Putin’s War at Home

One element that has been conspicuously absent from the West’s response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is support for democracy in Russia.

It’s not that Vladimir Putin has eased up on the opposition and civil society. Even while he has seized Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, Russia’s democratic opposition parties have faced prohibitive barriers to participating in and contesting elections, human rights organizations have faced branding as foreign agents, and prominent democracy activists and ordinary citizens have been sent to prison on invented charges.

Many Russians understand the war as a distraction from Putin’s authoritarian rule at home. That is the message of Russian students who recently issued a video apology to their Ukrainian counterparts. “We condemn the war,” they say in a video translated by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “Whoever this war was beneficial for, it will never be beneficial for the people of Ukraine and Russia, and we must do everything together to stop it.”

Russia Bullies Sweden and Sweden Blinks

Sweden has, if nothing else, added a new definition to the concept of partnership. Earlier this week the Swedish daily Expressen reported that an extraordinary meeting had taken place between the state secretary in the Foreign Ministry, Annika Soder, and Russia’s ambassador to Stockholm, Viktor Tatarintsev. It wasn’t the meeting that was extraordinary: it was Tatarintsev’s demands.

But first, a bit of background: during an upcoming military exercise this spring in the Baltic Sea, Swedish aviators will join Finnish and American colleagues in practicing the defense of regional airspace. An exercise involving the Swedish, Finnish, and American air forces is a logical response to Russia’s growing military activities in the skies above the Baltic Sea and its neighboring countries: the Baltic states only have minimal air force capabilities, whereas Sweden and Finland’s air forces are, at least in theory, able to hold their own against intruders. It makes sense to practice together and to be joined by the United States, which the Baltic states consider their protector.

Why Isn’t Ukraine Front Page News?

Kharkiv University, like the city it serves, is caught between both sides of the war in Ukraine. Housed in a former Soviet military academy, the stolid campus encircles Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, formerly known as Dzerzhinsky Square, after the founder of the Bolshevik secret police. All that’s left of the city’s Lenin statue is one boot, in which some enterprising protester stuck a Ukrainian flag after toppling the rest of Lenin’s body this September. Next door, in the humanities building, undergraduates from all corners of the country study current events in the university’s small Media and Communications Department; one of their subjects is America’s news media, and how they cover the war in Ukraine. One frigid Tuesday morning, I had the unenviable task of explaining it to them.

Hong Kong Protests Traders from China

On Sunday, more than a hundred protesters—most of them young—mobbed New Town Plaza, a mall in the Sha Tin District of Hong Kong. There, they clashed with shoppers and hounded tourists from mainland China.

Police tussled with the demonstrators, wielded batons, used pepper spray, and made arrests during the second consecutive Sunday of demonstrations against “parallel traders,” individuals buying goods in Hong Kong and lugging them across the border to China. On February 8th, there were similar protests in Tuen Mun, an area also close to the China border.

For years, residents of Guangdong Province—from quick-buck artists to concerned parents—have entered Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, and bought foodstuffs and household items to bring back to the mainland.

Egypt Unites Against ISIS

The Libyan branch of ISIS massacred 21 Egyptian Christians over the weekend. A knife-wielding executioner frog-marched the bound and blind-folded captives to a beach in front of a camera, said “safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for,” and cut off their heads. The Egyptian government responded at once and attacked ISIS positions in the city of Derna near the border with at least two waves of air strikes.

Egyptian Christians in Libya are hardly “crusaders.” Like Mexican migrant workers in the US, they’re leaving desperate conditions back home and looking for jobs. Not that ISIS will ever see it that way. From their point of view, all Christians on earth, including secular Christians, are “crusaders” fit only for slaughter.

“Avenging Egyptian blood and punishing criminals and murderers is our right and duty,” an Egyptian military spokesman said in a statement broadcast on television.

Avenging Egyptian blood, as he put it, is hardly enough to stop ISIS, but there’s something else, something deeper, encouraging about Cairo’s response: a Muslim army is bombing Muslims to avenge murdered Christians. How many of us would have expected that after the Arab Spring soured and briefly brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power?

Egypt has been an emergency room case since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his so-called “Free Officers” overthrew King Farouk in 1952, but it has something most Arab countries do not—a coherent national identity that transcends sect and tribe. The place is riven by sometimes violent sectarian hatreds, and its Christian minority hasn’t been entirely comfortable there for a long time, yet the nation is nevertheless bound together by historic communal memory that stretches back to the time of the Pharaohs.

It isn’t prone to civil war the way Iraq and Syria are and it never has been. The Nile River and its Mediterranean delta are far enough removed from potentially dangerous neighbors that a sense of safety and community can flourish, at least during good times. Iraq, on the other hand, is wedged between large imperial-minded powers—in particular the Persians and Turks—and it’s as wide open and defenseless as Russia.

“While Egypt lies parallel and peaceful to the routes of human traffic,” British explorer Freya Stark wrote during World War II, “Iraq is from earliest times a frontier province, right-angled and obnoxious to the predestined paths of men.”

“Mesopotamia cut across one of history’s bloodiest migration routes,” Robert Kaplan added in his outstanding book, The Revenge of Geography, “pitting man against man and breeding pessimism as a consequence…Whether it was the Achaemenid Persian kings Darius and Xerxes who ruled Babylon, or the Mongol hordes that later swept down to overrun the land, or the long-running Ottoman rule that ended with the First World War, Iraq’s has been a tragic history of occupation. The Tigris and Euphrates, which run through Iraq, have long constituted a frontier zone where various groups, often the residue of these foreign occupations, clashed and overlapped.”

Iraq’s chronically fractious condition makes it a perfect incubator for ISIS. Libya, likewise, has no coherent national identity or even a coherent national government. But Egypt, despite its seemingly endless dysfunction, is a bona fide nation-state. The likelihood that it will become a theocratic power like Iran any time soon or a schismatic dismemberment case like Syria and Iraq is low. Partly that’s because the military is the most powerful and least dysfunctional institution in the country, but also—and just as important—because the majority of Egypt’s Christians and Muslims feel at least some ties of kinship with each other even if those feelings are sometimes submerged and forgotten.

There’s nothing like barbaric mass murder to remind regular people that they have things in common with each other that should never be taken for granted. The ISIS view of the world is without a doubt genocidal. Shia Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, Alawites, Jews, and insufficiently orthodox Sunni Muslims will all find themselves in mass graves if they’re ever captured or occupied. Not even aid workers are safe. Hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims have already fled ISIS rampages in Syria and Iraq. Whether or not the average Egyptian is aware of this fact, the military certainly is. Of that I assure you.

Egypt is hardly the only country threatened by the expansion of ISIS in Libya. After beheading 21 Christians, the man in the massacre video pointed his knife toward Europe and said, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission.”

ISIS will not conquer Rome. It’s impossible. Not even Russia, with all its formidable might, could conquer Rome any time soon. But ISIS just might be bloody-minded and delusional enough to give it a shot. They can certainly wreak havoc and mayhem. Their supporters already have in Paris and Copenhagen and might have pulled off something in Belgium as well had the police not conducted successful night raids in January.

Libya, however, is up for grabs. ISIS took over the entire city of Derna, where more than 100,000 people live, back in November. They've established training camps throughout the country. They control radio and television stations in Sirte. Their sinister enforcers go on “morality patrols” in the capital. And they took credit for a rash of terrorist attacks across Libya even before releasing their snuff film over the weekend. 

They don’t have a proper conventional-style army in Libya as they do in Syria and Iraq, but recently ISIS was no more than an elusive shadowy presence even in those countries. So yes, Libya—or at least parts of it—could very well be conquered by ISIS. Parts of it have already been conquered by ISIS.

Egypt’s army is both enormous and state-of-the-art by the Middle East’s standards. If any Arab country were to become a mini regional superpower again, it would be Egypt. It wouldn’t be a benign power necessarily, but it wouldn’t be entirely hostile to American interests either. Not if it’s run by the military.

For all the faults of its coup leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—he is without a doubt a far bigger brute than Hosni Mubarak—at least he won’t be backing ISIS any time soon, not even implicitly through inaction. If Egyptian Muslims and Christians can set their differences at least on occasion when facing monsters like ISIS, Washington and Cairo should be able to repair the post-coup rift at least slightly. It wouldn’t be the first time a monstrous enemy inspired an awkward alliance, nor will it be the last.

Trusting or Containing Putin?

Now that the first step toward a negotiated settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war may have been reached in Minsk, the question of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reliability as a negotiating partner should be on everyone’s mind.

In a word, can he be trusted with anything? The answer, unfortunately, is no—for several important reasons.

First, by invading and annexing the Crimea, Putin violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom agreed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s adherence to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Putin’s subsequent justification—that the Maidan Revolution ushered in a new Ukrainian state that was not a signatory of the memorandum—was a preposterous claim that, if generalized, would subvert every treaty ever signed. Subsequently, Putin also violated the April 17th Geneva accords and the September 5th Minsk Protocol, both of which outlined specific steps toward defusing the conflict.

Vigilant Estonia

May I present today’s useful parable from the Bible? Ten virgins, presumably enlisted for bridesmaid duties, are awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. But with the time and date unspecified, five decide to take it easy, as he’ll probably not come any time soon. But five are wise, buying lamps and oil to be prepared. Lo and behold, the bridegroom comes, and the five foolish virgins are caught unprepared. Tough luck, say the wise virgins.

Jordan Deserves US Support

Following the gruesome murder of First Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh, Jordan has reportedly launched more than 50 airstrikes in three days in Syria, marking a dramatic increase in its direct military action against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. King Abdullah II has said his nation will continue to fight ISIS until it runs out of “fuel and bullets.”

Jordan’s decision to avenge the death of its airman has now become central to the debate on how to combat terrorism in the region. Jordan has always been a close ally against extremism; however, the death of Kasasbeh has ushered in a level of direct military engagement as yet unseen from our Arab allies. This heightened engagement from Jordan is exactly what is needed to combat the spread of ISIS in the region.

Power Politics and Putin

“The only language Russians understand,” asserted Edmundas Jakilaitis during a panel discussion last fall, “is power.” A Lithuanian journalist whose birth certificate bears a hammer and sickle, Jakilaitis knows what he is talking about. 

Will Japan Flex Its Naval Power in South China Sea?

In a startling interview with Reuters, Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, said that America would welcome Japan patrolling the South China Sea, south of the Japanese islands and far beyond the country’s current area of operations. Tokyo has no current plans to send planes and ships into that body of water, but Beijing, which aggressively patrols there, is already upset.

“I think that JSDF operations in the South China Sea make sense in the future,” Thomas said, using the acronym for the Japan Self-Defense Forces. The admiral’s comment signaled Japan would soon take on responsibilities beyond its vicinity because Washington and Tokyo are now in discussions to revise bilateral security guidelines.

The Case for Arming Ukraine

No one could make the case against supplying weapons to Ukraine better than my good friend Rajan Menon, a professor of political science at City College of New York. So, if his best shot falls short, then it’s safe to say that there is no sound argument against America’s provision of military hardware to Ukraine.

That best shot appeared last week as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. And it falls far short of what it sets out to be—a persuasive critique of a report released by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that argues for US supplies of weapons to Ukraine. Here’s Menon’s first charge:

An Ominous Chinese Military Parade

Everyone loves a parade.

And, evidently, no one more so than General Secretary Xi Jinping. The Chinese ruler has scheduled a grand military procession through the heart of Beijing in early September. The news of the parade, carried in state and Communist Party media but still not officially confirmed, was unexpected and suggests China will continue to move in dangerous directions.

There have been 14 military parades in the history of the People’s Republic of China.

Eleven occurred between 1949 and 1959, during the era of founder and tyrant Mao Zedong. His first three successors—Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao—each presided over one military parade, all of them on October 1st, National Day.

The last such parade was in 2009, marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of New China, as the party calls the country. The one before that was in 1999. Most everyone, therefore, assumed the next military parade would be held on October 1, 2019.

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. 


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