Saturday, September 12, 2015

Remembering Dondi






People of a certain age will recognize the face above as Dondi. I never followed the comic strip, in part because the New York Times was the paper of the house, but I think if I had I would have found it annoyingly cute, but after seeing the picture of little Aylan Kurdy lifeless on a beach a couple of weeks ago I've had a hard time getting Dondi out of my head.

Most of what I ever know about Dondi came from watching one of the movies made about him in the 1950s, an orphan with no one to tend him to GIs adopt him. According to Wikipedia, he was Italian, but in a sense he was the cute face of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people — after all the comic was inspired by a trip to Korea, where there were plenty of such similar kids walking around.  For their part, his benefactors,Ted Willis and Whitey McGowan, stood in for an America that recognized its good fortune and believed it had responsibility to help people in worse situations get on their feet, and if necessary give them a new home. As I think about America’s recent and uncharacteristically woeful record on taking in refugees I see is a loss of American values, 

where greed and fear have replaced a basic principle of generosity.  Yes, lots have changed since the 1950s, but if we wish to have a future where the fear of terrorism does not cripple us, perhaps the answer is not worrying first and foremost about letting in terrorists, but rather showing the world our hearts and our readiness to help the less fortunate.  With that in mind, perhaps it is time for someone to revive the Dondi comic.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Syriza, the Wrong Ally in the Left's War Against Neo-Liberalism

Ever since the election of Syriza government in Greece in January, prime minister Alexis Tsipras and its main interlocutor with the Troika (The European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF), finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, have become heroes of the anti-austerity left.  Small wonder, enamored with austerity, the EU and IMF have managed the Greek catastrophe terribly, perhaps not so terribly as American politicians managed the bailout of Wall Street, while doing little for Main Street and borrowers — at least the EU forced a 50% haircut on the holders of some of Greece’s debt.  The austerity program imposed on Greece only weakened Greece’s economy further and has rightly made Greece the poster child for proponents of a revival of Keynesian economics, and the rejection of the neo-liberal belief that austerity is always economically judicious. Syriza’s election seemed to signal the long awaited revolt against austerity that many of the left have long hoped for, and so support among the left in Europe and America has remained strong as the Syriza government’s showdown with the EU troika has come to a head. Yet recognizing that further concessions to the Greek people are necessary should not be seen as a vindication of Syriza’s tactics. For if their rhetoric has been right, Tsipras and Varoufakis have been the worst representatives of the anti-austerity movement imaginable, and in the end it will not just be Greece that will pay the price but the whole left, which has struggled to find a new purpose since the collapse of Communism.

For almost three decades now the post-1989 left lived in a dreamworld unable to offer justification for their critiques of the Washington consensus other than saying “its not fair,” and as such they have been unable to offer a real vision, leaving the “neo-liberals” looking like the only adults in the room. Syriza's management of the crisis and their negotiating strategy has been almost a parody of that problem.  Rather than show some recognition of the broader political realities, i.e. that any further haircut the EU makes will effect millions of people, who are not terribly sympathic towards Greece, the Syriza leadership has just complained louder and louder about the unfairness of it all.

 If that had worked in the intervening months this blog would not be written. What we have seen, however, is that the Troika has dug in. Meanwhile, people on the left continue to assume that it is the Troika that must budge first, as if the other EU governments are not beholden to their own people. Given Greece’s recent history with the EU, it ought to be clear that the EU countries have quite good reasons for demanding Greece commit to structural reforms before making further concessions to insure that the EU never has to rescue Greece again. For this story begins with the dodgy accounting and especially a big currency swap set up by Goldman Sachs Greece used to get into the Euro. 

Now the EU shares some blame in as much everyone knew that had not historically managed to meet the deficit and debt limits required of entrants into the Eurozone, but it is also true that Greece went well beyond the fudging other countries did.  The miracle of Greece making the Eurozone requirements already began to unravel in 2004, but the EU did not kick Greece out then. Then the discovery of the Goldman Sachs currency swap when the Greek debt crisis began in earnest only damaged Greece’s credibility further with among fellow Europeans, and understandably so for it showed the Greek government was willing to partner with a private investment bank to cover up the truth that ultimately affected all members of the Eurozone. Then came the decision by the Greek constitutional court to declare pension reforms made in 2010 has left other European governments wondering how they can ask their constituents to support more aid when Greeks have not brought their pension systems in line with other European states, so that Greeks can continue to retire earlier than anywhere else in the EU and often at extraordinary percentages of work salaries that would be unheard of elsewhere.  That lack of sympathy is especially strong in East Central Europe where peoples all went through their own austerity programs just to get into the EU. Thus, Syriza’s decision not to accept concessions should not be seen just as standing up against neoliberalism as their supporters believe, but as a disregard for the principals that a united Europe which Greece has benefited from considerably. Rather Tsipras and Varoufakis have shown themselves to be stuck in the old mode of politics where national interest trumps all else. 


Now that is not to say that the EU has been right not to signal in some way that further haircut of Greek bonds should be on the table pending reforms, but it is remarkable that Tsipras and Varoufakis have shown little open appreciation for the political difficulties such a haircut poses for other European governments absent irreversible concessions. (It is telling that it was the IMF, whose leadership does not have to worry about getting re-elected that leaked the need for a further haircut of Greek debt.) Worse since coming to power Tsipras and Varoufakis have never been honest with the Greek people. They won election by telling Greeks they could keep the Euro without paying the price that the other EU governments say it must. Perhaps we should not chastise them for that, after all politics is about winning elections. Unlike many great politicians who have come into office and then changed their tune, however, Syriza have continued to promise what they could not and still deny the reality that they are not the masters of Greece’s fate. So among the justifications for a no vote is the disingenuous proposition that because keeping the Euro is not in the wording of the referendum proposal that a No vote will not mean Greeks will have to abandon the Euro as seen in bullet points 5 and 6 from Varoufakis’s justification for a No vote:

Posted on July 1, 2015 by yanisv

5 Greece will stay in the euro.  Deposits in Greece’s banks are safe.  Creditors have chosen the  
        strategy of blackmail based on bank closures. The current impasse is due to this choice by the
        creditors and not by the Greek government discontinuing the negotiations or any Greek thoughts
        of Grexit and devaluation. Greece’s place in the Eurozone and in the European Union is non-
        negotiable.

6 The future demands a proud Greece within the Eurozone and at the heart of Europe. This future
       demands that Greeks say a big NO on Sunday, that we stay in the Euro Area, and that, with the
       power vested upon us by that NO, we renegotiate Greece’s public debt as well as the distribution
       of burdens between the haves and the have nots.
.
All this falls under Einstein’s definition of insanity — doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Since coming into office they have acted as if the Troika is not the ultimate arbiter of what will be acceptable, and apparently even being kicked out of the council of ministers last week after announcing the referendum has not brought that truth home.  Syriza was supposed to represent a new start in Greek politics, but has instead been a continuation of the same politics of wishful thinking that got Greece in this mess in the first place. If Greeks fall for that as they did 6 months ago, it will cease to be shame on Syriza, and become shame on the Greeks for continuing to believe something that is too good to be true.

Worse, for all of Varoufakis’s vaunted knowledge of game theory, he has shown little evidence that he has the same grasp of it in practice as he may have academically. The Syriza government’s brinksmanship over the past six months has been premised on the notion that the rest of the EU does not want to risk having Greece leave the Euro, setting the stage for destabilizing the Euro. For that to be credible, shouldn’t Syriza have been doing something to make Greece’s readiness to leave the Euro look serious? Despite getting moral support for leaving the Eurozone from leading economists, including Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs, and Joseph Stiglitz, and guardedly even Martin Wolf, Varoufakis has apparently done nothing to make the threat look real. They have not educated voters on the advantages of leaving the Euro, and so as the bullet points above indicate, Syriza must retain the support of the majority of Greeks who wish to stay in the Euro to win the referendum.  In so doing Tsipras an Varoufakis are risking not just their own political lives, but Greece’s political stability, while the rest of the Eurozone has by all accounts prepared for the contingency that Greece must abandon the Euro.

So what happens under the two possible outcomes of Sunday’s referendum? Let’s start with the no vote Syriza wants.  It certainly looks most likely that Europe will begin to close the books on Greece as part of the Euro. As such Syriza is suddenly going to be very unpopular among the majority of Greeks who see staying in the Euro as their goal, and likely all the more because they have done so little to plan for this contingency. Under those circumstances, maybe Syriza will come into its own, but a popular revolt against a party that confidently promised so much without gaining anything seems a reasonable fear.  For many, the result will be that the Greek crisis becomes seen not as the rebirth of a new left, but a wooden stake in the heart of an inherently economically reckless left.  A victory for Yes doesn’t look much better for Syriza and the left; although, it will likely be better for the majority of Greeks who see keeping the Euro as a priority.  The Syriza government will resign, there will be new elections, probably won by the center right, which will make the left look impotent against the “realities of economics;” although not without Syriza and the left winning enough votes on the claim that their failure was all the fault of a great neoliberal plot, thereby threatening the new government’s stability.

What might Syriza have done differently beyond being more honest about the possibility of leaving the Euro?  Brutal as it may be, the key would have been to commit at the outset to implement the pension reforms that Europe has so clearly demanded as a means to demonstrate Greeks’ readiness to put themselves in line with the rest of Europe. In so doing, they would have committed to a vision of European unity in which the left can and must play an important part. Indeed, they could have used the need to adopt European norms on pensions to promote a parallel commitment to improve Greece’s notoriously stingy unemployment insurance system, so that old age pensions will no longer become the default safety net as is happening now, and which Syriza has used as its main justification for not reforming the pension system.  

Above all accepting that Greece is beholden to its creditors six months ago would have ended the uncertainty that has unquestionably helped perpetuate Greece’s depression. Further, it would have finally removed the obstacle that has prevented the Troika from being more forthcoming, because the need for debt relief and Greeks desire to stay in the Euro has been its only leverage to insure reforms actually get done. In short, Syriza squandered six months during which the mercy it has demanded might have been negotiated. Now all that sounds more neo-liberal than most on the left would like, but this is the reality of the modern left. Progress no longer naturally leads to a socialist paradise. Complaining about unfairness is not enough, it is incumbent on the left to show vision and compassion in a more complicated world than Marx allowed for.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Piece on American press coverage for the online journal Logos

There are a number of reasons I have not posted here recently, but a major one was being commissioned by the people at the online journal Logos to write the article I am providing a link to here.

I will not offer any major additional insights here for now, beyond restating a belief I have held for some time that we should not allow the anxiety about troop movements from Russia naturally inspire among Ukrainians to lead to an overestimation of what Putin is capable of taking and holding in Ukraine beyond what he has taken.  Indeed, while I have seen no additional confirmation of this, there was even a report of a possible small mutiny among Russian regular army soldiers, who did not want to continue fighting in Ukraine.  At the same time all our eyes should be focused how Ukraine moves forward on the massive task of economic reform and anti-corruption measures.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

What is Putin up to?



Churchill famously called Russia “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  That comment was prompted by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939.  This week Vladimir Putin has lived up to that characterization; although, this time it is Russia’s actions towards Ukraine that has left heads people scratching heads.  
In as much as questions about Putin’s intentions have loomed over events in Ukraine since the beginning of the crisis there, I have been tempted several times to write a piece about Putin's role in events.  These efforts have always foundered because I am not really a Russian specialist and more to the point even the best informed analysts cannot get into Putin’s head.  This weeks news, however, offers a useful lesson about how Putin manipulates us even as it seems clear that that he has failed to foment civil war in Ukraine and that he is unlikely to succeed in creating a frozen conflict in the Donbas. 
From the moment of the bombings attributed to Chechen terrorists shortly after being named Prime Minister in 1999, Putin has demonstrated a deep appreciation for how the propaganda of fear can be used to manipulate events and the political atmosphere. This week’s announcement that Russia was sending a humanitarian aid convoy to the besieged Donbas city of Luhansk has been a textbook example of that tactic.  From the high diplomatic level where Russian claims that the convoy had the approval of the International Red Cross when it did not to the origination of the convoy’s journey from a town with a special forces base and the refusal to let independent journalists get a look at the cargo being loaded all was calculated to maximize anxiety that Putin had decided to go to war in Ukraine.  Almost immediately the phrase “Trojan horse” was on even casual observers’ lips; although, the notion that the trucks would be used to stage a provocation that would provide the justification for a full-fledged war seemed even more plausible.  In a climate created in the previous week by analysts of solid reputation saying we were reaching the moment when Putin would have to make a decision and that war was a very real possibility these seemed plausible concerns and even the idea that Putin might attempt a multi-pronged invasion could not be entirely dismissed.  
Of course, almost all informed experts knew such a move would be disaster and would bring little good to Russia, as the past several months have made it eminently clear there far too many Ukrainians committed to their independence to make long-term occupation successful even in the unlikely event that blitzkrieg tactics would succeed at first.  Most of those same people also knew that opinion polls showed the majority of Russians did not want an open war with Ukraine. Moreover, there were even signs that the Kremlin was not particularly interested in changing that.  While a crowd of about 1,000 people gathered in Moscow to support war with Ukraine at 2 August, anyone familiar with “managed democracy” knows that number could have been much higher if that is what the Kremlin had wanted, especially since the demonstration had a permit for 10,000 people.  Yet, with all eyes focused on those more than 260 trucks and word that Putin was going to make an important speech when he visited Crimea on 15 August those things did not matter and we willingly allowed Putin to appear once again to be master of events.  
That must have felt great for the man who has spent his political career, and no doubt his KGB career before that, making himself appear in command. The game continued with a Russian incursion early Friday that was verified by the presence of a Western journalist, although the Ukrainian military claims they substantially destroyed, the crucial fact was that the vehicles involved had not been unloaded from trucks from the convoy.  Indeed, so much materiel was already massed near the Ukrainian border that no massive convoy was needed, and when western journalists finally got access to the convoy they found the trucks were half empty.  Then, there was the curious matter of Putin’s speech in Crimea that same day.  During the week it had been billed as a major policy speech that would be broadcast nationally, but then at the last minute it was not, nor has a full transcript been published.  So we do not know what if any important policies Putin announced during his visit; although, quite clearly it was not a declaration of war on Ukraine.
No doubt, Putin has ideas about how he and his minions will use the convoy and other events this week to preserve the aura of mastery over Russia and its relations with the world.  Yet, the past week have done little to change the perception beyond Russia that Putin’s policy towards Ukraine has been a colossal mistake that Russians and Russia will be dealing with for years, and the question remains what other than fear were this weeks’ games supposed to achieve?  My guess, and it is only a guess; although I think it makes good sense of what otherwise quite confusing information, is the fear was used to obscure Putin’s decision to begin the recalibration of his Ukraine policy, and that his immediate aims may well have been quite successful.  By the end of the week, the most visible Russian face in the leadership of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic, Ihor Girkin aka Strelkov had resigned, as had the leader of the Luhansk Peoples’ Republic Valery Bolotov.  Remarkably, reports suggest they were both injured within hours of each other, which raises suspicions.  Perhaps their injuries are real, and the timing is a coincidence.  Anyone following what the Ukrainian government calls the Anti-Terrorist Operation knows that the noose is tightening and were these men rallying their troops in the wrong place at the wrong time they could well have been seriously wounded.  Alternatively, and more likely, given that Girkin and Bolotov have totally disappeared from public eye, even though a picture of either men would cheer nationalists in Russia, something bigger is up.  

  Girkin and Bolotov are hard men committed to the the idea of a greater Russia and ideally the destruction of Ukraine.  As such. if Putin has decided to let their project rot on the vine, they must be removed in a way that does not rile other Russian nationalists.  With that in mind Putin's actions last week make good sense. For while Ukrainians and the outside world were worrying, Girkin and Bolotov would have been cheering the signs that Putin was finally ready to commit to their side.  They may even have been advised as much and told that the time had come for them to step aside and let the Russian military command take over with a promise of laurels as Russian heroes back in Moscow.  Wherever they are now, the two are likely dismayed to see that the full-bore invasion Russian Nationalists had hoped for has not materialized.

  Extricating Girkin and Bolotov could only happen if both were convinced that Putin was at last committed to a full-scale invasion of the Donbas, if not all of Ukraine.  At the same time, neither was born yesterday, and their previous careers have made them familiar enough with the ways of the double-cross that hard proof might well have been necessary.  In that case, how better to allay their concerns than letting a western journalist witness a Russian incursion and for supplies and reinforcements to continue cross the border along with continued shelling from the Russian side of the border?   To be sure, the chronology is a bit off. Girkin and Bolotov both resigned before the incursion occurred, or was at least reported, but maybe their egos got the better of them and they were more easily convinced than expected.  Ultimately, from Putin's perspective the key was getting the two militants out of the way, and that was achieved.

  Meanwhile, the war goes on and Putin may have conceded to himself that Novorossija will not be redeemed, but he does not see turning his back on pro-Russian fighters as acceptable either so fighters and equipment keep coming. On 16 August the head of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic claimed  they have received 1,400 reinforcement fresh from training in Russia.  This remains unconfirmed but we would be wise not to attribute too much meaning to it even if it is true; although, it may also provide an indication of what else was in the half-empty trucks before they reached the Ukrainian border.  Still, this is beginning to be reminiscent of Nixon’s escalated bombing and Vietnamization circa 1970 with the twist that if these new troops are Russian and not Ukrainian, shipping these boys off to Ukraine with minimal training is an easy way to get rid of the kind of people who might cause problems at home if Putin starts appearing insufficiently committed to Ruskyi Mir.  Above all, it shows that Putin has little qualms asking some men to be the last to die for a mistake.  That is not exactly news, but it should help keep this story in perspective even as we mourn for those who because of Kremlin’s whims will die in what may well be the closing weeks of this phase of Ukraine’s move to real independence

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Distractions


It has been some time since I have been able to post about Ukraine.  Much of that had to do with distractions from the end of semester responsibilities and then some family matters that could not be put off, but the transformation of the Maidan revolution into a military conflict in the Donbas has hindered the ability of armchair experts to offer insightful comment.  While I am glad not to have spent time as a prisoner of pro-Russian fighters, I envy Simon Ostrovsky a bit, and hope his VICE reports get him bigger notice. Yet for all their immediacy and journalistic value, such reports cannot answer the big questions that everyone is asking:   1) Can the Ukrainian military manage to regain control of the region without exacerbating relations with the already disaffected citizens of Donbas? 2) How long can the paramilitaries in the Donbas hold out? 3) How much is Putin willing to do to support them?  More importantly, nor can I or any expert.  For tempting as it is to answer that last question and arguably most pressing question, no one is able to get in Putin’s head, and the truth is we will not know what Putin has decided until it is too late and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine is underway, or we wake up one day and we realize Ukraine has ceased to be at the top of his agenda.  In the meantime, the only thing we need to remember is that Russian intervention in Ukraine is intended as a distractraction and buy time both in Russia and in Ukraine.

On Putin’s home front there are some warning signs.  A study released last week shows about two thirds of Russians do not like the idea of a war with Ukraine, a fact that would set a limit for how far Putin can go; although, having drawn heavily on Russophile pan--Slavs for support, he now has to worry about a backlash if he backs down.  So open but never quite acknowledged support continues for the fighters in Donbas, as do faints to suggest he is ready and willing to invade.  On Monday, 14 July Dmytro Tymchuk, Ukraine’s best connected journalist on military affairs put out a statement stating that Russian special forces would enter Ukraine on 15 July, and it is now the 16.  Better safe than sorry of course, but at this point one can only surmise that the Russian communications traffic that Tymchuk reported had repeatedly referenced 15 July as an invasion date was itself an effort to deceive and distract.  Coming as it did just days before NATO and European countries are set to decide on introducing further sanctions to Russia, attempting to make the Ukrainian government look alarmist could well play well in some important quarters, like Germany and France so that the next phase of sanctions remain mild.  If that was the intent, the tactic has not worked, and so we shall see what Putin will do next.

The saddest part is that people are dying and suffering in multiple ways because Putin would rather distract than deal with the cul de sac that is his vision for Russia and Ukraine.  He has made consistently poor choices in respect to Ukraine since 2004, because for him there can only be one outcome, one that Ukrainians are increasingly opposed to.  That said, while ignoring it would be inhumane and irresponsible, let us remember the conflict also distracts from the real business of transforming Ukraine, which is what the Maidan revolution was about.  Last week Ukraine’s Fifth channel reported that following difficulties passing reforms affecting Ukraine’s historically corrupt gas monopoly Naftogaz prime minister Arsenyi Yatseniuk drafted a letter of resignation and left it with the President of the Ukrainian parliament.  Around the same time, Ukrainska Pravda reported the new mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klischko has named a Kyiv real estate tycoon Ihor Nikonov as his chief advisor.  Nikonov happens to be a partner of the natural gas oligarch Dmitriy Firtash, who is currently in Vienna fighting extradition to the U.S. on corruption charges and would of course like to see as little change possible to the gas market in Ukraine.  Klitschko’s connections to Firtash are not new, nor are Poroshenko’s, so one has to wonder can the current distraction provide the opportunity for the oligarchs to hijack the Maidan revolution the same way as happened with the Orange Revolution in 2004.

So far the oligarchs do not seem to be closing ranks or systematically sabotaging reforms, at least not yet. Ukrainska Pravda has since reported that all signs are Yatseniuk will remain prime minister for the foreseeable future, which we can hope is a sign that Poroshenko understands the costs of sabotaging Yatseniuk.  Meanwhile the oligarchs who profited most from Yanukovych’s misrule that their most have been the most wrong-footed by Yanukovych’s downfall.  Akhmetov has played his hand so poorly, hedging his bets until he had lost credibility with the Donbas people so that it is increasingly unlikely that the government will need to court him as they retake the Donbas.  Firtash is also on the defensive, and is likely doing all he can to get the new government to convince the U.S. to drop the charges against him.  He has just offered to forgive a loan to the government of 100 billion hryvna (roughly 100 million dollars) no doubt hoping for some favors, but that does not seem to be in the cards.  Two days ago Kolomoisky, who is the governor of Dnipropetrovsk region and has great standing in the new government and the people thanks to his success in preventing pro-Russian movements from taking hold in his bailiwick, stated that the companies both Akhmetov and Firtash bought during privatizations conducted by the Yanukovych government should be renationalized.  

The oligarchs, however, are themselves a distraction, because their ability to influence the system is dependent on collaborators, and the fact is the continuing war is serving such people quite well.  While some of the millions of people who supported the Maidan have volunteered to serve in the fight to recover the Donbas, and many others are pledging money, the focus on the war has provided an excuse to postpone parliamentary elections.  Without a new parliament, the existing parliament is itself becoming a kind of frozen zone.  The Communists will likely never be represented again, and the same fate may await many Party of Regions, unless they can join a forge a new party of power and patronage.  Cooperating with the new government fits perfectly with that aim, and the longer the war goes on allowing the elections to be postponed the easier it will be for them to succeed in that goal.  Supporting the government’s anti-terrorist action is understandable and necessary, but it should not distract from the remaking of society that was at the heart of the Maidan. With Yanukovych gone and Ukraine’s relationship with Russia clearer than ever, the time is ripe for a new political spectrum to emerge, but that can only happen if Ukrainians keep their eyes on the prize, and don’t let the war in the East, whether won or lost, distract them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

America's Foreign Policy Elite and the Inconvenience of Ukraine


If I were RadosÅ‚aw Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, I would not be looking forward to my next few visits to Washington.  Of course, there will be smiles at the photo ops and talk of cooperation, and maybe some pleasant times with friends of his American wife Anne Appelbaum, but it is quite clear that America’s foreign policy establishment is quite upset with Sikorski, even if they are too diplomatic to say so directly.  In separate Charlie Rose interviews broadcast on Friday 2 both Jessica Tuchman Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia both agreed that it had been a terrible mistake to put Ukraine in a position where it had to choose between East and West, and they of course are not alone.  Since the idea of drawing Ukraine closer to Europe through an Association Agreement was Sikorski’s baby, this is clearly about him.

That ire is understandable.  Foreign policy is above all about maintaining stability and getting along, and one thing that can be said of the last six months is that Eastern Europe is far less stable, and our relations with Russia have deteriorated significantly.  Because of the heightened tensions, we have finally agreed to station troops in the frontline NATO states of Poland and the Baltic republics, something we have until now avoided.  Nor does it help that many among the foreign policy elite likely feel that Sikorski is quietly regarding that last decision as a triumph.  Nonetheless, such thinking only reflects the extent to which our foreign policy elite has failed to understand the significance of the past six months, and would like to avoid the awful truth that approach taken towards integrating Russia and the other Soviet successor states over the past 25 years has turned into a cul de sac.  

For the moment, the foreign policy elite continues to view the Ukraine crisis as a complication rather than an opportunity.  This is nothing new.  Ukraine has long been regarded an unwanted complication for the American foreign policy elite.  Ukraine signaled the end of the Soviet Union when it declared independence just weeks after George Bush senior delivered a speech in Kiev aimed precisely at keeping the Soviet Union together and warning of suicidal nationalism.  While the bloodbath many feared did not happen, Ukrainian independence raised the issue of Ukraine’s inheritance of the portion of the Soviet nuclear stockpile.  That was resolved in 1994 with the Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons, but even then Ukraine did not fade into the background as a happily pliant Russian client state.  Its generally free and fair elections revealed a country that could not quite make up its mind whether to lean East or West, leading to shifts in course foreign policy experts dislike, and then there were the crises, the Orange Revolution, the gas disputes with Russia, all before the Euromaidan crisis ostensibly brought on by the push to bring Ukraine closer into the European orbit.

By contrast, Russia has been treated as stable and reliable.  Of course, it had a head start as the legal successor state to the Soviet Union, and however shrunken its economic power, it remained the largest country on the map.  Despite tense moments in 1993 and the 1996 elections, the leadership has generally been seen by experts as having predicable interests, which has included preserving the stability in its backyard.  In the instance of the Budapest Memorandum, Russia could be seen as a force for good, but even when it did things the West did not like, such as play games with Ukraine over gas, Russia’s actions were always framed as understandable.  Further, both Yeltsin and Putin have been eager to be seen as major players on the world stage, and brokers in affairs well beyond Russia’s immediate neighborhood, most notably in negotiations in the Middle East, most recently in Syria. 

Of course, in 1994 no one foresaw that Russia might unilaterally abrogate the Memorandum, and the Memorandum was seen as great power politics done right.  Indeed, there are likely few observers, who can honestly say that they were not optimistic about the long-term value of integrating Russia into world affairs and treating it as a potential “normal country,” which would have to go through some difficult times, but would be transformed by broader contacts with the West.  Yet, what we have lived to see in our new globalized world is that our institutions are not the bulwarks of civil society and well regulated free market economy we thought them to be.  They can be they can be tainted by corruption, and the biggest corrupting force is huge capital than can be used against the interests of the many.  Significantly, this was not Russia’s doing, but the very fact that the west was becoming increasingly comfortable with huge income disparities meant that the bankers and other players found it easy to miss the fact that the oligarchs in the Soviet successor states had amassed their fortunes not through careful building of market share and introduction of new products in a free market, but through arbitrage that was only possible because of the lack of transparency in their economies.  That wealth had to managed, and who could resist the temptation not to help these men and occasional women make use of their assets, and so we get Londynograd.  Moreover, it was not difficult to assuage any guilt through the profits one made, and by telling ourselves that this wealth was an aberration resulting from the transition, but that these fortunes, like those of the American robber barons a century before would dissipate in time.

That assumption rested on the notion that a new economic transparency would gradually take hold in the Soviet successor states.  It has not, and if that has not stopped a new entrepreneurial class from emerging, it is also evident that Putin has little interest in nurturing and broadening the middle class in a way where it can become more become a player in its own right.  For the denizens of the foreign policy elite, however, that has remained a minor matter, and this truth, as well as the effects Russian money was having on our allies, was ignored because other more pressing concerns elsewhere, particularly in the middle east were more pressing, and having Russia’s help was accepted as essential.  So we have coddled Putin, and been slow to recognize the extent that world order Putin has been pursuing is one aimed at aggrandizing Russian and complicate our ability to confront his aggression.  

If convincing our European allies to confront Putin is difficult now, one can only imagine what it would have been five or ten years from now had the Ukraine crisis not cropped up.  Now that the crisis has happened and it is clear that the assumptions made two decades ago have proven flawed, we should not run away from what we have discovered.  Rather the time has come to reexamine our real goals are in the post-post-cold war era, and how we can use the challenges presented today to forge a new long-term stability.  For to keep going and pretending that a shift has not taken place is actually likely to lead to an even greater disruption down the road.  So angry as they may be now, in five to ten years, I predict the realists and the rest of America’s foreign policy elite will be thanking Sikorski for his Ukrainian policy.  By pushing the association agreement with Ukraine, he has triggered events that have made it plain how false the post-cold war assumptions were.  In the meantime, we may hope that Ukraine will finally be able to break the cycle of corrupt oligarchic rule that has crippled its development so far.  If they succeed, we will not have helped the Ukrainians alone, Ukraine will become a model for Russians and Belarusians that there is a different way that will spread prosperity further, and that will only become more important as Putin and Belarus’s presidents get older and their infirmities cease to be the ones that can be managed with Botox, hair dye, and make-up.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Ongoing Disorientation Brought on by the Anxiety about What Will Come Next


This blog has fallen victim to the current state of uncertainty brought on by Russian meddling in eastern Ukraine and the ongoing question of whether Putin will intervene directly.  On the face of it, that ought not to be a big issue for a blogger writing some 7000 miles from the scene, especially one who tries not to traffic too much in speculation.  Yet, it is hard not to get away from how a sudden term of events gets in the way of the long-term.  A week ago, after giving considerable thought I was on the verge of writing a piece on the way so much of Ukraine's future depended not on Ukraine but on Putin with a comparison of Putin's current mode of governing with that of Slobodan Milosevic.  Then I came home Sunday afternoon to the alarming news about the seizures of buildings in Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk.  Suddenly that was more important and I was following every moment and the scarce time I had to bang out the  planned Putin piece disappeared into thin air.  

I write this not just to justify the long gap between now and my last post, but to illustrate the broader impact of Putin’s current efforts to destabilize Ukraine.  For if a small time blogger far removed from the events is thrown of stride, it is not difficult to imagine how people and institutions in Ukraine are unsettled.  In the aftermath of the Russian seizure of Crimea I have heard reports of shortages of basic items like sugar and flour, as people stock up in case of a disruption of supply networks should full-fledged war break out.  The need to deal with the anti-government protests naturally also distracts the government as it attempts to implement changes that will reduce corruption and promote responsible economic development.  

More broadly, as instability lingers the perception that Ukraine cannot manage its affairs grows leading people in the west to thinking that supporting Ukraine may not be worth the effort.  Indeed, Ruslana Lyzychko, the pop singer and effective moral leader of the Euromaidan, expressed that concern following her trip to the US this week, and not without cause.  On Tuesday Rachel Maddow used the brawl between Svoboda and the Communists in parliament as a punchline to a brief exposition of disfunctional government in a way as to suggest that maybe between that brawl and events in the East Ukraine cannot really manage its own affairs.  She did not explain the context; however, like the fact that the Communists had a long codependent relationship with the corrupt Party of Regions party and will be luck to be represented after a new parliament is elected, and that that same fate may also await Svoboda. 

In the great scheme of things losing Maddow for a day is not a huge thing.  She may be MSNBC’s most popular presenter, but she is on cable, and so her audience is small.  Still, she is an important voice on the American left, which as noted previously has to sadly been a weak link in the chain regarding support for Ukraine, largely because of a combination of Russia’s effective use of buzz words like fascism and right-wing extremism combined with a general and understandable desire not to get too involved in someone else’s business, as well as the prominence of well-known left-leaning commentators like Stephen Cohen who talk authoritatively about Ukraine, whether or not they really are. That means that were she to take the lead in promoting informed discussion about Ukraine she could provide a valuable service, and I am not talking just about propaganda here in the pejorative sense, I mean providing useful information that could help her audience honestly assess the current situation.

A week or two ago, Maddow seemed on the verge of doing just that.  In one of her thoughtful meanderings that are part of her program she specifically referenced Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands as valuable for understanding the background. Yet, from my monitoring (and I must admit I cannot watch her everyday due to scheduling conflicts) she has not built on that by Snyder or other informed observers, leaving that to other less popular presenters like Lawrence McDonnell, although to my knowledge Snyder has yet to be brought on as a guest).  PBS has been better, and that same evening provided a much more thoughtful analysis, but I fear as we look at this as an issue defined by identifying with Russia v. identifying with Ukraine we lose sight of the deeper sources of instability, which is the threat the new government poses to the networks that have long profited from the corrupt environment that successive Ukrainian governments have allowed to flourish in the East.  As such a whole way of life is under threat, and while we who have been sympathetic to the Euromaidan see the new era as ushering in new long-term stability, the fact remains that those very advantages mean profound changes for how the economy in Eastern Ukraine works.