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.

When You Play with Fire, Ukraine Edition

John Judis has an interesting interview with Dmitri Simes, the president of the Center for the National Interest, on the situation in Ukraine. In it, Simes castigates the Obama administraiton for their thoughtless handling of the protests in Ukraine:

Now, I understand that we favored the rebels. And I also again have to say that looking at Yanukovych, he clearly was unsavory, and unpopular, and inept, and I can understand why we would not do anything to promote his questionable legitimacy. But we have to realize, that as we were applying this pressure on the Ukrainian political process to promote those we favor, we clearly were rocking the political boat in Ukraine, a country deeply divided, a country with different religions, different histories, different ethnicities. And it was that process of rocking the boat that led to the outcome have seen. That is not to justify what Putin has done, that is not to say that the Russians are entitled to use their troops on the territory of another state. But let me say this: any Russian wrongdoings should not be used as an alibi for the incompetence of the Obama administration. European and American steps that contributed to this unfortunate outcome, and quite remarkably, nobody in this administration even seems to have been thinking about what the consequences of their previous actions could be. That's how we got to our current predicament.

This kind of thoughtless poking of the hornet's nest only to whirl around in outrage and confusion when getting stung seems to be a recurring habit in Washington. 

Two Things the U.S. Should Not Do in Ukraine

Any discussion of U.S. tactics has to start with the realization that Russia holds most of the meaningful cards in the short term. The U.S. and Europe are not going to reverse the facts on the ground militarily. If the Russian military wants to move into eastern Ukraine, will European militaries really mobilize to stop them? Will NATO? It seems highly unlikely. If Russia wishes to completely annex Crimea (which, arguably, they already have) are foreign troops going to march in and unseat them? No.

This does not mean the U.S. is completely helpless over the medium and long term. In fact, if cooler heads prevail, there is a good chance the U.S. can put in place a series of policies that will raise the costs to Russia without risking a catastrophic confrontation. That said, there are still some things it shouldn't do:

1. Extend NATO membership to Ukraine or Georgia. Loathe as I am to disagree with Alex, extending NATO membership to Ukraine now or in the future is a non-starter for several very good reasons. The U.S. will not (and should not) sacrifice its soldiers let alone risk a nuclear war for Ukrainian sovereignty and self-determination. Moreover, Ukrainians themselves are ambivalent at best about NATO membership. A late 2009 Pew survey found 51 percent of the country opposed to NATO membership vs. just 21 percent in support. A Gallup poll around the same time found that Ukrainians were far more likely to view the defensive alliance as a threat than a source of protection. Events may have scrambled these views, but given Ukraine's sizable pro-Russian population it's difficult to see how NATO membership will ever be overwhelmingly popular in the country.

It's worth remembering too, as the Carnegie Endowment's Dmitri Trenin wrote on Sunday, that it was a path to NATO membership that "materially contributed" to Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008. Expanding NATO further into post-Soviet space is a red line with Russia and the U.S. is frankly not in a position to challenge it without running a huge risk. Put bluntly, Russia will be able to invade eastern Ukraine faster than the West could admit Ukraine into NATO to deter Russian aggression and making vague promises about NATO membership to Ukraine may actually provoke Russia to move beyond Crimea and expose Western bluffs.

2. Seek to counter Russia in Syria. Just because Bashar Assad is a Russian client doesn't mean the U.S. gains anything meaningful vis-a-vis Ukraine from his overthrow. Creating a jihadist-ridden failed state in Syria is a bad idea that endangers U.S. interests far more than the loss of Assad harms Russia.

If the U.S. can take these two bad ideas off the table, there are a few things it could do to weaken Putin's grip over the medium and long term.

1. Ship liquified natural gas to Europe. Europe depends on Russia for about a quarter of its natural gas imports (the majority of which transit through Ukraine). Fortunately, the U.S. is now awash in the stuff and could, with time and investment, export it in liquified form to Europe. For Europe, buying gas from the U.S. is way to diminish Russian influence without a direct confrontation. It would also marginalize Ukraine's geopolitical status which will serve, over the long term, to lower the stakes for Europe, Russia and the U.S.

2. Lend Ukraine money. Before Russian troops rolled into Crimea, Europe was only willing to cough up financial assistance to Ukraine after a series of reforms were implemented. Now, the IMF is in talks with the country on a financial rescue package (although these are likely to come with strings attached as well). With Russia canceling Ukraine's discounted gas prices and money pouring out of the country, Ukraine is on the brink of an economic crisis. Fortunately, throwing money into corrupt and destabilized countries is something Washington has plenty of experience with and in the case of Ukraine, there is a reasonable chance of seeing some "return" on this investment -- in the form of keeping Western Ukraine geopolitically anchored to the West. At a minimum, using financial incentives is a lower-cost method of retaining influence in Ukraine than extending NATO membership.

At the end of the day, the U.S. and Europe need to answer a difficult question: why they want Ukraine more than Russia does.

How Should the West Respond to Russia?

News reports indicate that Russia is now in control of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. Though some MSNBC political commentators might still have no idea whose side they should be on, the rest of the democratized world is crystal clear on the fact that Russia's invasion of a neighboring country under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians is nothing short of a deliberate, self-serving act of war. The West should respond accordingly. But how?

By hitting Vladimir Putin where it hurts. He has spent the last 15 years trying to restore Russian glory and influence, so the West should do everything it can to deprive him of that. The West has five non-mutually exclusive options:

(1) Economic sanctions and asset freezes. The U.S. and EU should immediately hit Russia with painful trade sanctions. Russian kleptocrats, who enjoy spending their millions of dollars abroad, should be slapped with asset freezes and travel bans. Russia should also be ejected from the G8 and G20 and uninvited from any international meetings. (The G8 is for democracies, so it's unclear why Russia is a member, anyway.)

(2) Diplomatic isolation. All democratic embassies in Russia should be closed. The UN should remove Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council.

(3) Fast-track Ukraine to NATO and EU membership. A Ukraine fully integrated into the West is what Mr. Putin fears the most. The West should make it clear that its goal is to accomplish that sooner rather than later.

(4) Deploy NATO troops to western Ukraine. If Ukraine allows it, NATO should deploy troops into western Ukraine. If Mr. Putin finds this objectionable, NATO can claim to be protecting the interests of ethnic Ukrainians and other Europeans. Two can play at that game.

(5) Surround Kaliningrad with NATO troops. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. It is surrounded by NATO members Poland (to the south) and Lithuania (to the north and east). Positioning troops along its border would be, by far, the most provocative action -- and one which might lead to an escalation in the conflict. However, it would also be a display of American-European strength and solidarity, something Mr. Putin would have to acknowledge.

Of course, any of these actions could provoke a retaliation from Russia. Other than more military posturing, the most damaging response would be for Russia to turn off its natural gas supply to Europe. They've done that before; in 2009, Russia turned off the gas to Ukraine. Gazprom, Russia's largely state-owned natural gas company, controls 30 percent of Europe's market. Gas prices would soar, and there would probably be brownouts, as well.

This is a tough situation, but one almost entirely of Russia's making. They should not be allowed to get away with merely a slap on the wrist.

(AP Photo)

Foreign Policy According to MSNBC's Chris Hayes

The temptation to weigh in on every single current event -- usually with the intention of smearing political opponents -- is just too great for some commentators. Take MSNBC's Chris Hayes, for instance. In a recent segment (which you can watch here), Mr. Hayes criticizes John McCain for criticizing Barack Obama's foreign policy and for having a simplistic, black-or-white view of world affairs.

Fair enough. But in criticizing Mr. McCain's naiveté, Mr. Hayes reveals his own:

As someone who follows the news and who doesn't know a ton about Ukraine, I'll admit, I'm confused about what I think should happen, even which side I'm on... And I think that's a natural, and in many cases even laudable, instinct.

Indecisiveness (or a "wait-and-see" approach) is a laudable instinct only if the situation is unclear. The situation in Ukraine isn't unclear. A corrupt, Russia-aligned government run by former President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by a pro-EU, Western-aligned opposition. Is the opposition perfect? No, of course not. Yulia Tymoshenko, who was once the champion of the pro-EU faction, is widely perceived as being just as corrupt as Mr. Yanukovych. Corruption is entrenched in Ukraine's politics, as it is throughout much of eastern Europe. Also, a few members of the opposition are anti-Semitic.

But, the choice is smack-you-in-the-face obvious: The U.S. and EU should (and likely will) try to pull Ukraine into the EU's orbit, paving a pathway for its entry into the European Union. Feckless though it may be, the EU offers Ukraine a safer future than its current status of dependence on Russia's ultimately self-serving largesse.

Mr. Hayes then goes on to criticize Mr. McCain for choosing sides in Syria and Libya. He is correct that Mr. McCain prematurely chose sides in complex conflicts. But, these countries aren't comparable to Ukraine. Ukraine isn't suffering from an influx of al-Qaeda linked terrorists. In Syria and Libya, it really wasn't clear who the opposition was; in Ukraine, we know who the opposition is.

Mr. Hayes then brings on a guest, Mark Quarterman, who seems to be as clueless about European affairs as he is:

It's not even clear that Mr. Putin views it [Ukraine] in Cold War terms.

Huh? Mr. Quarterman is unsure if Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, has a Cold War worldview? Of course he does. His entire strategy to maintain countries like Ukraine and Belarus firmly in Russia's orbit is a relic of Cold War thinking (as is the West's obsession with keeping Ukraine in Europe's orbit). President Obama has flatly stated that this is true. In an interview with Jay Leno, Mr. Obama said, "But there have been times where they [Russia] slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality."

Or, we could go straight to the horse's mouth, so to speak. In 2005, Mr. Putin said "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th Century was the fall of the Soviet Union. He couldn't make his opinion much clearer than that. And many Russians believe, very likely including Mr. Putin himself, that Ukraine isn't a real country.

Until last week, the average American journalist probably couldn't find Ukraine on an unlabeled (or perhaps even labeled) map. Today, these same journalists are lecturing us on foreign policy.

How Ukraine's New Government Could Destroy the Country

The crisis in Ukraine took an unexpected turn this weekend. After a deal was struck between President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition, Mr. Yanukovych ran away. Quite literally. Nobody (except, presumably, a few close allies) knows where he is, though he is suspected to be hiding out in eastern Ukraine or the Crimean peninsula, both of which have large ethnic Russian populations and are sympathetic to the ousted president. A warrant has been issued for his arrest for the mass murder of civilian protesters.

The opposition is now in charge of the country. They must act quickly and carefully to fix Ukraine's enormous problems, otherwise the country could split in two. Here is the opposition's urgent to-do list:

(1) Unify without seeking vengeance. The new government must reunify the country. Mr. Yanukovych's supporters -- including the Kremlin -- feel as though his removal from power was unlawful. That is going to cause long-lasting ill feelings. The new government must make it clear that Mr. Yanukovych's expulsion was due to corruption and corruption only. However, the parliament has already voted to drop Russian as one of the country's official languages. This is a big mistake. It gives the impression that ethnic Ukrainians in the western part of the country despise the ethnic Russians in the eastern half. Does Ukraine really want to have an ethnic conflict added to the current political crisis?

(2) Fix the economy. Ukraine's economy is a shambles. It faces the threat of defaulting on its debt. Banks are limiting cash withdrawals, ostensibly to counter cybercrime, but more likely to prevent a bank run. Ukraine needs to seek immediate assistance from the EU and IMF.

(3) Resist the temptation to engage in corruption. Of course, many Ukrainian politicians probably hold the Demotivator attitude toward corruption, which is, "I want either less corruption or more opportunity to participate in it." But rampant corruption was the underlying reason behind the revolution which deposed Mr. Yanukovych. Therefore, the new government must openly renounce corruption. That very well might mean telling Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed under the Yanukovych regime and is widely perceived to be rather corrupt herself, to not run for the presidency.

This list is a tall order for Ukraine. With Mr. Yanukovych's whereabouts (and machinations) unknown, the crisis in Ukraine may be just beginning.

(AP Photo)

Poland's Big Opportunity in Ukraine

The escalating crisis in Ukraine has finally prompted the EU to take action to address the enormous problem on its doorstep. (Okay, by "take action," I mean deciding to hold an emergency meeting. Baby steps, baby steps.) Donald Tusk, the prime minister of Poland, has called for sanctions against Ukrainian government officials.

Instead of just making bold pronouncements, the Polish government has also been working quietly behind the scenes (though, presumably, without dropping F-bombs like U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland). According to the Wall Street Journal:

Concerned with instability in its immediate eastern neighborhood, Poland has so far unsuccessfully tried to mediate between Ukrainian opposition and President Yanukovych.

Here's some unsolicited advice for Mr. Tusk: Try harder. Why? Because if Poland plays a pivotal role in brokering a deal in Ukraine, at least three good things will happen for Poland:

(1) A new government in Ukraine (assuming it will be led by the current opposition) will be grateful to Poland. This will help strengthen ties between the two countries, which will be to their mutual economic benefit. And, it would be one giant step toward integrating Ukraine into the EU and getting it out of Putin's orbit.

(2) Poland will gain more influence in the European Union, which it both deserves and craves.

(3) Poland will earn more respect from the United States, which may help pave the way for getting that visa waiver they have coveted for quite some time.

Of course, negotiating peace in Ukraine is also the right thing to do. But, doing the right thing is always easier if you have some strong incentives.

(AP Photo)

On Iran, Extraordinary Claims Should Require Extraordinary Evidence

The cosmologist Carl Sagan popularized the notion that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Yet when it comes to Iran, it appears the rules of evidentiary common sense are out the window.

Exhibit A (via Larison) is a recent speech by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in which he claimed that: "If given the opportunity, Iran's leaders would make good on their call to wipe Israel off the map, and armed with nuclear weapons would be a threat to all within range of their missiles, which someday soon may include our own shores."

What Cantor is clearly implying is that once Iran obtains a nuclear weapon (if they do decide to build one) they will use it to wage a suicidal attack against Israel. This is an extraordinary claim, given that no nuclear state has launched an unprovoked nuclear strike against another country no matter how bitter the rivalry. Of course, it's possible that Iran's leaders may decide to do something that's clearly insane, but the weight of historical evidence against this claim is enormous and self-evident. Pakistan has not nuked India (or vice-versa). The U.S. and Soviet Union avoided nuclear war, despite some harrowingly close calls. States that obtain nuclear weapons, with the single exception of the United States during World War II, do not use them.

If Cantor believes Iran will break this pattern, he needs to back it up with serious evidence, not a wave of the hand.

'F*** the EU': U.S. Diplomat Just Keepin' It Real

Victoria Nuland, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, is in a bit of diplomatic trouble. The European Union has sat idly by while its neighbor to the east, Ukraine, has been experiencing mass anti-government protests since late November. During a phone call with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Ms. Nuland let off some steam by saying, "F*** the EU." Unbeknownst to her, the phone call was tapped, and it seems likely that Russia is the culprit (thus proving once again that everybody spies on everybody).

Now, the EU is upset. Or, at least Angela Merkel, the de facto empress of the EU, is pretending to be. However, what you won't hear in all of the press coverage is that "f*** the EU" is a rather common sentiment, particularly among citizens of the European Union.

Take Germany, for instance. An upstart political party called Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which favors abandoning the euro and reintroducing the Deutsche mark, received 4.7 percent of the vote in the recent parliamentary election, just shy of the 5 percent threshold required to enter the government. Elsewhere in Europe, Euroskeptic parties are growing. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which favors leaving the EU, has become so influential that Prime Minister David Cameron insists on holding a referendum in 2017 on whether or not his nation should remain in the institution. Even the French don't like Europe that much anymore.

Additionally, a poll released in May 2013 showed a precipitous drop, from 60 percent to 45 percent, in favorability rataings for the EU among eight core countries (Germany, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic). In fact, dissatisfaction with the EU is so great and widespread that The Economist reported that between 16 and 25 percent of the EU Parliament's seats could be won by left- and right-wing Euroskeptic parties in the upcoming election in May. It's difficult to imagine a louder "f*** the EU" statement than that.

Perhaps EU leaders should worry more about the opinion of their own citizens than that of a boorish Yankee.

(AP Photo)