It’s not at all clear what Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk thinks he can accomplish during his visit with President Obama later this week. It’s a good bet that he’s not coming to urge on Obama the advice offered by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.
I had to read Friedman’s March 4 column twice to be sure I hadn’t fallen for a parody from The Onion. Friedman has a prescription to weaken Vlad Putin that sounds like something written by Al Gore and edited by the folks who publish Mad Magazine.
According to Friedman, if Obama wanted to frighten Putin, we’d invest in (i.e., have the government pay for) facilities to liquefy and export natural gas, making Europe more dependent on us; (2) raise the tax on gasoline; (3) create a national carbon tax and a “national renewable energy standard” all of which, as Friedman admits, would increase the price Americans pay for energy.
Friedman concludes — but doesn’t explain -- that this plan threatens Putin. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s nuts. Raising taxes on Americans and increasing the price we pay for energy does precisely nothing to pressure Putin to liberate the Crimea or decline to conquer the rest of Ukraine. He’d get a good laugh out if it, though.
After Russia’s actions last week, Putin must be convinced that there’s nothing we or Europe will do to interfere with his ongoing takeover of Ukraine. His provocations are serious enough that it’s hard to disagree with that conclusion.
Putin’s Tuesday discussion with a few tame reporters was later published in a Kremlin-issued transcript. The transcript quotes Putin criticizing the U.S. for taking a “you’re with us or against us” approach and those who don’t join in get “beaten” until they do. That’s what psychologists call “projection”: accusing someone else of doing exactly what you’re doing.
In a long following paragraph, Putin said:
We proceed from the conviction that we always act legitimately. I have personally always been an advocate of acting in compliance with international law. I would like to stress yet again that if we do make the decision, if I do decide to use the armed forces, this will be a legitimate decision in full compliance with both general norms of international law, since we have the appeal of the legitimate president, and with our commitments, which in this case coincide with our interests to protect the people with whom we have close historical, cultural and economic ties. Protecting these people is in our national interests. This is a humanitarian mission. We do not intend to subjugate anyone or to dictate to anyone. However, we cannot remain indifferent if we see that they are being persecuted, destroyed and humiliated. However, I sincerely hope it never gets to that.
Putin says that Russia’s actions are right and legal under international law for no reason other than it’s Russia doing them. The threat he’s making is quite clear. Putin said that all options are on the table, including a further military intrusion or invasion.
Obama says that often in regard to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The difference is that Putin can be believed. He’s clearly thinking about a complete takeover of Ukraine and will do what he calculates he can get away with. Given the inaction by America and Europe, there is no reason for Putin to not complete the takeover soon.
And there’s a lot more. Putin says the Russian military intervention in Crimea is a “humanitarian mission,” in which the Russians don’t intend to subjugate anyone.
Putin shouldn’t get away with calling the Russian military intervention a “humanitarian mission.” Only a former Soviet disinformationist could fit the week’s events into the definition of “humanitarian missions.” To wit:
On Friday, the Russian Navy sank an old rust bucket at the mouth of the Ukrainian harbor in Crimea, neatly blockading the Ukrainian ships inside. On Saturday, a small convoy carrying observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was stopped at the Crimean border by Russian soldiers who fired three volleys of warning shots over their heads. Also on Friday, Russia announced that it might freeze international inspections of its nuclear weapons under its various arms control agreements with us in retaliation for our cessation of military cooperation missions with it. And on Sunday, Putin threatened to disrupt European gas supplies — which come through Ukraine on some of the major pipelines that run through it — because of some unpaid Ukrainian debt.
In the middle of all this, Russian troops surrounded Ukrainian military installations and blocked anyone from exiting or entering and, according the Financial Times, Ukraine’s government has been systematically attacked (certainly by the Russians) with a computer worm called “Ouroboros,” named after the Greek mythological snake that swallowed its own tail. The Ouroboros “snake” malware is reportedly as sophisticated as the Stuxnet worm used (by us and the Israelis) to disable, for a time, Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges. Ouroboros is Putin’s pet snake. It may prevent the Ukrainian government’s functioning, just as earlier Russian cyberattacks have done in Georgia (2008) and Estonia (2007).
If you don’t think these actions are consistent with “humanitarian missions,” you must be thinking in Cold War terms. And we can’t have that, can we?
According to a report yesterday in the UK Telegraph, Putin said in his most sincere tone that he didn’t want a confrontation over Ukraine to spiral into a new Cold War. As we learned from Bill Clinton sincerity is everything. Once you can fake that, you’re home free. As far as Putin is concerned, he obviously believes that the 1990s were merely a halftime break in the old Cold War, and it’s time for the second half.
Putin evidently believes that he can ignore Obama completely. And it’s hard to say he’s wrong in that belief. All of the foregoing events — and more — have occurred while Obama and Kerry are pretending to have influence over what Putin is doing. On Saturday, Kerry said that the U.S. was ready to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine and warned Putin against any military escalation of the crisis. The Financial Times reported that Kerry also said further Russian moves to annex Ukraine would close off the avenues for diplomacy. Putin’s answer to that seems to be, “And that’s the point of them, you fool.”
When Prime Minister Yatsenyuk arrives this week, he will certainly be seeking more money (we’ve already indicated that we’d give his government $1 billion) and stronger diplomatic help. He’ll get the money — what’s another few billion when we can tell China to put it on our tab? -- but no other help will be forthcoming. All Obama will offer are empty words Yatsenyuk has heard before.
President Obama and Monsieur Kerry will perform for the cameras as they usually do, and only to Putin’s amusement. Obama will solemnly speak about our historic ties to the Ukraine (of which our history is bereft). Obama will add a heap of generalities about how we and Europe are united against aggression (the EUnuchs’ dedication to freedom extends to the length of Putin’s arm as he reaches for the tap to turn off Europe’s gas supply).
Yatsenyuk will not hear what he came to hear, and should hear: that America will punish Russia by economic sanctions on its banks, that America stands by any people who really want freedom and democracy, and that though we cannot and shall not go to war to defend Ukraine, we will do everything else in our power to help.
If the Obama administration were interested in standing for freedom -- which, perforce, it is not -- Obama would be speaking out against Putin’s bald lies and threats.
Part of what we can and should (but won’t) do is to castigate Putin personally and Russia generally for trying to revive the Cold War. Russia has had an opportunity to embrace freedom and has not only rejected it but seeks to enslave those peoples who have escaped oppression.
Putin’s effort to reopen the Cold War stands unopposed. No other nation will challenge him. But we can, we should, and we must. But at least until January 2017, we won’t.