Thursday, September 18, 2014

U.S. should stay out of bloody Mideast religious wars

Hear, hear!  Before we insert ourselves in a sectarian conflict of Sunni vs. Shia in Syria, Iraq and beyonjd, Hoffman asks us to consider what bloody horrors we "reasonable, rational" Europeans inflicted on ourselves during our sectarian wars [emphasis mine]:

The agreements reached in Westphalia followed 130 years of strife, including the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, when Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England beat back Catholic King Philip II of Spain’s rampage across Europe to put down heresy. Other rulers fomented mob violence with incidents such as the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France, when the Catholic king targeted well-born Protestants. The king’s assassins murdered nobles in their beds while commoners knifed and strangled Protestant neighbors in the streets.

One-quarter of Europe’s population was killed during the devastating Thirty Years' War (1618-48), another bloody phase of the Reformation. Brutal punishments included burning at the stake and pouring excrement down the throats of captives, a torture known as the “Swedish drink.” War spread famine and bubonic plague across Europe. Like now, greed complicated religious conflict, as combatants wrestled over lands and gold.

Exhausted, Protestants and Catholics finally agreed to negotiate. Gathering in separate towns, they sent messengers back and forth to avoid seeing one another’s despised faces. After five years of argument, the Peace of Westphalia concluded the tragic wars of religion. Separation of church and state took hold.

By Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman
September 16, 2014 | Reuters

Gessen: What comes next 'will be bloodier and more frightening'

Here's the meat of Gessen's essay [emphasis mine]:

This narrative [of essentially blaming the Ukraine crisis on Western-NATO expansion into Russia's traditional sphere of influence] is not without merit. The bombing of Yugoslavia enabled an unprecedented rise in nationalist politics in Russia. And NATO expansion confirmed Russians’ worst suspicions about the West. Ukraine’s attempted move westward last year terrified the Kremlin, as did everything that has happened in that country since the protests began in Kiev last November.

But the sleeping-bear story is missing two essential components: the role of Ukraine and its people, who have been fighting to choose their own destiny – indeed, this story tends to ignore the existence of Ukrainians altogether – and, ironically, the fact that Putin has his own agency.

It is tempting to view Putin as merely the embodiment of Russia’s reaction to the actions of Western powers. It creates the illusion that he can be managed, or contained. If all he wants is a buffer zone between Russia and NATO, then the way to prevent a large European war is to give it to him, whatever the people of Ukraine might want. Let him keep Crimea, make Ukraine grant significant autonomy to its eastern regions and promise not to enter into any military alliances – and the Nobel Peace Prize is on its way.

The only problem is that portraying Putin as an unlikable but, essentially, Western politician – one who formulates his strategic objectives in a way Western analysts can understand – misses the point entirely. Russia’s behavior over the past week of a fragile cease-fire in eastern Ukraine has shown this very clearly. Russia kidnapped an Estonian security officer on Estonian territory – the Russians claim he was arrested on Russian soil while spying – and is holding him in Russia. It has re-opened Soviet-era desertion cases against a large number of Lithuanian men. And Russia has ratcheted up its nuclear saber-rattling.

All this points to the possibility that, rather than the beginning of the end of the conflict, the cease-fire is a stepping stone to the next stage of the crisis. That stage may or may not involve Ukraine, but it will definitely involve the use of force and, as it always happens in warfare, it will be bloodier and even more frightening than what came before.

First, brava to Gessen for an important point about the Maidan Revolution and Russia's ensuing military action in Crimea and eastern Ukraine: many analysts and journalists dismiss the role of Ukrainians altogether, and portray them as helpless pawns of either the West or Russia. What do most Ukrainians want their government to do; and what kind of country do they want to live in? These basic questions often get overlooked, because we've become accustomed to thinking of Ukrainians as pawns in outsiders' game.

Second, contrary to what some have argued, Putin did have a choice whether to invade Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine with weapons and fighters. His hand was not forced. This is what Gessen meant by "Putin has his own agency."

Third, kudos to Gessen for acknowledging that Putin "isn't like us" in the West. To many Western leaders' recent astonishment, Putin has no compunction telling one lie today, and a contradictory lie tomorrow. Why? Because he is a former KGB agent and homo soveticus; for him lying is like breathing: second nature. (See Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin's excellent essay on this topic.) 

P.S. -- U.S. conservatives keep crowing that "Romney was right!" and Obama was wrong to criticize him when Romney said in March 2012 that Russia was "without question our number one geopolitical foe."  They have some cause to gloat... although I didn't hear their concern back then, or until March 2014, about Russia's intentions. My only clarification here would be that Russia is not Putin. On the world stage, for all intents and purposes, the two are now one in the same. Yet it is not destiny that the West finds itself opposed to Russia, it is because of Putin

Let's recall that in March 2012, Putin was Prime Minister and Dmitry Medvedev, his protege, was President. Putin had not yet become President again in May 2012, although many feared he would when Russia amended its constitution in 2008 to extend the president's term to six years. Nor had Putin yet cracked down on Russian mediaNGOsopposition political figures and public events. Prior to 2012, there was some hope among liberal Russians that Putin would let a new generation of modern, pragmatic politicians reform Russia. When Putin didn't, there were the most massive and violent street protests that Russia had seen in many years. 

Even former Kremlin insiders say that, since 2012, Putin has become more insular, impulsive and unpredictable. And it wasn't until 2014 that Putin started describing the "Russian World" and Russia's "right to protect" ethnic Russians and Russian speakers wherever they may be; when he started substituting the word russkiy (ethnic Russian) for rossiskiy (regarding matters of Russian state and national interest). 

Essentially, in Russia we are witnessing the frightening metamorphosis of a young, semi-reformist autocrat into a paranoid, bitter old dictator. Indeed, Putin first came to power in 2000. If we count Putin's term as ministerial "gray cardinal" under Medvedev and his likely re-election in 2018 and 2024Putin will have been in power almost as long as Josef Stalin, and outlast at least three U.S. Presidents.

By Masha Gessen
September 15, 2014 | Reuters

M. Shishkin: Thanks to Putin, post-war Europe is now pre-war Europe

I can't think of anything to add this essay by famed Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin except my regret that, in addition to Russians in Russia being zombified and primed to revert amazingly fast to their self-deceiving Soviet ways, so too have many Russian-Americans, including U.S. academics in Russian and post-Soviet studies. 

Emotionally, not intellectually, they have felt the need to take sides, and sadly they have taken the side of the ex-KGB dictator because he's "theirs." 

Moreover, among Russian thinkers and elites there has always been a feeling of chauvinism and superiority vis-a-vis their "little Slav brothers" in Ukraine. I suspect but cannot prove that many Russian "liberals" are jealous of Ukraine's Orange Revolution and Maidan Revolution, and so they seek to discredit both, either as nefarious anti-Russian plots organized and funded by the U.S. (in both cases, they charge) or a neo-Fascist coup by an un-elected "junta," in the latter case.

By Mikhail Shishkin
September 18, 2014 | Guardian

I remember that as a child I read about black holes in a popular science magazine about space and it scared me. The idea of our world being sucked into these breaks in the universe kept bothering me until I realised that it all was so far away that it would not reach us. But then a black hole tore our world very close to us. It started sucking in houses, roads, cars, planes, people and whole countries. Russia and Ukraine have already fallen into this black hole. And it is now sucking in Europe in front of our eyes.

This hole in the universe is the soul of one very lonely ageing man. The black hole is his fear.

TV images of the demise of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi were messages that fate sent him from exotic countries. Protest rallies that gathered hundreds of thousands of people in Moscow ruined his inauguration and signalled approaching danger. The disgraceful flight of Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year set off alarm bells: if Ukrainians could oust their gang, it could serve as an example for the brotherly nation.

The instinct of self-preservation kicked in immediately. The formula for saving any dictatorship is universal: create an enemy, start a war. The state of war is the regime's elixir of life. A nation in patriotic ecstasy becomes one with its "national leader", while any dissenters can be declared "national traitors".

Before our eyes, Russian TV was turned from a tool of entertainment and misinformation into a weapon of mass destruction. Journalists became a special part of the arsenal, maybe the most important one, more important even than missiles. The desired world view formed in the infected minds of a zombified nation: Ukrainian fascists wage a war to annihilate the Russian world on orders from the west.

"There are no Russian soldiers in Crimea," Vladimir Putin claimed to the world with a wry grin in the spring. The west could not understand: how can he tell such blatant lies to his nation's face? But the nation did not take it as lies: we ourselves understand everything, but deceiving the enemy is not a sin, rather a virtue. The fact that "Russian soldiers were indeed in Crimea" was later admitted with such pride!

We are back to the Soviet times of total lies. The government renewed the social contract with the nation under which we had lived for decades: we know that we lie and you lie, and we continue to lie to survive. Generations have grown up under this social contract. These lies cannot even be called a sin: the power of vitality and survival is concentrated in them. The government was afraid of its nation, which is why it lied. The nation participated in the lies, because it was afraid of the government. The lies are a means of survival for a society built on violence and fear.

But just violence and fear cannot explain such an all-encompassing lie.

Why did the father of the Russian paratrooper who lost his legs in Ukraine write on Facebook, "My son is a soldier; he followed orders, which is why, whatever happened to him, he is right and I am proud of him"?

He keeps his mind off the idea that his son went to kill brotherly people and became disabled not defending his motherland from real enemies, but rather because of an insipid colonel's panic-stricken fear of losing his power, because of the ambitions of a clique of thieves swarming around the throne. How can he admit that his country, his motherland is the aggressor and that his son is the fascist? Motherland is always on the side of good. This is why when Putin lies in his nation's face, everyone knows that he is lying, and he knows that everyone knows, but the electorate agrees with his lies.

When Putin tells blatant lies in the face of western politicians, he then watches their reaction with vivid interest and not without pleasure, enjoying their confusion and helplessness. He wants Kiev to return on its knees, like a prodigal son, to the fatherly embrace of the empire. He is sure that Europe will boil with indignation, but eventually calm down, abandoning Ukraine to brotherly rape. He offers the west the chance to join the social contract of lies. All it has to do is say that Putin is a peacekeeper and agree to all the terms of his peacekeeping plan.

The sanctions imposed by western states against Russia represent a timid hope that economic hardship will make Russians resent the regime and nudge them towards active protests. Alas, it is an idle hope. Russians have a proverb: beat your own so the others fear you. It is hard to imagine officials in Berlin or Paris summarily banning food imports. The entire nations would burst in indignation that same day.

In contrast, in Russia such a move boosted the ruler's already sky-high rating. Putin knows the difference between the power he enjoys and the power of European democracies. Democratic governments are liable to their electorate for the people and their future, whereas under a dictatorship, one is only liable to follow orders. Every dictator hopes he is immortal, but since it is impossible, he is ready to drag everyone he despises into the black hole. And he despises everyone – both his own people and everybody else.

Putin knows that the west cannot cross the red line that he himself has long crossed and left behind. The red line is the willingness to go to war. It is hard for a human mind to switch from a postwar to a prewar time. The means of mass informational terror in Russia helped Russians to make the switch. Moreover, Russia is already in a state of war, an undeclared war against the west. Coffins with fallen Russian soldiers have started coming to Russian cities from Ukraine. Europe has fallen behind; it is still enjoying the relaxed prewar peace.

Europeans are not ready for the new reality that has set in. Leave us alone! Return everything to the way it was: jobs, gas, peace! No supplying weapons to Ukraine! One cannot start an armed conflict in the age of nuclear weapons because of some Mariupol! Should the world perish in a catastrophe because Ukraine was to be part of Europe? It is just because the Americans want to cause us to quarrel with Russians! It is all the fault of US imperialists and European bureaucrats! Why do we need sanctions that would hurt us too? The French are ready to take to the streets to protest at the American ruling that forces France to abandon the sale of Mistral warships to Russia. Moscow just protects its interest in Ukraine! And maybe fascists are indeed in power in Kiev? It may have started as a public uprising, but then a Nazi junta took over. Then why should we support them and fight with Russia? Putin offers peace! We want peace!

Putin's calculations are proving correct: it is more likely that citizens of western states, scared by economic woes and the possibility of war, would elect new governments, replacing Putin's enemies with more amenable politicians, than Russians would start to protest because of devastation and rising food prices.

Putin offered Europe his social contract. And with every new person willing to accept it, the black hole will grow and expand.

One needs to realise: postwar Europe is already prewar Europe.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Former UK Defence Sec.: ‘Putin as bad as Stalin'

[HT: AU].  Here's the most relevant bit in my view, as it goes for the U.S. as well as EU and NATO [emphasis mine]:

No sensible person wants, in the face of the many other challenges, to be forced to find money for increased spending on arms. No one wants the economic consequences that extensive sanctions against Russia will have on our own economies, but Putin will not be deterred by resolutions passed at Nato or EU summits.

So unless we want to gamble that this systematic aggression will fizzle out in the face of inactivity, and history tells us that doesn’t happen, we must find effective ways to deter him.

Both Nato and the EU have made a start but the small and reluctant steps taken so far sadly are not likely to be nearly enough.

All Nato countries should commit to reverse the recent decline in defence spending.

At the European level there is an urgent need to develop a strategy to decrease our heavy dependence on Russian energy.

Finally, Europe is realizing that Russia is not a reliable partner, since there is no separation of business and politics in Russia -- where everything is political, and politics is subordinated to one man, Vladimir Putin. Europe cannot abide the whims of one man in the vain hope of ensuring its economic and military security.

By Paul Dale
September 15, 2014 | The Chamberlain Files

Monday, September 15, 2014

'Putin is winning' (Maclean's)

So here is Ukraine's defeat in a nutshell [emphasis mine]:

Putin’s willingness to continually escalate Russia’s intervention in Ukraine presented Poroshenko with a dilemma of his own. [Poroshenko] knew Ukraine’s armed forces could not defeat those of Russia, and NATO wasn’t coming. So he agreed to the ceasefire. The agreement, while providing for prisoner exchanges and amnesty for some fighters, does not outline what an eventual political settlement might look like. It is difficult to imagine one that both sides would accept. Poroshenko has already promised to protect Russian language rights and to decentralize political power. None of this has satisfied the separatist leadership or their patrons in Moscow.

If Poroshenko can take any comfort from the predicament in which he finds himself, it might be that he never really had any good options. The much-ballyhooed rapid reaction force that NATO announced is meant to protect existing members of the alliance. And not only has the West not provided meaningful military aid to Ukraine, it has also failed to mobilize sufficient financial resources to support Kyiv....

Let me underline that: Now that Ukraine's government appears willing to address the grievances given by the rebels and terrorists for starting their "civil war" in eastern Ukraine -- protection of Russian language; and special self-government status -- it's no longer enough for the pro-Russian separatists. This tells me that my instincts, (and the instincts of most Ukrainians), were correct: These issues were a red herring to begin with. Putin is pulling their puppet strings.

Alas, Western support for Ukraine against Russia has been too little, too timid. As former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer warned, the real danger of "escalation" may be in Western appeasement that emboldens Putin to go even further. And who will stop Putin if he decides to do so?  

By Michael Petrou
September 15, 2014 | Maclean's