Streetwise Professor

March 27, 2014

Obama Speaks. Putin Smiles.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:21 pm

Obama has given two major sets of remarks about Ukraine, one set on teleprompter, the other off.  Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each was appalling in its own way.  It is hard to say which is worse.

The off-teleprompter remarks were delivered at a press conference.  The statement that garnered the most attention, and rightly so, was Obama’s assertion that Russia was a mere regional power that is not a threat to the US, and invaded Crimea out of weakness.

Where to begin?

Part of the problem is the man’s preternatural pettiness.  He denigrated Russia in  part because he will not, cannot, concede that Romney might have been closer to the truth than he was when the Republican candidate named Russia as our number one national security threat, and Obama responded with a snarky “the 80s called and want their foreign policy back.”  A bigger man would have given Romney his due.  But that would be a different man than Obama.

But the bigger problem is the substance.  First, I would be the first to acknowledge that Russia’s military is decrepit and its ability to project power beyond the Eurasian landmass is limited.  But the Eurasian landmass is pretty damned big, and Russia’s region includes many areas of vital interest to the United States.

Second, Russia has many other sources of power that transcend those of a mere regional power (like Brazil, say).  Most obviously: It has nukes.  It has a UNSC veto.  It has extremely effective asymmetric capabilities, notably cyberwarfare (conducted in large part through private and criminal elements that work for Russian intelligence out of a combination of patriotic and mercenary motives) and intelligence.  (Snowden, anyone?)

Moreover, Putin’s anschluss, and the threatened moves beyond Crimea (not just Ukraine, but reasonably feared in any country with substantial Russian speaking minorities, which includes countries formally allied with the US) upset the entire international order.  Not just the post-World War II and post-Cold War settlements, but the principles of international order stretching back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.   Turning a blind eye to revanchism and irredentism threatens to unleash similar forces on every continent.  The chaos and disorder that would result would present a profound challenge to stability, and the interests of the United States.

Obama appears to believe that it is beneath a stronger power to confront weaker ones.  But what is the point of strength and power, if they cannot be deployed against peer adversaries because that would be too costly, and they cannot be deployed against weaker ones because that’s unsporting?

Indeed, if Obama’s diagnosis is correct, and Russia is a weak power (put aside whether the weakness is the motivation for Putin’s aggressiveness, as Obama claims), given the stakes there is a compelling case to deploy American power (mainly economic, financial, and political, rather than military) to squash the weak upstart.  Because that would contribute to tranquility throughout Eurasia, and pour encourager les autres.

The formal speech in Belgium was a disaster in different ways.  Obama gave a treacly tribute to the bravery of Maidan, and then basically said: “sorry, people, you’re on your own!  Good luck!  We wish you the best!”  He laid out a rather compelling case that Putin’s challenge to the international system threatened dire consequences far beyond Ukraine, but despite this he threatened no measures beyond the oft-repeated gradualism of escalating financial consequences: how many historical examples are required to demonstrate that such gradualism, so appealing in the faculty lounge and think tank, is actually an encouragement to hard men like Putin?

Disgustingly, Obama conceded many of Putin’s arguments, most notably that Russia has special rights in Ukraine due to the longstanding historical relationship between the countries.  This is to make modern Ukrainians subordinate to Russia because their forebears provided a patina of civilization to Muscovite thugs, and then suffered centuries of subjugation at the hands of these thugs which at times lapsed into genocide.  Yes, the Holodomor was truly the epitome of a special relationship, no?

If anything, the historical relations between Ukraine and Russia provide a compelling case to defend Ukraine against further Muscovite predations, rather than an excuse to consign the country to Putin’s tender mercies.

The speech put more emphasis on what the US won’t do, than what it will.  Obama repeated three times that the US will not engage in any military response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.  I’m sure Putin got that message, and smiled.

Obama emphasized a desire for continued diplomacy, and de-escalation.  Both of which Russia has already rejected, repeatedly.  (Look at the picture of Lavrov meeting with the Ukrainian FM.  I am sure The Tarantula would have preferred an appendectomy without anesthesia to that meeting.) This is political onanism of the most embarrassing sort.

But there’s more! Not only did Obama conspicuously put Ukraine outside the American security perimeter, he also slammed the door on Georgia, saying that it was not on a path to membership in Nato.  Given that Georgia is one of Putin’s biggest bêtes noire, you may rest assured that Putin is going to take this as an invitation.

In sum, the speech signaled a supine attitude that will embolden Putin.  Obama appears robust only in comparison to the Europeans, who would have to stiffen considerably in order to become mere boneless wonders (to quote Churchill’s devastating critique of Stanley Baldwin).

Some have claimed that Obama’s speech was tough, both on the Russians and the Europeans.  The markets deemed otherwise.  Gazprom was up.  Sberbank was up.  Rosneft was up.  Micex was up.  The Ruble was up.

And no wonder. Last week’s encouraging expansion of sanctions have been followed by . . . nothing.  Except empty threats to do more: that’s all Obama’s speech contained.  It is clear that there is no appetite in western capitals for aggressive action against Russia, even though it would be possible to crush the Russian economy.

Need convincing? German firms are making pilgrimages to Moscow.  German politicians are loud in their criticism of sanctions, and bend over backwards to rationalize Putin’s conduct.

Just why did we defend these people for 60 plus years, anyways?  They are obsessed with Snowden and the thought that the NSA might be perusing their Amazon purchases.  Never mind that a thugocracy is on the march.  It’s so much easier for the Germans to criticize the US than Russia.  The US doesn’t fight back.

Speaking of NSA, one of the companies that paid homage to Putin in his court was Siemens, a notoriously corrupt firm. Former CIA director James Woolsey said we spy on European companies precisely because of their corruption.  Perhaps some kompromat or prosecutions are in order.

Obama appears to be deferring to German wishes.  Specifically, I smell Merkel’s influence over the Georgia remarks.  Why did Obama have to mention Georgia at all, let alone to throw it very publicly under the bus?  Then recall that Merkel has been adamant over excluding Georgia from integration into Nato on any time frame.

Russian troops are massing on Ukraine’s borders.  Russia’s most capable formations, its paratroops (VDV) and Guards armored/mechanized units are assembled there.  But don’t worry! Russian defense minister Shoygu assures that these troops are only there for maneuvers.  And the drunk who is our SecDef believes him:

At the Pentagon, there remains confidence in the assurances provided to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel from Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu that the Russian troops amassing on the border with Ukraine were there only for exercises.

“[Shoygu] told me that they had no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine,” Hagel said at the Pentagon this week.

Can we really be this stupid?  (Don’t answer that.  The question was totally, totally rhetorical.)

Just why, pray tell, need the Russians conduct maneuvers with 50K of their best troops on a sensitive border? And given that Putin repeatedly lied about his intentions in Crimea, why should we believe Shoygu-especially since there are serious doubts that Shoygu is in Putin’s decision making clique?

In sum, in his various remarks, Obama has revealed that he has many, many cheeks, and is willing to turn them all.  To Putin, anyways: not to Romney or other Republicans. Putin will take this as an invitation, and take all that he can.  If he isn’t stopped now-and rolled back, actually-he will continue to press.  The necessity of confrontation will not be eliminated, just deferred.


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  1. AP, since we’ve spent almost a decade arguing over Tyahnybok and Svoboda, let me ask a question that I haven’t yet: would you be glad if Tyahnybok came to power?

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 2:37 am

  2. “Pussy Riot” heroically come to the defence of the Ukrainian junta and organize a Maidan-style riot. A pussy riot that is:

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 3:04 am

  3. AP,

    > But if the people of Crimea had voted in a secessionist majority party that then conducted, without the Russian Army, a free and fair referendum as the separatists in Quebec have tried to do (and which may happen in Scotland) then I would support the result

    > If a Russian separatist party was voted into power in Dnipropetrovsk and wanted a referendum sure I would support that.

    What “referendum”? What “Scotland”? What “Quebec”? In the civilized world separatism is not only allowed but celebrated. In the “new Ukraine” saying the word “separatism” carries a life sentence:

    Рада ввела пожизненное заключение за сепаратизм

    The Ukrainian Rada passes the law mandating 5 to 10 year imprisonment for “separatism”.

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 3:17 am

  4. I meant “a 5 to 10 year sentence”

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 3:19 am

  5. And here is how your beloved “Svoboda” behaves in the Rada:

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 4:08 am

  6. The “black shirts” in action in the Parliament.

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 4:10 am

  7. Text of the new amendment about “separatism”:

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

  8. The new “president” of Ukraine admits to a state crime:

    “Using weapons against the government is not politics. It’s a crime.”

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

  9. @Vlad

    “AP, since we’ve spent almost a decade arguing over Tyahnybok and Svoboda, let me ask a question that I haven’t yet: would you be glad if Tyahnybok came to power

    Of course not. Why would I be? You think that I like him because I defend him from ridiculous accusations that he is a Nazi?

    And why is Svoboda “beloved” by me? I state that Yanukovich is no Stalinist. Does that mean I “love” Yanukovich?

    “What “referendum”? What “Scotland”? What “Quebec”? In the civilized world separatism is not only allowed but celebrated. In the “new Ukraine” saying the word “separatism” carries a life sentence”

    Since Ukraine was invaded by Russia and a piece of it was illegally grabbed by it, pro-Russian separatist activity is understandably and correctly viewed differently than it was a few months or years ago. Don’t blame the current government’s nationalism for it – Yushchenko and Tymoshenko didn’t ban separatism; they weren’t dealing with an invasion. So, thanks to Russia’s actions, Ukrainian citizens can’t legally call for separatism anymore. Ukraine has become more like the USA than like Canada.

    Comment by AP — April 8, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

  10. AP, that’s not the issue. The issue is that the separation referendums in East Ukrainian cities that you are proposing, cannot happen because anybody who proposes one, will be immediately thrown in jail for 5 to 10 years. This leaves only one way out: (counter-)revolution. The same kind as Maidan that brought the power to the junta.

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

  11. AP, let me go on the record: “Svoboda” is not Nazi, nor neo-Nazi. It is a fascist, virulently anti-semitic, xenophobic, chauvinistic party, whose three leaders have done the following:

    1. Tyahnybok – the Leader – glamorized UPA’s “struggle” against Jews in WWII, claimed that the Ukrainian government is owned by the “Russian-Jewish mafia” and called for the prosecution of Jewish organizations and their leaders.

    2. Mykhalchischin – Svoboda’s chief ideologue and MP – is a follower of Nazi ideology, who published a book of translations of Goebbels and other Nazi works, and who founded “the Joseph Goebbels Foundation”.

    3. Farion – Svoboda’s ideologue and MP – she and she and her supporters came to the Moskal city of Odessa and staged a march demanding: “Slaughter Moskals with knives!”, protected by police from retribution from the locals:
    Приезд Фарион в Одессу Москалей – на ножи!

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 10:26 pm

  12. Interestingly, back in the Soviet times Farion became one of the youngest members of the Communist Party at the age of 24 and was a Party functionary in her college. She persistently denied this fact, until irrefutable evidence forced her to admit that she had been lying. Only when the Communists lost in 1991, did she switch to the winning camp of anti-Communists. She is a poster child for your definition of “sovoks” and my definition of “scum”.

    В апреле 1987 года лаборантка И.Фарион стала кандидатом в члены КПСС и получила парткарточку № 08932425, а через год, 15 апреля 1988 была принята в члены партии (Государственный архив Львовской области, фонд П-92, опись 2, дело 258).[10][11][12]. Как утверждает бывший преподаватель Львовского университета Геннадий Атаманчук, читавший курс лекций на филологическом факультете, Ирина Фарион в вузе была членом партбюро факультета (единственная студентка на факультете, которая была членом КПСС[13]) и вышла из партии лишь после провала августовского путча ГКЧП[14][15]. Сама Фарион, которая долгое время лгала[16] о своей непричастности к коммунистической партии, в ноябре 2013 года под грузом собранных журналистами доказательств признала своё членство в КПСС, однако заявила, что вышла из неё в 1989 году[17].

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 10:33 pm

  13. In my opinion, the following is the best solution to the current crisis:

    Russian-speaking regions in East Ukraine and Novorossiya should hold referendums, asking: “Do you recognize the current government in Kiev, or do you consider it unconstitutional and illegal?”. Those regions, where the latter is chosen by the majority, should form their own “Constitutional Republic of Ukraine” (CRU) with both Ukrainian and Russian as official languages. CRU should not join Russia but may choose to enter Customs Union and SHAS. The rest of Ukraine will be a monolithic country, ready for NATO.

    We’ve seen many instances of “double” countries: US and Canada, Austria and Germany, two Congos, Iraq and Kuwait, Kosovo and Albania, Norway and Denmark, Serbia and Montenegro, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, North and “regular” Ireland, China and Taiwan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Colombia and Panama, Greece and Cyprus, France and Monaco, Italy and San Marino, Moldova and Romania, etc. etc.

    BTW, the current country of Trasdniestria is actually an independent Ukrainian state and should join CRU. Crimea should take a vote whether to remain in Russia or join CRU.

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 10:50 pm

  14. Not to mention two Koreas.

    Comment by vladislav — April 8, 2014 @ 10:54 pm

  15. @ Vlad,

    “The issue is that the separation referendums in East Ukrainian cities that you are proposing, cannot happen because anybody who proposes one, will be immediately thrown in jail for 5 to 10 years. This leaves only one way out: (counter-)revolution. The same kind as Maidan that brought the power to the junta.

    Well, the first step would be to elect parties that would support separation without explicitly calling for it, and to move forward from there. Besides, 200 people seizing an empty building is not a popular revolution.

    “AP, let me go on the record: “Svoboda” is not Nazi, nor neo-Nazi.


    It is a fascist, virulently anti-semitic, xenophobic, chauvinistic party

    Fascist – here is its platform:

    No mention of Jews at all (so much for “virulently antisemitic”). It seems no more authoritarian or nationalist than mainstream Israeli parties such as Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s party, whose leader serves as Israel’s foreign minister.

    Here is Ukrainian Jewish leader Josef Zissels:

    “I think that, throughout the world, there are plenty of people who are more anti-Semitic than Tiahnybok and parties that are far more anti-Semitic than Svoboda. I deal with this issue professionally; I was commissioned to conduct a large sociological study of this topic. In reality, there are anti-Semitic elements in Svoboda, and we have been tracking them for more than 20 years, from the time when the party was still called the Social-national Party of Ukraine. There is less and less anti-Semitic rhetoric. For example, of the 37 Svoboda party member of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, only six or seven have ever uttered anti-Semitic statement in the last 20 years. There is nothing directly anti-Semitic in Svoboda’s [party] program, neither anything directly xenophobic, although the seeds of xenophobic elements are there. Unlike members of parliament from the Jobbik party in Hungary and Ataka party in Bulgaria, MPs from Svoboda have not uttered anything anti-Semitic from the parliamentary podium. Not a single statement.”

    So mildly antisemitic? Certainly. More so than any mainstream American party? Of course. “Virulently” antisemitic? Of course not. Although this might be true of Russia’s allies Jobbik in Hungary and Ataka in Bulgaria, who are on your side when it comes to Ukraine.


    I do agree with you that Farion is an opportunistic scum.


    As for breaking up Ukraine – it is silly to break up a country simply based on different voting preferences. Should America split up into “red” and “blue” countries? An acute period of instability is also not a time for such things. However, if after things settle down, in local and parliamentary elections the people of these regions do vote for parties that support such a referendum – I would not be opposed. As a first step, let’s see whom the people vote for in the May 25th presidential election, by region. Local elections (including for mayor of Odessa) are also scheduled May 25th.

    Comment by AP — April 9, 2014 @ 7:34 am

  16. @ Vlad

    You like to use the word “Junta” to refer to the new Ukrainian government. It reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld always referring to Iraq’s government as a “regime.” At least he was accurate. Do you even know what a Junta is? The standard meaning is that it is a government of military men, as existed in many South American countries during the Cold War, Greece in the late 1960s, or in interwar Poland after Pilsudski’s death.

    Military-led government:
    Military junta (a government led by a committee of military leaders)
    The ruling council of a military dictatorship

    Comment by AP — April 9, 2014 @ 10:42 pm

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