Mr. Putin unbound
The Washington Post | July 25, 2014
VLADIMIR PUTIN has responded to the international outrage over the destruction of a Malaysian airliner by his proxies in eastern Ukraine by escalating his aggression. According to U.S. officials, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons have continued to cross from Russia to Ukraine since the passenger jet was shot down. On Wednesday, two more Ukrainian military jets were hit by anti- aircraft missiles, which Ukrainian officials said had been fired from Russia. The State Department also said Thursday that Russian artillery was firing at Ukrainian positions from across the border.
The Russian president is clearly not impressed by Western responses to the killing of 298 innocent people and the subsequent attempt by his government and its proxies to deny and cover up the crime. And why should he be? After making a statement Monday that contained no tangible response and only a vague threat that "the costs for Russia’s behavior" will increase, President Obama departed for three days of fundraising on the West Coast. The message to Mr. Putin – not to mention the Israelis, Palestinians and Iraqis fighting their own wars – was that the president was not engaged enough by the crises to set aside the purely political activity of collecting checks from donors.
In Brussels, European Union officials met Thursday to discuss potential sanctions against Russia, including new measures against the banking, energy and arms industries. But no decisions will be made before next week, and even then Moscow will likely be given a new deadline for meeting a demand that it stop supplying the Ukrainian rebels. Previous deadlines to cease weapons deliveries have passed with no significant action.
While the West temporizes, a de facto Russian army is rapidly assembling in occupied portions of eastern Ukraine. A report in the Financial Times, sourced to U.S. intelligence officials, says it includes dozens of T-64 battle tanks, Grad rocket launchers, self-propelled guns, infantry combat vehicles with automatic cannons and armored personnel carriers, in addition to anti-aircraft systems like the one that shot down the Malaysian plane. This force is commanded by Russian citizens who infiltrated Ukraine from Moscow, including a Russian secret police colonel, and made up in large part of fighters from Russia.
Incredibly, the European Union’s position – tacitly supported by Mr. Obama – is that the Ukrainian government should stop attempting to expel the invaders from its territory and instead negotiate with them about the political future of Ukraine. Fortunately, newly elected President Petro Poroshenko has not capitulated to this appeasement strategy. However, his appeals for military aid from the United States and NATO, or at least more substantial sanctions, have so far been turned aside by Mr. Obama and the Europeans.
Frustration with Mr. Obama’s weakness now extends to the top ranks of the Democratic Party. A letter released Tuesday by three Senate committee chairs – Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) – called on Mr. Obama to "impose immediate broad sanctions" against Russia’s defense sector, as well as broader measures against energy and financial industries, and to explore designating the rebels’ political structure as a foreign terrorist organization. While cooperation with Europe is desirable, the senators said, "the United States must not limit its own national security strategy when swift action will help fulfill our strategic objectives."
Mr. Obama has already missed the opportunity for swift action to stop Mr. Putin’s escalation. If he does not act soon, it may be too late to save Ukraine.
PUTIN ISN’T PANICKING
THE DOWNING OF FLIGHT 17 IS JUST A MINOR MISSTEP IN HIS WIDER WAR ON THE WEST
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | July 25, 2014
Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union have so many American pundits and journalists offered such varied interpretations of so few signs coming out of the Kremlin. Everybody wants to know: What will Vladimir Putin do about Ukraine in the aftermath of the downing of the Malaysian airliner? Will he withdraw? Will he invade? Is he in a panic? Is he determined to press forward with his plan to annex eastern Ukraine? The mixed messages coming from the Kremlin have provided at least some support for each of these hypotheses.
And all of them are wrong. Mr. Putin is not going to invade Ukraine or withdraw from it. He is not in a panic. He has not lost his resolve to take eastern Ukraine, nor has it been affirmed – Ukraine has very little to do with this story at all.
It’s not Ukraine that Mr. Putin has been waging war against: It’s the West. And if you analyze the Russian president’s statements and actions in the past week through the prism of Mr. Putin’s great anti-Western campaign, you will find very few contradictions in them – and even less reason to hope for peace.
Over the course of two and a half years, since starting his third term as Russian president against the backdrop of mass protests, Mr. Putin has come to both embody and rely on a new, aggressively anti-Western ideology. It began with simple queer-baiting of protesters, which included accusing them of being agents of the U.S. State Department, and quickly transformed into an all-encompassing view of Russia and the world that proved shockingly powerful in uniting and mobilizing Russia.
The enemy against which the country has united is the West and its contemporary values, which are seen as threatening Russia and its traditional values. It is a war of civilizations, in which Ukraine simply happened to be the site of the first all-out battle. In this picture, Russia is fighting Western expansionism in Ukraine, protecting not just itself and local Russian speakers but the world from the spread of what they call "homofascism," by which they mean an insistence on the universality of human rights.
Mr. Putin knows that in his war against the West he is, in some ways, outgunned: There is the sheer might of the U.S. military, there is NATO, there is, at least sometimes, a united front presented by the world’s richest industrialized nations. So Mr. Putin has to be smarter, as he understands smart: Talk a tough line but avoid open confrontation, and hit when no one is expecting him to hit. It worked with Crimea: Mr. Putin moved in when no one believed it was possible, and once he had, the balance of power had shifted and he had won.
It was working well enough in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-armed and Russian-led armies got to wreak havoc under the guise of locals. Until they shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, turning the underhanded operation into an open confrontation.
What various observers have perceived as a moment of truth that changes the mathematics of the Ukrainian crisis is, from Mr. Putin’s point of view, a misstep in a conflict with the West that he will be engaged in for years – until he leaves office, which he plans to do feet first many years from now. It does not call for radical steps; it calls on Mr. Putin to be cunning in the way he obfuscates and buys time – two of the very few areas in which he is actually capable of being cunning.
To buy time, Mr. Putin issued a middle-of-the-night video address from his residence outside of Moscow. Posted at 1:40 in the morning on Monday, it contained generalities and falsehoods – he claimed, for example, to have repeatedly called for peace talks-but what it did not contain was a condemnation of the downing of the plane or any real attempt to distance himself from the so-called separatists.
He proceeded to hold an emergency meeting of the Russian security council on Tuesday. When the meeting was called, many opposition-minded Russians expected the announcement of a crackdown: Mr. Putin has often used tragic events as a pretext for measures such as abolishing elections or limiting media freedom. This time, however, nothing like that happened and Russian liberals breathed a collective sigh of relief.
As far as foreign observers could tell, Mr. Putin said nothing of consequence. But here is what he said at the start of his talk: "Obviously, there is no direct threat facing our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity today, of course. This is guaranteed primarily by the strategic power balance in the world."
Translated, this means, I gathered you here today to remind the world that Russia is a nuclear power.
And here is what he said as he was wrapping up: "We will respond in an appropriate and commensurate manner if NATO’s military infrastructure gets any closer to our border, and we will not close our eyes to the development of global anti-missile defense and the growth of supplies of strategic high-precision weapons, both nuclear and non-nuclear."
Translated, this means, know how I reminded you five minutes ago that Russia is a nuclear power? Now I’ve told you we are prepared to use our nuclear capability if you try to pull one over on us. (He went on to say that missile defense systems were actually offensive weapons.) And by the way, if you ever thought we’d stop at something, you probably don’t anymore.
The following day, European countries deferred a possible decision on tougher anti-Russian sanctions. The United States released information saying there was nothing linking the Kremlin directly to the downing of the plane. The acute phase of the aftermath of Flight 17 appeared to be ending. Was all of this because Mr. Putin was good at scaring the West or at obfuscating? Whatever it was, his tactics worked beautifully.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, when he was not busy threatening the West with nukes, Mr. Putin signed several new laws. One bans advertising on paid-cable and satellite channels, effectively banning any independent television channel now or in the future from making money. (All broadcast channels are controlled by the state.)
Another gives the government the tools to shut off Russians’ access to Western social networks such as Facebook or Twitter and services such as Gmail or Skype.
A third provides for a jail sentence of up to four years for denying that Crimea is a part of Russia. On the same day, courts in Moscow and St. Petersburg ruled a half-dozen human rights organizations were "foreign agents," effectively ending their activities.
Mr. Putin’s war against the West and its perceived agents in Russia, in other words, continued unabated. As he sees it, the unfortunate screw-up with the plane will be forgotten soon enough. He may or may not have to cede a little on Ukraine, but that’s all right: It’s just one battle in the giant war against the West he has already unleashed.
The West must learn from the Putin playbook if it really wants to hurt him
The Independent | July 25, 2014
How do you solve a problem like Vladimir Putin? This week, the piercing grief of families of the victims of downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 added pressure on Western leaders, as they scrambled to figure out how to respond to evidence the Kremlin supported the Ukrainian separatists suspected of the atrocity.
The Russian President’s peasant cunning dictates he hits his foes where it hurts, then denies all responsibility. To thwart these feral tactics, while retaining the moral high ground, the West must learn something from Putin’s playbook.
Whether or not the rebels intended to target civilians, including 10 Britons, it is an international crime. All the culprits must be brought to book. David Cameron said the tragedy was a "direct result" of Russian backing. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, cited intelligence showing Russia supplied the offending missiles and trained separatists how to use them.
While the US imposed targeted sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, oligarchs, banks and energy companies, Europe has been slower to act. Riven by political differences and paralysed by vested commercial interests, the EU confirmed Putin’s instinct that – when push comes to shove – his outlandish behaviour carries light consequences.
Eastern Europe fears the lights going out were Putin to tamper with their gas supplies. Germany imports 30 per cent of its energy from Russia, exporting goods worth $44bn (£26bn) each year in return. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande said he had no intention of cancelling the sale of Mistral aircraft carriers to Putin. The leader of his Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, spat back that the British were hypocrites for even suggesting the order should be cancelled. After all, he opined, given the number of Russian oligarchs in London, "David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard". So much for EU solidarity.
For Europeans, the short-term price of holding a robust line in the face of this outrage has trumped the moral hazard inviting its repetition. Yet, moral hazard also risks political humiliation, as John Major’s government discovered after the Matrix Churchill case in 1992, when the prosecution of a UK firm for selling arms to Saddam Hussein collapsed upon evidence of government collusion. In response, UK arms export controls were beefed up – although questions linger about outstanding UK sales to Russia of sniper rifles, drones and component parts.
As for the charge that London gives refuge to Putin’s cronies, we’ve been here before. In 2012, the Government pledged to consider following the US lead and legislate for mandatory visa bans and asset freezes on Putin cronies connected to the torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who exposed the biggest tax fraud in Russian history. Ministers backed off, as diplomats and spooks warned of the harm it would do to bilateral relations – even though the US suffered little more than a cruel, but ineffectual, ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans. When I asked if any of the so-called "Magnitsky 60" suspects had been allowed into Britain recently, Home Office lawyers declined to answer, claiming that disclosing if alleged torturers have set foot in the UK "would or could likely prejudice the operation of immigration controls in place to protect the UK". How exactly?
The truth is, whether for fear of commercial or political backlash, governments are too easily knocked off a principled course. So, take the decision out of their hands. The beauty of the Magnitsky model is that, by Parliament creating a presumption of UK visa bans and asset freezes on anyone connected to such a crime, we would be beating Putin at his own game. Hitting the kleptocrats who bankroll him, while shrugging our shoulders with plausible deniability at an independent process. That may explain why, two years ago, five former foreign ministers backed a UK Magnitsky Act, along with a unanimous House of Commons. Sure, the national interest might demand the occasional exemption. But, then, the Foreign Secretary would have to justify it to Parliament – not something that could be done lightly, or without good cause.
The list of crimes triggering such sanctions should include torture and other international crimes, including the kind of attack inflicted on Flight MH17. Any visa ban or asset freeze should be determined independently, based on evidence (including protected intelligence), and with an opportunity to appeal. A UK Magnitsky Act would deliver our strongest response to Putin (short of a blunt trade embargo that few others will support). But, it should apply globally, not just to Russia.
As the clout of Western liberal democracies declines, Britain wants to trade and engage with rising nations. Yet, whether it is dealing with the Kremlin, Egyptian dictators or the Chinese Politburo, we need an approach that nurtures national relations, while denying nasty individuals the ability to buy property in Knightsbridge, send their kids to Wellington College, or drop by the Kings Road for a bit of Christmas shopping.
Britons expect their foreign policy to have some moral red lines. We can embrace global trade, while politely saying: no torturers or terrorists please, we’re British.
The writer is the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton
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