The Great “Unraveling”?

[Re-posted from earlier today.]

I’m a huge admirer of Roger Cohen’s writing – and can appreciate many of the thoughts percolating in his latest column on what he sees as a disintegration of the world order. He manages to cite Scottish independence, the rise of ISIS, and the devolved powers to Eastern Ukraine – and even Ebola! – as part of a trend toward dissolution and anarchy.

But when I look at all the developments he is citing, I don’t really see anything that new. Take Iraq – please. What we are witnessing is the second major Sunni revolt since they were summarily deposed from power by the United States in 2003. How is this new? The Sunnis have long since believed in their bones that Iraq is theirs by right to govern. They despise the Shiites now running the show. The entire construct Syria_and_Iraq_2014-onward_War_mapof Iraq in the first place was designed on the premise of permanent Sunni rule over the majority. That rule necessarily had to be despotic – as all attempts to permanently deny rights to a majority in the country must be.

So we removed the despot – as we did in Libya – and we have an ongoing power-struggle that is a continuation of the same power struggle Iraq has been hosting since time immemorial. I mean look at that map on the right, from Wiki on the current division of power and land in Iraq. Does it look familiar? It looks like every map of Iraq’s sectarian divide since time immemorial. And we think we will change that by air-strikes?

My fear is that the catastrophic error of 2003 will never lead to a stable state, because the Sunnis will never tolerate or trust majority Shiite rule. Yes, we bribed them enough to switch sides temporarily in the “surge”. But they knew we’d leave; and they knew what they had to do when we did. The only conceivable way to avoid such a scenario would be to stay in Iraq indefinitely – but that too is untenable, for both the Iraqis and for us.

The Beltway nonetheless decided – against all the evidence – that the surge had worked, that sectarian passions had subsided, and that a multi-sectarian government would be able to overcome the profound rifts in Iraqi society that have always been embedded in its DNA. We were sold a bill of goods – by Petraeus and McCain and the other benign imperialists. They have spun a narrative that Iraq was “solved” in 2009 – and that the absence of US troops led to subsequent failure. But they flatter themselves. We never had any real reason to believe these sectarian divides had been overcome – and after a decade of brutal and traumatizing mutual slaughter, why on earth would they be?

Iraq was unraveled in 2003; in my view, it has thereby become the battle-ground for the simmering, wider Sunni-Shiite civil conflict that has also been a long-running strain in the region. Our own solipsistic focus on ISIS as another al Qaeda against us – again the narrative of the utterly unreconstructed neocon right and the pious interventionist left – misses this simple fact. We cannot see the forest for our own narcissistic tree.

When you look at Russia and Ukraine from the same historical perspective, the unraveling meme also seems unpersuasive. Russia is a proud and ornery and mysterious country. It has gone from global super-power to regional neo-fascist state in a matter of decades. Its sphere of influence has retreated from the edge of Berlin to the boundaries of Ukraine, which it simply controlled for an extremely long time.

Ukraine has never existed as an independent country for very long; as you can see from another Wiki map on the left, it is itself a cobbled together mix of land lost to Russia, gained from Poland and Czechoslovakia and Romania. It was “given” the Crimea by the Soviets only in 1954. And throughout, Russia has obviously been its big brother, with a deep belief in its right to dick around with its near-abroad (a similar historic belief to the Sunnis faith in their own right to rule).

Ukraine-growthAnd what is sometimes lost in all this is that the last pro-Russian leader of the country was democratically elected and then deposed by a revolution from the European-centered populations of the West of the country. Russia did not start this; it reacted to a sudden, revolutionary loss of a pliant neighbor. Anyone with any inkling of Russian history would know what would happen next. I’m not defending Putin’s military and pseudo-military aggression. I am saying that the resolution reached this week – with significant autonomy for the Eastern, Russian-speaking provinces together with a new trade pact with the EU is a perfectly logical way to resolve this. And if Scotland demands outright independence, who could deny the East Ukrainians for wanting more autonomy?

Then Scotland. I don’t know what will happen – and, yes, the term “unraveling” is the most apposite in this case. But what the campaign has shown is that the unraveling has already taken place, that the desire for self-government and the disdain for the Westminster elites have combined to make the current arrangement anachronistic. But that kind of change – conducted democratically and peacefully – is not the same thing as an undoing. It is an adjustment to an emergent, new reality. And it increases democracy in the UK, rather than diminishing it.

What I’m saying is that America is in great danger of over-reacting to all these things, and blundering into new errors because of a generalized anxiety about declining relative US power, and PTSD from 9/11 in which every Jihadist in a hummer with a knife and a social media presence is imminently going to come over here and slit our collective throats. So my “hysteria” about this new, unknowable, fast-escalating rush to war is actually the opposite. It’s really a call to calm down, to breathe deeply, to stop reacting to the news cycle like neurotic lab-rats and to remember history – ours and theirs.  And to carry on.

I thought Obama was the man to sell this message. But he has been overwhelmed by the collective freak-out. Maybe he’ll regain his composure, keep this war limited and contain these loons for others, with much more at stake, to fight. Or maybe American amnesia will take hold again – and the Jacksonian impulse will once again trump every rational attempt at a foreign policy that isn’t always doomed to repeat the errors of the past. From the way things are going, it’s America’s own history of Jacksonian violence against outsiders that will prevail. We believe we are immune from history – that it can be erased, that what matters is just the latest news cycle and the political spin that can be applied to it. But history will have – and is having – the last word.

Ukraine Splits The Difference

The Ukrainian parliament had two big items on its agenda today:

In a vote synchronized with the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Ukrainian lawmakers unanimously approved the association pact over objections from Russia, which fears the loss of a market for its goods and damage to its economy from an influx of European products through Ukraine. … Earlier Tuesday, legislators voted behind closed doors to approve two bills granting amnesty to rebels and greater autonomy for eastern regions as part of an effort to consolidate a tenuous Sept. 5 cease-fire and end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. The decision on Tuesday to enshrine in law an amnesty and a framework for self-rule in the east represented a major concession to Russia that in many ways gave the Kremlin what it had been seeking since early in the conflict, long before the violence broadened and thousands died.

Bershidsky doubts Ukrainians will thank Poroshenko for this:

That, in effect, is Ukraine’s signature under the creation of a frozen conflict area.

For Russia, that kind of buffer is the best: It’s not an unrecognized state with a murky status, but an officially recognized enclave within Ukraine. Kiev takes responsibility for it, but has little or no influence on what happens there. The law will probably stand for now, as long as Poroshenko and Putin manage to make the shaky cease-fire in eastern Ukraine stick.

This is a bitter pill for Ukrainians to swallow. “I wouldn’t have voted for this bill if I had been a legislator,” journalist Mustafa Nayyem, who is running for a parliament seat as part of Poroshenko’s electoral bloc,wrote on Facebook. “I see no value in compromises that can lead to another political split in Kiev, mutual accusations of treachery and a show-off patriotism contest.”

Linda Kinstler is despondent:

A frozen conflict, when the Kremlin is involved, is what happens when, as the BBC put it, “a bloody, territorial conflict with no obvious solution is put on hold, with Russia stepping in to keep the peace on its own terms.” On Tuesday, the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republicsannounced they are merging their militias into a single force, the United Army of Novorossiya, which will liberate Ukraine from “Nazi scum.” These are the people who will be ruling the populations of Donetsk and Luhansk for the next three years. It’s hard to look at all this and not get the feeling that those who died fighting for Ukraine gave their lives for naught.

Walter Russell Mead is aghast:

Make no mistake about this. The settlement is a deeply damaging blow to our values, to our prestige and to our geopolitical interests. The foolish and distracted Western policies that encouraged Ukraine into a confrontation with Russia in which the West was unwilling to back it; the shameful and feckless mix of triumphalist rhetoric and minimalist action; the cluelessness in the face of Putin’s skillful mastery of Western psychology and divisions; the miserable consequences of all this for the Ukrainian state: every country, every leader in the world has been paying close attention. Historians, by the way, will also pay attention; the Obama legacy has been permanently tarnished. Unless some real changes take place, neither this President nor his close associates will cut an impressive figure when the accounts are drawn up.

And Jan Techau is skeptical that the EU will be able to act as “the de facto guarantee power for another entity’s political success against the declared intentions of a regional rival”:

There is already a sense creeping into the foreign policy crowd that Europeans may have bitten off more than they can chew. Unity among 28 member states is extremely fragile. The remodeling of the European Neighborhood Policy—the instrument that guides EU relations with Ukraine and other Eastern neighbors—will be tedious and fraught with institutional infighting in Brussels. And money is scarce. More significantly, there are severe doubts that the EU has the political will and the diplomatic toughness to insist on conditionality, the core piece of the neighborhood policy. But without a swift, watertight, and potentially brutal sanctions mechanism for neighbors that do not adhere to an agreed reform process, the transformative power of any new policy will be exactly what it was under the old one: close to zero.

On the other hand, the recent US-EU sanctions on Russia really do seem to be biting, with the Russian ruble falling and state-owned industries like Rosneft asking the government for aid:

Economist Alexei Kudrin, who served as finance minister under President Vladimir Putin for 11 years until 2011, said Tuesday that the sanctions could send Russia into a long recession. “The sanctions that have been imposed are going to have an effect (on the economy) for the next one or two years because they have limited opportunities for investment in this uncertain environment,” Russian news agency Interfax quoted him as saying. … The rouble is this year’s biggest-declining major emerging currency, having lost more than 15 percent in value to hit a new low against the US dollar on Tuesday.

Zenon Evans sees signs that tensions are de-escalating:

Russian state-owned media has made a “drastic change” lately by softening its anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, according to the independent Moscow Times. This may be a positive sign of Russia winding down its war. For its part, the U.S. is also speaking somewhat more softly about Russia. President Barack Obama admitted that Crimea “is gone,” and Secretary of State John Kerry last week called upon Moscow to help America fight the Islamic State, which has personally threatened Putin.

But Katie Zavadski catches a Russian official talking about Russians in the Baltics in a manner eerily reminiscent of the lead-up to the Crimea invasion:

Konstantin Dolgov — Russia’s foreign minister on issues of human rights, democracy, and rule of law — voiced concern Saturday over the treatment of Russian citizens in the Baltic states. Consider that a warning. According to the text of a speech published on the Russian foreign ministry’s website (and evidently given at the Regional Conference of Russian Compatriots of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in Riga), the “protection of the rights and lawful interests of our compatriots abroad is one of the prioritized actions” of the foreign ministry. The speech’s inflammatory language echoed the precursors of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, citing concerns for the well-being and rights of Russians in the territory.

NATO is hip to this threat, Eli Lake reports, and is warning the Kremlin against trying to pull off a stealth invasion of a Baltic state:

[NATO Commander Gen. Philip] Breedlove, speaking at the Atlantic Council on Monday, said if the Kremlin tried that in one of the NATO allies that border Russia—like the former Soviet republics in the Batlics, for example—it would risk triggering Article Five of NATO’s charter which is the section that calls on the alliance to come to the defense of a member state being attacked. … Breedlove added that the issue was discussed this month at Wales at the head of state summit. “We had great acceptance among the NATO allies though that if you attribute this ‘little green men’ issue to an aggressor nation, it is an Article Five action and then all of the assets of NATO come to bear.”

New Russia Sanctions: A Salvo In The Energy War?

The US imposed additional sanctions on Russia’s finance, energy, and defense sectors today over its involvement in the Ukraine crisis, on the heels of another round of sanctions from the EU:

The U.S. Treasury Department tightened on September 12 debt-financing restrictions for sanctioned banks from 90 days to 30 days. And it added Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution, to the list of state banks subject to the restriction.  It also prohibited the exporting of goods, services, and technology for Russian deepwater or offshore projects for five Russian firms: natural gas monopoly Gazprom Gazprom, its oil unit Gazprom Neft, Lukoil, Surgutneftgas, and Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft. Gazprom Neft and pipeline operator Transneft also have new debt restrictions of over 90 days’ maturity. … The European Union’s new sanctions include asset freezes on 24 senior officials and lawmakers, including nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinosvky, bringing to 119 the number of people sanctioned by the bloc over the Ukraine conflict. The measures also include restrictions on financing for some state-controlled Russian companies such as Rosneft, Transneft, and Gazprom Neft.

Noting that the sanctions on Rosneft might freeze a $500 billion joint project with ExxonMobil to drill for oil in the arctic, Matthew Philips comments that “these latest energy sanctions could sever what are arguably the closest ties remaining between Russia and the West”:

In the two decades since the Cold War ended, Russian and American astronauts have worked together on the International Space Station, and the Russian military has helped the U.S. get equipment in and out of Afghanistan. But the strongest area of cooperation has come in the energy industry, where U.S. oil majors such as Exxon and Chevron(CVX) have entered into a number of joint ventures with Russia’s state-controlled energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom (GAZP:RM).

The Bloomberg View editors also tie the EU sanctions to the energy war:

Putin may have himself to blame for tipping the EU’s internal debate against him. By reducing natural gas deliveries to Poland and Slovakia this week, Russia made it clear that it still plans to escalate its effort to turn Ukraine into a failed state. Russia’s state gas company OAO Gazprom has cited maintenance work as the cause of the stoppages. That’s hard to believe. Poland and Slovakia happen to be the two countries that are reversing pipeline flows to pump natural gas from the EU into Ukraine, which Russia cut off from supply in June. The goal was to ensure that Poland doesn’t have enough gas to sell to Ukraine — which is exactly what happened. Slovakia has been warned.

Keith Johnson sees the Kremlin’s latest moves as an escalation in the gas war:

It’s not entirely clear whether the sudden drop in Russian gas exports to those countries is politically motivated or if there is a technical reason, such as maintenance on the Russian gas system or the pipelines themselves. Gazprom said that shipments to both countries remain unchanged. In any event, Polish officials said they have been assured by Russia that gas volumes will return to normal on Friday.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear earlier this year that Moscow would aggressively go after countries that buy Russian gas and then turn around and ship it to Ukraine. That kind of energy trade, known as “reverse flow” because most of the gas pipelines pump fuel from east to west, has long incensed Gazprom and the Kremlin, which charge different countries different prices for gas and which rely on energy exports to maintain leverage over former client states in Central and Eastern Europe.

But Bershidsky calls sanctions on Russia a lose-lose proposition, particularly for Europe:

In this race to the bottom, Russia may prove the more resilient, if only because Putin’s authoritarian regime has a mandate from a majority of Russians to wage a new cold war. The food embargo and the price increases it caused in Russia did not drive down Putin’s approval ratings, and Russians have stoically accepted the ruble’s recent losses against the dollar. The currency depreciation can also help the government weather low raw materials prices by boosting the value of foreign-currency exports in ruble terms.

Europe, on the other hand, cannot take much more economic pain. A new slump could send some governments tumbling. In France, 62 percent of the population already wants President Francois Hollande to resign. The world is too interconnected economically, and the European recovery too fragile, to keep using trade disruptions as weapons. Even Ukraine is taking a hit from slumping metals prices: Steel and iron ore account for about a third of its exports.

Is Russia Withdrawing From Ukraine?

All eyes are on the impending ISIS war today, but things are still happening in Ukraine as well. Five days after the announcement of a ceasefire, Kiev now claims that most of the Russian forces that had invaded the country have left, while Poroshenko is making some concessions to separatist sentiments in the east:

President Petro Poroshenko told a televised cabinet meeting Ukraine would remain a sovereign, united country under the terms of a peace roadmap approved last Friday, but said parts of the east under rebel control would get special status. “According to the latest information I have received from our intelligence, 70 percent of Russian troops have been moved back across the border,” he said. “This further strengthens our hope that the peace initiatives have good prospects.” However, Poroshenko said the ceasefire was not proving easy to maintain because “terrorists” were constantly trying to provoke Kiev’s forces. Ukraine’s military recorded at least six violations of the ceasefire overnight but said there were no casualties. Five servicemen have been killed during the ceasefire, Ukraine says. A civilian was also killed at the weekend during shelling of the eastern port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov in eastern Ukraine.

But Morrissey is skeptical of this supposed Russian retreat:

The “terrorists” may be rebels attempting to keep Russia from retreating. Moscow may not need much of a provocation, either. Yesterday, Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine of building up forces for an attack on Donetsk, and multiple reports of artillery fire put the truce into serious question … Hopefully, the retreat of Russia from Ukraine is real and will continue. With Lavrov looking for an excuse to return and the rebels perhaps desperate to provide it, I wouldn’t count on it.

Alec Luhn remarks on the chaotic battlefield, noting that neither Moscow nor Kiev has enough control over its fighters to enforce an airtight ceasefire:

Both the rebel and government forces are comprised of a potpourri of fighting units, most of which center around an individual leader. This has led to a chaotic command structure that makes such truces difficult to enforce on the ground, according to Vladimir Ruban, a former lieutenant general in the Ukrainian Army who has been negotiating prisoner exchanges on behalf of Kiev and persuaded the rebels to participate in peace talks. “Some people aren’t interested in a cease-fire … on both sides,” Ruban said, suggesting rogue actors may keep fighting, despite their leadership’s intentions. Slovo i Delo, an NGO that monitors Ukrainian politicians, recently compiled a list of 37 volunteer battalions fighting on the side of Kiev, many of which include radical fighters who say they don’t trust the military leadership. Members of the Azov Battalion, which is defending the coastal city of Mariupol, griped last week about the cease-fire that was then being negotiated, with one calling it a “political game.”

Alina Polyakova is pessimistic about the effectiveness of the West’s response:

As a long-term strategy, sanctions could eventually constrain Russian action. But the Ukrainian crisis requires short- and medium-term solutions, which the West has been reluctant to explore. NATO’s plan to deploy a 4,000-strong rapid reaction force to the Baltic States is a step in the right direction, but it may come too late to influence Russian policy in Ukraine. Western leaders squandered a key opportunity to take a strong stance against Russia after the Crimean annexation in March. If the NATO force was deployed six months ago, Putin may have thought twice about invading Ukraine. Putin has exploited this tactical mistake masterfully. As Russia continues to set the agenda on Ukraine and the West continues to implement the same ineffective strategy, Ukrainians feel increasing abandoned. The crisis has reached a point of no return, and Poroshenko is left with no options.

Marc Champion scrutinizes the purpose of the EU’s sanctions on Russia:

Putin is claiming the right to determine the foreign and trade policies of his neighbors. He has claimed the right to intervene militarily in any country where Russian-speakers live. He has said as a matter of policy that Russia is the heart of a separate civilization, defining it against the values of Europe, and leaving open the question of where that civilization begins and ends. This is frightening stuff when carried out by a nuclear power that is re-militarizing. So the sanctions policy shouldn’t be seen as an attempt to secure victory for Ukraine (it will have to cut a deal). Nor should it be seen as an attempt to make Putin unpopular at home, or to get his inner circle to revolt (a ludicrous hope), as sometimes suggested. The sanctions should demonstrate what behavior Europe is unwilling to accept in a partner and what rules it will stand up for — even at the cost lost business and a bad relationship with Russia.

But at the same time, the West is also squeezing that partner. Josh Cohen warns that the IMF is doing the same thing to Ukraine today that it did to Russia in the ’90s:

Ukraine’s government is in the middle of implementing a set of stringent economic reforms agreed to in April with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for a $17 billion bailout. Although Kiev has been commended by the IMF for a “bold economic program,” the loan’s terms, combined with Ukraine’s political and economic crisis, are a recipe for disaster. We have seen this story before. During the 1990s, when I worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the office charged with managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union, I observed that the type of austerity now being required of Ukraine was the standard prescription for countries in economic crisis. The leading Washington financial institutions, such as the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury Department, were passing out this one-size-fits-all solution. And it almost never worked.

Meanwhile, Poland is reporting a mysterious 25 percent drop-off in its gas supplies from Gazprom, and Putin is beefing up Russia’s military defense capabilities and testing ICBMs:

Putin also took greater control of a commission that oversees the defense industry and made a new call for Russia to become less reliant on imported Western equipment. He said NATO was using rhetoric over the Ukraine crisis to “resuscitate itself” and noted that Russia had warned repeatedly that it would have to respond to such moves. Shortly before he spoke, Russia successfully tested its new submarine-launched Bulava intercontinental missile, a 12-metre- long weapon that can deliver a nuclear strike with up to 100 times the force of the atomic blast that devastated Hiroshima in 1945.

Larison sighs:

At each stage in the Ukraine crisis and for many years before that, Russia hawks in the West have urged the U.S. and its allies to goad and provoke Russia on the assumption that Russia won’t respond. Then each time that Russia responds more aggressively than they thought possible, the same people insist on more goading and provoking in order to “stop” Russia from what it is doing, which of course just leads to another harsh Russian response. It doesn’t occur to them that Russia will most likely keep matching any action that the U.S. takes by taking even more aggressive measures of its own. The country that stands to lose the most from continuing this back-and-forth is Ukraine.

Nuclear Superpower Is Nuclear

The Ukraine conflict isn’t the only thing raising concerns about a resurgent Russia. James Inhofe is even more worried about Putin’s efforts to revitalize and upgrade Russia’s nuke program:

Russia deploys aircraft and submarines armed with cruise missiles around the world that already threaten our allies. But air and submarine bases can be targeted and destroyed by the U.S. military in the event of a confrontation. A mobile GLCM [ground-launched cruise missile], on the other hand, is much harder to find. General Philip M. Breedlove, the senior NATO commander, has said that this new weapon is “absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with.”

Strategically, the deployment of a nuclear-armed GLCM further increases the disparity in regional nuclear forces between Russia and NATO, which could weaken alliance deterrence and assurance calculations. Russia currently enjoys about a 10-to-1 advantage over NATO in nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe. It provides Russia a counterbalance to those countries near Russia that are developing intermediate-range nuclear forces and, in some cases, long-range conventional strike capabilities, such as China. Russia also feels that GLCM capabilities compensate for shortcomings in Russia’s conventional forces.

Jeffrey Lewis also catches Putin talking nukes:

Putin was holding court at the Seliger 2014 National Youth Forum, which attracted some 800 of the country’s young teachers and postgrads, when an attendee asked the Russian president about the role of “historical memory” in Russian foreign policy. Putin decided to point out that Russia’s enemies should be careful, and then he got to the good part: “Let me remind you that Russia is one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers. These are not just words — this is the reality. What’s more, we are strengthening our nuclear deterrent capability and developing our armed forces.”

Hey, the more you know, right?

Earlier in the month, Putin had already promised to surprise the West with new nuclear weapons systems. “Some things have already been disclosed; say in the area of strategic offensive arms, I mean nuclear deterrence forces,” Putin explained. “Some information remains secret, but we will disclose it when the time comes. We are working hard, and our engineers, researchers and workers are putting a lot of effort into it.”

Good News From Ukraine, Ctd

The ceasefire that went into effect on Friday appears to be holding – apart from sporadic fighting outside Mariupol – but few expect it to last very long:

Most argue there Ukraine had little alternative to calling a temporary halt to hostilities in order to regroup its shattered forces. “Under the conditions we have, any possibility for a ceasefire had to be accepted,” says Ukrainian political expert Viktor Zamyatin. “We have too many serious challenges piling up, which can’t be dealt with under fire.” But without a workable political agenda, the shooting is liable to resume at any moment. “Both sides have totally different visions of the way forward,” says [military expert Nikolai] Sungurovsky. “They should have focused on a cease-fire, exchange of prisoners and humanitarian issues… instead they tried to identify a political path forward.”

The most controversial measures include a requirement that the Ukrainian parliament pass a law granting “special status” to the rebel-held regions, who would then hold snap local elections. Analysts say there is zero chance Kiev would allow this, since such steps would freeze the conflict in place and allow rebel chiefs to legitimize their rule.

Linda Kinstler declares its failure a foregone conclusion:

It’s almost certain that this ceasefire will fall through; fractures between rebel groups mean that not all separatist fighters are receiving the same orders at once, and there is no evidence that Russia has stopped the flow of its armed forces into Ukraine. The border remains unsecured, and Russia’s next humanitarian convoy is due to enter Ukraine on Saturday. The ceasefire negotiations have already lent a much-needed air of legitimacy to the separatist leadership, which will now be able to strengthen its calls for independence. The result: Ukraine may very well turn into one of the Kremlin’s frozen conflicts, ensuring continued fighting and de-facto Russian control of the region. In the meantime, the people of Ukraine can only hope that this ceasefire means there will actually be a cessation of fire in eastern Ukraine.

But Daniel Berman argues that it’s in Putin’s interests to ensure it holds:

That Putin’s moves against Estonia over the last week were so clearly premeditated and logical goes a long way to explaining why the cease-fire he agreed to with the new Ukrainian government two days ago showed so many signs of lasting in a way its predecessors had not. Putin had by and large achieved his objectives; Crimea was off the table, Kiev was losing the military battle, and it was clear that the West would do nothing to change the trajectory of events. If Putin genuinely wanted more territory he might have wanted to push onward; if what he sought was a further political victory over the West he needed to force a battle else-ware in a place from which they could not so easily retreat.

It is also why I am willing to credit the idea that the breakdown in the cease-fire over the last hour was the one of the few things happening in Eastern Ukraine that was not orchestrated by Moscow.

Walter Russell Mead’s take is characteristically admiring of Putin’s strategy:

Putin keeps running circles around the West. The cease-fire deal is identical in its terms to the plan proposed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in late June, but Putin has set up a narrative for himself in which he appears as an irreplaceable peace broker—even as he still denies his soldiers are a part of the uprising. Furthermore, just as in June, there are indications that the ceasefire is being used to consolidate gains until the next act of aggression: Ukrainian intelligence is reporting that the flow of arms from Russia into eastern Ukraine continues unabated. Putin appears to be distinctly unimpressed by Western efforts to scare him into ceasing to do whatever he pleases. It’s far past time that Western leaders figure out that Putin is going to keep being Putin until and unless someone puts more than a symbolic obstacle in his way.

Good News (?) From Ukraine

by Jonah Shepp

A ceasefire was announced today:

The two sides agreed to stop fighting at 6 p.m. local time today, Heidi Tagliavini, a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which will monitor the agreement, told reporters after negotiations in Minsk, Belarus. The talks included representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, where most of the fighting has occurred, and the OSCE. “Proceeding from President Putin’s call to leaders of illegal military formations to cease fire, and from the signing of the trilateral agreement in Minsk to implement the peace plan, I am ordering the General Staff to cease fire,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement. He canceled a summer truce on July 1 after his government cited more than 100 violations by the separatists. … The rebels, though, remained defiant, with the leader of Luhansk, Igor Plotnitskiy, telling reporters that the cease-fire doesn’t alter the goal of “splitting” from Ukraine.

In his press conference today at the NATO summit, Obama attributed the ceasefire to the success of US and EU sanctions on Russia, but the allies still approved a new rapid response force to beef up defense in Eastern Europe, among other measures. Considering the way the conflict has played out so far, I’m hopeful that the truce will hold, but not optimistic. And even if it does, Leonid Bershidsky calls it a win for Putin:

If the peace holds, people like Semenchenko will soon be returning from the front, and they may well decide that Poroshenko gave up too easily and that Ukraine should have fought on and martyred itself. Poroshenko’s plan to get a loyal parliament elected in October now faces many threats, ranging from a new escalation of fighting to a radical nationalist revolt. As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has secured a ringside seat and may settle down with a bowl of popcorn.

Any outcome suits him as long as Ukraine struggles to get out of its impasse alone. He will be happy to see the Lugansk and Donetsk regions turn into a frozen-conflict zone, precluding Ukraine’s further integration into NATO and the European Union, and equally pleased to have them gain broad autonomy from Kiev and a veto on major political decisions. A military solution suits him, too, since the West has refused to engage him except in the form of ineffectual sanctions.

Adam Swain notes that even a lasting ceasefire won’t address “the political problems that underpin the conflict, both within Ukraine and in Europe at large”:

As far as those deeper issues go, there are three possible outcomes. First, the ceasefire could hold, but without a diplomatic breakthrough; the conflict would effectively be frozen, and Ukraine would lose much if not all of its industrial heartland in the Donbas. Second, the ceasefire could be broken, leaving an unwinnable war to simmer in east Ukraine for years yet. Thirdly, an international peace conference could be held to map out a neutral and federal but united Ukraine, creating a buffer state between NATO/the EU and Russia. … Instead, the mostly likely upshot as things stand is a frozen conflict in a formally divided country, with a pro-Russian Donbas protectorate partitioned from a pro-Western Ukrainian rump. Of all the possible outcomes of the ceasefire deal, this is probably the worst for the ordinary people of both the Donbas in particular and Ukraine at large.

Brett LoGiurato suggests that Poroshenko was forced to call the ceasefire:

Geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider last week that Russia’s decision to escalate its involvement had forced Poroshenko into a corner. Bremmer said Poroshenko would most likely seek a quick cease-fire solution to prevent his country’s economy from completely collapsing. “The Ukrainian government has been in an impossible position, they gambled, and they’ve lost,” Bremmer said. “Poroshenko now needs a cease-fire so that he can try to restart negotiations, the terms of which will effectively mean freezing the conflict and ceding significant pieces of Ukrainian territory to the separatists. That’s politically perilous for him and risks counterdemonstrations against his government in Kiev. All the while his economy will be falling apart, with very limited support from the West.”

But now, Max Fisher flags another alarming development in Estonia:

It’s not clear whether or not the attack has anything to do with the Russian government — Russian organized crime is active throughout the region. But the incident comes at an extremely tense moment between Russia and Estonia, one in which the United States has publicly committed to Estonia’s military defense, meaning that a Russian invasion of Estonia would trigger war between Russia and the US, a prospect so dangerous that the world managed to avoid it throughout even the Cold War. “Unidentified persons coming from Russia took the freedom of an officer of Estonian Scurity police officer on the territory of Estonia,” Estonia’s state prosecutor’s office announced. “The officer was taken to Russia using physical force and at gunpoint.” … The Estonian state security officer is identified as working on counterintelligence and organized crime — a confusing combination, and one that does not shed much light on whether his kidnappers appear to have been Russian government or Russian organized crime.

If the Kremlin did have a hand in that abduction, it would be a very serious escalation of the tensions in Eastern Europe and make clear that Putin is acting less rationally than John Mearsheimer believes. But let’s not jump to conclusions before we have the facts.

Talking Tough-ish On Eastern Europe

by Dish Staff


David Frum applauds Obama’s remarks on the Ukraine crisis from Estonia yesterday, calling them “the sharpest language any U.S. president has used toward Russia since Ronald Reagan upbraided the Evil Empire” and “the most important speech about European security … of the post-Cold War era”:

One by one, President Obama repudiated the lies Vladimir Putin has told about Ukraine: that the Ukrainians somehow provoked the invasion, that they are Nazis, that their freely elected government is somehow illegal. He rejected Russia’s claim that it has some sphere of influence in Ukraine, some right of veto over Ukrainian constitutional arrangements. And he forcefully assured Estonians—and all NATO’s new allies—that waging war on them meant waging war on the United States. “[T]he defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London,” Obama said. “Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now.” This is the ultimate commitment, given by the ultimate authority, in the very place where the commitment would be tested—and would have to be honored. There’s no turning back from that. Today, for the first time perhaps, Eastern Europeans have reason to believe it.

Max Fisher, who passes along the above map, interprets the speech as signaling that the US will not go to war to save Ukraine:

This does not mean that the US and Europe are indifferent to Ukraine’s plight. They have sanctioned Russia’s economy repeatedly and heavily, sending it to the precipice of recession. They have isolated Russia politically, for example by booting it from the G8. But these sanctions are about punishing Russia to deter it from future invasions, or at best an attempt to convince Putin that invading Ukraine is not worthwhile.

But Putin’s actions have demonstrated very clearly that he is willing to bear Western economic sanctions for his Ukraine invasion, and the US is not escalating further, so the invasion continues. The US is taking some tougher steps in Ukraine, but they are not very much. Obama, in his speech, called for “concrete commitments” to help Ukraine modernize its military, but it’s not clear what he meant, and even if Ukraine were armed to the teeth it would still lose any open war with Russia, which has the second-largest military in the world. So building up the Ukrainian military, while a nice symbolic gesture, will not stop Putin.

Apparently the president wasn’t clear enough for Michael Scherer:

“NATO must send an unmistakable message in support of Ukraine,” Obama said. “Ukraine needs more than words.” The rhetoric hit its marks. The message, however, was muddled. As he finished his speaking engagements, several questions remained about how he intends to deal with the multiple foreign policy crises facing his administration. He again condemned Russian incursions into Ukraine, and promised new U.S. and European help to train, modernize and strengthen the Ukrainian military. But his “unmistakable message” of support stopped short of defining or ruling out any additional U.S. military role should Russian aggression continue. While he pointedly promised to defend those countries in the region who are signatories to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Obama offered no similar assurances to Ukraine, even as he highlighted that country’s voluntary contributions to NATO military efforts. … This was not the only issue on which he left gray areas.

Drum shoots that down:

For excellent reasons, foreign policy statements nearly always include gray areas, so it would hardly be news if that were the case here. But it’s not. Obama’s statement was unusually straightforward. He said the same thing he’s been saying for months about Ukraine, and it’s really pretty clear:

  • We are committed to the defense of NATO signatories.
  • Ukraine is not part of NATO, which means we will not defend them militarily.
  • However, we will continue to seek a peaceful settlement; we will continue to provide military aid to Ukraine; and we will continue to ratchet up sanctions on Russia if they continue their aggression in eastern Ukraine.

You might not like this policy. And maybe it will change in the future. But for now it’s pretty straightforward and easy to understand. The closest Obama came to a gray area is the precise composition of the sanctions Russia faces, but obviously that depends on negotiations with European leaders. You’re not going to get a unilateral laundry list from Obama at a press conference.

But Michael Brendan Dougherty worries that even these limited commitments involve us too deeply in another crisis we can’t really fix:

If Ukrainians want to maintain control of Donetsk, they must make compromises with its population, or get on with the ugly business of subjugating or murdering them while retaining control of their own border. But the United States should not be a party to it, no matter how satisfying it is for American hawks to defeat a rebel group that symbolically represents Russian power. Indeed, it is precisely the sense that the Ukraine is a cathartic proxy war that fuels the sentiments of Russian nationalism there. The hawks will say that it will never come to hard questions about whether our sons and daughters will die for Estonia or Donetsk. We can just create deterrents with arms shipments and paper promises forever. But these are the credit-default swaps of national security, a moral hazard that jeopardizes more than our retirement plans.

Interventionist Insanity

by Jonah Shepp

Shadi Hamid characterizes Obama’s foreign policy as reflecting a lack of faith in American power:

Obama, far from the prudent technocrat some assume him to be, is a believer in the limits not just of American power (which would be understandable) but American agency, colored by a lack of faith in America’s ability to play a constructive role where religious and ethnic divides are paramount. The president has been surprisingly dismissive of the growing number of former U.S. officials and Middle East and Syria experts who have criticized him for not intervening in Syria more than two and half years ago when less than ten thousand Syrians had died. That Obama appears unwilling to question his original assumptions, despite rapidly changing events on the ground, suggests an insularity and ideological rigidity that surpasses even the Bush administration.

The fact that Syria has gone to shit without American help doesn’t disprove the argument that US intervention wouldn’t solve Syria’s problems. Hamid’s logic here is telling: Obama thought it was a bad idea to intervene in Syria in 2012, and today he thinks it’s still a bad idea (and no evidence has emerged to demonstrate otherwise), therefore Obama is insular and ideologically rigid. After a series of disastrous exercises (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) brought about by an overabundance of faith in American power, where do interventionists like Hamid get off criticizing Obama’s lack of faith in this power as though it were some kind of nebbishy tic? Is that lack of faith not a rational response to repeated demonstrations that there are problems in the world that American power can’t solve? Having “faith” in a course of action that has been repeatedly been demonstrated not to work demonstrates not strength, resolve, or leadership, but rather a failure to see what is in front of one’s face. And lacking faith in it seems pretty smart to me.

Hamid, of course, is on the long list of Libyan war cheerleaders whom Freddie deBoer calls out, wondering when their mea culpas will emerge. I’m not on the public record regarding that intervention, but for what it’s worth, I had serious misgivings about it and wasn’t terribly surprised when it went awry, though I admit I was not sorry to see Qaddafi go and did argue with friends on the far left who believed (still do) that he was a great humanitarian rather than an eccentric narcissist who killed a lot of people and bought off a lot of other people with oil money.

But now, the American Power Caucus has turned its attention to Ukraine, where Walter Russell Mead claims (literally) that the only thing separating us from a “Mad Max world” is a good, old-fashioned US intervention:

America’s choices here (as in the Middle East) are few and they are ugly. We can back Ukraine with enough weapons, money, political will and if necessary air power and boots on the ground to tip the balance on the ground, or we can watch Russia conquer as much of the country as it wants. A Russian victory here won’t be the end; Putin is an empire builder and his goal is to restore the Kremlin power in all the former lands of the USSR, for starters. A Russian win in Ukraine will change the world. Putin’s flagrant violation of every standard of decency and restraint leaves the United States with the choice of confronting him or living in a Mad Max world ruled—if at all—by the law of the jungle.

But as Daniel Larison points out, arming Ukraine wouldn’t actually accomplish very much other than raising the death toll:

It’s telling that no one in favor of arming Ukraine believes that it would do anything more than drag out the conflict. That’s the best-case scenario. It is just as likely that Russia would respond to the arming of Ukraine by Western governments with a much larger attack that inflicts even greater damage on the country. Russia has consistently been willing to go much farther than the U.S. and its allies in terms of what it will risk over Ukraine, and we should assume that will also apply to its response to attempts by Western powers to arm Ukraine. At each stage of the Ukraine crisis, Western governments have pursued their policies there without considering how Russia would respond to them. This has repeatedly put Western governments in the absurd position of provoking reactions from Moscow that they should have expected but failed to anticipate.

Dissents Of The Day

by Jonah Shepp

My assertion yesterday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might have had something to do with the eastward expansion of NATO is drawing some fire from the inbox. One reader writes:

I think that you and John Mearsheimer may think yourselves very clever for understanding that the US and NATO’s hubristic expansion is at fault in the Ukrainian crisis. You claim, that without this expansion there would be no Ukraine crisis, a totally ludicrous statement, for which you give no justification. What you fail to appreciate is that the countries in Eastern Europe who clamored to join NATO are also rational independent actors totally capable of acting independently the US or other Western Powers. Poland, the Baltics, Czech Republic, etc.. all know what it is like to be dominated by an imperial power from the east and they certainly wanted protection again such a thing happening again. They chose NATO, not the other way around. In the 90s, most people in the west didn’t think that NATO was even necessary anymore. I think it is completely preposterous to claim that NATO expansion was borne out of some desire for conquest.

Another reader argues that the eternal Cold War mentality belongs to Putin, not the West:

I kept expecting [you] to acknowledge that this only ‘bears out’ anything if one already views NATO’s expansion from a Cold War perspective. I’ll certainly admit that there’s significant tension between the West’s interests and the Russian government’s and that this is not all Russia’s doing, but until this year I’d never though Ukraine joining NATO was even plausible, and even then until this week I’d never thought it was *likely* that Ukraine would join NATO. Now Putin has made it clear to everyone that regardless of anyone else *he* is waging a cold war, so he will keep creating more Cold War responses in those he’s made his foes. I think it’s a real stretch to say  that the failure of the world to dance around this world-view counts as confirmation of it.

And a third points out that the link between Russian aggression and NATO expansion can also go the other way:

I think you have causality the wrong way around when you say that Russia has attacked Ukraine (and, earlier, Georgia) in response to the threat of NATO expanding to include those countries. But there had been no NATO expansion in Russia’s immediate neighborhood in a decade.  And neither Ukraine nor Georgia were going to join NATO . . . until Russia attacked them.  Then they acquired an enormous motivation to try to join an alliance which could defend them against further Russian attacks.  Georgia wasn’t getting anywhere with its request to join either — until the attack on Ukraine, which has caused NATO to reconsider whether “trying not to provoke Putin” was an impossible quest. I can see why Russia would be upset at the prospect of Georgia or Ukraine in NATO.  But if it happens, the overwhelming reason will be Russia’s actions towards those two countries.  In short, Russia will have nobody to blame but themselves.  (Not that this will prevent them from blaming everybody else in sight, of course.)

Well, the causality is a little more complicated. The effort to bring Georgia into NATO started in 2005 and was a major item on Mikheil Saakashvili’s to-do list long before the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. One can easily argue, as Saakashvili himself did, that this effort was in response to fears of Russian bellicosity, but one can also see it the other way around, as Putin and his cohort clearly do, and argue that Russian assertiveness (they probably wouldn’t say “aggression”) was necessary to check NATO’s nefarious plan to weaken Russian influence in its former imperial holdings. It’s not hard to see how they arrived at that conclusion; that is different, however, from saying that the conclusion is correct.

I don’t actually share Mearsheimer’s conclusion that this mess is all the West’s fault. I think it’s useful to remember, though, how the West has condescended to Russia since the end of the Cold War, and to consider how that treatment might have influenced the mentality that drives Putin to adopt such an aggressive posture. Remember how Germany was demonized, humiliated, and driven hopelessly into debt by the victors of World War I? Well, how did that turn out? When Alexander Motyl compares Putin to Hitler, he focuses primarily on their dictatorial ways, but their countries also have some salient similarities:

Both Germany and Russia lost empires and desired to rebuild them. Both Germany and Russia suffered economic collapse. Both Germany and Russia experienced national humiliation and retained imperial political cultures. Both Germany and Russia blamed their ills on the democrats. Both Germany and Russia elected strong men who promised to make them grand and glorious again.

In other words, Hitler had others to thank for the conditions that enabled his rise to power, and one can say the same of Putin. I don’t mean to engage in some wishy-washy, “it’s all society’s fault” leftish apologetics. Putin clearly believes in restoring the Russian Empire by any means necessary, including force, and has committed many misdeeds in pursuit of that belief. But if the question at had is what the West ought to do about it, it’s worth thinking about our past policy choices and how they might have contributed to the problem. If instead we attribute the crisis solely to Putin’s grandiosity, that implies that there’s not much we can do to change his behavior, and that’s scarier to me than admitting we made some missteps.