Tag: russia

Don’t Raise the Stakes in Ukraine

The release of a report this week by eight former U.S. government officials calling for the United States to send arms to Ukraine has reopened debate on the issue. The dispute is also lent urgency by the recent sickening escalation of violence in the Donbas, especially against civilians, as well as signs that some within the Obama administration may be reconsidering their stance on this issue. As appalling as the ferocity of recent fighting has been, however, the arguments against arming Ukraine remain as solid as they were three months ago. It would raise the stakes with Russia, while offering little prospect of ending the conflict.

The arguments made in the report, cosponsored by Brookings, the Atlantic Council and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs - seem compelling on the surface. The authors argue that the provision of lethal, but solely defensive, weapons would better allow Ukrainian troops to defend themselves against continuing attacks from pro-Russian rebels. As the evidence indicates that the rebels themselves are being supplied with advanced weapons from Moscow, American weapons would place Ukrainian forces on a more even footing. The report further asserts that such weaponry could raise the continued costs of backing the rebels for Moscow, bringing Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table.

Unfortunately, arming Ukraine will cause more problems than it solves. Certainly, such a move would be a propaganda coup for Russia, which has already been using state media to perpetuate the idea that NATO is involved in the crisis. Russian media is extremely good at blurring key facts to make a coherent, anti-Western narrative, even if the narrative itself is fundamentally false. It won’t matter than the weapons are ‘defensive’ in nature; the Russian media can spin this to bolster their arguments that Ukraine’s government is illegitimate and that the conflict is being driven by NATO. It could even increase popular support for the war among the Russian population.

Ukraine’s Fight With Russia Isn’t America’s Business

Ukraine’s military has lost control of the Donetsk airport and the rebels have launched another offensive. Fortune could yet smile upon Kiev, but as long as Russia is determined not to let the separatists fail, Ukraine’s efforts likely will be for naught.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Only a negotiated settlement, no matter how unsatisfying, offers a possible resolution of the conflict. The alternative may be the collapse of the Ukrainian state and long-term confrontation between the West and Russia.”

Ukraine’s most fervent advocates assume anyone not ready to commit self-immolation on Kiev’s behalf must be a Russian agent. However, there are numerous good reasons for Washington to avoid the fight.

1) Russia isn’t Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya.

While the Obama administration has resisted proposals for military confrontation with Moscow, a gaggle of ivory tower warriors has pushed to arm Ukraine, bring Kiev into NATO, and station U.S. men and planes in Ukraine. These steps could lead to war.

Americans have come to expect easy victories. However, Russia would be no pushover. In particular, Moscow has a full range of nuclear weapons, which it could use to respond to allied conventional superiority.

2) Moscow has more at stake than the West in Ukraine.

Ukraine matters far more to Moscow than to Washington. Thus, the former will devote far greater resources and take far greater risks than will the allies. The Putin government already has accepted financial losses, economic isolation, human casualties, and political hostility.

The Danger of Analogies

Last week I wrote a piece for the Orange County Register, talking about the dangers of describing the current U.S. conflict with Russia as a new Cold War. In it, I highlighted the problems that arise when policymakers use historical analogies as a cheat sheet to understand today’s foreign policy crises.

Drawing analogies to past crises is a natural human reaction, and one which is widespread among foreign policy decision makers. As I noted:

Political science research demonstrates that leaders often rationalize their decisions by making analogies to prior crises. Policymakers also frequently use historical analogies to justify their choices.

Such analogies range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The prize for most ridiculous, at least recently, goes to those who described the North Korea/Sony hacking scandal as a potential “cyber Pearl Harbor.” But there were also a variety of serious analogies which dominated the news last year.

The idea that the United States and Russia are now engaged in a new Cold War has been mooted by media and by politicians. Yet current tensions with Russia over Ukraine differ in key ways from the cold war: Russia and Europe are far more economically linked than during the cold war, and disagreement centers primarily on the issue of NATO expansion, rather than on ideological grounds. By describing tensions with Russia as a new cold war, policymakers interpret all facets of the U.S.-Russian relationship in a conflictual way, preventing cooperation on other policy issues like Syria.

Congress Quietly Passes Ukraine Bill

While Washington focused yesterday on the prospect of yet another government shutdown, both House and Senate quickly and quietly passed bills which increase sanctions on Russia and authorize the sale of defensive arms to Ukraine.  S.2828 passed mid-afternoon by voice vote, while H.R. 5859 was passed without objection at 10:25pm last night, on a largely empty House floor. Indeed, the House resolution had been introduced only that day, giving members no time to review or debate the merits of a bill which has major foreign policy implications.

The bill requires the imposition of further sanctions on Russia, particularly on Rosboronexport, Russia’s main weapons exporter, as well as increasing licensing requirements for the sale of oil extraction technology to Russia. Any Russian company exporting weapons to Syria is also liable for sanctions. In addition, the bill contained a contingency, requiring the President to sanction Gazprom in the event that it interferes with the delivery of gas supplies to NATO members or to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The bill also takes aim at Russia more broadly, directing the President to hold Russia accountable for its violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and to consider whether it remains in U.S. interests to remain a party to this treaty.

Significantly, the bill authorizes the president to make available defensive weapons, services and training to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, crew weapons and ammunition, counter-artillery radar, tactical troop-operated surveillance drones, and command and communications equipment. It  also includes additional aid for Ukraine, earmarked to help Ukraine loosen its reliance on Russian energy, and strengthen civil society. Other funds go to increasing Russian-language broadcasting in Eastern Europe by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in order to ‘counter Russian propaganda.’

Putin’s Speech and the Russian–Western Impasse

Today at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federal Assembly. The speech made the news for its antagonistic tone and, in particular, for Putin’s comparison of Crimea with Jerusalem. But for all the hype surrounding the speech, it said little new, emphasizing instead the impasse that Russia and the West find themselves locked in. Putin’s message was clear: Russia’s foreign policy is not changing.

The foreign policy narratives pervading the speech were strongly familiar, reiterating the points made by Russian leaders and state-owned television throughout the last year. Yet the twisted worldview presented bears little resemblance to reality.

Putin argued that Russia is being persecuted for seeking only to peacefully engage with the world. He presented Russia as a key proponent of international law, describing the annexation of Crimea as the result of a peaceful self-determination vote. In contrast, the United States was portrayed as a meddling hegemonic menace that, he insinuated, aids Russia’s enemies, foreign and domestic. Putin even implied that European states are vassals of the United States:

Sometimes it is even unclear whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors.

The speech went on to describe international sanctions on Russia as illegitimate, with Putin arguing that sanctions are largely unrelated to Crimea or to the ongoing conflict. Instead, he insinuated, sanctions are an attempt by the United States to curtail Russia’s growth and power:

I’m sure that if these events had never happened… they [the US] would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities.

These points aren’t true or accurate, but they are certainly consistent with the narrative advanced by the Kremlin. This is one key reason why Putin’s approval rate is still a massive 85%, with many Russians blaming the West for Russia’s woes. Putin thus spent much of the speech deflecting blame. In particular, he focused on Russia’s faltering economy, and while he touched on key economic concerns—the collapsing ruble, the falling price of oil, stalling economic growth, rising inflation—he largely glossed over them, focusing instead on blaming the West. 

Remembering Georgia’s Freedom Fighter

Sometimes a person’s genuine significance can be assessed only after their passing. That seems to be the case of Kakha Bendukidze, Georgian entrepreneur, reformer, and philanthropist, who died unexpectedly early last month. While he was very well-known among libertarians in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, the reactions of some of the world’s leading media outlets suggest that his influence extended far beyond narrow ideological lines, making him one of the most important voices on public policy in the region.

Kakha was a close intellectual ally of Cato and did more than his fair share to promote free-market ideas in countries of the former USSR. In the early 2000s, he pressed for the adoption of a flat tax in Russia. Earlier than others, he understood Vladimir Putin’s true motives, sold his Russian businesses and moved to his native Georgia. It was there that he spearheaded, as Minister for Economy, the ambitious program of fighting corruption and liberalizing the economy, which led to extraordinarily high growth rates for Georgia’s economy. In 2007 alone, the economy expanded by 12.3 percent. After leaving public office, Kakha helped establish the Free University of Tbilisi, a private university offering Western-style undergraduate and graduate education, and the Knowledge Fund, a charity providing funding for teaching and research, including scholarships for Georgian students from poorer backgrounds.

Impressive as this account is, few would have guessed that his passing would prompt a wave of tributes and appreciations coming from sometimes unexpected places. On Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab, Anna Nemtsova called Kakha one of Georgia’s “most progressive reformers and corruption fighters.” The New York Times published a lengthy obituary, which highlighted Kakha’s involvement with the new leadership of Ukraine. The Independent, in turn, called Kakha a “businessman and statesman who fell foul of Vladimir Putin but rescued Georgia’s post-Soviet economy.”

Finally, the New Yorker magazine offers a carefully written appreciation, offering a lot of details on Kakha’s life and activities in Ukraine prior to his untimely death, as well as the directness with which he communicated his ideas:

Even though he was unsure whether Ukrainians would accept the changes that he wanted to carry out, he agreed to work with [Ukrainian President] Poroshenko, friends say, because he saw Ukraine as the frontline of the battle for liberal reforms in the former Soviet states. With the same tough love that he had inflicted on Georgians, Bendukidze urged Ukrainians to stop blaming others for their problems. “You have broken every world record in idiocy,” he told an audience at the Kyiv School of Economics, in July. “You keep electing populists, people who promise you more. This means you are electing the worst.” He advocated cutting government spending, reducing retirement benefits for public servants, and radically deregulating the economy. Ukraine, he said, in one of his last interviews, had too many ministries and agencies. “Who needs them when the government’s sole function these days is to take money from the International Monetary Fund and pass it on in payment for Russian gas?” he asked.

Give Diplomacy a Chance in Ukraine

As I discussed in an op-ed published at Al Jazeera America last week, it seems as though the Ukraine crisis is slowly solidifying into a ‘frozen conflict.’ This is bad for everyone:

Allowing the Ukraine crisis to metastasize into a frozen conflict effectively guarantees future conflict in the region. It leaves the government in Kiev with a long-term insurgency within its borders, costing it dearly and inhibiting the greatly needed reform of the Ukrainian state. In addition, it keeps Russia and the West locked in a diplomatic stalemate and sanctions war which benefits no one.

The intrinsic uncertainty of the situation in Eastern Ukraine continues to pose the very real threat of escalation. Last week saw tensions ratchet up as the OSCE reported large convoys of weapon and armor crossing the border, but fears of a new offensive by separatists proved unfounded. Such periods of heightened tension are likely to continue, along with consistent low-level violence which has become the hallmark of the conflict.

Some parts of the U.S. government are also keen to escalate the conflict by providing Ukraine with lethal aid. There is strong pressure from Congress to do so, and Sen. John McCain, widely expected to be the next chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has promised to work closely with his colleagues on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees to arm Ukraine. Although the Obama administration has thus far limited aid to non-lethal and humanitarian supplies, there may be some support for lethal aid within the administration too. Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, during his confirmation hearings for Deputy Secretary of State, divulged that the White House is considering lethal aid to Ukraine, and that he believed such aid would discourage further Russian aggression.