A Glimpse at Russia's Official View of Eastern Ukraine

Sergei Ivanov, Russia's presidential chief of staff and a former defense minister, gave an interview last week  to the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily in which he discussed Russia's current political, economic and military conditions. Given Ivanov's high standing in the Russian government, his statements directly reflect the presidential point of view - they can be directly attributed to President Vladimir Putin. And the use of one particularly potent term may reveal much about Russia's intentions toward Ukraine.

Ivanov mentioned the importance of creating a buffer zone between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels as a means for gradually achieving peace, and he played down Russia's role as an active player in the Ukrainian conflict:

On the map, there is a clear line that separates militias from the armed forces of Ukraine, which creates a buffer zone to allow OSCE observers to mediate. I am absolutely convinced that this will form at least some basis for a political dialogue. As long as people are shooting at each other, such dialogue is impossible. This is a necessary first step - you have to understand that I cannot guarantee anything. After all, Russia is not party to the conflict. This is a Ukrainian civil war.

Ivanov gave a sobering assessment of the current situation in Crimea. Answering the reporter's question on whether or not Russia should more actively support Novorossiya - a Russian term for the portions of eastern Ukraine currently embroiled in conflict with pro-Russian forces, Ivanov replied:

How else can we support such regions? We support them morally because we desire real democracy for those territories - not the so-called Ukrainian democracy - we want human rights to be respected. The West blames us for Crimea. But if the Crimeans did not resist the coup in Kiev and the arrival to power of nationalists and open russophobes - I repeat, russophobes - what would have happened there? A blood bath, perhaps even worse than what is happening today in Donbas.

Ivanov expressed hope that the fighting won't resume, and he added that if common sense prevails and a conclusive cease-fire is reached, Russia may act as a guarantor.

What stands out from this interview is Ivanov's official use of the term Novorossiya - an old Imperial name for Ukrainian territories where today a majority of the population speaks Russian. The term has been bandied about by pro-Russian forces and Russian nationalists who believe these areas should be part of the Russian Federation. But its use by so high an official as Ivanov cannot be a slip of the tongue. Rather, it is a reflection of Moscow's official policy toward Ukrainian regions that may eventually fall under official Russian control.

Obama's War on ISIS May Recycle Strategies That Have Already Failed

The stunning collapse of the Iraqi army, despite repeated assurances from U.S. military commanders that it was a competent fighting force, was a critical factor in enabling the Islamic State's startling advance in Iraq. The failure of the Iraqi army after years of training at the hands of the world's best military and a huge influx of U.S. cash should have given Washington pause.

So what's a beleaguered administration to do? According to David Ignatius, the White House is likely mulling over a variety of strategies that entail... training new fighting forces:

Accelerate the training of the Iraqi army and a new Sunni national guard. Hundreds of foreign trainers, drawn from the special forces of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and other nations, will be working with the Iraqi military. A similar effort is needed for the Sunni guard. Plans call for three battalions of tribal fighters in Anbar and three more in Salahuddin province. U.S. officials believe a quick start for this program will boost morale among Sunni tribal leaders who say they’re ready to fight the extremists but lack the tools....

Speed the training of the moderate Free Syrian Army so it can battle the Islamic State’s militants. Easier said than done: The FSA is a ragtag force that must be rebuilt into a real rebel army with a solid command structure. Some officials argue for doubling the planned force to 10,000 and speeding completion of training camps in Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

What's maddening about the above is not simply that we have seen, first-hand, that this has already failed in Iraq, it's that the administration is sitting on a CIA study surveying decades of covert U.S. efforts to train and equip fighting forces around the world. According to the New York Times, the "still-classified review... concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground."

So despite having a fair amount of empirical evidence that training various groups of armed men will likely backfire, the administration is evidently still considering it as a serious option. 

The Solution to Syria's Crisis Starts at Turkey's Border

Turkey's parliament recently called for more forceful involvement in Syria, and observers are now looking for clues on how Turkey may change its role in the crisis south of the border. The focus has been on Turkey's function as a main transit route for Islamist radicals. However, any shift in Ankara's foreign policy should not prioritize border control or invasion. Ankara's most effective contribution to changing the course of events in Syria would be a strategic reassessment of how weapons are allowed to flow across Turkish borders to opposition groups in Syria.

During the day, border crossings between Syria and Turkey provide a vital lifeline to the masses still residing in opposition-held northern Syrian areas. Essential goods come in and out, and passport-holding Syrians are free to enter Turkey. The business carried out across Turkey's borders at night, however, is of a different character. After the crossings close for civilians, trucks loaded with weapons rumble through, loaded with cargoes meant to arm Syria's many opposition groups. The improper oversight of these deliveries is a key obstacle to the development of a coherent Syrian opposition.

To be clear, the deliveries are vital to the Syrian opposition. Without these weapons, an even larger segment of northern Syria's population would have to flee regime forces and the Islamic State fighters who are close to encircling Aleppo and capturing the important border crossing near Azaz. Yet Turkey's weapons supply policy is also contributing to the instability. It is arguably at the root of the Syrian nationalist opposition's disarray, and by extension Turkey's handling of the situation hinders any resolution to Syria's crisis. In so doing, there is an opportunity for NATO to become more engaged in Syria and therefore become an actor which can politically direct the opponents to Assad's rule.


Scrutinize Turkey's weapons supply role

Turkey's role as the key transit route for foreign fighters and arms was established at the outset of the Syrian civil war. Ankara figured that by helping arm the opposition, it could contribute to a relatively quick end to the conflict, and an Ankara-friendly government would take charge in Damascus. There were plenty of donors who wanted to contribute to the cause: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates supplied weapons to a variety of groups, while Western governments supplied medical aid and communications equipment. Each donor supported the groups they saw as more closely aligned with their interest. 

Three years on, Turkey's laissez-faire policy on weapons flows has failed miserably. Studies show that there are currently around 1,500 different opposition groups in Syria - and that number relates directly to the way weapons are distributed. A policy guided by strategy and implemented with the help of other NATO members would beget a coherent Syrian opposition - an absolutely central component to bringing the war to an end. This streamlining of supplies would be a top-down process, but it would be effective, since Syrian fighters are quite naturally drawn to groups that can supply them with weapons, training, food and a basic living standard. Military coherence, in other words, will result in a politically legitimate opposition movement.

Establish viable Syrian partners

Such a change could lessen the willingness of some donors to contribute, and Turkey would certainly reject some donations from Gulf states, meaning another power would have to step in to fill the void, unless the West wants to ensure an Assad or Islamic State victory. By implementing a policy of slow strangulating the extreme elements of the opposition, it would give Obama a golden ticket to establish a viable Syrian force that could counter Bashar al Assad's forces as well as the Islamic State.

Creating a viable opposition force in Syria is clearly in the West's interest. One of the main lessons we can draw from the U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations in Geneva is that Damascus does not take the opposition seriously.  It is not difficult to understand why. In front of them sat a group of people with little real sway over the movements of armed groups on the ground. Further, opposition forces pose little existential threat to the regime - at best they control parts of cities, but in most cases, they control suburbs. It is never a good idea to hold negotiations with the opposing parties on such unequal footing. Not only will negotiations not succeed under such circumstances - they might even worsen the situation.

The West has long complained that there is no viable partner on the ground that it can work with. No such partner is likely to emerge if the West continues to engage the opposition so casually. Building leadership is not complicated. It rests on simple questions: What gives a person authority? What factors contribute to a leader being effective and uncontested?

First of all, they need to be able to deliver to their soldiers. This means military supplies, but also food, clothing and shelter. They need to be able to win battles. For this to happen, leaders need a strategic understanding of how, where and when to fight. Further, they need to have the funds necessary to train their soldiers. 

Since the start of the uprising, the moderate opposition has been ever-changing mosaic of groups splitting apart and creating new coalitions. However, some opposition groups have maintained their rank and file soldiers and have thereby continue to gain strength. These have often been the Islamist forces such as Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusrah. Their coherence shows that consistency and effectiveness is possible. The disarray has been within the more secular and moderate groups, and this underlines the strong link between fluid lines of supply, and the lack of a strong moderate opposition. If supplies to moderates become consistent, we will see an organic emergence of pro-western leaders.

There is one element that western engagement will not inevitably produce: a strong non-sectarian political vision for a post-Assad Syria. However, by letting the current slapdash policy continue, we can be absolutely certain this will never happen. Through engagement, Washington's influence will rise. By not seriously engaging, it loses to more radical forces.

Move toward a political settlement

There is no clear path to victory for any of Syria's warring factions. A political settlement is the only possible solution to a crisis that both sides see as existential. However, a just and sustainable political settlement cannot be reached without a balance of power on the battlefield. An equilibrium of two forces, recognizing that no one can win an outright victory, would be the only basis for political talks between the opposition and the regime. Obama now wants to engage more forcefully in Syria. In so doing, he should address the key cause of the rise of ISIS, which is the increasingly failed state in Syria. In cooperation with Turkey and other NATO members, Obama should work to lay the foundations on which a political settlement can be built.

What does this mean for U.S. involvement? Washington needs to push Ankara to dramatically revise its policies and change the way its borders operate. The free flow of rebels and equipment into Syria has to stop. There needs to be strong border control, including in remote areas where most fighters cross. Beyond that, if the response to the new policy is disengagement by Gulf countries that supply opposition groups, Washington should assure Turkey that it will supply enough weapons and equipment for the opposition continue resisting the Assad regime. The goal should be to build up a nationalist opposition that is strong enough to threaten Assad's survival, only then will there be negotiations.

Elucidating Russia's Nascent Narrative on the Baltics

Russia's foreign policy establishment is undertaking a profound review of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This is not necessarily new - some level of internal debate and apportioning of blame has persisted for 24 years now - but recent Russian actions in Ukraine have emboldened those in the Kremlin who wish to "right the wrongs" of the fateful events of 1991. 

Starting in January 1991, and pressured by unrest in its constituent republics, the Soviet Union began to break apart. Lithuania is considered by many to have catalyzed that process. Peaceful civilian protests at the Vilnius Radio and Television headquarters and at the city's television transmission tower on Jan. 13, 1991, prompted heavy-handed suppression by the Soviet military. This in turn triggered more resistance by ethnic Lithuanians. All told, the clashes left 14 civilians dead and almost 1,000 more injured. 

Russia's post-Soviet narrative

Turning back to the present: Russia has turned up the pressure on on the Baltics, and there is widespread fear throughout the region that Moscow's threatening rhetoric matches the words that preceded its actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Among other moves, Moscow has placed Lithuania's commercial exports on its anti-EU sanctions list.

Against this backdrop, the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily this week interviewed author Vladislav Shved, whose book, roughly translated into English as "Lithuania against Russia and Alpha," recounts the fateful events of early 1991.

The sentiments expressed in the interview are a good barometer of how Lithuania's anti-Soviet resistance is seen in Russian policy circles - and what that could mean as Russia contemplates future actions in the post-Soviet space.

Shved recalls the rise of anti-Russian sentiment in Lithuania in the lead-up to 1991, drawing parallels with the attitudes of the Ukrainians who gathered at Maidan Square in Kiev at the end of 2013. 

"(Then Soviet premiere) Gorbachev thought that he would be accepted into the European house after he let go of the Baltics, and he turned a blind eye to what was happening there. He was a dilettante and did not know Russia's history. Tsarist Russia was hounded as much (by the West) as today Russia is!" 

The author alludes to the actions of the Soviet elite military detachments sent to pacify Lithuanians in 1991, and he notes ongoing Lithuanian parliamentary proceedings against former Soviet leaders: 

"Following instructions from Washington - and Lithuania is accustomed to working with such instructions - today's Lithuanian parliamentarians have decided that is is necessary to finish Russia off. Namely, it is necessary to prove that Russia is the successor of a criminal state. And when 79 former Soviet - and now Russian - citizens are judged and found to be war criminals (for their actions in storming the afore-mentioned TV tower), Lithuania will then be able to claim that Russia is the successor state to a criminal entity and must be held morally and financially responsible."

Shved hints that Lithuanian leaders orchestrated the actions that culminated in the storming of the tower:

"A hastily conducted independence referendum gathered less then 40 percent of support across Lithuania in 1991...The separatists tried to accelerate the course of events, because they knew that they wouldn't get two-thirds of the vote in an official referendum. They then staged a tragedy at the TV tower in order to assure Lithuanians that the Soviet regime is criminal. Events in January 1991 had to unfold in such a way as to come off as bloody as possible..."

Shved, who was part of the ruling Communist Party government in Lithuania until 1991, then outlines a list of territorial concessions granted Lithuania in the Soviet era. Noting with particular sharpness that Vilnius, the country's capital, was among those concessions, the author accuses contemporary Lithuanians of being ungrateful for their country's post-WWII reality.

Such rhetoric is hardly new, but in the context of rising tensions between Russian and Lithuania it is rather worrisome. The three Baltic nations are NATO and EU members, but Russia may have considerable leverage over Latvia and Estonia - in both countries, more than 25 percent of the population is ethnically Russian. The same cannot be said of Lithuania, which has a very small ethnic Russian minority, though it maintains extensive commercial contacts with the Russian Federation. In order to increase pressure on this small country, Russia has to establish a narrative that discredits Lithuania's post-independence achievements.

The Shved interview offers a glimpse at how Russia plans to do this: He points out the Soviet pasts of officials including Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Supreme Council Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis, who, Shved points out, was a KGB informant before he was a Russophobe.

"Now the Lithuanian leadership is trying to completely neutralize its Soviet past, presenting it in dark colors in order to demonstrate its heroic role in breaking free of Soviet slavery."

This book could have come and gone, as have sundry similar litanies by former Soviet apparatchiks who wish 1991 never happened. But in 2014, the agitations of former Soviet officials such as Shved warrant a closer look. Elections in neighboring Latvia, for instance, recently brought to power a pro-Russian political party, and Balts are now left wondering whether their political future truly lies with the West, or will instead be sketched around an accommodation with Russia - however uncomfortable that may be.

Now For More Bad News: Global Economy Looks Increasingly Shaky

As if there wasn't enough to worry about on the global stage, the Brookings Institute is out with a new report showing that the global economy is looking increasingly shaky.

According to Brookings, the U.S. remains the only economy that is showing signs of health while growth "in China and other emerging markets appears to be losing momentum." The developed world looks no better, with major European economies like Germany, France and Italy "showing no signs of growth" while Japan's economy actively contracts. Brazil and Russia? Also slumping.

The only other major economy showing signs of life according to Brookings is India, which has seen a rebound in confidence following the appointment of a "reform-minded and credible" central bank governor. 

The bleak Brookings assessment was echoed by the IMF, which released a report this week with a similarly downbeat forecast, revising down global growth rates to 3.3 percent -- the same rate as last year. 

So what's weighing on the global economy? Geopolitical risks were cited by both the IMF and Brookings as a key factor along with deflationary worries, particularly in Europe. 

The IMF compiled this handy chart showing the chances of a recession across the major economic blocs. While no region pushes above the 50 percent mark, Europe looks uncomfortably close.

Russian Consumers Play the Sanctions Game

When American and Western sanctions against Russia went into effect, practically all segments of Russian society - from President Putin down to your average man on the street - struck a defiant tone. Russia will be able to weather this storm, was the message, and the country will go on just fine. There was some truth behind the bluster. While Moscow and St. Petersburg are cosmopolitan cities with all the offerings of their Western European counterparts, the rest of the country - small towns and cities, numerous villages and far-flung population centers - is less integrated into global commercial flows and for the most part already had scant access to products and services covered by the sanctions.

More substantial damage, however, may have been inflicted by Moscow's own retaliatory sanctions. When Russia banned the import of certain products the European Union, there was some concern over Russia's ability to substitute domestic fare for much-liked European foods.

So how have these sanctions hit the wallets of ordinary Russians? The daily Komsomolskaya Pravda dryly remarked that "market forces put everything in its place." Meat, fish, milk and poultry products saw the steepest price hikes in supermarkets across the country. The same can be said for basic vegetables, including that Russian staple the potato. Of course, such price fluctuations will vary from region to region, and those who wish to circumvent the sanctions altogether can still easily find all of the "forbidden fruits."

The same paper, in fact, ran a story explaining how to acquire these products. The article featured a businessman's advice on exploiting a legal loophole: "Register an import company in brotherly Belarus - and import to Russia everything that you need from the West. You can get anything into Moscow through the Customs Union (of which Russia and Belarus are part) - just make sure to register products through the Belorussian company."  

Finally, the Russian government may have a point when it claims that punishing Moscow is impossible - Russia is already part of the global economy. In place of banned Western products, Muscovites may soon be buying Serbian cheese, and potentially shrimp from Indonesia. The forces of supply and demand, in the meantime, will continue to reinforce the Russian black market, which is already robust having weathered the tremendous  ups and downs of the 1990s and 2000s. Recently, government officials in the Voronezh region (close to Ukraine's eastern border) confiscated 15,000 kilograms of banned cheese in what they called the largest and "most brazen" violation to date.

The Modi-Obama Meet: Kickstarting U.S.-India Relations

U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for the first time Sept. 29 in Washington, D.C. They are the latest in a line of American and Indian leaders - Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on one side, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh on the other - to push for closer ties between two of the world's most important democracies. The Indians have labeled it a natural partnership, and Americans have gone so far as to call it the defining partnership of the 21st century. In recent years, however high hopes have failed to materialize. Can this meeting begin to provide the boost this relationship needs? 
 
On a visit to India in November 2010, President Obama said the United States "will not simply be cheering you on from the sidelines. We will be right there with you, shoulder to shoulder. Because we believe in the promise of India. And we believe that the future is what we make it." For Indians, Obama's speech was an acknowledgement of Indian history and showed that Washington has an appreciation for the independent path India took toward prosperity. There was optimism about growth in bilateral trade and increased defense cooperation. The two countries share similar threats from terrorism, have a common desire to defend the domains of cyber and outer space, and they share similar views of the global security architecture.
 
Four years on, though, and India's economic growth has slowed. Dreams of substantial Indian purchases of American equipment have not been fulfilled, and latent Nehruvian suspicion of American intentions have resurfaced.

Regional developments have also played a role. Continued American dependence on and military aid to Pakistan has deepened Indian wariness, and China is also a critical issue. New Delhi has a complex relationship with Beijing: China is at once a neighbor that has been a source of conflict, and a major economic partner. India prefers not to antagonize China, but it does compete for leadership across Asia, and New Delhi fears a world where China attains superpower status while India is shunted aside. Past discussions between Obama and former Chinese President Hu Jintao about a potential G-2 comprising China and the United States exacerbated Indian misgivings.
 
While in the United States, Modi has issued a pitch to three constituencies: the Indian-American diaspora, the U.S. business class and his own domestic voters. To the diaspora he has promised permanent visas and a reduction in bureaucracy. He set up a series of individual and group meetings with American corporate leaders and is vowing to reduce red tape and talking up potential incentives for investment. Pitching to constituents back home, his speeches have been peppered with descriptions of India's great past, its demographic dividend, and the need to improve sanitation, provide clean water and boost tourism to supplement local incomes.
 
Modi seeks to boost India's economic growth and he wants investment and support from the United States. Yet it remains unclear whether he will tackle the specific issues that have caused friction between the two countries - matters including intellectual property rights and India's nuclear liability law. Further, Modi's "Make in India" policy is aimed at boosting Indian manufacturing, though it would also welcome joint production with U.S. manufacturers. In the foreign security arena, how far will India see eye-to-eye with the United States on issues like Iran and Syria remains yet to be seen.

Scotland and the Spread of Europe's Ills

In the aftermath of the Scottish No vote, my thoughts go back to 2002 - a time when not many observers would have predicted Europe's current troubles.

Paul Mason sketches a picture of "Scotland's Yes Generation."

"Scottish politics has been about class, community, land and nation. But the working-class youth of Clydeside found themselves cut adrift from these traditional markers. ... To them, neoliberalism was not a spectacular historical eruption but simply the world around them. As it destroyed the remains of the industrial society their fathers knew, rendering the stone churches and granite docksides as meaningless and depopulated as medieval ruins, they did what they were told to do: get an education and a low-paid job."


The mood after the vote has been fickle. Relief did come early Friday morning. At 4:50 a.m. London time, when much of New York had just gone to sleep, the results that came in from Glasgow had put Scottish independence to rest.

Yet as Ian Bremmer pointed out, this was a vote against "crippling uncertainty," not independence, and the question of what happens now is one Britain's leaders are left grasping to answer. Their stumbling approach to the referendum reveals the gap in understanding between the people of Scotland (and the rest of the union) and the political elite in Westminster. How did they get it so wrong? This after all represents no abrupt shift in national sentiment in the United Kingdom. The decline of love for the union has been consistently charted:

"According to a study by Nuffield College, Oxford, in 1997, the numbers of people whose Britishness was described by themselves as weak or non-existent had risen from a minority in each country to 66% of Scots, 43% of the Welsh and 26% of the English.

A decade later, another survey (cited by Varun Uberoi and Iain McLean in Britishness: A Role for the State?) found that the number had risen to 47% in England."

Let's go back to 2002 and focus outward to all of Western Europe. As an American studying in Italy, I was impressed that year by the optimism I saw expressed for the European Union. My peers welcomed the arrival of the euro, and the Erasmus student exchange program that allowed pupils to study for a year in a different country seemed the very embodiment of what Europe could offer: peace, prosperity and opportunity without borders. The quixotic workings of the European institutions were even less cause for personal bother than they were well understood. National issues of course mattered and in Southern Europe were particularly acute, but the promise that problems could be subsumed by gradually deepening integration seemed real enough. Europe as an identity had a broad appeal; that its roots were shallow mattered little. The inability of European institutions to clearly explain their workings and benefits to European citizens seemed a concern for academics to discuss.

Everything of course changed just a few years later. Now, as Europe's crisis has moved from modifier to modifier - financial and economic becoming firmly political - its effects have spread outward and upward. Discontent takes various forms. There are familiar if updated manifestations of nationalism - UKIP in the United Kingdom, France's National Front - and the pitch of anti-immigration leaders such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. There are protest parties such as Beppe Grillo's Five Stars Movement in Italy that corral the contempt of younger voters who feel left behind by the ruling class.

The Scottish vote amalgamates both these currents. Listening to the Yes voters and reading the placards still pinned up around Edinburgh, you don't get the sense of a single unifying platform: The referendum for many became the chance to issue a catch-all protest vote.

That vote took place against the backdrop of history, and that it became contested at all is a worry for all of Europe. Mason's accurate picture of the youth of Scotland shows why, because it is a picture that has its answer across the European landscape. Along with the results in the European Parliament elections earlier this year, and the success in this month's election of the Sweden Democrats, it cements the spread of Europe's crisis. Young Europeans are starved for opportunities, and they are seeking new identities - identities that the arrangements of traditional national politics no longer seem to offer, and that Europe apparently never did. A political vacuum exists not only in Italy, Greece and Spain, but also in the United Kingdom, in Sweden and in the Netherlands. The sick man of Europe is Europe. Scots ultimately voted against uncertainty. With that decision comes an expectation. A proper response is going to require far more effective, transparent, responsive and self-aware leadership than what we are seeing from London, Brussels and Berlin.  

Helping Hands

Via EmptyWheel.

Washington is too often the firefighter and the arsonist...

We Are Already Equipping al-Qaeda in Syria

The attack on Mosul from al-Qaeda elements fighting in Syria has led to the theft of U.S. equipment by Syrian rebels.

Weapons are fungible. Demands that we provide lethal assistance to Syria's opposition means eventually arming the very people we claim pose an existential threat to the United States.

Syrian Fantasies

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is becoming an increasingly outspoken critic of the Obama administration's handling of the civil war there. Appearing on the News Hour, Ford made the by-now familiar accusation that the administration needlessly delayed military aid to the rebels:

We need -- and we have long needed -- to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other nonlethal assistance. Had we done that, a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly the al-Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates who, frankly, we have much in common with. But the moderates have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs because they don't have the same resources that either Assad does or the al-Qaeda groups in Syria do.

Ford blithely brushed off the question of how the U.S. would ensure custody of those weapons by assuring us that the U.S. government had "information on reliable groups" whose "agenda was compatible with our national security interests."

Of course, even if the U.S. did have a finely tuned understanding of various rebel groups and how they would act if they were to receive large shipments of U.S. weapons (a skill that Washington has curiously failed to manifest elsewhere) this is hardly the only argument against arming factions in Syria's civil war.

A more serious objection is that backing one side to "victory" does nothing more than implicate the U.S. in the creation of yet-another failed state. Ford and his supporters have a surpisingly naive faith in the power of Syria's rebel groups to not only depose Assad but to stand up a relatively cohesive and secure state in his wake. Where is this faith coming from? It couldn't be from Iraq or Libya, where the U.S. directly and indirectly toppled regimes only to see chaos flower in the aftermath. The U.S. directly implanted a government in Afghanistan at the cost of billions of dollars and is now leaving the country at the mercy of a still-potent insurgency.

And yet, we're supposed to believe that U.S. arms to Syrian rebel groups would buck this trend. On what grounds?

Some might argue that early U.S. intervention would have at least empowered "our guys" at the expense of Assad and may have headed off al-Qaeda. The second claim seems completely false -- if rebel groups were able to depose Assad, al-Qaeda would almost certainly have slipped into the country in the resultant chaos (unless you make the over-confident assumption that U.S.-backed rebels would have quickly locked down the entire country). As for deposing Assad, it's probably true that U.S. support early on could have tipped the balance -- but again, it would have tipped the balance toward just as much chaos. Only in that instance, the U.S. would bear a much greater responsibility for the destruction and would be under even more pressure to step up its involvement to clean up the resulting mess.

The Obama administration's current policy is certainly not defensible, either -- making bold statements while dribbling in ineffective aid, all while promising to do more, is not achieving anything. But the critics arguing that the administration should have done more, earlier, seem to assume a series of fortunate outcomes that have been belied by recent U.S. experience in the region.

A Partial List of All the Things President Obama Is Responsible For (Good and Bad) Abroad*

  1. Establishing peace between the Israelis and Palestinians
  2. Containing China (aka pivoting to Asia)
  3. The civil war in Syria
  4. The breakdown of security in Iraq
  5. The state of internal security in Afghanistan
  6. Stopping Iran's nuclear program
  7. Hunting down 200-plus kidnapped Nigerian school girls
  8. Stopping North Korea's nuclear program
  9. Supporting protesters in Venezuela
  10. Protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine
  11. Restoring Trans-Atlantic ties the better to confront Russia
  12. Protecting America's interests in the Arctic
  13. Battling al-Qaeda in Yemen
  14. Battling al-Qaeda in Afghanistan
  15. Battling al-Qaeda in Somalia
  16. Battling al-Qaeda in Pakistan
  17. Battling al-Qaeda in [fill in the blank]
  18. Reversing the warming of planet Earth
  19. Reassuring Japan while dampening a resurgent nationalism there
  20. Reassuring South Korea (about a resurgent, nationalist Japan)
  21. Eliminating the world's nuclear weapons
  22. Determining the route of Canadian gas pipelines
  23. The internal governance of Egypt
  24. Policing global sea lanes

I've probably only scratched the surface. My point is that we should spend a bit less energy decrying this or that administration's incompetence (though it matters) and a bit more on the extravagance of their to-do list.

*As determined by the world's foreign policy pundits, analysts and politicians.

Is Putin's New Type Of War In Ukraine Failing?

As the Kiev EuroMaidan demonstrations were gathering momentum in late February, Anne Applebaum prophetically wrote: "Putin doesn't need to invade Ukraine. He can destabilize it from the Kremlin." So far, Applebaum's insight has proven correct. What we have seen is a covert war of destabilization, rather than an invasion by conventional means.

While we focus on the 40,000 troops amassed on the border, Putin has, all the while, been conducting a war of another kind in ten strategic cities and towns in eastern Ukraine. The epicenter of Putin's covert war, these grimy, depressed cities -- with exotic names like Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Horlivka -- have been seized, according to a common script, by faceless self-proclaimed mayors, unidentified Russian special forces, "protest tourists" and local criminals. They demand separation from what they call the criminal neo-Nazi and fascist government of Ukraine.

Dubbing this campaign a "new kind of war," Russian analyst Yuliya Latynina identifies four characteristics that differentiate Putin's Ukraine campaign from traditional wars:

First, civilians, women and children represent "an important military force" in the war. As Putin himself suggested in his March 4 press conference, "Let them [the Ukrainian forces] try to shoot at their own children." Indeed, Ukrainian barracks in Crimea were stormed by human shields of local men and women followed by armed special forces. Ukrainian forces, attempting to retake check points outside of Slovyansk, were neutralized by crowds of civilians surrounding their tanks. Ukrainian intelligence reports that armed separatists hole out and store arms in local schools and kindergartens.

Second, Putin's new kind of war considers the media as a key battleground. Writes Latynina: "PR operatives are a no less important component than the living shield ... The goal of one or another operation is public relations rather than a direct victory on the battlefield." Indeed, Russian propaganda has been broadcasting 24/7, featuring bald-faced lies, distortions and staged incidents, mixed in with partial truths, designed to outrage domestic viewers and frighten audiences in southeastern Ukraine.

Third, accuse others of what you are doing. In this way, "the aggressor blames others for the victims he has in fact created." In Ukraine, writes Latynina, "Moscow is sending armed diversionists into Donetsk and organizing the local dregs of the population, but at the same time, it accuses the West of doing the same." Indeed, not a day passes without reports of Ukrainian snipers flushed from their lairs, of spies on the payroll of NATO or the state department or of Nazi extremists attacking innocent civilians just because they are Russian.

Fourth, Putin's new kind of war aims to "zombify" the local population with hysteria about a rabid enemy that does not exist. As Latynina writes: "The main object of attack is the brains of those whom you are ‘liberating.'" Indeed, east Ukrainians have been fed such a steady diet of rape, murder and pillage by sinister neo-Nazi extremists that these fantastic stories gain traction. A resident reported to me that Donetsk was outraged on Friday by stories of a "Right Sector" extremist gunning down a 14 year-old girl.

I would add two more components to the new kind of war:

Fifth, take advantage of the local economic misery -- unemployment, delayed wages, falling living standards -- which you have helped create by cancelling Russian contracts and by other forms of economic subversion. Unemployed, unpaid and frustrated workers and their families can be lured into occupying buildings and taking part in protests, sometimes for a small payment. They become part of the human shield, not because they hate Ukraine or love Russia, but out of economic desperation.

Sixth, do not hesitate to make claims and take actions that require a suspension of logic under normal conditions. Expect people to accept the claim of a stranger to the city that he is now the major, appointed by a non-existent "Peoples Republic," to not blink an eye when an unidentified Russian officer declares himself the commander of the "Self-Defense Forces of Donetsk" or to accept the claim of a self-appointed mayor that the kidnapped team of accredited international observers from the OSCE must be held as NATO spies.

According to a report by the  Atlantic Council, Russia has been preparing for this new kind of war for several years, building "very covert but well-structured networks with agents, with pro-Russian organizations, involving in such illegal activity many Ukrainians." Russian special ops officers "are very dangerous, well armed, [and well] prepared to do what they are doing now." Many are veterans of Chechnya or even Afghanistan. A number of them moved to Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; so they can claim to be regular Ukrainians just defending themselves.

The new kind of war offers Putin three advantages:

First, a covert war gives him plausible deniability. Putin and his foreign minister can continue to lie that Russian forces are not in Ukraine, until it is no longer possible. Putin denied that Russian troops were in Crimea before annexation, but the Russian army's own training film of the Crimean Anschluss shows their special forces seizing parliament to start the annexation operation on February 27.

Second, a covert war offers a fig leaf for Russian apologists, who help in the propaganda war, and for Western politicians (and businessmen) looking for any excuse not to impose sanctions or take other meaningful actions against Russia.

Third, as experienced analyst Paul Goble writes: "There is another advantage of subversion about which less has been said: it is relatively cheap for those who engage in it. Governments who employ this strategy do not have to spend a great deal of money, and just how little is highlighted when they actually seize or annex territory when the costs go up astronomically." Russia's campaign to annex Crimea was cheap. The long run cost of propping it up will be high but only evident over time.

Putin's new kind of war does not require large numbers of troops and hence limits expense. The headquarters of Russia's Ukrainian covert operations (in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk) is purported to have thirty special forces troops or officers of Russia's military intelligence service, the GRU. They have to compensate the self-appointed local leaders and provide walking-around-money for demonstrators, but it does not add up to much. Putin's new kind of war offers insurrection at bargain-basement prices.

As the old saying goes, "You get what you pay for." Putin's New Kind of War has given him some ten cities and towns in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian special forces and self-appointed city officials. They rain terror on non-cooperative citizens, murder political opponents, use human shields, and go so far as to threaten summary execution of those possessing Ukrainian information leaflets.

Is Putin's new kind of war giving him the results he needs? I would argue, No!

Putin's overarching objective is to keep a subservient Ukraine in his orbit and not as a part of Europe. A unified Europeanized Ukraine on the Russian border that has achieved the rule of law, democracy, and prosperity would prove fatal to Russia's dysfunctional kleptocracy. Therefore, Putin feels he has no choice but to weaken Ukraine by actual or de facto dismemberment, shaving off Ukraine's southeast either into independent entities or annexing them into Russia. Putin achieved this goal in Crimea by military force, but the Crimean peninsula is not southeastern Ukraine.

Putin's dismemberment plan has two variants. The first is to gain enough control over southeastern Ukraine to hold sham "independence" referendums under the watchful eyes of "self defense" Kalashnikovs. Moreover, Putin must have sufficient control of southeastern Ukraine to sabotage the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for May 25. (Read Slovyansk's self-appointed mayor's gutter language explaining how he will thwart the election). At this point, however, Russia does not have the necessary territorial coverage or control.

Putin cannot afford either an honest referendum ("Stay in Ukraine or not") or a presidential election with the participation of the Party of Regions (the ousted president's party) and reveals, according to all polls, minuscule support for the loathsome Right Sector extremists, who control Kiev according to Russian propaganda.

A series of what appear to be legitimate surveys show strong Ukrainian support for joining the European Union, but not NATO, that almost 90 percent of Ukrainians do not want to join Russia, including a large majority in the eastern heartland, and a majority of Ukraine's easterners prefer Crimea to be a part of Ukraine.

The covert stage of Putin's campaign against Ukraine will not give him the command and control that he needs to carry out a rigged referendum or block Ukraine's presidential election. Moreover, there are no guarantees that the covert operation will not lose steam as Ukraine fights back in the propaganda war, as the brutality of the Russian operation becomes evident, and the credibility of Russia's more bizarre propaganda claims are unmasked.

The world is watching now. Earlier it was not. That pro-Russian authorities are jailing reporters at the epicenter of their operations and even going so far as to kidnap international observers shows their fear of exposure of their Potemkin villages of self-defense forces and locals fearful of Kiev Nazis. These kidnappings are extreme steps by panicked Putin minions.

Putin must decide what to do. To continue as is will cause trouble but not yield him his objectives. An armed invasion would yield him his objectives but at considerable cost.

The greatest cost to Putin of an armed invasion (even under the guise of "peacekeeping forces") is the loss of the fig leaf of Russian noninvolvement. An even greater cost would be the world opprobrium caused by a powerful army crushing (presumably with considerable loss of life on the Ukrainian side) a helpless enemy. World public opinion does not like asymmetric military battles -- the ruthless Russian Goliath against the diminutive Ukrainian David. In this case, sanctions would be severe. Russia becomes a world pariah. Germany's Schalke 04 would publicly tear off their Gazprom football jerseys. Russia's participation in the Eurovision contest would be cancelled. Wealthy Russians can kiss their travel to the civilized West goodbye along with their million and billion dollar Swiss bank accounts. Russia would go into a deep recession or even depression.

Putin's own timetable gives him only a short time to decide. His rubber-stamp Federation Council has "peacekeeping forces" on its Tuesday agenda. Putin's operatives and surrogates in southeastern Ukraine have set the date of the "independence referendum" for May 11, and the Ukrainian presidential election is scheduled for May 25. An astute Ukrainian observer identifies the May 9 World War II victory anniversary as the ideal patriotic setting for returning (by force) New Russia back into Mother Russia's embrace. Both May 9 and May 11 are approximately two weeks off.

Putin must decide: Is Ukraine worth this? Only he can answer. Perhaps he has not made up his mind. Maybe he is improvising as he goes along.

This Is No Way to Run a Country

James Bruno offers a blunt assessment on the state of U.S. diplomacy vis-a-vis Russia:

Russia has always taken diplomacy and its diplomats seriously. America, on the other hand, does not. Of this country's 28 diplomatic missions in NATO capitals (of which 26 are either currently filled by an ambassador or have nominees waiting to be confirmed), 16 are, or will be, headed by political appointees; only one ambassador to a major NATO ally, Turkey, is a career diplomat. Fourteen ambassadors got their jobs in return for raising big money for President Obama's election campaigns, or worked as his aides. A conservative estimate of personal and bundled donations by these fundraisers is $20 million (based on figures from the New York Times, Federal Election Commission and AllGov). The U.S. ambassador to Belgium, a former Microsoft executive, bundled more than $4.3 million.

By contrast, all but two of Moscow's ambassadors to NATO capitals are career diplomats. And the two Russian equivalents of political appointees (in Latvia and Slovakia) have 6 and 17 years of diplomatic experience respectively. The total number of years of diplomatic experience of Russia's 28 ambassadors to NATO nations is 960 years, averaging 34 years per incumbent. The cumulative years of relevant experience of America's ambassadors are 331, averaging 12 years per individual. Russia has 26 NATO ambassadors with 20-plus years of diplomatic service; the United States has 10. Furthermore, 16 American envoys have five years, or fewer, of diplomatic service. The figure for Russia: zero. Five U.S. NATO posts currently have no ambassador. None of Russia's is vacant. With Michael McFaul's departure in February, there is no U.S. ambassador in Moscow at the moment.

Domestically, the situation is equally worrisome. Three-quarters of the top policy and management positions at the State Department currently are occupied by non-diplomats, mainly Democratic Party activists or liberal think tankers. "Most are competent, but must pass an ideological test to be appointed," a former senior official who worked with Obama's appointees at State told me. "These positions," she added, "are handed out based on party connections and loyalty."

Truly exceptional.

Principles Shouldn't Trump Ignorance

A recent survey about U.S. policy toward Ukraine found that the more geographically illiterate a respondent was, the more prone they were to endorse the hawkish position.

Naturally, this finding has offended those who favor the hawkish position. Charles Lane (via Larison) insists that ignorance shouldn't stand in the way of making potentially history-shaping decisions.

"Foreign policy is not only about knowledge but also judgment; not only smarts but also wisdom," Lane wrote. Earlier, Lane celebrated the fact that while he never even heard of the Falkland Islands before the 1982 war, he nonetheless decided on the spot that Britain was right to reclaim them by force.

I think we've had altogether too much of this attitude among our elected officials and their supporters in the press. Frankly, I find it sad that we need to be inventing baroque rationales for why ignorance is okay rather than demanding better of ourselves and our leaders. 

Generally, when the stakes are high (as they are in foreign policy decisions) we expect that people demonstrate knowledge and proficiency before entrusting them with responsibilities. Heart surgeons can't have an intuitive "wisdom" about the heart, they need exacting, specific knowledge. Pilots can't have a gut sense of how to fly a plane. They need to know concretely how the plane operates.

Understanding a subject deeply is certainly no guarantee that you'll make the correct decisions. Planes crash. People die on operating tables all the time. And being ignorant of a given subject (or country, in this case) doesn't mean you won't get it right once and a while (it's called luck). But over the long term, it strikes me as far better to empower decision-makers that actually know what they're talking about rather than those who pantomime right-sounding principles as a substitute for genuine understanding.

Most Americans Don't Want to Get Too Involved in Ukraine

According to a new survey from Pew Research, 52 percent of Americans think it is more important for the U.S. not to get too involved in the situation in Ukraine -- an attitude in marked contrast to most of the country's commentariat, which is in melt-down mode. Ony 35 percent of those polled think it's more important for the U.S. to "take a firm stand" against Russian actions.

Americans hold this non-interventionist view despite a significant deteriotation in their attitude toward Russia herself. "Since last November," according to Pew,  "the percentage viewing Russia as an adversary has risen eight points (from 18 percent) while the share saying it is a serious problem has increased seven points (from 36 percent). The number of Americans who do not think of Russia as much of a problem has fallen by almost half - from 40 percent then to 22 percent today."

Russia has now eclipsed China as the country of greatest concern, the first time Pew surveys have seen such a result since 2008.

As far as Obama's handling of the Ukraine crisis, Pew found something of a mixed bag. Forty three percent of Americans think Obama's handling of the crisis is about right, while 35 percent think he's not being tough enough and five percent think he's being too tough.

Should Washington Accept the Vote in Crimea?

Last week, RT, the English language propaganda arm of the Russian government, published an unsigned editorial on its website promising "5 referendums the West has not taken issue with."

Only three of the enumerated referendums had actually occurred, in Kosovo, South Sudan and the Falkland Islands. The other two, in Scotland and Catalonia, are in the future and dicier.

Spain's government in Madrid has balked at the Catalonian plebiscite. Other Western nations may yet follow its lead and condemn the vote for secession.

As for Scotland, even RT admits "Britain has said if Scotland breaks away it will not be able to use the pound and will have to reapply for EU membership." The EU may not prove receptive to that application, especially if it wants to keep the Euroskeptical Brits from bolting.

But the details are small dumplings. RT was telling us all of this for polemical reasons, not historical ones.

"In the past the West has not batted an eyelid when countries sought to hold referendums and in some cases actively supported them," the editors alleged.

Also, the West's "seemingly random policy on other referendums hints at a double standard in their governments' rhetoric."

Western nations' approaches to referendums hasn't been *that* random. The West, collectively, tends to go along with such referendums when they look like they will solve intractable problems.

Otherwise, they treat secession or annexation votes as a menace to the peace of nations.

Developed countries didn't speak out against the 2013 referendum in the Falklands because almost everybody wanted it. This included the British government, from which the Falklands might have seceded -- and for good reason.

Ever since the Falklands War, Argentina had been keen to win through diplomacy what it failed to take with force of arms. "Oh no you don't!" said the islanders collectively. When the votes were tallied, only three locals voted to break away from the Crown.

That's three votes, not three percent of the vote.

It is simply not true that Western nations were OK with Kosovo's referendum in 1991. Only Albania initially recognized the new state, because Kosovars are ethnically Albanian. It wasn't until many years later, after ethnic atrocities and a limited and ill-advised NATO war, that the West went along with it.

In South Sudan, going along with the secession referendum was seen as a way to finally bring an end to long and bloody ethnic conflicts. It hasn't worked out so well, as the ongoing violence in the landlocked nation amounts to a low-grade civil war.

So it is understandable that America and the EU balked at the snap Crimean vote for annexation by Russia. But, as they say, that just happened. Why not deal with it rather than try to wish the vote away?

It's a little odd to hear President Obama say that America will "never" accept the result of the referendum. Never? Why not?

If the complaint is that the election seems rigged because more than 93 percent of Crimeans voted "yes," then past referendums are going to be a problem. In South Sudan, 98.8 percent of residents voted to secede. The vote in Kosovo in 1991 was even more lopsided, with 99.9 percent wanting independence.

America and the EU are of course right to worry that Crimean annexation could lead to more conflict. If Russia decides to amass its troops along Crimea's northern border, that would be clear grounds for Ukraine to fire the first shots of war, even under stringent Just War criteria.

Wouldn't it be a better idea to offer a democratic and peaceful option for all parties -- one that allows the passions of the moment to cool down a bit?

America and the EU could agree to hold an internationally monitored plebiscite, say, six months hence. The referendum would be contingent on a number of conditions.

Russia would have to play nice, draw down the number of its troops on the peninsula, respect the basic rights of all Crimeans -- Russians, Tatars and Ukrainians -- cough up some money for Ukraine and agree to respect the basic territorial integrity of every other part of the country outside Crimea.

If it complied with these demands, Russia would get its annexation vote in due time, this time free of sanction or condemnation.

Putin's 'Baghdad Bob' Tactic

At the beginning of the Iraq War, the world received routine updates from Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, better known Stateside as "Baghdad Bob." As Saddam Hussein's regime crumbled, his job was simple: Get on TV and flatly deny reality. Is there video proving him wrong? Doesn't matter. Deny it anyway.

Here are some of his best quotes, courtesy of WeLoveTheIraqiInformationMinister.com, the owner of which (much to my surprise) must still be paying his annual domain fee.

"There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!"

"Their infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad. Be assured, Baghdad is safe, protected."

"Lying is forbidden in Iraq. President Saddam Hussein will tolerate nothing but truthfulness as he is a man of great honor and integrity."

"I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad."

These words were amusing coming from the lips of Baghdad Bob in 2003. Today, similar words are coming from the lips of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But this time, the words are creepy, because Mr. Putin is speaking from a position of strength rather than from one of imminent defeat.

There are now roughly 30,000 Russian troops occupying Ukraine Crimean peninsula. Yet, the man who sent them there -- Vladimir Putin himself -- denies that they are his. Even Secretary of State John Kerry couldn't believe his ears. Moscow is now claiming that "lawlessness" in eastern Ukraine is threatening stability. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, of a second Russian invasion, followed by another denial by Mr. Putin.

Let's set aside the debate over how to respond. There's another, possibly bigger, question: How do you negotiate with somebody who denies reality?

Mr. Putin isn't crazy. The conventional wisdom, which is probably correct, is that he is a grandmaster of geopolitical chess. It's difficult to be good at chess and crazy at the same time. So, that leaves really only one option: Mr. Putin is using denial as some sort of tactic.

But for what purpose? If he admits to invading Ukraine, then perhaps he believes that the world will perceive him as having violated international law. But, the world already thinks that. His denials aren't fooling anybody.

Or, perhaps he believes that denying the presence of troops in Crimea will somehow strengthen his bargaining position when he inevitably must sit down with EU and U.S. diplomats? If that's the case, it is still difficult to see how his denials advance his agenda.

It will be interesting to see how the Kremlin spins all of this over the coming weeks. In the meantime, bear in mind the wise words of Winston Churchill:

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.

(Image: WeLoveTheIraqiInformationMinister.com)

The Crimea Is Ticking Away

"It is not a referendum! It is a farce, a fake and a crime against the state which is organized by the Russian Federation's military!"

Those angry words came from Ukraine's acting President Oleksander Turchinov Thursday. He was reacting to news that the Crimean regional parliament had voted to request annexation by Russia. Crimea's parliament also called for a snap referendum. Nine days from now, residents will be asked to indicate by secret ballot if they'd rather stay in the Ukraine or go with Russia.

Russian is the default language in the region. Russia has a Navy base there and a majority of the locals are ethnically Russians. Under ideal conditions, this would be a tough referendum for Turchinov's government to carry. Circumstances are about as far from ideal as they get.

Turchinov wasn't elected. His predecessor, who was driven from government by demonstrators who were either anti-Russian or pro-Western, depending on your preferred propagandistic phrasing, was. You don't have to buy Russian President Vladimir Putin's public spin this was a far right coup to see why most residents of the Crimea might prefer the stability and familiar corruption of Russia to the protests and uncertainty of the Ukraine.

Russia was able to take the Crimea without firing a shot. The military has been able to hold it so far with only warning shots because Turchinov's government is disorganized and torn. It is unwilling to risk a wider war over this pariah region, and this reluctance is only bolstering Russia's claim.

It's hard to gauge the sentiments of an occupied people, but many locals have spontaneously told reporters they are not unhappy with the outcome. "If the Russians weren't here, the government of Ukraine would come and occupy us," retired stage actor Vladimir Sukhenko told the AP. "They would make us speak Ukrainian."

Reuters reported the quick move for annexation was "almost certainly orchestrated by Vladimir Putin." The news agency is almost certainly right about that. On Tuesday, Putin addressed the fears of markets and world leaders over a wider war. Any conflict outside of the Crimea would be "absolutely a last resort," he said.

About the future of the Crimea, Putin professed a hands-off approach toward its ultimate governance. He argued, "the people living in a given territory have the right to determine their own future."

And then just two days later, the Crimean parliament determined that it would like to throw in with Russia with a referendum that seemed perfectly timed to throw America and the EU for a loop -- by a unanimous vote? Not a coincidence. Putin is pulling some strings here, though he doesn't have to yank extra hard.

American President Barack Obama has said that holding such a referendum would be "unconstitutional." His sudden strict constructionism of Ukraine's constitution is touching, and highly amusing.

In nine days' time, a referendum will be held and Crimeans will likely vote to join Russia. Western leaders will respond with more sanctions and speeches and charges of fraud. Unless they are willing to go to war over the Crimea, they might as well hold their breath.

The One Ukraine Argument You Should Ignore

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Vladimir Putin only invaded Crimea because he knew President Obama wouldn't back up his threats with action. Hadn't the world seen Obama draw a bright red line in Syria only to meekly climb down after Assad brazenly crossed it? It's the Obama administration's lack of credibility that encouraged Putin's adventurism.

This argument has been rehashed numerous times since Russian forces made their move in Crimea. Indeed, it's been made countless times during every single international crisis during the Obama administration.

There's only one problem with this line of argument. It's not true.

Don't take my word for it. To the extent that such things can be studied, there is significant evidence suggesting that such "credibility" arguments have little basis in fact. Begin with Daryl Press who has a book-length take-down of the idea in Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Press also co-authored a shorter piece in Foreign Policy with Jennifer Lind exploring the argument). Jonathan Mercer also examined the issues in Reputation & International Politics and came to a similar conclusion. If you can't wade through the book, Mercer's piece in Foreign Affairs brings not only the relevant scholarship to bear on the question, but shows why the argument makes no sense logically. Writing in the Havard Law Review, Ganesh Sitaraman offers another fact-filled take-down.

Yet in the face of strong evidence and logic that the credibility argument is bogus it keeps turning up -- the foreign policy punditry version of a bad penny. Why? Having likely made this mistake myself (before acquainting myself with the above) I have a few theories. First, it's easy. Understanding why states behave the way they do requires at least some rudimentary understanding of their peculiar geopolitical situation and the relevant interests involved. Blaming "weakness" and "lack of resolve" on the part of a particular political figure requires none of this understanding and is more interesting to read about, since it quickly personalizes disputes.

Second, it's reinforces partisan and ideological narratives. For the GOP, blaming President Obama's weakness is not only easy but politically expedient. It's just too good an opportunity to pass up. But it's not only Democrats that suffer at the hands of this bogus narrative. When President Bush was in office, critics also retreated to this dubious argument.

Third, as Justin Logan noted, it makes "intuitive sense" to many people, even if there's little evidence for it.

I don't hold out much hope that evidence and logic will win the day on this one, but here's hoping.