Trump’s Credibility Problem on Russia

Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015 (Michael Vadon)

I’ve been meaning to write about this since The Washington Post reported on Friday that the CIA is now confident Russia hacked the Democratic Party’s emails in July and November to help Donald Trump win the election — but NBC News sums it up perfectly today: Read more “Trump’s Credibility Problem on Russia”

Russia Divides French Right’s Presidential Contenders

Nicolas Sarkozy
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy attends a meeting of European conservative party leaders in Brussels, March 19, 2015 (EPP)

A major foreign-policy issue that divides the top three contenders for the French right’s presidential nomination is Russia.

BuzzFeed reports how Nicolas Sarkozy has transformed himself from a Vladimir Putin critic into a Vladimir Putin apologist since he lost the presidency in 2012.

The former president has criticized President François Hollande’s handling of relations with Russia. He argues the EU should suspend sanctions against Russia. And most controversially, the former president has endorsed a referendum annexing Crimea to Russia, a view that puts him at odds with most UN states.

François Fillon, Sarkozy’s former prime minister, has struck a conciliatory tone as well.

He told the magazine Valeurs actuelles this week it was “fortunate” Russia had intervened in the Syrian conflict, otherwise the self-proclaimed Islamic State might have reached Damascus by now.

In reality, Russia’s objective in Syria is to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It has not prioritized fighting the Islamic State, which mostly does battle with Western-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. Read more “Russia Divides French Right’s Presidential Contenders”

Trump Disparages Generals, Admires Putin

Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

It’s not that Donald Trump said anything new on Wednesday. His statements during NBC News’ “commander-in-chief” forum, which was broadcast from aboard the USS Intrepid in New York, only confirmed that the Republican hasn’t bothered to learn anything since he began his presidential candidacy fifteen months ago.

But it’s still disconcerting to hear a major-party candidate for the most powerful elected office in the world speak in such simplistic terms about the complexities of international relations. Read more “Trump Disparages Generals, Admires Putin”

Donald Trump, Putin Appeaser

Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump makes a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015 (Michael Vadon)

I’ve written about the mutual admiration between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and the former’s disregard for NATO. Here is a another good observation on the topic from David A. Graham in The Atlantic:

For the last eight years, Republicans have argued that President Obama was naive to attempt a “reset” of relations with Russia and have complained that he appeases international bullies. Discussing the Iran nuclear deal, Senator Tom Cotton, a hawkish Republican, told my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, “It’s unfair to Neville Chamberlain to compare him to Barack Obama.” Yet the Republican nominee for president is now endorsing appeasement in Ukraine.

Read more “Donald Trump, Putin Appeaser”

What Putin’s Apologists Get Wrong

Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoigu, observe military exercises in Anapa on the Black Sea, March 29, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoigu, observe military exercises in Anapa on the Black Sea, March 29, 2013 (Kremlin)

Apologists for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his aggression in Eastern Europe typically argue that the West has itself to blame because it expanded the European Union and NATO right up to Russia’s doorstep after the end of the Cold War.

During the Crimea crisis, I argued here that although Russia may see it that way — and therefore it is something Western leaders must be conscious of — it nevertheless betrays an irrational and paranoid view of the world. NATO is never going to attack Russia. The EU is only a threat insomuch as it demonstrates there can be genuine cooperation and friendship between nations.

Sadly, this paranoia is real and many, if not most, Russians have yet to come to terms with their loss of empire, evidenced in their continued admiration for tyrannical leaders from the past and willingness to believe that whatever ails their country is the result of foreign plots.

Westerners should know better. Read more “What Putin’s Apologists Get Wrong”

European Union: Feckless and Threat to Russia?

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and European Council president Donald Tusk shake hands after delivering a news conference in Brussels, February 12
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and European Council president Donald Tusk shake hands after delivering a news conference in Brussels, February 12 (European Council)

Peter Hitchens’ Saturday column in Britain’s The Spectator magazine is not unusual so far as Vladimir Putin’s apologists go.

It points out how Russia lost an empire after the Cold War and NATO expanded right up to its front door. Putin is not intent on restoring the Soviet Union, according to Hitchens. His nation is surely “too weak and too poor” to achieve that. Yes, Putin’s is a “sinister tyranny.” But so is Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s. Rather than suggest this should perhaps call Turkey’s European Union candidacy into question, Hitchens argues two wrongs ought to make a right and the West better overlook Russia’s blatant landgrabs in Ukraine, the shooting down of a commercial airliner by thugs it armed and its constant provocations in and around NATO airspace.

Hitchens doesn’t blame the “New Cold War” entirely on the West. He believes it began when Russia frustrated Western policy in Syria in 2011 by blocking a military intervention American president Barack Obama had seemingly no desire to undertake.

But that is about his only deviation from the apologist line. Russia supposedly spent the two decades after the end of the Cold War “sullenly appeasing the West.” When the European Union offered an association agreement to Russia’s former vassal Ukraine in 2013, it was perfectly “understandable” it should say “enough” and start a war.

If Russia was right to call European Union expansion to a halt, then surely the bloc is something of a threat to it?

But no. “Contrary to myth, the expansion of the EU into the former communist world has not magically brought universal peace, love and prosperity,” Hitchens points out.

Corruption still exists in large parts of the EU’s new southeastern territories and I am not sure that the rule of law could be said to have been properly established there. So the idea that the recruitment of Ukraine to the “West” will magically turn that troubled nation into a sunny paradise of freedom, probity and wealth is perhaps a little idealistic, not to say mistaken.

Quite. But then — what makes Russia’s refusal to allow Ukraine into this club “understandable” exactly? If European integration is of so little use, why was it right for Russia to draw a line in the sand?

Hitchens can’t have it both ways. Either the European Union is a powerful threat to Russia and its invasion of Ukraine can somehow be construed as self-defense. Or it is the feckless body he describes it to be and he needs to come up with a better excuse for Putin’s behavior.

New Greek Government Sympathetic to Putin’s Russia

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin lights a candle during a visit to the Saint Sergius of Radonezh Cathedral in Tsarskoye Selo, December 8, 2014 (Kremlin)

The anti-austerity coalition that took power in Athens this week could threaten the West’s hold on Greece and give Russia a chance to expand its influence in the country.

In a sign of things to come, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ new government said on Wednesday it opposed a European Union statement issued in Brussels a day earlier that condemned continued Russian aggression in Ukraine and opened the door to further sanctions.

“Greece doesn’t consent,” the government said in a statement. Read more “New Greek Government Sympathetic to Putin’s Russia”

Don’t Confuse Russia’s Motives in Crimea for Justification

Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoygu, arrive in Anapa on the Black Sea to observe military exercises, March 29, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoygu, arrive in Anapa on the Black Sea to observe military exercises, March 29, 2013 (Kremlin)

Commentators who try to explain Russia’s invasion of the Crimea are right to point out the former superpower’s many grievances. But those should be not mistaken for a justification of its actions.

Russia moved troops into the Crimean Peninsula, which headquarters its Black Sea Fleet, late last month, when the country’s relatively pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was deposed after months of protests against his decision to pull out of an associated agreement with the European Union in favor of deeper ties with Russia.

The move — which Western leaders have rightly condemned as a breach of Ukrainian sovereignty and Russia’s own treaty obligation to it — follows two decades of perceived Russian humiliation by the West. As Russia saw it, Ukraine was but the latest of former satellite states the West tried to snatch from under its nose.

Writing in The New York Times, John Mearsheimer, a political scientist, explains, “The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” Whereas Russia — grudgingly — tolerated NATO’s expansion into its former Soviet sphere after the end of the Cold War in 1991, he believes it drew a line in the sand when the alliance considered admitting Georgia and Ukraine in 2008.

Drawing on Mearsheimer’s analysis, Tom Switzer, who is a research associate at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, argues that the West “provoked” Russia by leaving open the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO and that its response to alleged Western meddling in Ukraine is both rational and “understandable.”

Pat Buchanan, a former Republican Party presidential candidate and conservative commentator, is even more sympathetic to Russia’s motives. He predicts at his blog that future historians “will as surely point to the Bushes and Clintons who shoved NATO into Moscow’s face” if there is to be a second Cold War. (The first NATO expansion following the Soviet Union’s collapse came with Germany’s reunification when George H.W. Bush was president; the second under Bill Clinton; the third under George W. Bush.)

What the West should do, according to Mearsheimer, is not oppose Russia’s blatant invasion of a neighboring country, and what appears an attempt to annex part of it, but “emphasize that Georgia and Ukraine will not become NATO members. It should make clear that America will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev.”

There is truth in what Buchanan, Mearsheimer, Switzer and others — including Stephen F. Cohen writing in The Nation, The New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman and the Daily Mail‘s Peter Hitchens — have argued. Russia does mistrust the West’s motives and sees the gradual eastward expansion of the European Union and NATO as a threat to its security. But this does not justify Russia’s behavior.

For one thing, Cathy Young writes in Time magazine, the West also made efforts to comfort Russia. It provided $55 billion in aid for its economic reconstruction between 1992 and 1997 alone. Russia was invited to the club of top industrialized nations, which became the G8. It was included in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and a NATO-Russia Council was founded in 2002 to facilitate security cooperation.

NATO did expand but so what? If Russia ever expected an attack from the West once the Cold War had ended, this was surely paranoia. Russia’s “humiliation” had far more to do with its own misguided experiment in communism than the liberation of Central and Eastern European nations from communism’s embrace.

Sadly, this paranoia is real and many, if not most, Russians have yet to come to terms with their loss of empire, evidenced in their continued admiration for tyrannical leaders from the past and willingness to believe that whatever ails their country is the result of foreign plots.

Western leaders would be wise to take this, far from rational, Russian mindset into account when dealing with the country. But that is not to say they should attempt appeasement.

Lilia Shevtsova, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues in The American Interest against letting Vladimir Putin get away with annexing the Crimea. Western inaction in Ukraine would follow Western inaction in 2008 when Russia virtually annexed Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — which, like the Crimea, are home to ethnic Russian majorities — and not only validate the recreation of a Russian sphere of influence but the reintroduced of a “doctrine of interference” under the pretext of protecting Russian compatriots. She warns, “Since Russian speakers live in most of the newly independent states, this ‘doctrine’ threatens the stability of the entire post-Soviet space.”

Whatever Russia’s grievances, real or imagined, they are no justification for a return to an international order in which big states invade and carve up smaller ones simply because they can. In this sense, American secretary of state John Kerry’s exasperation — “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” he said on CBS News’ Face the Nation last week — was perfectly appropriate.

Now the United States and its allies just need to come up with a more powerful response.

Ambassador: Russia’s Arms Sales to Syria Provide “Stability”

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin argued on Wednesday that there was a difference between his country and others supplying weapons to the warring factions in Syria. He told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that whereas arms provided by Arab powers who sympathize with the opposition deepened the civil war, Russia’s underlined “regional stability.”

Churkin denied that Russian anti-aircraft systems bound for Syria are designed to deter foreign intervention in the country. “They are specifically designed to shoot down aircraft,” he said. Which the regime could use if Western powers decided to impose a no-fly zone over Syria as they did in Libya two years ago when rebels there failed to dislodge the regime of Muammar Gaddafi on their own. Read more “Ambassador: Russia’s Arms Sales to Syria Provide “Stability””

Our Man in the Kremlin Wins Another Election

Technically, he has yet to win reelection on Sunday, but in Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy” there is no doubt who will be Russia’s president for the next six if not twelve years.

Considering the alternatives, the West should be relieved.

There is a good chance that Putin will win up to 60 percent of the vote which would save him the embarrassment of a second-round runoff against probably the Communist Party candidate who is set to win around 10 percent.

As in December’s parliamentary election, when the ruling United Russia party lost 77 seats but maintained a majority, there will be fraud but not on a massive scale. There is no need for it. Putin’s approval rating has hovered north of 60 percent for nearly all of his interregnum four year premiership. His party (although he isn’t formally a member) has lost some credibility but Putin remains Russia’s most popular politician by far. Read more “Our Man in the Kremlin Wins Another Election”