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What Does Vladimir Putin Want?: Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 8, 2014 — Vladimir Putin aims to reconstitute the Russia of the czars.
Ukraine Abandoned: Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, Sept. 4, 2014, 2014— At his first press briefing after the beheading of American James Foley, President Obama stunned the assembled when he admitted that he had no strategy for confronting ISIS, a.k.a. the Islamic State, in Syria.
NATO Sends a Message of Uncertain Resolve: George F. Will, National Post, Sept. 7, 2014— Speaking on Aug. 29 — at a fundraiser, of course — Barack Obama applied to a platitude the varnish of smartphone sociology, producing this intellectual sunburst: “The truth of the matter is, is that the world has always been messy…”
NATO Needs U.S. Leadership and a Return to Action: Derek Burney & Fen Osler Hampson, Globe & Mail, Sept. 2, 2014 — The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is desperately in search of new purpose and resolve.
How NATO Backed Russia Into a Corner: David Pugliese, Postmedia, Sept. 4, 2014
NATO’s Gesture Won’t Deter Putin: Max Boot, Commentary, Sept. 2, 2014
Strange Bedfellows: Putin and Europe’s Far Right: Alina Polyakova, World Affairs, Sept. 10, 2014
A “Berlin Airlift” for the Ukrainian Winter: Michael Rubin, Commentary, Sept. 2, 2014
Russia Is Building a Star Fort on This Strategic Arctic Island: Annalee Newitz, IO9, Sept. 9, 2014
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 8, 2014
Vladimir Putin aims to reconstitute the Russia of the czars. He wants to avenge the historic humiliation, as he sees it, that was the collapse of the Soviet Union. He's got to do what he's got to do to stay in power, probably for life, if necessary by whipping Russians into nationalist frenzy. And he wants to have a lot of fun while doing all of it. To adapt Mel Brooks : It should be good to be king.
All true. But maybe Mr. Putin is after bigger game. And maybe our failure to think about how Mr. Putin thinks about himself explains our consistent failure to anticipate his moves and check his ambitions. "What a novel my life has been!" said Napoleon on St. Helena. It wasn't an idle remark: Napoleon had been an aspiring writer as a young man. Suppose Mr. Putin is also living his life as a novel. How would he write the next chapter?
Here's a guess: Not by quivering in fear that a fresh round of sanctions is going to spark the third Russian Revolution, or that NATO is going to stop him from another advance into Ukraine or some other tempting neighbor. There's a reason men who are on a roll never take a break: audentes fortuna iuvat. Fortune favors the daring. Right now, fortune for Mr. Putin comes, first, in the shape of Barack Obama. The Russian was bound to see the American president as the classic self-infatuated liberal, half as clever and twice as weak as he imagines himself to be. As a former KGB agent working in East Germany, Mr. Putin would have had training, and perhaps experience, in reducing these types to human rubble.
Nothing Mr. Obama has done since coming to office can have dissuaded Mr. Putin from that impression. The U.S. president isn't an impediment to Mr. Putin's ambitions. He's an opportunity. When else will Mr. Putin have an American adversary who thinks that foreign policy is a global popularity contest, and that it's OK for Russia to gain ground, territorially speaking, so long as the U.S. retains ground, morally speaking? Could anything be better?
Well, yes: Energy prices that remain stubbornly high, despite global supply increases, shoring up Russia's export earnings in an economy that should be in free fall. A European recovery that remains stubbornly elusive, despite ultra-loose monetary policy, causing deep reluctance to increase military spending or impose punitive sanctions on Russia. The return of the politics of illiberalism to Europe, nowhere seen more clearly than in the rise of the Front National in France. (NF leader Marine Le Pen would defeat French President François Hollande 54% to 46% if the election were held tomorrow, according to a recent Ifop poll.)
All this is wind in Mr. Putin's sails, and it does no good to say that, in the long run, Russia is in decline and possibly doomed. "In Russia," historian Dietrich Geyer once observed, "expansion was an expression of economic weakness, not exuberant strength." That may be a consolation for future generations, assuming the pattern holds. But it doesn't help present-day Ukrainians, Estonians, Kazakhs or Poles. In other words, Mr. Putin has the incentive, and probably the desire, to move with haste. He will want to finish his "land bridge" to Crimea by way of the port of Mariupol. He will be tempted by provinces in northern Kazakhstan where there are large Russian populations. And he will give serious thought to a Baltic incursion, if only to showcase the hollowness of NATO's military guarantees.
Friday's kidnapping by Russian forces of an Estonian counterintelligence officer named Eston Kohver, just as NATO was wrapping up its summit in Wales and in the same week that Mr. Obama visited Tallinn, was a carefully premeditated expression of contempt—and intent. With Mr. Putin, humiliating his opponents tends to be the appetizer; the main course is their destruction. Just ask former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, or now, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Which brings us, at last, to the question with which we began: What does Mr. Putin want? It can't be money, power or territory, all of which he has in effectively unlimited supply. It could be his own political standing, although that's debatable: His political grip was plenty tight before he decided to intervene in Ukraine. It might be his concept of the Russian national interest, although that's also debatable: For Mr. Putin, Russia is as much the vehicle of his self-interest as he is the vehicle of Russia's. So it usually is with strongmen purporting to act for the sake of the nation.
In 1838, a 28-year-old lawyer gave a speech to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., on the subject of "the perpetuation of our political institutions." There were some men, said Abraham Lincoln, whose ambitions could be satisfied with a "gubernatorial or a presidential chair." But that was not true for everyone. "Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?—Never!" Such men, Lincoln warned, would seek distinction at any cost, and if there was "nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would boldly set to the task of pulling down." Mr. Putin is no Bonaparte. But it's beginning to look like he thinks of himself as one. A West that continues to pursue a policy of toothless opposition and de facto accommodation will feed his vanity, his ambitions and his illusions.
Washington Post, Sept. 4, 2014
At his first press briefing after the beheading of American James Foley, President Obama stunned the assembled when he admitted that he had no strategy for confronting ISIS, a.k.a. the Islamic State, in Syria. Yet it was not nearly the most egregious, or consequential, thing he said. Idiotic, yes. You’re the leader of the free world. Even if you don’t have a strategy — indeed, especially if you don’t — you never admit it publicly. However, if Obama is indeed building a larger strategy, an air campaign coordinated with allies on the ground, this does take time. George W. Bush wisely took a month to respond to 9/11, preparing an unusual special ops-Northern Alliance battle plan that brought down Taliban rule in a hundred days.
We’ll see whether Obama comes up with an ISIS strategy. But he already has one for Ukraine: Write it off. Hence the more shocking statement in that Aug. 28 briefing: Obama declaring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and a thousand troops brazenly crossing the border — to be nothing new, just “a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now.” And just to reaffirm his indifference and inaction, Obama mindlessly repeated his refrain that the Ukraine problem has no military solution. Yes, but does he not understand that diplomatic solutions are largely dictated by the military balance on the ground? Vladimir Putin’s invasion may be nothing new to Obama. For Ukraine, it changed everything. Russia was on the verge of defeat. Now Ukraine is. That’s why Ukraine is welcoming a cease-fire that amounts to capitulation.
A month ago, Putin’s separatist proxies were besieged and desperate. His invasion to the southeast saved them. It diverted the Ukrainian military from Luhansk and Donetsk, allowing the rebels to recover, while Russian armor rolled over Ukrainian forces, jeopardizing their control of the entire southeast. Putin even boasted that he could take Kiev in two weeks. Why bother? He’s already fracturing and subjugating Ukraine, re-creating Novorossiya (“New Russia”), statehood for which is one of the issues that will be up for, yes, diplomacy. Which makes incomprehensible Obama’s denial to Ukraine of even defensive weapons — small arms, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Indeed, his stunning passivity in the face of a dictionary-definition invasion has not just confounded the Ukrainians. It has unnerved the East Europeans. Hence Obama’s reassurances on his trip to the NATO summit in Wales. First up, Estonia. It seems to be Obama’s new “red line.” I’m sure they sleep well tonight in Tallinn now that Obama has promised to stand with them. (Remember the State Department hashtag #UnitedforUkraine?)
To back up Obama’s words, NATO is touting a promised rapid-reaction force of about 4,000 to be dispatched to pre-provisioned bases in the Baltics and Poland within 48 hours of an emergency. (Read: Russian invasion.) first, we’ve been hearing about European rapid-reaction forces for decades. They’ve amounted to nothing. Second, even if this one comes into being, it is a feeble half-measure. Not only will troops have to be assembled, dispatched, transported and armed as the fire bell is ringing, but the very sending will require some affirmative and immediate decision by NATO. Try getting that done. The alliance is famous for its reluctant, slow and fractured decision-making. (See: Ukraine.) By the time the Rapid Reactors arrive, Russia will have long overrun their yet-to-be-manned bases.
The real news from Wales is what NATO did not do. It did not create the only serious deterrent to Russia: permanent bases in the Baltics and eastern Poland that would act as a tripwire. Tripwires produce automaticity. A Russian leader would know that any invading force would immediately encounter NATO troops, guaranteeing war with the West. Which is how we kept the peace in Europe through a half-century of Cold War. U.S. troops in West Germany could never have stopped a Russian invasion. But a Russian attack would have instantly brought America into a war — a war Russia could not countenance. It’s what keeps the peace in Korea today. Even the reckless North Korean leadership dares not cross the DMZ, because it would kill U.S. troops on its way to Seoul, triggering war with America.
That’s what deterrence means. And what any rapid-reaction force cannot provide. In Wales, it will nonetheless be proclaimed a triumph. In Estonia, in Poland, as today in Ukraine, it will be seen for what it is — a loud declaration of reluctance by an alliance led by a man who is the very embodiment of ambivalence.
George F. Will
National Post, Sept. 7, 2014
Speaking on Aug. 29 — at a fundraiser, of course — Barack Obama applied to a platitude the varnish of smartphone sociology, producing this intellectual sunburst: “The truth of the matter is, is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.” So, if 14th- century Europeans had had Facebook and Twitter, they would have noticed how really disagreeable the Hundred Years’ War was.
Obama did have a piece of a point: Graphic journalism, now augmented by billions of people with cameras in their pockets, can give an inflammatory immediacy to events. His intention was to dispel the impression that the world has become not just unusually “messy” but especially dangerous. Unfortunately, this impression derives not from social media static but from stark facts, including this one: A nation with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is dismembering another nation. And the nuclear power is governed by an unconstrained despot fueled by a dangerous brew of disappointment, resentment and contempt.
Writing for The Federalist website, professor Tom Nichols of the Naval War College describes Vladimir Putin as neither a realist nor a nationalist but rather someone saturated with Soviet nostalgia. In 1975, Nichols writes, the world seemed to be going the Soviet Union’s way. Extraordinary U.S. exertions in Vietnam had ended in defeat, a president had resigned and the economy was sagging into stagflation. “By contrast,” Nichols says, “the Soviets were at the top of their game,” with a modernized military and a new generation of missiles: “The correlation of forces, the great wheel of history itself, was finally turning in their favour,” and because history’s ratchet clicks only in a progressive direction, “it would never turn back.”
In 1975, Putin, 23, joined “the most elite Soviet institution,” the KGB, which would guarantee “he would be somebody in the brave new Soviet future.” But in the 1980s, “he watched the Soviet descent to oblivion begin, accelerate, and then end in a humiliating wreck.” Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and a Polish pope ignited a Western resurgence — military, economic and moral. By 1990, Putin was 38 and aggrieved. Today, “Putin’s speeches and public utterances,” Nichols notes, “tend to show more nostalgia for his Soviet youth than his Russian adulthood.” Remember “the explosion of bad taste and Soviet kitsch” in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. A participant in NATO’s 1949 founding famously said that the alliance’s purpose was to protect Europe by keeping “the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” When the Cold War, which prompted NATO’s creation, ended, the alliance began to gingerly undertake what it calls “out-of-area operations,” as in Afghanistan. Now, however, it is back to its original business of keeping Russian forces out of NATO members, which now include Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the last two being contiguous to Russia.
If NATO’s meeting in Wales was, as one European defence intellectual said, a “credibility summit,” it was at most a semi-success. The decision to augment by around 4,000 an existing rapid response force of around 13,000 is a far cry from Poland’s request that 10,000 NATO troops be stationed with heavy weapons in that country. Watching NATO flinch from this, Putin might reasonably conclude that NATO is ambivalent about Article 5 (an attack on any member will be considered an attack on all) and therefore wants its means of responding to remain some distance from where events might require a response.
Although ambiguity has its uses, a British diplomat of the early 20th century, Lord Curzon, reportedly advised that it is generally wise to know your own mind and make sure your adversary knows it, too. Putin might read NATO’s mind in what Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times calls “the learned helplessness” of American allies who “have come to rely excessively on the U.S. to guarantee their security.”
Time was, Rachman writes, America accounted for roughly half of NATO’s military spending; now it accounts for about 75 percent. Only four of NATO’s 28 members (America, Britain, Estonia and penurious Greece) fulfill their obligation to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, and Britain may soon fall below that threshold as its army shrinks to about 80,000, its smallest size since after Waterloo (1815). As Putin casts a cold eye on his enemies, he might reasonably infer from their atrophied military muscles that they have palsied wills.
Derek Burney & Fen Osler Hampson
Globe & Mail, Sept. 2, 2014
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is desperately in search of new purpose and resolve. When alliance leaders meet in Wales this week, the escalating incursions by Russia in Ukraine and the Islamic State’s barbaric antics in Iraq and Syria provide the immediate challenges. What is urgently needed is leadership from the United States, a semblance of strategy and tangible commitments from the disparate allies to confront these major threats to global order. Fine words and carefully crafted statements will not suffice.
Thus far, NATO’s expansion to 28 members has added more jumble and mumble than commitment. NATO has become flabby and increasingly irrelevant. Repeated calls to increase defence spending, including most recently by a new group of policy experts in their June report to the secretary-general, have largely fallen on deaf years. For the past decade, NATO summits have been dull or meaningless, more posturing than purpose. The U.S. penchant to “lead from behind” has not inspired. Nor has President Barack Obama’s refrain about not “doing stupid stuff.”
The alliance’s record in Afghanistan and Libya is mixed at best. With a botched presidential election and no immediate resolution of Afghanistan’s leadership crisis in sight, a more certain U.S.-ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) commitment may be needed to prevent an implosion. The 2011 campaign to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and avert a major humanitarian disaster drew no support from Germany and NATO’s Eastern European members. Libya’s recent descent into tribal and sectarian warfare is a stunning indictment of a job half-done and a failure to calculate the consequences and what was needed to avert chaos after Mr. Gadhafi’s removal.
Despite all the rhetoric that sanctions against Russia are working, President Vladimir Putin is still on a roll. Calling bluntly for a “New Russia” and “statehood” for Eastern Ukraine as he brazenly increases overt military action, Mr. Putin is banking on a tepid alliance response. The EU’s weekend decision to kick the sanctions can down the road yet again is not likely to change his assumption or his behaviour. This is the gravest crisis confronting NATO. As two U.S. elder statesmen, George Shultz and William Perry, contended recently in The Wall Street Journal, either NATO must collectively act with training and military assistance to Ukraine, or the U.S. should act alone to help the Ukrainians defend their own country.
In Central Europe, NATO should make precise commitments to the new entrants, providing troops on the ground, new military bases and anti-ballistic missile defence. Canada needs to strengthen ties too, explicitly with Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, with whom we have common interests, while supporting efforts to inspire a lead U.S. role and concrete support for Ukraine.
The Middle East is trickier. Sporadic air strikes may have slowed the momentum of the Islamic State’s territorial gains, but there is little evidence of a strategy to eradicate the “cancer.” This is not a fight for NATO and the West alone. More is needed from regional players, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are not immune to the threat, and Qatar, which has played a major role in financing the Islamic State and Hamas. A full-scale assault on the Islamic State’s funding sources should be a collective priority, as should be concrete actions against those who preach in support of these radicals from the comfort of mosques in “liberal” democracies. Cutting off oil and other purchases from supporters will help.
The moderate voices of Islam should take a clearer stand before revulsion against the depravity of the Islamic State turns against the faith itself. Saying that this battle is not really about religion is false comfort to those being persecuted and slaughtered in the name of religion. Because many Western citizens have joined forces literally with the Islamists, collective action should be taken to revise and tighten immigration procedures, giving much more prominence to well-founded concerns about the direct, lethal threat such individuals pose to our security.
Long gone are the days of the NATO summitry of the 1970s, when secretary of state Henry Kissinger provided masterful beginnings to the discussions and the U.S. led from out front. There was no doubt then about unity, resolve or leadership. The U.S. must lead again now by putting down some tangible markers against new, existential threats and seeing who responds. Those who do should get a say and those who do not should rest on the sidelines. It is time for deeds, not pulpy communiqués.
How NATO Backed Russia Into a Corner: David Pugliese, Postmedia, Sept. 4, 2014 —NATO leaders meeting here have been quick to brand Russia an aggressor state, intent on dominating Eastern Europe.
NATO’s Gesture Won’t Deter Putin: Max Boot, Commentary, Sept. 2, 2014 —You can bet Vladimir Putin is shaking in his Gucci loafers as he learns that NATO is going to respond to his aggression in Ukraine … by creating a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops that could deploy to Eastern Europe.
Strange Bedfellows: Putin and Europe’s Far Right: Alina Polyakova, World Affairs, Sept. 10, 2014—There’s love in the air between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Western Europe’s far-right political parties.
A “Berlin Airlift” for the Ukrainian Winter: Michael Rubin, Commentary, Sept. 2, 2014—Russian aggression remains very much in the headlines, as President Vladimir Putin last week re-opened the southern front and more recently reportedly bragged that he could capture the Ukraine in just a couple weeks.
Russia Is Building a Star Fort on This Strategic Arctic Island: Annalee Newitz, IO9, Sept. 9, 2014—For decades, Wrangel Island has been classified as a nature preserve. Situated in the icy Chukchi Sea which flows between the Russian and Alaskan coasts, this quiet, hilly island is now home to a rapidly-growing Russian military base comprised of "prefabricated modules" arranged in a star formation.
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