011-2012 street protests—a warning sign to Putin’s Kremlin if ever there was one—increasingly alienated from a backward, corrupt, and repressive regime, a wise course of action would have been to meet some of the opposition’s demands (such as holding free elections and releasing political prisoners) and allow for a gradual political transition.

Eurostar Comes of Age

Regular train users in the US will be envious to learn that the Eurostar, the high-speed Anglo-French under-the-channel train now covers the 308-mile distance between the center of London and the center of Paris in just over two hours. The rail service, which this year is celebrating its 20th birthday (it was inaugurated in November 1994) has had its ups and downs, including financial setbacks. In December 2009 it trapped about 2,000 passengers on two trains, some for up to 14 hours, due to an electrical failure in the Eurotunnel brought on by freezing conditions. But in 2013 the Eurostar finally reached its original goal of carrying 10 million passengers a year to and from the continent of Europe, and is making a profit—$84 million in 2012, thanks in part to the spike in visitors to London for the summer Olympics.

Are Chinese–North Korean Ties Starting to Fray?

The special relationship of China and North Korea has stood for more than a half century, and they are now each others’ only formal military ally, but contacts between Beijing and Pyongyang appear now to be conducted at a lower level than during the time of Kim Jong Il, the ruler who died December 2011, and the contacts during his rule were lower than those at the time of his father, Kim Il Sung. During Kim Il Sung’s reign, diplomacy with China was conducted on a personal basis with Mao Zedong. These days it would appear that the Chinese might be having trouble keeping track of their only formal ally.

Ukraine's Opportunity for Genuine Democracy

After 23 years of formal independence, Ukraine stands poised to take the final steps toward genuine independence by liberating itself from what has become the legacy of Soviet communism throughout its former empire—rule by criminal and thuggish regimes and oligarchs. Ukraine finally has the opportunity to join the civilized world where constitutions and rule of law, not party hacks and bullies, reign supreme.

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Italy's New PM and Old Unemployment Problem

With a 2 trillion euro public debt and thousands of companies going out of business, Italy isn’t exactly the most attractive venue for a leftist political leader of overweening ambition. And yet within almost no time, Matteo Renzi, a virtual unknown, grabbed Italy’s helm, having deftly ousted his do-nothing predecessor, Enrico Letta.

Here you have to ask yourself: why? Why would Renzi, or in fact anyone, want the job of running Italy, much less push out a member of his own party, as Renzi did, in order to get it?  Unemployment among young people—traditionally pretty high because employees in Italy are almost impossible to fire—is now at its highest: 42 percent.

Venezuela Violence and Latin America's Divide

The outbreak of serious political violence in Venezuela has illuminated the ideological fracture that divides Latin America and thwarts regional efforts to increase economic development through cooperation in trade and investments. Another reminder came last week when the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) between United States, Mexico, and Canada celebrated its 20th anniversary as an engine of growth that has produced, as of last year, a total annual trade of $17 trillion, making it one of the world’s largest trade unions, comparable to the European Union. In contrast, over the same two decades, the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), the main South American regional integration pact, involving Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela, has bogged down in economic disorder and internal political disputes that prevent opening up those economies through free trade with European and Asian partners.

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