Monday, April 21, 2014

"...and the vegetable?"

The Wall Street Journal carried a front page article on April 21, 2014 entitled "US-Russia Relations Come Full Circle After Ukraine". The article attempts to review the changes in bilateral relations since June 2001 when President Bush gazed into Putin's eyes and was mesmerized. The whole "reset" (or "overload") debacle of Obama-Clinton is, of course, also described.  But, on the whole, it is a strange article for this prominent, politically conservative, US media organ.

The article is noteworthy for what it chooses to include, and for what it leaves out.

Bush is rightly portrayed as having been hypnotized by Putin in 2001, but the fact that his administration finally woke up is air-brushed out. And yet, it was precisely the hardening of the Bush Administration's policy toward Russia in 2008 that Obama ran against.

In the 2008 election season, the liberal intelligentsia was in full cry about how the "cold-warriors" in the Bush Administration didn't understand that the government in Russia was changing for the better and that the Administration's toughened stance toward Russia was interfering with this favorable evolution. The narrative was that the tide of history was working in Russia, slowly but surely, and this change was exemplified, and would be further propelled, by Medvedev who became President in May 2008.

The Democrats saw in Medvedev what they wanted to see. But Russians (of all stripes) saw Medvedev for what he was. In 2008 there was a famous joke that circulated in Russia. Putin and Medvedev go out to dinner at a well-known restaurant in the forest outskirts of Moscow that is renowned for its grilled meats. The waiter asks Putin what he will have. Putin answers "steak". The waiter follows up with Putin: "....and for the vegetable?" Putin responds: "He will have the steak also."

The facts concerning Russia's provocative long-term interference in Georgia's various break-away regions, and their direct military intervention in 2008 (shortly after Medvedev assumed office), when Georgia tried to reestablish control in part of its sovereign territory, were not consistent with the Medvedev-as-reformer narrative. Therefore, these facts were ignored, or explained away as some one-off aberration or special case.

However, instead of pointing out the complete bankruptcy of the the Obama Administration's Russia narrative of the last six years (in which Mrs. Clinton is inextricably involved), the WSJ seems to be allowing the paper to be used to float the new Russia narrative of some Democrats, particularly Mrs. Clinton. This narrative goes something like this: Medvedev was a reformer, so we were right to be nice to him and hope on him. Unfortunately, he couldn't really do as much as he wanted to, and, when Putin came back, things started to go bad. Nevertheless, "Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton felt they had to make what progress they could with the counterparts they had at the time in Russia."

The fact that this "progress" was really a series of cave-ins to Russian demands that fundamentally weakened the confidence that eastern European countries (such as Poland) had in the reliability of the US as a strategic partner, is also ignored in this article.

Anyone who has spent substantial time negotiating with Russians (such as yours truly) recognizes the "good cop/bad cop" gambit of Mr.Putin and Mr. Medvedev.

The WSJ may believe that helping some Democrats to scrabble towards the center is a worthy use of the paper's franchise, but an incorrect understanding of past events inevitably leads to bad policy decisions. This was true in 2008-2014 and will be true for this new flawed narrative concerning Russia.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Russia's Foreign Ministry called on Ukraine's parliament to set up a constitutional assembly to draft a new constitution to make the country more federal, Voice of Russia and RIA Novosti reported March 17. See Stratfor.
Crimea was an "autonomous" region in the Ukraine, which meant it had a regional parliament (Duma). The eastern Ukrainian regions are merely administrative provinces (Oblasts) which have a chief executive appointed by the President of the Ukraine and a Rada (Polish for "council").
It was possible to arrange for a reasonable amount of legal window-dressing for the Russian annexation of Crimea because there was a Crimean Duma which could purport to speak for the Crimean people, call a for referendum etc. (The fact that (i) members of the Crimean Duma who did not favor joining Russia were intimidated and (ii) an autonomous Oblast cannot lawfully secede under the Ukrainian constitution and (iii) the referendum was held under military occupation by an interested party will, of course, be put to one side for the moment).
If the Ukraine adopts a federal structure, each region will become an autonomous Oblast with a local Duma. That, of course, leads to a repeat of the opportunity to arrange for the same type of legal window-dressing for the Russian annexation of the eastern Ukraine: various autonomous eastern Ukrainian Oblasts elect their new Dumas, the new Dumas call for a referendum on independence, the Oblast declares itself independent and then asks to be annexed by Russia, which Russia graciously grants.
However, it should be noted that Putin did not trust to the outcome of a free and fair referendum even in the Crimea, the region of the Ukraine with the largest percentage of Russian “compatriots” (to use Putin’s fuzzy word), hence – occupation first – referendum second. Unless Putin strikes a deal with the Ukrainian Oligarchs who control the eastern Ukraine, expect Russian troops (without insignias) and various “militias” to show up in the eastern Ukraine before any voting.
If the Europeans and the Administration want to find a way to let Putin's plans unfold while the west has a legal excuse to do nothing (a policy of appeasement), they will fail to support the Ukrainian central authority when it resists adopting a federal structure.
The annexation of the Crimea is an almost exact historical parallel with the Anschluss, the Third Reich's annexation of Austria in 1938, including a referendum under occupation (97% for Crimea, only 95% for Austria -- Putin is two up on Hitler.)
The dismemberment of the eastern Ukraine will be an almost exact historical parallel with the Sudetenland: -- allegations of oppression of an ethnic minority in an adjacent sovereign country -- saber rattling by the aggressor -- western powers engaging in frantic diplomacy to "calm the crisis" rather than deter the aggressor, leading to western pressure on the borderland country to give in to the aggressor’s demands).
The Russian takeover of the western Ukraine will be an almost exact parallel with the takeover by the Third Reich of the rump of Czechoslovakia.
The Anschluss was accomplished in March 1938, the Crimean annexation in March 2014.
In April 1938 the Sudeten Nazis started to agitate for "autonomy", which would have required a federal structure for Czechoslovakia. Russia has been proposing a federal structure for the Ukraine for a while.
In 1938 France had a treaty of mutual defense with Czechoslovakia and the UK had one with France. In 1994 the US, France, and the UK (not to mention Russia and China) provided the Ukraine with security “assurances” in the Budapest Memorandum committing all of them to defend the Ukraine’s sovereign territory (in return for the Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons).
In August 1938 a diplomatic effort involving a representative of the UK government failed to "ease the crisis" manufactured by Hitler, and the Czechoslovak government said it would fight rather than cede the Sudetenland. On September 15, 1938 UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met privately with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, without representatives of the Czechoslovak government present, and agreed to cede the Sudetenland to the Third Reich. Deladier did the same on September 18, 1938. These deals were then rolled out in more public diplomatic events in Bad Godesberg on September 22, 1938 and in Munich on September 29, 1938. Germany occupied the Sudetenland in early October 1938. Look for the moment, this summer when Obama decides to get involved personally and goes to a summit with Putin. Perhaps Merkel will come along. (Of course the new Ukrainian government in Kiev cannot attend because Russia does not recognize that government as legitimate.)
The Third Reich invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.
Any bets on whether Putin can beat Hitler's timetable? Any bets on whether Obama and Merkel and Hollande and Cameron can be more craven and feckless than Chamberlain and Deladier were?
As a result of the events of September 1938, the Chamberlain government dramatically sped up its rearming (including particularly with respect to fighter aircraft and the Chain-Home radar stations, which ultimately saved the UK). Any bets on whether the west European countries in NATO will dramatically increase their military strength or preparedness? Any bets on whether NATO will forward deploy crack troops in the eastern-most members of NATO? Any bets on whether Obama reverses his decision to further downsize the US military or even, God forbid, build it back up?
Where will our Churchill come from?