March 06, 2014

An Epidemic of Putin Derangement Syndrome

Washington D.C., points beyond and assorted ‘elite opinion’ appear to be undergoing another period best described as a moronic inferno (if memory serves, an old Martin Amis phrase). The immediate cause of this epidemic of hysteria is of course Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Crimea. Mr. Putin’s actions have been compared to Adolf Hitler’s, with former Secretary of State, putative next Democratic President and dynastic doyenne Hillary Clinton peddling such comparisons (at a private fundraiser in California, of course!). Sharp—if somewhat Russophobe—voices like Zbigniew Brzezinski have made similarly hyperbolic statements--showcasing the perils of too breezy historical analogizing by even some of the brightest lights among us. It has come to the point that the Washington Post published yesterday something of a non-tongue-in-cheek primer, addressing whether dastardly Vladimir is or isn’t a “modern-day Hitler” (one positively squirms imagining impressionable imbeciles on The Hill reading such fare). And no, Crimea is not Sudetenland, nor even would potential incursions into southeastern Ukraine constitute something akin to Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 (marching into Kiev—rather than exerting influence from more afar--would be a different matter, but this is not happening, nor is fanciful talk of the soi disant now newly imperiled Baltic States being invaded by Vlad the Impaler).

Subsequent to the Crimean incursion (sorry, Anschluss), Putin gave a press conference. This set-off another cacophony of mockery, piggy-backing on a phrase attributed to Angela Merkel (the meaning was probably materially distorted) that Putin was “in another world”. It was as if a madman were on the loose, and the entire planet in peril. Over at the New Republic, a hastily turned and chirpily self-assured piece of hackery poked fun at the presser. As this piece was linked to by arguably my favorite foreign affairs columnist—Gideon Rachman—I asked him via Twitter whether he was endorsing such ribald claptrap. No, Mr. Rachman advised, he doesn’t “endorse” anything (more than fair, imagine if all our links constituted endorsements, thus the near-universal and boilerplate RT ≠ endorsement caveat), but found it “an interesting take.” Well, indeed it was, to a fashion. Over at Strobe Talbott’s Twitter account—lest we forget, a former Deputy Secretary of State, Russia expert and head of an important ‘think-tank’--Mr. Talbott approvingly linked to a piece that contained this gem of hi-falutin’ fare: “perhaps, just to break the ice, Obama should solemnly promise Putin that he won’t have to have sex with a gay guy.” Impressive! Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, David Brooks weighed in on Putin’s horrific apostasy against the diktats of the West. “Putin Can’t Stop”, the piece was titled (not smoking pot, mind you), but evidently being on the cusp of becoming a “Russian ayatollah” potentially captured by a “messianic ideology” that “point(s) to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage” (if that mélange sounds somewhat familiar, congrats, you’re old enough to remember the Bush 43 years kids).

I could go on. And on. But you get the picture. Putin derangement syndrome is in full effect, no meds are apparently on proffer, and sane voices far and few between (for those interested, see Anatol Lieven here, Dimitri Simes (interviewed by John Judis) here, Stephen Cohen speaking on PBS and just for fun, my (extremely modest) contribution here. Thankfully, by the way, a real tried and true grown-up (love him or hate him) has joined the fray too, one Henry Kissinger, provisioning a dose of sobriety and realism that should be read by everyone at the State Department and other National Security instrumentalities whom are apparently instead busily conducting diplomacy-by-listicle (where as Matthew Rojanksy points out, State is effectively en passant ‘dignifying propaganda’, albeit I might add not always wholly accurately) and/or Tweet-umientos (a Susan Rice specialty, the Tweeting intensity in inverse proportion to her ability to execute any cross-agency coherent national security policy of note).

This is not the time or place to re-hash the overarching bill of equities here. Any fair observer must have sympathy for the more moderate revolutionaries of Maidan struggling for national dignity, self-determination and, perhaps more than anything, less corruption. But, alas, we must also remember hard-scrabble inhabitants of places such as Kharkiv or Donetsk; let alone Sevastopol or Simferopol, many of whom place their primary kinship with Mother Russia. Indeed, it was certainly unfortunate that one of the first acts of the new Government in Kiev was to repeal a 2012 law recognizing Russian as an official regional language. Nor does it help that Svoboda party members hold posts in the new Government, including Chairman of the National Security Council Andriy Parubiy, who worth mentioning, has a deputy (Dmytro Yarosh) who is the chief of the extreme group Right Sector.

Irrespective of the above, some quick facts require highlighting as well: Russia has profound (yes, truly, profound) historical interests in Ukraine, especially Crimea and Southern and Eastern portions of the country. Our imbecilic zero-sum policy cheerleading Kiev pivoting wholly westward was bound to cause such trouble, even before the inglorious denouement with Yanukovych’s defenestration. Amidst the radicalization of Maidan and events constituting a de facto coup d’etat in Kiev from Moscow’s vantage point (Putin had likely already written off Yanukovynch but wanted a window of time to better protect Russian interests), I began to suspect that Putin would feel he had no choice but to intervene (as I Tweeted at the time, see my linked piece above).

And more facts which must be grappled with: the United States—and even Europe’s—interests in Ukraine are far less than Russia’s. The EU and U.S. will not wholly see eye-to-eye on all the policy choices in coming days. Nor does anyone in the West have the appetite to go to war over Ukraine. So we can hand-wring about the 21st Century and international boundaries and such (albeit with our standing to do so grievously harmed by the Dubya Administration’s rogue actions in Iraq) but the fact is Crimea was a part of Russia proper as recently as 1954 (not to mention has a majority—not minority mind you—Russian population). Much like Mikheil Saakashvili’s stupendously idiotic provocations in Georgia circa 2008, Putin felt compelled pursuant to his geo-strategic framework and interests to take action in Crimea, as he’d done in Abkhazia and South Ossetia a half decade before. These have all been quite calibrated actions, and perhaps literally without a shot being fired Putin has reclaimed Crimea for Russia.

Meantime he observes the spectacle of more NATO overflights in the Baltics, or whether the storied legacy G-7 members will deign to keep Russia in the Club, or lots of loose talk about sanctions that, deep down, none of the key powers involved really want to implement (let us see if countries like Spain and Italy—or even Germany, France and the UK—end up playing ball regarding executing truly robust sanctions). If Putin continues to see a spectacle of provocative incompetence (including NATO saber-rattling, particularly counter-productive as this is one of the key historical sensitivity points and ‘victor’s justice’ lietmotifs of the end of the Cold War, and also why influence on Ukraine's future is considered an existential issue by many in Moscow), he might be likelier to escalate. He doesn’t really care a whit about the G-8, or NATO overflights in Latvia. He might care some regarding Iran-style sanctions, but as above, these will be difficult to implement, will involve blow-back risk, as well the Russians will have ample options to circumvent them. The point is it is high time to cease this empty theater.

But, make no mistake, this is a perilous moment. Inhabitants of Donetsk might be the next to ‘call’ for help (whether genuine or fabricated, or likeliest, a combination of both). What is needed instead is treating Putin like an adult—with real interests—and de-escalating the situation by forcing compromises (real ones, not Potemkin ones) from the new authorities in Kiev too, not just from Moscow, regarding special arrangements and protections for Eastern Ukraine. Putin will respond better to such serious policy, rather than gratuitous insults and peevish half-measures that will not amount to much. The reality is—and it pains me to say this as the man is deeply corrupt and an autocrat—Putin is likeliest the most exacting leader--with the possible exception of Xi Jinping--on the world stage today. With a very weak hand given the secular decline in Russia’s fortunes, where he has seen key interests (Syria, Georgia, now Ukraine) and/or propaganda value at play (Edward Snowden) he has quite consistently outmaneuvered his opponents. We are witnessing the same now.

So no, Putin is not Hitler. He is not looking to exterminate a race, march into the Baltics and/or Eastern and Central Europe, or even retake all of Ukraine, and/or otherwise act like a genocidal maniac intent on taking over an entire Continent (incidentally, how insulting these comparisons to Hitler must be to Russian ears, given their immense sacrifices beating back Nazism, far greater than America’s in terms of loss of life). He is a quite able tactician protecting key interests when he has reached a limit of patience, in ’08 with Georgia, today with Crimea given the events in Kiev. The entire focus now needs to be focused on restraining Putin from entering Eastern Ukraine proper (forget about bona fide ‘observers’ in Crimea for now, that’s done!) to mitigate further room for miscalculation and gross bloodshed such an expansion of military action could engender. If Dr. Kissinger were younger, we might dare to hope we could nominate him for such a complex task. In his absence, retire the list-icles and schoolmarm remonstrations and let us get to the hard-work of interfacing with our opponent intelligently. The stakes are high, and President Obama—whatever you make of him too—must become directly involved even more, to include further dialogue at his level with Putin, and the new authorities in Kiev.

Given the schism that has plagued Ukraine for decades and longer (between its Catholic Ukrainian speaking West and its Orthodox Russian-speaking East) federalization and/or de-centralization schemes may ultimately need to be implemented to forge a sustainable solution, as well perhaps ultimately securing an explicit commitment that Ukraine (no part of it) will ever join NATO. Maximalist incantations that Ukraine will chose all aspects of its national destiny and enjoy unfettered dominion over every square inch of its erstwhile territory, given the above realities, are simply pretense. Reality matters in geopolitics, as does pursuing policy in pursuit of a coherent end-game, not as a clanging tantrum.

Follow Greg Djerejian on Twitter here

March 03, 2014

What To Do--And Not Do--About Ukraine

Yet, Kievan Russia, like the golden days of childhood, was never dimmed in the memory of the Russian nation. In the pure fountain of her literary works anyone who wills can quench his religious thirst; in her venerable authors he can find his guide through the complexities of the modern world. Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.”

--Georgy Fedotov

“The problem of the origin of the first Russian state, that of Kiev, is exceedingly complex and controversial.”

--Nicholas Riasanovksy

“Without Ukraine, Russia can remain an empire, but it cannot remain Russia.”

--Title of a recent article in Russkoye Obozreniye, a Russian periodical.

Few could be unmoved by the revolutionary spectacle of Maidan Square these past weeks. The desire for national dignity was palpable, and the protestors courageous. Too many paid for this courage with their blood. And yet, revolutions are never orderly, nor the equities ever as simple as many might prefer. And, as we are witnessing with the Arab Spring, they often have painful, and unforeseen, denouements.

Related, one need not be a Putin apologist to recognize some salient facts: 1) the Maidan movement included ultra-nationalists and even neo-fascists, 2) the Yanukovych transition deal was crudely scuppered leaving the Russian side caught unawares and looking flat-footed (never appreciated by Vladimir Putin); and 3) this was followed by deeply provocative measures by the new Government in Kiev to move to extinguish Russian minority language rights. More assertiveness was surely on tap, as the mood was manifestly one of triumphalism.

This all occurred in the backdrop of a still painful chapter in post-Soviet history with Russia in continued secular decline, a former superpower having suffered deep humiliation through the post-Gorbachev era. In particular, NATO’s relentless Eastern expansion has been a deeply provocative, perennial leitmotif for Moscow. Additionally, Putin has felt double-crossed when he has recently cooperated with the West (see Libya), and now here again, when the Yankovych deal was ingloriously pulled: no European or North American chancelleries rose to defend the integrity of the deal, not deigning to restrain the hyper-nationalist mood one whit. From Moscow, it felt like a coup d’etat engineered to deny Russia any meaningful role in post-revolutionary Ukraine, including areas of deeply legitimate interest such as Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Given this backdrop, as well as the massive import Ukraine holds in Russian national, religious, and cultural narratives—as the above quotes I hope help illustrate—I was increasingly queasy in the past days that Putin was going to await the end of the Sochi Olympics and look to protect Russia’s interests in Ukraine militarily (as I tweeted at the time). So he did. For the time being, one might hope having created ‘facts on the ground’ in Crimea, he will simply stop there and use this reality as leverage to force a more conciliatory posture from Kiev regarding Russia’s other interests in Ukraine. However, I am highly concerned that Putin may calculate he needs to enter Eastern Ukraine as well, which will then materially enhance the (already high) chances of sparking a horrific civil war.

Amidst this inflammatory cauldron, a chorus has arisen among the Washington DC cottage industry of bien pensants that something be done. No less a foreign policy authority than Marco Rubio has regaled us with eight steps to Ukraine policy glory, of which at least six are either deeply flawed or will have no impact or most often, both. In more high-brow quarters, personages such as Ivo Daalder and Nicholas Burns pound the mantle about NATO coming to the rescue (just solidarity-wise mind you, not sending in the cavalry per se), which will only aggravate matters further vis-à-vis Moscow.

Indeed, the incredible cacophony that Obama faces (throw the bum out of the G-8, freeze assets, restrict travel, apply harsh sanctions, even, train and equip the Ukrainian Army, send in flotillas to the Black Sea, or hell, cut off the Dardanelles!) is almost comical in its desperate desire to do something, anything, to not look like wimps, preserve ‘credibility’ and/or avoid another Sudetenland ‘Munich moment’, and so on. But amidst all this sturm und drang that we be mightily Churchillian, we must grapple with some basic realities: 1) The West has no real appetite for a military slugfest with Russia over Ukraine (and while Ukraine could go it alone, perhaps even valiantly, they will not ultimately prevail in any military contest); 2) the U.S. and EU do not always see eye-to-eye on matters Ukraine (putting it nicely, remember the charming bon mot from our Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Victoria ‘fuck the EU’ Nuland?); and most fundamentally 3) Ukraine matters to Moscow exponentially more than it does to any Western power.

None of these factors advantage the West in the looming showdown over Ukraine, quite the contrary, they all run to the benefit of Putin. And if we play pretend we’re tough—and double down with sanctions and eviction from the G-8 and freezing transit and accounts and all the rest of it—you can be assured the chances of Putin calling our bluff and invading Eastern Ukraine full-bore will increase materially. Putin after all is not a donkey, and the brandishing of ‘sticks’ will not cow him, but rather in my view further embolden him, even if in a fit of pique and indignation that could involve miscalculation. Put differently, Putin is not an inconsequential figure, he must be engaged with, not wholly ostracized.

So, what is to be done, sit back, pass the popcorn, and see Vladimir do whatever he damn well pleases? No, of course not, but—and I cannot stress this enough—most policymaking should now be focused not on hectoring and ‘punishing Putin’ (all escalatory, generally mindlessly so) but rather moves aimed at showing we respect Russia’s legitimate interests with a view towards de-escalating the situation.

In this, Germany has a special role to play as go-between given her historical relationships with key regional powers like Ukraine, Poland and, of course, Russia. In coordinated fashion, key capitals like Berlin need to ensure Ukraine ratchets down the rhetoric with Moscow, of course no small feat given the emotion unleashed by the Crimean incursion (today’s comments from Kiev that it will “never give up” Crimea are not helpful). Indeed, further aid to Ukraine should likely be made conditional on ensuring minority rights in Eastern and Southern Ukraine are better respected, and critically, that no preemptive military activity by Kiev in those areas take place.

Beyond this regarding more Moscow-facing policy, we cannot breezily assume OSCE monitors or the like will prove a speedy panacea allowing for Putin to vacate Crimea (reportedly one idea making the rounds). This is a deeply unrealistic goal, as Putin understandably is suspicious organizations like the OSCE are beholden to their (majority) political masters in Western capitals, and thus overly in cahoots with the new regime in Kiev. For now, the focus must be--as with Kiev from the other side--to pursue productive diplomatic channels that help persuade Putin to stand-back from the precipice regarding a military option in Eastern/Southern Ukraine.

In short, by moving to soften the tone and policy in Kiev, better respecting Russia’s historic interests (please let us retire talk of NATO Membership Action Plans and such), offering honest broker type conflict resolution channels (not bidding up an East-West show-down in Pavlovian fashion as if inevitable) the following goals could possibly be accomplished in the short-term: 1) delaying or ideally preventing formal annexation of Crimea; 2) restraining Putin from invading Eastern Ukraine and 3) most important, helping defuse the specter of a horrible civil war in the heart of Europe’s eastern flank.

This is a time for sobriety and respect for one’s opponent and—dare I say—even a bit of gravitas—not think-tank ‘menus’ of punitive action to take in a huff, mostly as feel good nostrums. Yes too, I cannot help mentioning these are the bitter, dangerous fruits of locker-room 6th Floor Foggy Bottom talk of Yats and Klitsch, the bovine and myopic view of Ukraine through a zero-sum prism of winners and losers (Obama has been recently quoted saying he doesn’t “really even need George Kennan right now,” perhaps he should re-appraise this sentiment given the caliber of most of his policymakers ex Deputy Secretary Bill Burns). Putin shoulders huge blame too, of course, trying to thuggishly strong-arm Ukraine as a client, but we cannot pretend we have avoided all culpability given our own ineptitudes.

The broad middle of the Ukrainian people yearn for neither the dangerous hyper-nationalism of some in the Maidan movement nor being subjected to a revivified neo-Soviet yoke. To help deliver such a middle way, less bluster and more humility are in order, as well far more historical perspective than, say, the tidy supposed certitudes of the ’94 Budapest Memorandum. Ultimately if the current crisis can be defused—and more bloodshed averted—discussions around de-centralization (parts of Eastern and Southern Ukraine) and possibly autonomous arrangements (Crimea) can be constructively explored to all the parties’ ultimate benefit.

Follow Greg Djerejian on Twitter here

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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