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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Warlords and Corruption are on the Rise as Afghanistan Prepares to Vote

Afghan forces

Afghan security forces and US soldiers arrive at the site of a suicide bombing in Kabul, February 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Having a presidential election in Afghanistan is sort of like trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again—that is, if every piece of the eggshell were trying to kill all the other pieces. Thirteen years after the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan is no closer to being a unified country than it was back then, after a decade of war during the Soviet period, the civil war that followed and finally the conquest by the Taliban.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan votes on April 5.

The chief American concern, of course, is the election of a president who’ll sign the much-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, allowing a contingent of US forces to remain in-country past the end of 2014. President Hamid Karzai, after dithering, shocked Washington last year by saying he won’t sign it. Now, the chances that the next president will sign it are high, since every candidate says that he will. Still, once elected, that could change, and it isn’t clear what conditions the Afghans might place on the accord. Last month, President Obama warned Karzai—and, through him, the other candidates—that he ain’t fooling when he says the United States might pull every last soldier out. According to the White House, in a phone call with Karzai, Obama also said that the door is still open for Karzai’s successor to sign on the dotted line:

President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning. Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan. Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year.

But Obama couldn’t have been encouraged by the fact that Karzai said that he supports the Russian takeover of Crimea in Ukraine. Interestingly, Russia is showing great interest in Afghanistan these days, and The Washington Post recently surveyed the scene. It reports:

The Russian government has compiled a list of 140 Soviet-era projects that it would like to rehabilitate, according to the embassy. The Kabul Housebuilding Factory, the country’s largest manufacturing facility, was the first to receive assistance last fall: $25 million in new equipment. A few miles away in Kabul, the Russian government is spending $20 million to renovate the Soviet House of Science and Culture, constructed in 1982.

Whoever emerges from the rubble of the election—after the massive fraud, after the ballot-box violence and Taliban attacks, after the corrupt vote-buying and warlord-controlled ethnic-bloc votes—may not matter too much, since Afghanistan will still be basket-case poor, bitterly divided, with its regions controlled by the same warlords who’ve been fighting each other since the late 1980s. None of the candidates can afford not to sign the BSA, in the end, since along with it comes $4 billion or more in aid to the Afghan national security forces—without which they wouldn't exist for long.

Among the candidates, the three main contenders are Zalmay Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. Rassoul, a Pashtun, is backed by Karzai and his powerful brothers, including Qayum Karzai, who quit the race himself to throw his support to Rassoul. He’s a French-educated doctor who once worked as the chief of the ex-king’s office in Rome before 2001, and his running mates include Ahmed Zia Massoud, the brother of the slain leader of the Northern Alliance, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda on the eve of 9/11. The presence of Massoud, a Tajik, on the ticket is designed to win Tajik votes in the north of Afghanistan.

Abdullah, who is part Pashtun and part Tajik, is closely identified with the Tajik-led Northern Alliance, too, since he was close to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the assassinated leader. Abdullah was the runner-up in the 2009 election, losing to Karzai but still winning nearly 31 percent of the vote. He’s especially backed by other Tajik warlords and tribal chieftains.

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, got less than 3 percent of the vote in 2009. He’s a Pashtun, too, but from a different subgroup of Pashtuns than the Karzai clan. What sets him apart this year is that his running mate is the notorious warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a general who has been blamed for countless murders. Dostum is an Uzbek, and he’s extremely powerful in the north among Uzbeks.

The New York Times, in a pre-election piece, notes that all three chief candidates are campaigning heavily in Afghanistan’s north, partly because it’s safer there. (That means that voters can get to the polls with a smaller likelihood that they’ll be killed in the process.) In 2009, the Times notes, more votes were cast in the north than anywhere else in Afghanistan, so it’s the place to be if you’re a candidate. But the problem is, most of Afghanistan is Pashtun, and most Pashtuns live in the south and the east, especially around Kandahar, the old Taliban capital. That whole part of the country is seething, and the Taliban is still very strong, in the countryside in particular. Because Pashtuns don’t always vote, since the first election in Afghanistan after 2001 the vote has always been skewed against them, in Parliament especially, where the Pashtuns have been ill-represented all along. (They’re also poorly represented among the army’s officer corps.) Partly as a result, and partly because of Taliban resistance, there’s a great deal of violence in Kandahar and environs: last week, the Taliban killed Kandahar’s governor’s chief of staff and wounded the deputy governor.

Still, Pashtuns make up about 42 percent of the Afghan population, and Tajiks just 27 percent. So, even if many Pashtuns don’t vote—or, alternately, if Pashtun tribal chiefs simply stuff ballot boxes in the south—the Rassoul-Karzai alliance seems to have the upper hand, especially if there’s a runoff vote between, say, Rassoul and Abdullah, the most likely outcome. In any case, it’s hardly a formula for national reconciliation.

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The widespread violence and chaos has sent many international observers and election monitors fleeing, making the election even more suspect. The American groups, such as the National Democratic Institute, pulled up stakes after one of its people was killed in a blatant attack on a major Kabul hotel, and the International Republican Institute hasn’t even bothered to become involved. Democracy International has also reduced its role because of the violence. According to The Guardian, even the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has withdrawn its contingent.

According to the Times, the main compound of Afghanistan’s own election commission—which has been under attack—“is in total lockdown, and we have moved our staff to bunkers and safe houses,” a spokesman said.

As the US withdrawal accelerates, there’s a big problem: what to do with billions of dollars worth of military equipment that’s too expensive to ship back home? It turns out that the Pentagon has decided that the Afghan army, which might want the materiel, can’t handle it, since it’s too disorganized and underfunded. (Over the past dozen years, huge quantities of military equipment have been supplied to the Afghan armed forces—your tax dollars at work—including “more than $53 billion in equipment and support, 160 aircraft, 100,000 vehicles, 500,000 weapons and 200,000 pieces of communications and night-vision equipment.”) So, now the United States is offering it free to any country that’ll take it, presumably Russia excepted. There’s at least $7 billion worth, including 1,600 MRAPs, those mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that weigh 40 tons each. It’s been reported that the United States might hand them over to Pakistan, a report since denied. If the US does give them to Pakistan, it could mean that Pakistan will hand them over to Taliban commanders, who’ll be riding them back into the Afghan fight next year. Given how the United States has bungled the war since 2001, that would be a fitting, if ironic, coda.


Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss considers whether Iran, Syria and Egypt will take their cues from Russia.

Germany Sends an Envoy to Russia

Russian flag

A rally participant waves a Russian flag in front of a statue of Lenin in Crimea, March 17, 2014. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Yesterday, a very high-level Western envoy met with Vladimir Putin. No, it wasn’t the American secretary of state or the British prime minister. And it wasn’t President Obama, who was quietly extolling the virtues of NATO in a speech in Brussels. Instead, it was someone who really matters: Joe Kaeser, the CEO of the giant German firm Siemens, whose company all by itself had nearly $3 billion in sales to Russia last year. It might look like the important diplomacy is taking place amid talks between the US delegation in Brussels with its European counterparts, but the visit to Moscow by Kaeser and parallel actions by many of his German colleagues is where the action is.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Kaeser met Putin, and he had this to say:

Siemens has been present in Russia since 1853—a presence that has survived many highs and lows. We want to maintain the conversation even in today's politically difficult times. For us, dialogue is a crucial part of a long-term relationship.

And 1853 was just before the Crimean War, I do believe. The Journal goes on to report:

German industry has been hard at work under the radar of official avenues to establish an informal diplomatic channel, shuttling between Berlin and Moscow to prevent an all-out economic war. In the days ahead of the Crimean vote to secede from Ukraine, officials from lobbying group Ostausschuss—which represents German companies with investments in Eastern Europe—held meetings with senior Russian, Ukrainian and German officials in an attempt to find a compromise that could ward off tit-for-tat sanctions.

And the paper added this tidbit:

In Berlin, a small circle of politicians and industry lobbyists that include Mr. Cordes and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have met regularly throughout the crisis at the Russian Embassy with Ambassador Vladimir Grinin, a person familiar with the gathering said. Since leaving office in 2005, Mr. Schröder, who has close ties to Mr. Putin, has worked as an adviser to Gazprom. Messrs. Grinin and Schröder couldn't be reached to comment.

As reported in my blog not long ago, it will be capitalism, not politics, that prevents a new Cold War.

In fact, the Germans—with deep economic ties to Russia that create a German national interest in which business supersedes any concern about Crimea—want to normalize things again with Russia, and fast. The Russian news outlet RT, that faithful propagandist for Mother Russia, approvingly cites yet another former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, writing in Die Zeit, who said that Russia’s land grab in Crimea was “completely understandable” and that that economic sanctions against Russia are a “stupid idea.”

Commenting on the response so far by the current German leader, Angela Merkel, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian writes:

In contrast to the posturing and empty rhetoric in London and Washington is the calm voice of Germany's Angela Merkel.… Merkel grew up in East Germany under the KGB's lash and has tried to see Putin through Russian eyes. She sees the absurdity of Barack Obama preaching international law at Russia, of punishing it over Crimea while scheming to bring Ukraine into the western camp. She sees the 1914 danger, of vague ultimatums, unenforceable red lines and ill-considered alliances.

In contrast, President Obama’s speech in Brussels, which wandered this way and that but which focused on the theme of NATO’s role in defending freedom, contained this empty phrase:

Today, NATO planes patrol the skies over the Baltics, and we’ve reinforced our presence in Poland.  And we’re prepared to do more.  Going forward, every NATO member state must step up and carry its share of the burden by showing the political will to invest in our collective defense, and by developing the capabilities to serve as a source of international peace and security.

And, weirdly, describing the current West vs. Russia divide, Obama said: “The contest of ideas continues.” As if the current crisis were the result of competing ideologies, and not power politics, Putin’s vainglory and the price of natural gas.

If Ukraine does complete its move away from Russia and toward the European Union, the EU’s $15 billion aid package, plus another $14 to $18 billion from the International Monetary Fund, is what will do the trick, and not the outmoded, useless and underfunded NATO.

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The New York Times, writing about the downward spiral of NATO and the withdrawal of US forces from Europe, reports today:

The United States, by far the most powerful NATO member, has drastically cut back its European forces from a decade ago. European countries, which have always lagged far behind the United States in military might, have struggled and largely failed to come up with additional military spending at a time of economic anemia and budget cuts.

And it notes that US forces have declined from 400,000 at the height of the Cold War to about 67,000 today. Hawks in Europe and the United States would love to reverse the trend, stepping up the US military presence in eastern Europe and prodding European governments to spend more on their militaries.

But Defense News, hardheaded as always, notes that Russia would not have been deterred even by a stronger NATO. Its source is the British defense minister:

"I think my own judgment is that it is unlikely that any realistic change in level of defense spending in Europe would have made a difference to Putin’s calculus over these events,” Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told a small group of reporters during a meeting at the British Embassy in Washington.


Read Next: Dustin Christensen on Ukrainians debating Russia and revolution in New York’s Borscht Belt.

The Fatal Flaw in Putin’s America Policy

Obama and Putin

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland last summer. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

There’s a major flaw in the view of the United States held by Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia and now the proud owner of Crimea. And that is, that Vladimir Vladimirovich conflates the Cold War, the Bill Clinton administration, the George W. Bush administration, and President Obama’s own policies—with no recognition that, at least since 2009, the United States has tried, imperfectly, to improve relations with Russia.

Looking back on U.S.-Russian relations since the fall of the USSR, there’s a lot of blame that falls on the United States: a big U.S. military buildup since the late 1990s, unilateral overseas adventures by Clinton and Bush in Kosovo and Iraq, the expansion of NATO to include various Eastern European nations (and efforts to have Ukraine and Georgia join, too), and more. Perhaps US-Russian relations reached a low point—at least before the turmoil in Ukraine and Russia’s seizure of Crimea—in 2008, when the two nations quarreled over Russia's military action in Georgia. 

To be fair, however, under Obama the United States sought to “reset” relations with Moscow, appealing to Russia’s capitalist class to mesh with Western Europe, the European Union, the United States and various international economic bodies. As Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia until a few weeks ago, wrote in the New York Times today:

In my first years in government, I witnessed [then-] President Medvedev cooperating with President Obama on issues of mutual benefit—a new Start treaty, new sanctions against Iran, new supply routes through Russia to our soldiers in Afghanistan and Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. These results of the “reset” advanced several American vital national interests. The American post-Cold War policy of engagement and integration, practiced by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, appeared to be working again.

Indeed, the United States believed that it could bypass Putin, in a way, and court Medvedev. A French diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks under Medvedev’s presidency suggested “cultivating relations with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, in the hope that he can become a leader independent of Vladimir Putin.” If that was the plan, it was based on faulty intelligence, since Medvedev had no real political base and was, it appears, all along a cats’-paw for Putin—who, as prime minister under President Medvedev, planned to retake the presidency once again. And the more hawkish elements of the Obama administration, including then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were far more skeptical of Putin than was President Obama, who seems sincerely to have believed that the United States and Russia, even under Putin, could find common ground.

The U.S.-NATO military campaign against Libya certainly irked Putin, but Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was hardly a major ally of Moscow’s, and the Russians always viewed Qaddafi suspiciously, as did the USSR in the 1970s and ‘80s. But by putting NATO expansion to Ukraine an Georgia on hold, by backing off on missile defense systems in eastern Europe, by seeking to conclude new strategic arms accords with Russia, by working with Russia on a UN-backed plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, by cooperating with Russia in ongoing talks between Iran and the P5+1, the United States under Obama could hardly be compared to George W. Bush’s neoconservative, go-it-alone, you're-with-us-or-you're-against-us policies abroad. By removing the last of American troops from Iraq, by pledging to remove all or nearly all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, by making major cuts in the Pentagon’s budget, and by announcing a “pivot” to Asia—which, if anything, is focused on containing China, not Russia—Obama was sending signal after signal to Russia that Washington was willing to play ball.

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Obama’s moderation vis-à-vis Russia continues even after the takeover of Crimea. Despite fierce pressure from hawks—for the latest, see the open letter to Obama from virtually the entire neoconservative movement calling on the president to “strengthen Ukraine, isolate Russia, and strengthen NATO”—Obama has responded judiciously to the Russia-Crimea action so far, imposing a very limited set of sanctions and avoiding anthing like Cold War rhetoric. Hopefully, that means that the White House is still committed to diplomacy with Russia, and to continuing business-as-usual over Iran, Syria, and other hot spots.

But all bets are off if Russia moves into eastern Ukraine and/or Moldova, or acts elsewhere along its periphery in supposed defense of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking cities of the former USSR. In that case, the hawks will almost certainly get what they want.

In the wake of 9/11, just about everyone hawkish, authoritarian, and police- and surveillance minded politician, agency and authority in the United States hauled out their wish list and used the 9/11 attacks to justify getting what they wanted: more money for the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence agencies, an expanded FBI counterintelligence division, new domestic powers through the Patriot Act and other laws, more money for police intelligence units, and so on. So today are the same folks using the Crimea events to appeal to Obama for their own, updated laundry lists: more money for defense, expanding NATO, reinstalling missiles in eastern Europe, more military aid to Poland, the Baltic countries, and other former USSR nations, boosting military spending in Europe, and even semi-irrelevant issues such as accelerating U.S. exports of natural gas to compete with Russia in Europe and approving the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.

For now, Obama can resist most or all of that pressure. But if Putin moves beyond Crimea militarily, he’ll cave in to the hawks on most of what they want—and the world will be launched into, well, not a Cold War exactly, but a prolonged, hostile relationship with Moscow that will probably only end when Putin is toppled by a domestic, democratic movement.


Read Next: The Editors on "How to Avert a New Cold War Over Crimea."

Will Iran, Syria and Egypt Take Their Cues From Russia?

Putin and Sisi

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Egypt's Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi in Moscow, February 13, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Mikhail Metzel)

One of the ugly consequences of Vladimir Putin’s Crimean land grab and the subsequent reaction in the United States and Western Europe is that the chilled relations across the divide could have a dramatic impact on conflicts and controversies in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In the United States, it may seem that Russia’s actions will make Putin and Co. pariahs in the rest of the world, but among the strongmen and tough guys of the Middle East, that might not be the case. A Middle East diplomat told The Nation recently that during a visit last summer to Russia by the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi spy chief, told Putin that Saudi Arabia would consider financing arms purchases by Egypt from Russia. Then, in February, Egypt’s ruler and all-but-assured next president, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the defense chief who seized power in a coup d’etat last July, reportedly secured a $3 billion arms deal with Russia that could be the first step toward easing the United States out of Egypt’s military market.

In Syria, meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed government is no doubt embolded by Russia’s muscle-flexing, and it’s likely that Russia will double down on supporting Assad’s military, which has already been making major gains in the civil war against a rag-tag, mostly Islamist opposition. Reported The Washington Post last week:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the United States over Ukraine to press ahead with plans to crush the rebellion against his rule and secure his reelection for another seven-year term, unencumbered by pressure to compromise with his opponents.

And now, Iran. The latest round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, including the United States and Russia, concluded this week. But the Russians are now hinting that they might hold the talks hostage if the United States reacts too strongly to Russia’s Ukraine policy. Listen to Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and delegate to the P5+1 talks with Iran:

We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes, taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington. But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well. The historic importance of what happened in the last weeks and days regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.

Some analysts say that Russia has its own national interest in trying to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, but the fact is that Iran is nowhere near getting a bomb. Still, the United States does need Russia to help diplomatically with Iran, and it needs both Iran and Russia vis-à-vis Syria. Among other things, Russia could easily shatter the sanctions consensus on Iran, reopening trade ties with its neighbor to the south. And, in the extreme, Russia could start delivering anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense systems to Iran, including an advanced type that would terrify Israel and perhaps lead hawkish Israelis to demand air strikes on Iran before the missiles could be put in place.

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As Al Monitor reported in February, commenting on improving Russia-Iran ties:

Iranian-Russian strategic cooperation could also help Moscow maintain security in Russia’s southern regions, especially managing the growing threat from terrorism. Furthermore, Moscow and Tehran could try to align their positions on the Caspian Sea legal regime and on the utilization of its resources. It might also pave the way for the participation of Russian companies in Iranian energy, infrastructure and industrial projects, especially if Western governments drag their feet in removing sanctions against Iran.

Read Next: The Editors on how to avert a new Cold War over Crimea

Full Text and Analysis of Putin’s Crimea Speech

Pro-Russia protesters

Pro-Russia demonstrators in eastern Ukraine, March 8, 2014. (Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin)

Thanks to the Prague Post, we have the full text in English of President Vladimir Putin’s speech yesterday announcing the annexation of Crimea and, more importantly, described at great length his explanation for why the move—which is likely to create a grave rupture between Russia and the United States—was justified. Read in full, it’s a scary document. In it, Putin mixes politics, national resentments and nationalism, all overlaid with a religio-mystical tone that sounds, at times, almost messianic. The speech was delivered to wild applause and, according to The New York Times, some in the audience were moved to tears by the speech’s aggrieved evocation of Russia’s history and its religious, Russian Orthodox overtones.

For instance, at the very start of the speech, Putin says:

Everything in Crimea speaks of our shared history and pride. This is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The graves of Russian soldiers whose bravery brought Crimea into the Russian empire are also in Crimea.

Though Crimea has always been part of Russia, Putin says, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Crimea ended up with Ukraine. “It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered.”

Indeed, Putin issues what sounds like irredentist comments about reclaiming millions of Russians—not only in Crimea, and not only in Ukraine—back to the motherland:

Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones [after the USSR’s collapse], overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.

Putin says that Russia wants “good relations with Ukraine,” but adds:

We hoped that Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Ukraine, especially its southeast and Crimea, would live in a friendly, democratic and civilized state that would protect their rights in line with the norms of international law. However, this is not how the situation developed. Time and time again attempts were made to deprive Russians of their historical memory, even of their language and to subject them to forced assimilation.

In Ukraine, says Putin, those who demanded change had legitimate grievances. But, he adds:

Those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.… We can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II.

Of course, by annexing Crimea, Putin is almost certainly fueling the fire of the most extreme nationalist elements in Kiev. Unless the situation changes soon, what had been a dangerous minority of radical-right elements in the new Kiev government could gain huge new momentum, making Putin’s inflated claims a self-fulfilling prophecy. Putin adds that “there is nobody to talk to” in the Kiev government, dangerously implying that since Ukraine is essentially ungoverned, Russia can step in to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. In his speech, Putin explicitly links the annexation of Crimea to the need for protecting Russians across Ukraine:

The residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives, in preventing the events that were unfolding and are still underway in Kiev, Donetsk, Kharkov and other Ukrainian cities. Naturally, we could not leave this plea unheeded.

With justification, Putin cites the fact that, from Kosovo to Iraq and beyond, the United States and NATO often act with impunity:

Like a mirror, the situation in Ukraine reflects what is going on and what has been happening in the world over the past several decades.… Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.”

But then Putin gets into a discussion of the “color revolutions.” This is critical to his worldview, and it is a signal that above all Putin fears that the United States is manipulating politics both inside Russia itself and in surrounding countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, to support anti-Russian political forces, and he mixes up the color revolutions with the so-called Arab Spring:

There was a whole series of controlled “color” revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically.… As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.

A similar situation unfolded in Ukraine.… We understand what is happening.

Of course, while the United States has supported “democracy” as a tool of its foreign policy often, it’s hardly accurate that everything that happened in Ukraine, or in the Arab world, was instigated by the United States and its allies. Even at the height of the Cold War, when the Central Intelligence Agency ran rampant, Washington could hardly control events in other countries, and certainly most of what happened during the Arab Spring caught the Obama administration by surprise. The fall of Hosni Mubarak, for instance, was not initially supported by Washington, and the Tahrir Square movement was not instigated by the United States. But, to Putin—who most of all fears an Arab Spring-style (or Ukraine-style) movement inside Russia itself, all of this is one vast American conspiracy. In response, in recent years Putin has cracked down on foreign-funded groups of all kinds.

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Putin accurately describes NATO’s expansion eastward and the deployment of a missile defense system in eastern Europe, noting, “They kept telling us the same thing: ‘Well, this does not concern you.’ That’s easy to say.” But Putin, as is his wont, lumps the George W. Bush administration together with the Obama administration in all of this, refusing to acknowledge that since taking office in 2009 Obama has sought to address many of Russia’s concerns, refusing to act on NATO expansion, seeking strategic arms deals, canceling the missile defense system and rejecting the neoconservative view of American “exceptionalism.” More recently, Obama has worked with Russia on issues including Syria and Iran. None of that is noted in Putin’s outburst. And then this:

In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.

After all, they were fully aware that there are millions of Russians living in Ukraine and in Crimea. They must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions. Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.

Perhaps most worryingly, Putin says that Kiev, the Ukraine capital, is the “mother or Russian cities.” In context:

Our concerns are understandable because we are not simply close neighbors but, as I have said many times already, we are one people. Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source and we cannot live without each other.

Is that a statement of cooperation, or a threat? Or both? Reassuringly, he adds:

We want to be friends with Ukraine and we want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign and self-sufficient country. Ukraine is one of our biggest partners after all. We have many joint projects and I believe in their success no matter what the current difficulties. Most importantly, we want peace and harmony to reign in Ukraine, and we are ready to work together with other countries to do everything possible to facilitate and support this. But as I said, only Ukraine’s own people can put their own house in order.

But annexing Crimea doesn’t make it more likely that calm and reason will prevail in Kiev. Meanwhile, Putin’s speech rallies Russian patriotism over Crimea, but in an odd and dangerous-sounding passage Putin warns of a “fifth column” inside Russia. Over the past several years, Putin’s government has cracked down on dissent and open expression, often arresting peaceful demonstrators and shutting down media outlets. Yesterday, he said that in Russia there is a “disparate bunch of ‘national traitors.’” In context:

Some Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. I would like to know what it is they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors’, or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent? We consider such statements irresponsible and clearly aggressive in tone, and we will respond to them accordingly.

That, especially, sounds ominous.

Read Next: Nicolai N. Petro on the endgame in Crimea.

Obama’s Response to the Crimea Vote Is Measured, So Far

Soldiers in Crimea

Armed men, believed to be Russian soldiers, stand guard outside a Ukrainian military unit in Crimea, March 11, 2014. (Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko)

President Obama’s reaction to Russia’s bullying of Ukraine and its illegal occupation of Crimea isn’t bad, so far. The sanctions that he’s ordered against various Russian officials, including those in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, are measured. And he’s ignored or rejected calls from hardliners, hawks and neoconservatives, so far, to up the ante by pledging to expand NATO to Ukraine and Georgia, rush weapons to the new government in Kiev, send the US naval fleet into the Black Sea, install anti-missile defense systems in eastern Europe and so forth. (Senator John McCain, who never misses a chance to be recklessly provocative, has demanded installing a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, bringing Moldova and Georgia into NATO, rushing arms to Ukraine and more.)

But the widely expected result of the Crimean referendum on Sunday, which overwhelmingly backed unification with Russia, presents a challenge for Obama, one that will require a great deal of skill and forbearance to navigate successfully.

Both Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continue to emphasize that Putin has a face-saving off-ramp if he seeks to extricate himself from the Crimean region.

But it isn’t clear that Putin is interested in any off-ramps. Why not? Maybe it’s because the Russian president thinks that just as he used the war in Chechnya in 1999 to help catapult himself to power by rallying nationalists behind him, now he can ride another wave of Russian nationalism by proclaiming himself as the Great Liberator of Crimea. Maybe it’s because he really and truly believes that taking Crimea is the first step toward restoring Russia’s faded glory. Maybe it’s because Putin is building ties with the fanatical, reactionary Russian Orthodox Church, with its anti-homosexual passions and its reverential belief that modern Russia started with the Christianization of the Kievan Rus by Prince Vladimir from 988 AD, and Putin wants to cast himself as the new Prince Vladimir. Or maybe it’s because Putin is seething over the fall of the Soviet Union and the ill-considered Westernization (and NATO-ization) of Eastern Europe since the 1990s. Whatever the reason, it seems likely that Putin is not going to give up Crimea, and that he’ll keep up the pressure on Kiev—perhaps through the creeping destabilization of eastern Ukraine, the phony talk of “protecting” ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians there and the gradual bolstering of pro-Russian militias in parts of Ukraine that border Russia.

If so, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Few Americans are truly concerned about Ukraine, nor should they be. The United States has no real national interests there, and whether all or part of Ukraine and its Crimean region are part of Russia is irrelevant to broader US national security issues. Practically speaking, however, annexation of Crimea by Russia, and especially a further push by Moscow into Ukraine, will poison US-Russian relations for many, many years to come, and it will make cooperating with Russia on Syria, Iran and Afghanistan much more complicated than it already is. So the cause for concern is that ill will between Washington and Moscow and a spiraling down of relations will have a devastating ripple effect on much else in international relations. It will also intensify pressure on the White House to halt the cuts in the Pentagon’s budget that Obama and Secretary of Defense Hagel have already proposed, and it will provide an opening for McCain and his merry flock of hawks to demand that the United States deploy its military eastward in Europe.

A true political and economic break with Russia is extrmeley unlikely, as I wrote last week in my analysis of the capitalist ties between Russia and, especially, Western Europe.

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Still, it’s worrying that Russia is suppressing dissent inside the country, shutting down Russian news organizations and websites that haven’t bought into Putin’s grandiose notions about Russian-Crimean unity. It’s worrying that Russia is reportedly sending covert forces into eastern Ukraine to rev up anti-Kiev forces there. It’s worrying when Russian officials hint that Moscow might cancel or suspend arms agreements already reached with the United States. And it’s absurdly out of bounds when a very influential Russian propagandist takes the opportunity to remind his listeners that Russia is “the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive dust.”

It’s all grist for McCain and Co., and it isn’t clear how long Obama will resist stronger measures.


Read Next: Nicolai N. Petro on the endgame in Crimea

Obama Offers Putin a Face-Saving Off-Ramp on Crimea

soldiers in Crimea

Armed men, believed to be Russian soldiers, stand guard outside a Ukrainian military unit in Crimea, March 11, 2014. (Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko)

The fact that President Vladimir Putin hasn’t admitted what everyone else in the world knows, namely, that thousands of Russian troops have illegally seized control of Crimea, is a good thing, in one way: because Russia hasn’t owned up to occupying Crimea, it’s just a little bit easier easier for Putin to back down, to avoid annexing Crimea after the phony referendum on Sunday, and to seek a diplomatic solution. Had Putin admitted that Russia was occupying Crimea, he’d feel that much more pressure to defend it. So there’s a chance that, even if Sunday’s referendum on independence for Crimea is held, there still can be a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.

It’s not likely, but it’s possible. And yesterday, both President Obama and Ukraine’s new leader, the unelected Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, opened the door for that sort of solution. (You can read the entire text of the comments by Obama and Yatsenyuk at the White House’s website.) Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to London to meet Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in what could end up being a meeting that lasts two days or more.

Obama’s plan, essentially, calls for freezing everything in place until after Ukraine’s elections on May 25, after which Ukraine can negotiate a final status for Crimea with Russia. That might involve anything from Ukraine’s complete refusal to countenance any change in the status quo, to some sort of enhanced (read: pro-Russia) autonomy, to a decision to allow a real, well-organized referendum within Crimea to go forward. And Yatsenyuk said that, above all, Ukraine will continue to recognize and support Russia’s long-standing military facilities in Crimea, including its Black Sea naval base. Yatsenyuk said: “So much will depend on whether Russia…wants to have Ukraine as a partner or as a subordinate.”

Said Obama: “We hope that President Putin is willing to seize that path.”

Kerry, who appears more hawkish than Obama on various issues, including Ukraine, in testimony yesterday before a congressional committee said that even if the Sunday referendum is held, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be a diplomatic solution—as long as Russia doesn’t follow the phony vote by annexing the region. Reports The Wall Street Journal:

He also pointed to possible ways around a long-running standoff with Russia. For example, he said, the Russian parliament, or Duma, may avoid quick action to annex Crimea even if Sunday’s referendum is approved.

“There are a lot of variants here, which is why it is urgent that we have this conversation with the Russians and try to figure out a way forward,” Mr. Kerry said.

In fact, the takeover of Crimea may already be past fixing, and irreversible. That’s the expressly stated opinion of Robert Gates, and others. But, if Crimea does get absorbed into the Russian Federation, as seems likely—and especially if things get worse, say, if Russia continues its irredentist course toward “protecting” Russian-speaking inhabitants of eastern Ukraine—then the pressure on President Obama to make a major course correction on US policy toward Russia will be immense, and probably irresistible. And the crisis also would cause a deep and lasting rift in Russia’s relations with Europe, whose vast economic ties with Russia cause the continent to shudder over the idea of a confrontation that could involve sanctions. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is no doubt under enormous pressure to avoid a rupture in her country’s relations with Russia, but such pressure will be impossible to resist if Russia persists on its present course. Said Merkel yesterday:

Ladies and gentlemen, if Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine. We would not only see it, also as neighbors of Russia, as a threat, and it would not only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.

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Along with the United States, Germany and other members of the G-7, collectively known as “the West,” issued a statement strongly urging Russia to seek a diplomatic settlement. The statement said that none of the G-7 countries will recognize the results of Sunday’s referendum:

Any such referendum would have no legal effect. Given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force. For all these reasons, we would not recognize the outcome.

But, as The Wall Street Journal noted, the G-7 statement stopped short of threatening sanctions or other retaliatory actions. That’s all good, because—like Obama’s carefully worded offer in his meeting with Yatsenyuk—it creates an opportunity for Putin to back down with face-saving grace and agree to some solution.

Read Next: Conn Hallinan on the dark side of the Ukraine revolt

Will the Hawks Capture Obama on Ukraine?

Russians in Crimea

Armed men, believed to be Russian soldiers, stand guard outside a Ukrainian military unit in Crimea, March 11, 2014. (Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko)

The Russian seizure of Crimea—and let’s face it: it’s a done deal—is not a good thing for world peace and stable international relations. By this weekend, when the provocative referendum takes place (under Russian military occupation, of course, and contrary to Ukraine’s constitution), Vladimir Putin will have a fig leaf of democratic support for his Crimea operation. But it will lead to howls of outrage from neoconservatives, hawks and pro-NATO advocates inside the United States. As a result, it will be exceedingly difficult for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to engage in creative diplomacy with Russia on issues including Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.

But does that mean that the United States should call for a revolution in Russia? Bring Ukraine into NATO? Step up military exercises all across Eastern Europe? Take steps to permanently isolate Russia’s economy? No, of course not. But that’s what the hawks are calling for.

Inside the White House, Obama may be thinking: Okay, let Putin have his gosh-darned Crimea, and let’s get on with it. But he can’t, and won’t, ever say anything like that. As time goes on, Obama will be buffeted by his ever-present right-wing critics over Ukraine, and those critics will use every opportunity to propose and defend a long list of aggressive steps that the United States can take in response—steps that, while they’ll do nothing to reverse Putin’s indefensible Ukraine policy, are laundry-list items that they want anyway. And given Obama’s all-too-frequent willingness to meet his critics halfway, they just might get them.

Among Republicans, the libertarians and so-called “realists” have cut Obama some slack. Robert Gates, the discredited former CIA chieftain who was picked as secretary of defense by George W. Bush and then inexplicably retained by Obama, told a shocked Fox News host, Chris Wallace, that Crimea is “gone”:

“You think Crimea’s gone?” “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace asked.

“I do,” Gates replied. “I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hand.”

He’s no doubt right about that. Henry Kissinger, the über-realist (and butcher of Vietnam) suggested in an even-toned op-ed in The Washington Post that rather than fight over Ukraine, the United States and Russia ought to see the country “as a bridge between them,” and he said that Obama and Putin shouldn’t “compete in posturing.”

And the Pauls, father and son (Ron and Rand) have pretty much written off Ukraine and told their fellow Republicans—provided that the GOP still considers the Pauls to be members in good standing with the GOP—to lay off Ukraine. According to Daddy Paul, who no doubt would rather go about the business of getting rid of the income tax and abolishing Medicare and Social Security, Americans are “sick and tired of the U.S. government getting involved in every crisis that arises.” (His column was entitled: “Leave Ukraine alone!”) For good measure, appearing on the propagandistic Russian outlet RT, Paul said that it was “global bankers” who want the United States to get involved in Ukraine. And Paul fils, the senator from Kentucky, commented intelligently, in an interview with The Washington Post: “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.”

But then: guess what? Under pressure from hawks, who don’t like the Pauls’ libertarian/isolationist POV, Rand Paul decided that, oops, we really do need to punish Putin, big time. In a Time magazine op-ed, Paul said:

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a gross violation of that nation’s sovereignty and an affront to the international community. His continuing occupation of Ukraine is completely unacceptable, and Russia’s President should be isolated for his actions.… Putin must be punished for violating the Budapest Memorandum, and Russia must learn that the U.S. will isolate it if it insists on acting like a rogue nation.

And then, wow! Paul backed every single measure proposed by hawks to “punish” Putin, including tough economic sanctions, reinstating the missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, imposing bans on visas for Russian officials, expelling Russia from the G-8 and more.

Sounds like “tweaking” to me!

Of course, the pressure from the hawks on someone like Paul is effective because Rand Paul wants to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016, the chances of which are less than the chance that Putin will give Crimea as a gift to Poland. But Obama, too, is under pressure from hawks, and it isn’t at all clear that he won’t listen. Not that Obama will use the military against Putin, but he might give the hawks a few of the items on their laundry list.

And the hawks are lining up. Besides Paul, other would-be candidates for the GOP presidential nomination have weighed in, too, including Rob Portman and Bobby Jindal. Writing in Forbes, Portman, not generally regarded as a foreign policy expert, issued a call for strengthening and expanding NATO, including in Ukraine:

Increased training exercises with our NATO allies will improve interoperability between our forces and reassure them of our commitment. In addition, we should ensure that NATO’s doors remain open to all who qualify for membership; NATO should stand with countries that choose a democratic path and whose forces serve alongside NATO troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

An editorial in The Wall Street Journal suggests that the battle of Ukraine be carried directly into Russia itself. “Kiev’s best revenge would be to become an inspiration for Russia’s freedom fighters,” it says, citing the visit to Kiev by the former Russian oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Said the editorial:

The former Yukos oil tycoon, who spent a decade in Mr. Putin’s prisons for trying to create political competition in Russia, has spoken little in public since his December release. So it was all the more remarkable that he chose Kiev’s revolutionary square for his coming out party. “Glory to the people of a new and democratic Ukraine!” he began. Before he could go on, the crowd chanted “Russia, rise up!”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens says:

Vladimir Putin isn’t playing by Mr. Obama’s idea of 21st-century rules. The right response to a Russian power play is a power play of our own. Ballistic missile defenses on NATO’s eastern flank would be a good place to start.

In USA Today, Paula Dobriansky and David Rivkin say:

While going to war with Russia over Ukraine is unthinkable, the U.S., Britain, France and Germany should at least mitigate the damage to the cause of non-proliferation and international law by imposing the most robust set of economic, financial and diplomatic sanctions on Moscow.

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You can’t swing a dead cat in Washington without knocking over another advocate for getting tough with Putin. They include Charles Krauthammer, the ubiquitous Fred Hiatt and Eric Edelman, who, writing in The Weekly Standard, wants NATO to get involved in boosting Ukraine, and who concludes with this sweeping call for remilitarizing the United States and NATO:

A…necessary step is to strengthen NATO’s deterrent posture and ability to reassure allies. Reinforcing the NATO air policing mission in the Baltics is a good beginning, but this will also require a thorough reconsideration by the alliance of the self-abnegating undertakings it assumed at the time of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. The alliance should consider whether and how it wants to position ground combat forces on the territory of the former Warsaw Pact states that now are members of NATO. It should also reconsider the so-called three no’s—no intention, no plan, no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the new NATO members. Bringing NATO military power closer to the borders of Russia would impose a real cost on the Russian military and might cause nationalists who support Putin’s current course to reconsider. All of this would need to be accompanied by a large increase in the defense budget, much like the one Jimmy Carter obtained after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A jolt to the budget—at least to the levels proposed by Secretary Gates in 2011—would signal an end to the relative decline in U.S. military power over the past four years that, in Secretary Hagel’s words, has meant that “we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.” That would send a powerful and unwelcome message to those in both Moscow and Beijing who are betting on the end of the unipolar world.

Let’s hope that Obama was too busy with his appearance on “Between Two Ferns” to have paid attention to Edelman.


Read Next: Tom Tomorrow sketches the Ukraine crisis from a neocon perspective.

Capitalism Will Prevent a Cold War Over Ukraine

Russian soldier

Soldiers outside a Ukranian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava, March 1, 2014. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

Plain, old-fashioned capitalism will prevent a new cold war between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and Russia’s gobbling up of the Crimean region. Capitalism, plus the fact that probably not one American in a thousand could locate Crimea on a map, and even the most hard-headed US political analysts have trouble coming up with a decent definition of what US interests in Ukraine might be.

Helping to contain the crisis is the fact that Russia, Europe and to a lesser extent the United States are tied together in a powerful web of financial and economic ties that didn’t exist, say, during the real Cold War. Their influence runs counter to the many, many cries from hawks to impose tough economic sanctions on Russia, as if the giant Eurasian power were a small “rogue state.” The Washington Post, for instance, said in an editorial:

Some argue that the West lacks the means to damage the Putin regime or that the United States cannot act without Europe, but neither claim is true. Banking sanctions—denying Russians and their banks access to the U.S. financial system—could deal a powerful blow. Mr. Obama must respond to Mr. Putin with measures that force the Russian ruler to rethink his options.

But, as CNN reports:

Russia is the European Union’s third-biggest trading partner after the United States and China, with goods and services worth more than $500 billion exchanged in 2012. About 75% of all foreign direct investment in Russia originates in EU member states, according to the European Commission.

In addition, Russia is the single biggest supplier of energy to the European Union. British energy firm BP is the second-largest shareholder in Russia’s leading oil producer Rosneft, and some of the biggest energy companies in Germany, the Netherlands and France are invested in a joint venture with Russian gas giant Gazprom.

And, in a lengthy interview in The American Interest, Zbigniew Brzezinski points with regret to the fact that British bankers, who have large deposits of Russian cash—particularly from Russian oligarchs—are resisting any sort of confrontation over Ukraine:

The British seem inclined to argue, “Well, there’s a lot of Russian money in our banks.”… The bankers doubtless have a lot of influence, particularly in political systems in which money is increasingly the mechanism that oils the “democratic process.”

Earlier, the BBC had reported that a document carried by a top British official read: “The U.K. should not support for now trade sanctions or close London’s financial center to Russians.”

The New York Times, in a long March 7 piece analyzing US and European business interests in Russia and their effect on the politics of the situation, quoted several executives with Western firms who clearly want to cool the crisis talk:

European businesses “have no interests in any deterioration of the current international situation linked to Ukraine,” Frank Schauff, the chief executive of the Association of European Businesses in Russia, said on Friday. “We call upon all parties to engage in a constructive dialogue, which will secure stability, welfare and economic growth on the European Continent.”

Among American companies cited in the Times are Pepsi, Ford and John Deere. The Times quoted Ken Golden, director of global public relations for Deere, in its piece:

While Russia represents less than 5 percent of Deere’s total equipment sales, the company recently cited Russia as being key to its future growth. “We urge political leaders to solve this issue without violence and in accord with international agreements,” Mr. Golden said.

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It even extends to the defense industry. According to Defense News, in a piece titled “Amid Ukraine Crisis, EU Plays It Safe,” various European arms manufacturers, including in Sweden, value current and potential sales to Russia. France is apparently insisting that it will continue to sell arms to Russia, including a $1.7 billion deal for two Mistral-class helicopter carriers. Said one expert quoted in the piece:

It looks like the Europeans are extremely keen to do everything except anything that hurts their commercial interests. There is zero appetite to hurt business interests, and arms sales fit into that category.

Still, while Vladimir Putin and his nationalist Russian base might believe that ancient monasteries, the Kievan Rus and heaven knows what else justify the illegitimate annexation of Crimea and Russia’s overweening influence in Ukraine, and that Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine need protecting, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are nearly certain to contribute to a deeper political divide between the United States and Russia. Just as the unilateral US and NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1998–99, the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the US-NATO war against Libya in 2011 all bolstered Russian nationalism and strengthened the Russian military, Russia’s occupation and pending annexation of Crimea will do the same in reverse. Hawks, pro-NATO militants, supporters of building up US military forces and missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe, and critics of President Obama’s defense cuts, will all be aided greatly by Putin’s actions.

We’ll review the bidding on that tomorrow.

Read Next: Conn Hallinan on the dark side of the Ukraine revolt

Troubled AIPAC Meets, but Its Influence Wanes

Netanyahu at AIPAC

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC meeting in Washington, March 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

With the crisis in Ukraine eclipsing the rest of the international news, you’d never know that the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) unfolded in Washington this week. That’s bad news for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose latest warnings about the imminent Iranian nuclear bomb—a bomb that’s been “imminent” since the 1990s—went mostly unheard. But it’s also bad news for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who are planning to unveil their plan for a framework for a two-state solution. Obama met with Netanyahu, of course, and later this month he’ll meet with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

The big problem for AIPAC, of course, is that they spent all their political capital earlier this year, in vain, trying to impose new sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions would have destroyed the US-Iran talks with the P5+1 and wrecked the chances of a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. It’s not often that AIPAC loses so badly, but lose they did, and it didn’t win them any favors with the Obama administration. They’re still worried about Iran, of course, but with the Obama-Kerry plan about to be unveiled, AIPAC has to refocus on its core issue, namely, Israel and the Palestinians. As the Jewish Telegraph Agency put it, "in the wake of battles over Iran sanctions legislation that pitted the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse against the White House, many congressional Democrats and liberals more generally, AIPAC’s traditional emphasis on Israel as a bipartisan issue has taken on added urgency.

But AIPAC itself is split, and it’s being challenged from the left by groups such as J Street and from the right by ultra-hardliners such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and its patron, Sheldon Adelson. In addition, there’s a new move afoot to create yet another pro-Israel organization, on the far right, that would explicitly oppose a two-state solution of any kind. As reported by the Jerusalem Post, one of its would-be founders expressed the purpose this way:

J Street supports a state of all its citizens, and AIPAC supports a two-state solution.... This has created a situation in which those of us who think that the establishment of a Palestinian state would be a disaster have no way to express this, and there is no organization that will communicate our protestations to the administration in Washington.

That sort of fragmentation can only further weaken both AIPAC and the Israel lobby more broadly. Politico, noting the splits within and about AIPAC, wrote:

As President Barack Obama pushes forward on both an Israeli-Palestinian peace process framework and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program…there’s an active effort among more liberal groups to show that the changing politics in the American Jewish community mean that AIPAC’s positions represent fewer and fewer people, and should be getting less and less attention.

Indeed, neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden bothered to speak to AIPAC, and not because of Ukraine, either. They’d decided to pass it up earlier, though Kerry did make an appearance. Kerry filled his speech with the typical boilerplate about US-Israel ties, but he also strongly defended the talks with Iran, something that the Tehran Times picked up on, under the headline: “Kerry voices support for diplomacy with Iran.” Reported the Tehran Times:

“Those who say strike and hit need to check what might happen after we do that,” Kerry said at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington. “Only strong diplomacy can justify more forceful options if we will have to use them.”

Kerry added, according to the text of his speech, “Let’s seize the diplomatic moment.”

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In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu didn’t spend a lot of time on Iran, and instead talked a great deal about Israel itself, denouncing the movement to boycott Israel and defending the state’s character. But in J Street's report on Netanyahu’s address, the organization chose to emphasize the positive parts of his remarks. Here’s part of J Street’s news release:

Pledging to work with the US and the Palestinians to “forge a durable peace” based on “mutual recognition,” the prime minister declared, “Peace would be good for us. Peace would be good for the Palestinians” and peace would “catapult the entire region forward.”

Netanyahu acknowledged that “many Arab leaders today already realize that Israel is not their enemy, that peace with the Palestinians would turn our relations with them and with many Arab countries into open and thriving relationships.”

Of course, peace is hardly breaking out in Palestine, and in his meeting with President Obama—where the president, it turns out, had to address Ukraine, too—Netanyahu reverted to his old shibboleths about Palestinian “incitement” against Israel. In a Jerusalem Post article on the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, headlined, “Obama gets lecture on peace talks from Netanyahu in White House meeting,” the Post reported:

“Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven’t,” Netanyahu said to Obama, in front of the press. “The people of Israel know that it’s the case.”

“What we want is peace—not a piece of paper,” he said. Netanyahu called for a “real peace…based on mutual recognition,” and chided his Palestinian counterparts for promoting “incessant violence” against the Jewish state. “Israel, the Jewish state, is the realization of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination,” Netanyahu said. “I think it’s about time they recognized a nation state for the Jewish people. We’ve only been here for about 4,000 years.”

Actually, it’s more like six decades.

AIPAC is coming in for a lot of criticism these days, including from Peter Beinart and John Judis. The problem that the organization has faced since at least the 1990s, and especially during the administration of George W. Bush, is that it found itself caught between extremes. For years, AIPAC thrived on a kind of traditional bipartisanship, in which it generated nearly equal support from Democrats and Republicans—or even, slightly more Democratic support—and struck a balance between Israel’s liberal left-Zionist establishment and the far-right Likud and that party’s even more rightwing allies. But in a Washington so polarized now, with Republicans out to wreck Obama’s foreign policy whatever he does—even if it means sabotaging the Iran talks and scuttling an Israel-Palestinian accord—AIPAC faces an exceedingly difficult choice. Were it to choose to support the GOP and its wrecking-ball approach on Iran, it would lose any shred of bipartisan balance, and that could cost it dearly. But, at the same time, it will struggle to align with Netanyahu, especially if the Israel government resists what Obama and Kerry propose for a solution.


Read Next: Chase Madar on why bankrolling Israel prevents peace in the Middle East.

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