Monday, March 10, 2014

Is President Obama Trying to Break Vladimir Putin’s Political Back in Ukraine?

[For readers who have not done so already, I urge them to take 10 minutes and 49 seconds of their time to listen to the Paet/Ashton a.k.a. “snipergate” phone call.  It is not only a useful corrective to the laboriously constructed and misleading pushback now slowly working its way through the Western press, including the dubious accusation by the Ukrainian government that the snipers were Russian (which, perhaps inadvertently, supports the call’s contention that Yanyukovich was not responsible and, therefore, his ouster was improper); it also give a clear picture of the split between the Maidan activists and the rather unattractive cabal of pro-Western technocrats, oligarchs, and thugs who piggybacked on the Maidan demonstrations and vaulted into power with the help of the EU and the United States.  In particular, Ashton’s palpable impatience with the whole sniper issue and her single-minded focus on cobbling together the IMF package is worth noting.  The Maidan activist quoted by Paet is Olga Bogomolets, the “Mother Teresa of the Maidan” in the Daily Beast’s hyperbolic phrasing.  Subsequent to the release of the tape she has made a couple of equivocal statements that have been seized upon as rebuttals but, when more closely examined, fall somewhat short.  Bogomolets is perhaps unwilling to give aid and comfort to the Russian narrative on snipergate, especially while Russian is violating Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea.  She is also a major political factor and has even been mentioned as presidential timber.  Indications are Bogomolets' preferred candidate, according to Paet--Petro Poroshenko, a.k.a. the “Chocolate King”, seventh richest man in Ukraine, and apparently a “clean” oligarch—will win the May 25 presidential election and try to steer the new government in a direction more to the liking of the Maidan activists.]

According to media reports, President Obama seems to be going all in on getting the Russians to back down over Crimea.

The White House readout of a recent telephone call between President Obama and China’s Xi Jinping recorded that the US president said that “preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine was his “overriding objective” [emphasis added].  

It is somewhat eyebrow raising that President Obama seems to have turned Crimea into his own personal crusade, especially since a large segment of world and informed opinion is ready to kiss off Crimea as Putin’s to take.

Perhaps President Obama is using Nixon’s “madman” theory i.e. communicate to the Russians that the president might do something crazy bad if they don’t negotiate.

Another possibility is that President Obama is genuinely eager to push Putin to the wall, confront him, humiliate him, and defeat him, and shatter Russian pretensions in Eurasia.

Maybe Obama believes this is his Kennedy moment, his Cuban missile crisis, his opportunity to face down the Russians, rebuke the geopolitical handwringers, and demonstrate the supremacy of American power.

Indeed, before the Crimea adventure it was Putin, not Obama, who looked weak in Ukraine. 

Persuasive reports indicate that Putin let Yanyukovich flounder, then urged him to sign the February 21 EU-brokered transition agreement that would have paved the way for an earlier presidential election, and then was completely wrongfooted by the sudden installation of a new regime totally free of Russian influence.

And Putin’s move into Crimea was largely defensive, in my opinion, recognizing that the new regime in Kiev, pro-US, anti-Russian, and with a strong Ukraine-chauvinist component, would probably try to consolidate its power and popularity by evicting the Russians from their naval base at Sebastopol.

The same elements that point to Russian determination over Crimea—the weakening of Russian power and Putin’s personal prestige if the Russians are humiliated—might also be incentives for the Obama administration to escalate the crisis.

After all, the direct costs to the United States of a catastrophic confrontation in the Ukraine are relatively minor, and I have a feeling that President Obama’s advisors are telling him that Russia is a paper tiger, and Putin’s power will crumble if the US pushes back.  Indeed, the idea that Russia is teetering toward political, economic, and social collapse and needs only a strong shove to push it into the abyss i.e. rebirth as a meek and tractable member of the global liberal-democratic camp seems to be an article of faith among US foreign policy poobahs.

And President Obama did make the rather interesting decision to put Victoria Nuland—a confrontational regime-changenik whose husband, Robert Kagan, is a hard-core neo-con—in charge of the Ukraine brief.

In my personal opinion, as his presidency inches towards its terminus, President Obama has decided to wipe that “You won the Nobel Peace Prize, wimp” sneer off the world’s face.

Maybe the president has decided to even scores in his last two years, and doesn’t want to see his antagonists like Assad, Putin, and Maduro smugly seeing him off with a condescending pat on the rump come Inauguration Day 2017.  Maybe his advisors are telling him that he can avoid lame duck humiliation only by being more aggressive in his foreign policy, by getting out front with more confrontational policies that force equivocal allies to line up behind the United States.

In any case, the US has been markedly more aggressive in its approach its biggest foreign policy botch of Obama’s second term, Syria.  In response to the chemical weapons red line humiliation, the United States seems to be more interested in imploding Syria by supporting insurrectionists than it is in pushing forward the increasingly ridiculous Geneva process.  

The United States has also become more pro-active in attempting to manage the cat-herding dynamic of empowered but less capable allies taking on China that it set in motion with the “pivot to Asia”.

And there’s Venezuela, where the United States is now openly supporting a Ukraine-style process by which it demands that the government bestow legitimacy and political traction on the protesters confronting it in the streets (and thereby void the election outcome that the United States found displeasing without the risk and inconvenience of a new election).

And in Ukraine, it looks to me that the United States and Victoria Nuland may have been instrumental in blowing up a transition process that would have conceded the lead to Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin in the establishment of a new government.  The new Ukranian government might be deficient in key areas of legitimacy, finances, access to the good offices of Russia for trade, financial assistance, and favorable gas pricing, and terminally estranged from much  of its Russian-speaking minority, but as an effort in imperial crotch-hefting it served notice on the EU as well as Russia that the United States was more interested in calling the shots than behaving like a peer interlocutor of European bureaucrats and Russian authoritarians.  In passing, I might as well point out that the point of the F*ck the EU speech was that Victoria Nuland had no interest in seeing Angela Merkel’s preferred opposition leader, Vitali Klitschko, enter the government at the expense of her beloved “Yats”, Arsenyi Yatsenyuk.  And of course, after the EU-brokered agreement collapsed in a hail of bullets, Yats is in and “Klitsch” is out.

I am hoping that the truth behind President Obama’s confrontational posturing is a little more mundane: that Russia does not intend to annex Crimea, President Obama knows it, but wants the undeserved credit for resolutely entering the den of the Russian bear and giving his testicles a mighty twist.

According to the much-maligned but often interesting and informative RT (full disclosure: I was interviewed on an RT show a couple times), the speaker of Crimea’s Supreme Council stated that, even if the outcome of the March 16 referendum is pro-independence, Crimea would prefer to stay autonomous (the second choice on the referendum is to return to an early 1990s constitution that gave Crimea an even higher degree of autonomy in Ukraine than it enjoyed, well, until the current Russian shenanigans).

And the Europeans clearly have no interest in enlisting in a serious sanctions crusade against Russia, let alone a hot war.

So perhaps the West will content itself with half a loaf in Ukraine (actually, the 90% that isn’t Crimea) and Russia will exercise de facto suzerainty over Crimea while it ostensibly remains part of Ukraine.

And the United States, claiming victory over Russia in Ukraine, will be emboldened to make further mischief elsewhere.


Edward said...

I wonder what role Biden is playing in all this. I read something one time suggesting he plays a significant role in Obama's foreign policies.

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