Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 March 2014

Ukraine and the Powell Doctrine

The Powell Doctrine and its rare success
The changing nature of war
The problem of nationalities
How Putin has applied the Doctrine
Can Russia apply it to Eastern Ukraine?

The Powell Doctrine and its rare success

Remember Colin Powell? He’s fully retired now. But he solved two knotty problems and made our world a better place.

As our Secretary of State, he solved our spy-plane crisis with China by the simple expedient of apologizing to China. The apology cost nothing, either economically or militarily. But it got our spy plane and its crew back without further incident, and without starting a new cold war with China. As we assess the geopolitical risks of the rapid deterioration of our relations with Russia today, we have to admire Powell’s good judgment.

But his judgment in that brief but risky incident was nothing compared to his judgment in Gulf I. That short war is our single unequivocal military success in six decades, since the end of the Korean War. It is also the shortest significant military effort in our entire history: we were in and out of Kuwait and Iraq in less than two months, although the buildup took an additional five months.

Powell presided over this rare success as Chairman of our Joint Chiefs. Not only that, he gave it shape and a doctrine. His “Powell doctrine” has become a template for successful military action in the twenty-first century.

The doctrine has four elements: (1) a clearly defined and limited goal, (2) the application of overwhelming force that is (3) strictly limited to the goal, and (4) a clear exit strategy. The doctrine is a superb template for achieving a goal by military means and avoiding unpleasant consequences and entanglements. Its combination of overwhelming force and restraint in the use of force is the only way any nation will “win” a war in the twenty-first century.

The changing nature of war

As you look around the world today, you can see a big difference from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We humans no longer fight over natural resources. At least not nearly so much.

Why? Because we have a global free-market economy. If you want oil or natural gas, or lithium for electric-car batteries, you can buy it on the global free market at a fair and nondiscriminatory price. There is no reason to sacrifice your nation’s youth and devastate a neighbor’s territory to get at natural resources, as nations did so disastrously in the First and Second World Wars.

There are some caveats. Russia is using its energy as a political weapon, and China is threatening a reversion to military power, if not conquest, as a means of resource acquisition in the South China Sea. But even these deviations from trade as the sole means of resource allocation are minor compared to the twentieth century’s mad dash to control resources by conquest.

As for imperialism—trying to seize another country’s territory by force—it’s all but dead. It’s just too costly in the nuclear age. Even conventional war has become too costly in a world where ubiquitous global media make its pain, horror and brutal losses so vivid and plain to non-participants.

In our own Yankee wars, the casualty rates have dropped by two orders of magnitude in half a century. We lost half a million in World War II, fifty thousand in Vietnam, and less than five thousand in Iraq.

Today higher casualty rates are simply unacceptable to the ordinary people who have to fight, suffer and die in wars. They might be acceptable if required for national survival. But they aren’t acceptable just for grabbing another nation’s territory or resources.

You don’t even need complete democracy to see this effect. Russian mothers’ little known letter-writing campaign stopped the Soviet Union’s adventure in Afghanistan as much as the Stinger shoulder-fired missiles that the West gave the mujahedin.

So, except for small border clashes, major powers have not fought each other on their own territory since 1945. Next year, we will have had seventy years of peace between major powers, at least insofar as big wars of imperialism are concerned. That salubrious change looks as if it’s here to stay.

The Problem of Nationalities

So what causes wars today? Why do we humans still fight? Nearly all wars today, as well as most terrorism, arise from what Russians call “the nationalities problem.”

The term “nationalities” in Russian is much broader than its English counterpart. It encompasses differences in ethnicity, race and religion, as well as national origin. Russians use it as an all-purpose term for tribal differences that can create conflict.

I use the term in this essay, in all its Russian breadth, for two reasons. First, it’s a handy shorthand for dangerous tribalism. Second, today the problem has the greatest actual and potential danger in Russia, it’s “near abroad,” and its general neighborhood.

The Ukraine crisis is, in essence, a nationalities problem involving ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, with Crimean Tatars as terrified bystanders. The annihilation of Syria arose out of a nationalities problem involving Assad’s Alawites and others. The millennial Sunni-Shiite conflict, which animates much of the conflict in the Middle East, is a nationalities problem, as is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (with slight overtones of imperialism).

Oddly enough, the problem is much diminished in our Western Hemisphere. The reason is our history. The vast majority of people in the Western Hemisphere, or their ancestors, came from elsewhere. They came from many different places, so they had to learn to get along from the start. With their better weapons and technology and huge population pressure, they suppressed and sometimes slaughtered the native people, but eventually learned to treat them benignly.

So after committing and regretting near-genocides of native people, the mostly immigrant people of the Western Hemisphere have learned to get along. As least they haven’t emulated the worst alternatives. They abhorred the attempted genocides of Jews by Hitler and of Armenians by Turks. And they never repeated their forced relocation of native peoples in the nineteenth century. Stalin’s deportation of minorities all over the Eurasian continent (of which the Crimean Tatars are just one example) was and is an anachronism, even for the twentieth century.

Notions of human equality from the European Enlightenment helped, too. Those ideas got incorporated into our Yankee Declaration of Independence. Eventually, they produced a Yankee President half of whose genes come from a race of people who once were slaves here.

And few in France even notice that Nicolas Sarkozy is a Jew of Hungarian extraction. The French have come a long way from the Dreyfus affair of the nineteenth century, so vividly described in Emile Zola’s famous pamphlet “J’ Accuse.”

But we Westerners don’t have a lot to brag or congratulate ourselves about. It took us Yanks four centuries to get where we are today, and it took the French over a century. We Yanks brought our prejudices to a new continent and only began to abandon them after the bloodiest war in our national history. We can be proud of the result, but not of the process or the time it took.

How Putin has applied the Doctrine

So what does all this have to do with the Powell Doctrine? Putin has used that very doctrine to resolve the nationalities problem in Georgia and in Crimea. We Westerners may not like the means, but both the means and the result are a whole lot better than genocide, Stalin’s mass deportation, or prolonged civil war.

Russians’ chief causus belli in Georgia was discrimination against and mistreatment of ethnic Russians in the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A second motivation was intimidating Georgia’s leader Mikhail Saakashvili, who had been a constant thorn in Putin’s side. Putin’s blitzkrieg invasion caught Georgia completely by surprise; within days it had captured the key central crossroads town of Gori. Russia’s force was overwheming.

But Russia followed the Powell Doctrine in other respects, too. It could have tried to occupy the entire country, provoking a civil war that might have lasted a decade or more, as in Iraq. But it didn’t. It stuck to its limited goal of protecting the Russians in their two ethnic enclaves and intimidating Saakashvili. Then it withdrew from the rest of Georgia in six weeks, recalling the wisdom of Colin Powell and Bush Senior in not invading Baghdad.

Putin’s strategy in Crimea was similar. His force was so overwhelming that it didn’t even have to fight. In fact, as Putin observed in his speech on the subject, he didn’t even have to invade. Overwhelming Russian force was already in Crimea, as part of the Black Sea Fleet and its “force protection” auxiliaries. (Russia did bring in some additional troops surreptitiously, for good measure.)

You might say that Putin’s objective—annexing Crimea—was less limited than its goal in Georgia. But how else could he have protected the Russian majority in Crimea from abuse by the resentful Ukrainian majority in Kiev and in the rest of Ukraine? Although edgy and risky, in this unusual case annexation was a “clear exit strategy” in keeping with the Powell Doctrine.

Can Russia apply it to Eastern Ukraine?

So what does all this mean for Ukraine’s future? Are the Russian troops massing threateningly on Ukraine’s Eastern Border a mere warning to Kiev not to mistreat the Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine? Or are they an invasion force?

There is no doubt that the Russian forces now massing there are overwhelming. Ukraine has nothing that could match them, and there is little prospect for immediate reinforcement or arming of Ukrainian forces.

But what about the Powell Doctrine’s other elements: the limited objective, proportionate force, and clear exit strategy? All three would be lacking in the case of an invasion of Eastern Ukraine.

While Russia’s immediate objective would be to protect the Russian minority and Russian business interests in Eastern Ukraine, that goal would be subject to inevitable “mission creep.” Ethnic Russians are a minority in Eastern Ukraine, not a majority as in Crimea. So Russia would have to impose minority rule on the majority.

There is only one way to do that: by force. That’s exactly what Assad is trying to do in Syria, with catastrophic results. Just as in Syria, in the likely event of Ukrainian armed or guerrilla resistance, Russia’s use of force could not be limited. To remain in control, Russian troops would have to take draconian measures, thereby increasing local discontent and motivating more terrorism, in an endlessly escalating spiral.

Eastern Ukraine would become Chechnya on steroids, or Syria. So much for the Powell Doctrine’s third element: force proportionate to the limited objective.

It goes without saying that the doctrine’s fourth element would fail, too. There would be no clear exit strategy in the likely event of adamant resistance by Ukrainians, working together with non-Russian ethnic minorities. Russian troops would have to become like Assad’s forces in Syria.

Here the demographic differences between Crimea and Eastern Ukraine would be decisive. Russians are in the minority throughout Eastern Ukraine, and minority rule is not a stable system, as Syria’s self-destruction so sadly proves.

Russians come close to, but do not reach, a majority in two easternmost provinces only: Donetz and Luhansk. Could Putin invade and annex those two provinces alone?

That is certainly where the danger of miscalculation is greatest. The two provinces are geographically contiguous, and both border on Russia. So militarily, Russia might take them. But keeping them, and keeping them peaceful, would be another story entirely. The risks of a prolonged guerrilla conflict, like that in Chechnya—not to mention the risks of destroying the social cohesion and inter-tribal cooperation and intermarriage that characterized the region before this crisis—are high.


So far, the new Russian Federation’s only two foreign military adventures (in Georgia and Crimea) are consistent with the Powell Doctrine. They have been successful for Russia, at little cost in bloodshed (virtually none in Crimea) and with strong support from Russia’s people.

Any attempt by Russia to invade Eastern Ukraine would not be so successful. It would not fit the Powell doctrine because Russia’s commitment to use force would have to be indefinite and unlimited in both extent and time. And there would be no clear exit strategy, as any annexed territory would be an embattled new province of Russia itself.

No matter now supportive the Russian people might be initially, they would soon tire of a prolonged insurgency—the almost inevitable result of a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine. They can tolerate the mayhem in Syria only because Arabs, not Russians, are dying, and then only far beyond Russia’s “near abroad.” When Russian troops start dying in an immediate neighbor that Russians always thought of as a peaceful and close ally, Russian public opinion will turn on a dime.

Does Putin see all this? He’s a very smart man, whom the West consistently underestimates. But we can’t be sure.

If he does see all this, his troops just across the border will be there for some time, as an eminently credible warning against mistreating the Russian ethnic minority or neglecting Russian business interests in Eastern Ukraine. Likely the troops will stay, as a menacing bargaining chip, for as long as it takes Ukraine to organize a peaceful, even-handed, forward looking modern government that respects minority rights and promotes harmony among the nationalities and protects Russian business interests.

Even if Putin’s “invasion force” remains only a threat, the threat has to be credible to work for Russia. So we can expect those troops and their field hospitals to remain in place for months, if not years.

In the meantime, we in the West can’t be sure of Putin’s intentions. So we should increase the chances of Putin and Russia acting rationally by making credible threats of our own. We can move stores of appropriate arms and materiel into staging areas on Ukraine’s Western border (for example, in Poland), if not into Ukraine itself. (It would be better to wait to move them into Ukraine until we are sure of Ukraine’s government and stability.)

What weapons would be appropriate? They must meet two criteria. First, they should be hard to use in harassing or oppressing the Russian minority or the general population. Second, they should be effective in making a Russian invasion very costly. Hand-held anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons would meet both criteria. Unlike tanks and aircraft, they also have the advantages of being easy to transport and conceal.

In Syria, the objection to giving rebels such weapons has always been that they might fall into terrorists’ hands. But our President reportedly is reconsidering that objection and may soon give Syrian rebels the modern equivalents of Stingers.

Perhaps the reason is that technical means have reduced the risk of terrorists’ aquisition of the latest generation of hand-held anti-aircraft weapons. Perhaps the weapons self-destruct harmlessly after a short time, or perhaps technical means limit their use to specific geographical areas, just like regionally-limited DVDs.

If so, then the same weapons should be made available, on a contingent basis, to support continued Ukrainian independence. The rationale for doing so is even stronger than in Syria, as their supply to Ukraine would remain only a threat, to counter the threat of Putin’s forces just over the border from Eastern Ukraine.

Putin is a smart man and a careful calculator. Likely he will not want to spoil his clear and bloodless victory in annexing Crimea with a bloody conflict in Eastern Ukraine. But we in the West should do what we can to make sure his calculation is accurate and in the best long-term interest of all concerned.


26 March 2014

We Just Didn’t Know

A good epitaph for all our worst Yankee foreign-policy blunders would be, “we just didn’t know!”

We just didn’t know that Vietnam had fought and won several wars with China over their long mutual history. We just didn’t know that Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s leader, was a fierce Vietnamese patriot and anti-colonialist without the slightest intention of allying with China. We just didn’t know that morphing from a French colony into a Chinese vassal state was the farthest thing from his keen mind.

So the “domino theory” of Southeast Asia that our Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara dreamed up, and convinced Lyndon Johnson to follow, was sheer fiction. Not a single one of the nations of Southeast Asia—including Communist Vietnam—fell into China’s orbit as McNamara feared, even though we Yanks lost our War in Vietnam ignominiously.

And what expertise had McNamara to invent such a theory? As a former CEO of Ford Motor Company, he knew how to make cars. Lyndon Johnson was an expert on Congress. He got our modern civil rights laws passed when other “experts” said it couldn’t be done. Neither knew squat about Asia, Vietnam or China.

They just didn’t know. So we lost over 50,000 Americans, killed God knows how many Vietnamese and Cambodians, despoiled large regions of Southeast Asia with Agent Orange and land mines, and permanently besmirched our national reputation. All for what? A crazy “domino theory” dreamed up by men who not only just didn’t know, but refused to listen to the experts who did.

Iraq was similar. Saddam was no angel, but we had contained him for more than a decade inside our “No-Fly Zone,” at minimal cost and with minimal casualties. We just didn’t know that he had no nuclear weapons and no program to make them. We just didn’t know that, after deposing Saddam, we would have to govern a huge Arab nation wracked by decades of harsh rule by a hated minority. (Sounds a lot like Syria, doesn’t it? But that was and is Russia’s and Iran’s blunder.) And we just didn’t know that sending one-half the number of troops that our best generals recommended would invite disorder and civil war.

So we lost over 4,000 Americans, several hundred thousand Iraqis died, we occupied the nation for over a decade, and millions were displaced. And what do we have to show for it? We deposed Saddam. We proved there was no smoking gun. And we exacerbated the most important schism in the Middle East—the one between Shiites and Sunnis—without even the most rudimentary plan for healing it, except for hoping vainly that Muslims who’ve been at odds for over a millennium would bargain like good ‘ol pols in the US Congress.

Iran was a bit different. Our blunder there created a Little Cold War, not a hot one—at least not with us.

But the same sad story ran its course. We just didn’t know that Iran’s proud and ancient culture would resent our CIA (with the Brits) overthrowing a duly elected prime minister and installing a monarch just because Iran nationalized Western oil companies. We just didn’t know that Saudi Arabia would do precisely the same thing eight years later, or that a much later president (Dubya) would grow so close with the Saudis as to be photographed walking hand in hand with the late King Abdullah. We had no idea that Iran might resent all this, not to mention our inciting Saddam to start a war with Iran that did nothing for either side except killing an estimated half-million people.

It’s fine to have political sympathies and goals. We all do. But sympathies are not much more than second cousins to love, hate, fear, favor, greed and lust.

In order to do something, you have to know something. We Yanks fucked up royally in Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran, and maybe also in Afghanistan, because we acted before knowing or thinking. We “thought” with our wishes and didn’t listen to the experts. In many cases, we didn’t even consult them.

By the way, then-former President Harry Truman advised Ike against overthrowing Iran’s lawful Prime Minister Mossadegh and installing the Shah, just as Woodrow Wilson had advised the victorious European allies against punishing Germany collectively after World War I. Truman’s and Wilson’s advice fell on deaf ears. We Yanks, it seems, have more Cassandras in our history than chief executives whose foreign policies worked brilliantly because they thought things through.

Are we going down the same road to ruin in Ukraine? We just don’t know.

There are credible reports that Ukraine’s new government has a substantial contingent of neo-Nazis. Is that true? Is the Svoboda party reforming itself and moving toward the center, or is it hiding its true colors for a later putsch, like Hitler’s Brown Shirts? Are the Ukrainian oligarchs behind the neo-Nazism? Or are they a force for moderation? Are they willing to share economic power with Russian oligarchs for the good of all? Or do they want it all for themselves? And what political power do they really have?

We just don’t know.

Is Ukraine’s new government, despite Svoboda’s neo-Nazi leanings, going to foster a modern, pluralistic, democratic new Ukraine? Or is it going to invite further Russian intervention and perhaps even civil war by mistreating its Russian minority under the pretense of political “reform”?

We just don’t know.

What we do know is that nothing like these questions, let alone answers, has made its way into our public arena or our pols’ debate. Likely our intelligence services, which have spent the last three decades focusing on the Middle East, China, Russia and Africa (in that order) are just as clueless as our public.

PBS’ Margaret Warner had a good, short interview with new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arensiy Yatsenyuk last night. Big deal. Bashar al-Assad’s interview with Charlie Rose a few months ago came off well for Assad, too, unless you were paying careful attention to the utter psychopathy of what he said. Any modern leader without the skill to fool a TV interviewer and most of his or her audience in a half-hour interview isn’t fit to run a small province, let alone a nation.

Is Yatsenyuk a good guy or a bad guy? Does he have the brains, skill and the guts to face down the neo-Nazis and Russophobes in his own nation and make sure that Ukraine’s Russian minority is fairly treated so that Russia won’t be tempted foolishly to invade?

I just don’t know. And I don’t see how any careful person could believe he or she knows just from watching that interview. We need people on the ground who know all the players, the country and the mood in every big city.

Every mentor and teacher tells us “know and think before you act.” Even John Wayne said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

Ignoring the part about knowing and thinking (or being sure you’re right) has gotten us into our worst losing war and a whole passel of trouble. Yet people like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and That Idiot Rumsfeld continually urge us to shoot first and ask questions later.

That’s just fine if we want to add to our list of foreign-policy disasters. If we want to succeed for a change, we are going to have to ignore our shoot-from-the-hippers and wait for our President and his advisers to think things through, as is their wont.

Information in politics is never fully complete. But clear thinking requires at least some knowledge of the most relevant facts. At this point, we simply don’t know enough to decide rationally whether Yatsenyuk’s government will become like Tunisia’s, Turkey’s, Egypt’s or even Assad’s.

So maybe we should lay off the big arms sales and the big sanctions for the time being. Among other things, waiting will give us some leverage over the bad guys in Ukraine.

Especially when war is at risk, making a good decision late is a whole lot better than making a bad one early. We’ve done the latter since we started to escalate our War in Vietnam, and our record (except for Gulf I) has been pretty uniformly terrible.

That Idiot Rumsfeld

While on this topic, I cannot refrain from commenting again (see 1, 2 and 3) on Rumsfeld’s catastrophic record as Secretary of Defense. Here’s a short list of his major blunders:

1. He said that Iraqis would welcome our invasion with flowers. They did for a short time, until the statute of Saddam fell. Then they fell to fighting us and each other. For the next decade, our troops got IEDs, not flowers.

2. Rumsfeld sent one-half the number of troops that Generals Zinni (Marines) and Shinseki (Army) recommended. He didn’t listen to the experts, but told his political bosses (Dubya and Cheney) what they wanted to hear.

3. Among other things, that single catastrophic blunder led to: (a) destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure by looters, including ordinary people who stripped power stations of copper wire (to sell to feed their families); (b) terrorists’ collection of the mounds of ordinance left behind by Saddam’s defeated troops, which found their way into suicide bombs and IEDs; (c) the inability of Iraq’s new government to maintain order and keep Sunni and Shiite extremists from killing each other, which persists today; and (d) an inability to seal Iraq’s borders, thereby inviting Al Qaeda in.

4. Rumsfeld approved purging Baathists categorically from government and military positions, without even vetting them first. This single step deprived the Iraqi military and government of their most experienced leaders and made Sunni resentment of the new government irreversible and incurable.

5. Rumsfeld projected a perpetually angry, cocksure, defensive and self-righteous image of American power to us Yanks and to the world. His puerile self-justifications—such as “Stuff happens!”—will forever stain our national image.

After he “downsized” our forces by half from what his best generals recommended, his statement that you have to fight with the army you have, not the one you might like, will go down in history with Marie Antoinette’s “Let them each cake!”

Fortunately for Rumsfeld, we don’t have guillotines any more. Instead, we have the First Amendment. So nothing prevents this utter loser—the second worst commander our Pentagon has ever had—from likening the President to a trained ape.

But Rumsfeld’s characteristic arrogance and lack of basic intelligence are, as usual, his own worst enemies. He would be well advised to follow the old adage and keep people guessing about them, rather than opening his mouth and removing all doubt. If he followed that policy religiously until the day he died, fewer of the many whose lives or loved ones his blunders destroyed would travel far just to spit on his grave.


25 March 2014

The Dark Side of Ukraine, and of Western Media

I swore that Saturday’s essay would be my last on Ukraine, at least for a while. But something new came up.

In his recent speech annexing Crimea, Putin accused the Maidan demonstrators of being nationalists, Fascists, Russophobes and anti-Semites. In my recent essay on his speech, I called his claim “propaganda” and scoffed at it. Now I fear I may owe Putin an apology.

Here are some facts that readers and our State Department might want to consider in analyzing the crisis in Ukraine:

1. “Svoboda.” After Yanukovych’s fall, an extreme nationalist Ukrainian political party called “Svoboda” or “Freedom” (Свобода in the Cyrillic alphabet) became perhaps the most powerful party in Ukraine.

2. Svoboda’s power. In the most recent Ukrainian general election, Svoboda got only 10% of the votes. So you might think it’s a fringe party. Not so. Here’s a short list of its members now in key positions of power in Ukraine:
    a. Vice Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Alexandr Sych;

    b. Agriculture Minister (and one of Ukraine’s largest landholders) Igor Shvaika;

    c. Ecology Minister Andriy Moknyk;

    d. Director of the National Security Council Andriy Paruby (also commander of the party’s own militia);

    e. State Solicitor General Oleh Makhnitsky;

    f. Education Minister Serhiy Kvit; and

    g. Six provincial governors.
Former Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh, a member of Svoboda, today resigned under pressure for peacefully evacuating Ukranian troops from Crimea, although that decision staved off bloodshed and civil war and was practically inevitable. Information in a previous version of this post that Parliament had not accepted his resignation was erroneous.

3. Svoboda’s “platform.” As of 2010, Svoboda’s Website reportedly contained the following “program”: “To create a free Ukraine, we must abolish Parliament and parliamentarianism, outlaw all political parties, nationalize all media, purge all officialdom, and discharge (or execute) all members of anti-Ukranian political parties.”

4. Svoboda’s tacit goals. Here’s how a distinguished Catalonian professor of political and social science, who also lectures at Johns Hopkins University, describes Svoboda’s tacit goals (translated from the Spanish):
“[Svoboda] wants to purify Ukrainian society, violently persecuting homosexuals, prohibiting abortion, establishing a disciplined and hierarchical order, emphasizing masculinity and military paraphernalia, calling for the expulsion of the Jewish-Muscovite mafia and eliminating Communism, beginning by outlawing the Communist Party and persecuting its members or related intellectuals.”
5. Svoboda’s Origins. Founded in 1991, the same year the Soviet Union collapsed, Svoboda is the direct successor to the Organization of Nationalists of Ukraine (ONU), a notorious twentieth-century political-military party in Ukraine. ONU’s founder was Stepan Bandera, a famous Ukrainian patriot who showed his patriotism by fighting with the Nazis in World War II. He commanded two Ukrainian battallions integrated with the Nazi SS, which, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, arrested 4,000 Jews and sent them to Nazi concentration camps in Lviv in July 1941. The surviving writings of ONU call explicitly for racial cleansing and eliminating Jews.

* * *

Dwelling on past wrongs is seldom productive, as I have written often on this blog, especially with respect to Russia and Germany. And no understanding of the crisis in Ukraine can be complete without appreciating the magnitude of both Stalin’s starvation and near-genocide of Ukraine before World War II and Russia’s catastrophic losses and suffering in its Pyrrhic victory over the Nazis.

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. Honoring Ukrainian patriots is understandable, even if the choices they felt they had to make in past harsh times were also harsh. And it’s clear that the nascent Ukrainian nation needs some fighters to solidify its independence and keep order.

But this is the twenty-first century. There is absolutely no excuse in our modern world for maintaining the sort of racist, anti-democratic, extreme-right-wing agenda described above. No Yank should be asked to support such an evil philosophy with tax dollars, let alone personal military sacrifice.

The greatest insult of all is what appears to have been a conspiracy of silence among our Yankee media and diplomats. Margaret Warner of PBS, one of our best TV reporters, spent all of last week reporting personally from Ukraine. Yet she breathed not a word of any of this. Was she duped by Yankee diplomats on the spot?

With so little relevant information available in our media, there has to have been some kind of diplomatic effort to conceal these facts from the American people. If there was, the most likely culprit would be Victoria Nuland, our Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.

Reportedly pushed for nomination by Dick Cheney under Dubya, she was inexplicably carried over by the Obama Administration. She is reportedly the author of the helpful diplomatic comment “Fuck the EU!” The distinguished Spanish professor describes her as “a functionary of the hard ultraright” and characterizes her as supporting Svoboda “most strongly and openly” and “insisting that [our] government take [Svoboda] into account, for all the bad image that it creates” and for its mere 10% showing in the last Ukrainian elections.

The President should interrogate Nuland on the reason for our apparent Yankee conspiracy of silence about Svoboda. If he finds her responsible, he should fire her summarily and replace her with someone a little more diplomatic, who can at least listen to stories on both sides.

And the rest of us Yanks should wait for more reliable information about Svoboda before making up our minds on the level of our support for Ukraine. If Ukraine is to be a one-party state for the foreseeable future, as appears likely, we Yanks should think long and hard about that party’s agenda. To put it as starkly as I can, I have no wish to support neo-Nazis just to pick a fight with Russia or Putin.

We Yanks made horrendous mistakes in Vietnam and Iran. We certainly don’t want to add to the list in the heart of Europe.

Footnote: The precise Spanish verb Navarro used in his report, which he wrote was the same in the original, was “ejecutar.” That Spanish word has many English meanings, including “dismiss“ or “discharge.” Not being a native speaker of Spanish, I would give the writers of the tract the benefit of the doubt.


It is sad, but true, that I had to discover the foregoing facts by reading foreign news sources in Spanish. It is sadder still that the ultimate source of facts for one of the foreign reports (Navarro’s) was an American professor of history, Gary Leupp, and his paper, “Ukraine: The Sovereignty Argument and the Real Problem of Fascism,” CounterPunch, March 10, 2014.

Here are the two sources from which all the facts in this post come, plus a little about the authors and the publications in which they appeared:

Source 1. Vincenç Navarro, “What is not being said about Ukraine” (in Spanish), La Vanguardia (Barcelona), March 18, 2014, available online here. Navarro is Professor of Political and Social Sciences at University Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Catalonia is Spain’s chief commercial province, and La Vanguardia is its leading newspaper and the one with the fourth-highest general circulation in all of Spain. According to Wikipedia, “Its editorial line leans to the centre of politics and is moderate in its opinions, although under Franco it has followed the francoist ideology.” In other words, La Vanguardia is no Russian partisan.

Source 2. Rafael Poch (Special Dispatch from Odessa), “The extreme right grows stronger in Ukraine’s new pro-Western government,” (in Spanish), La Vanguardia (Barcelona), March 8, 2014, available online here. Poch is a senior foreign correspondent for La Vanguardia, who spent twenty years reporting from Moscow and Beijing. If you read his sensitive and even-handed analysis of Russia’s policies, you will see that he, too, is no Russia partisan, let alone a fan of Putin.

Both of these men have given us Yanks insights into Ukraine unavailable in our own mass media. Where are our own reporters?


22 March 2014

Sanctions: Deterrence or Punishment?

[This is my last essay, for the time being, on Crimea and Ukraine. For Thursday’s and links to earlier ones, click here.]

Introduction: passion and social evolution
The three goals of punishment
Application to Russia re Ukraine
Collective punishment doesn’t work
Individual punishment can work but requires proof
Conclusion: the lessons of our common human past
Something new: rehabilitation

Introduction: passion and social evolution

Why does Shakespeare still draw us today? His age was utterly different from ours, as different as if on another planet.

It wasn’t just the technology. Of course there were no Internet, no means of communicating quickly over distance, no flush toilets, little personal hygiene, no accurate firearms, no tanks or airplanes, and no nuclear weapons. Of course the only motive force for vehicles and machines, besides gunpowder, came from wind, falling water and the muscles of men and beasts. Of course just getting a few tens of miles from one place to another was a dusty, dirty, wet, bouncy, exhausting and often dangerous experience, even for the Monarch.

But those things were just on the surface. The social structure and social norms were as different from ours as night from day. The King (or rare Queen) was an absolute monarch, whose absolute power Parliament was just beginning to curtail. The Monarch ruled by persuading the next level of the powerful: the landed nobility, each of whom had the means to raise a personal army. Real power changed hands not by elections, however disorderly, but mostly by murder, treachery and civil war.

Ordinary people had virtually no rights, except as a “noble” might deign to recognize them. There was no organized police force to protect ordinary people from crime. Such sheriffs as existed collected taxes and protected the prerogatives of the rich and powerful. And those lucky ones, more often than not, had to enforce their own rights through violence and threats.

So why do we still read Shakespeare, when our social evolution has far surpassed that of his day? Because our biological evolution advances much more slowly, almost imperceptibly. We still feel the same hates, fears, lusts, greed, anger, and thirst for revenge that Shakespeare’s characters felt. His precise and compelling (if sometimes archaic) language lets us feel those primal emotions as our own. Emotionally, his primitive late seventeenth century feels like just yesterday, like a vividly remembered passion of our youth.

But social evolution is a powerful thing. If we didn’t have it, our nuclear and chemical weapons would have led us to extinguish our species long ago. Somehow, we have overcome our primitive passions, which we still feel, with reason, analysis, pragmatism and new social norms.

And so it is with crime and punishment. Most of us no longer follow the Code of Hammurabi: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Our species has dissected punishment analytically and has discerned its goals. And those goals go far beyond the primitive revenge of ancient times and Shakespeare’s day.

The three goals of punishment

Today every first-year student in an American law school learns punishment’s three purposes by rote. They are: retribution, deterrence and incapacitation.

When a man commits a crime (despite gender equality, most criminals are men), he has hurt someone, as well as social cohesion. So society puts him in jail, where the deprivation of his liberty and the onerous restrictions on his daily life hurt him back. That’s retribution, aka revenge.

The mere threat of that deprivation, putatively, makes would-be criminals think twice before committing crimes. Criminal minds at least try not to get caught. The mere fact of a criminal’s incarceration, however, shows that deterrence was not entirely effective.

So the deterrent goal of punishment has to overcome a slight logical conundrum. Nevertheless, we continue to believe, and there is some evidence to corroborate, that punishment deters crime.

Finally, if there are no jail breaks, incarceration prevents future crime. If properly supervised, a jailed man can’t commit further crimes while in jail, at least against the general public, as distinguished from fellow inmates and his jailers. That’s incapacitation.

The ultimate punishment is, of course, the death penalty. Human imagination can conceive greater punishments. Dreams of lifelong torture led to visions of Hell, which in our Middle Ages was as real to most people as Democracy and Freedom are to many today. After all, aren’t all three just mere abstractions?

But for most of us, death is the ultimate punishment because it deprives the victim of all pleasure and sentience, as well as pain. It is final.

Death is also the ultimate in incapacitation. You can’t commit another crime if you’re dead.

Deterrence is another story. The science of the death penalty’s deterrent effect is decidedly mixed, with more recent and more careful studies suggesting that it is limited at best. The primitive passions that motivate people to commit capital crimes are hardly rational: they come from the part of us that Shakespeare knew well. So the rational calculation that deterrence assumes is at worst a myth, at best a half-truth.

Advocates—who are still many—of executing the worst criminals suggest that the ultimate penalty’s deterrent effect is just “common sense.” But common sense also suggests a contrary riddle. If the ultimate penalty actually is the ultimate deterrent, why do we still have capital crimes? Would a lot more people commit them without it, or are the impulses toward capital crimes so strong and primitive as to overcome reason and deterrence?

Could it be that those who push the death penalty hardest are actually confusing the other goals of punishment—retribution and incapacitation—with deterrence? There is little doubt that killing a criminal can give the families of his victims the deep and primitive satisfaction of societal revenge. And there is no doubt at all that a dead criminal can’t strike again. In thinking of punishment, including the death penalty, we should try to keep our goals straight.

Application to Russia re Ukraine

But the subject of this essay isn’t really crime and punishment. It’s Ukraine. (Fooled you, didn’t I?)

If punishment is fraught with complexity and subtlety when applied to a lone criminal, how much more fraught is it when applied to a whole nation and its leaders? Isn’t that precisely the question before us today, as the rest of the world contemplates “punishing” Russia, as well as Vladimir Putin, for absorbing Crimea?

Like it or not, that absorption is now an accomplished fact. The Russian Duma is not likely to rebel: it’s about like Parliament in Shakespeare’s day. While Vladimir Putin may not be precisely like the Monarchs of Shakespeare’s time, or the “narcissistic autocrat” of David Brooks’ imagination, he’s the closest thing to them in our modern world outside of North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe. Even China has a seven-member committee that decides vital matters of state, not a single man.

So what should we outside Russia do?

We could, in theory, try to take Crimea back by force. But for whom and for what purpose? The majority of Crimea’s people are Russian. They cheer their absorption into Mother Russia. So armed combat would only create a bloody civil war, with the curious goal of minority rule.

War is not an option, and not only because the US and the West are now fed up with it. War would only make things worse, much worse. If there’s one lesson that our entire species can learn from Russia’s bloody October Revolution, our Yankee misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran’s and Russia’s utter obliteration of Syria, it’s the simple, human value of doctors’ Hippocratic oath: “do no harm.”

War would do harm, great harm, and would solve nothing.

So no, war is not an option. But Shakespeare’s passions still swell within us. We want to “punish” Russia and its headstrong leader for taking what was not theirs, at least not formally, on paper.

Fortunately, our species’ common social evolution has advanced since Shakespeare’s time. We have several centuries of additional history, which serve as object lessons. And we now know, from advances in understanding criminal law, what punishment is for.

We can distinguish Hammurabi’s vengeance, which goes by the name of “retribution” today, from the more pragmatic and less passionate goals of deterrence and incapacitation. If we are to merit our self-awarded name of “Homo sapiens”—wise and rational Man—we should apply all these lessons to Ukraine.

Collective punishment doesn’t work

Insofar as retribution is concerned, collective punishment doesn’t work. Our two world wars proved that. Let’s analyze why.

The last century’s two world wars were the greatest self-imposed catastrophes in human history. Neither was necessary.

Everyone knows that the first “Great War” began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. But no one besides professional historians knows why. The reasons are lost in the mists of imperialism, nationalism, collective passion, and the egotism of rulers big and small. What the Brits called the “great game,” played out on the map of Europe, simply caused tens of millions of young men to disappear, in agonized death or maiming, for no reason that makes any sense today.

World War II may have been necessary, but only because of the victors’ stupidity after World War I. The victors decided that Germany had “started” World War I, although apparently every nation involved expected it and prepared for it, and many leaders thought they could gain by it. So Germany, the clear loser and the putative instigator, had to be punished.

Punish Germany the victorious Allies did. We Yanks were on the right side of this one. Our President Wilson, who had joined the Great War to “make the world safe for democracy,” knew that democracy would not be safe with Europe’s greatest power ostracized, suffering, and resentful. He exhorted, cajoled and begged our European allies not to punish Germany collectively.

But the “experienced” leaders of the European victors did not listen to the ivory-tower Princeton professor from our still-upstart nation. They punished Germany collectively with crushing war reparations, economic isolation and trade sanctions.

The results were tragic. First came the hyperinflation that tortured Germany’s nascent and struggling Weimar democracy. That was the worst economic torture ever imposed deliberately on a modern nation by its neighbors. The result was the rise of Hitler and Nazism, the German aggression that led to World War II, the most terrible war in human history, and the Holocaust.

Woodrow Wilson, who had urged the Allies not the pull the economic trigger, didn’t live long enough to say “I told you so.” Fortunately for him, he didn’t even live long enough to suffer the Great Depression.

How do our sanctions against Iran today differ from what the Allies so stupidly did to Germany? That’s a good question, with a simple answer.

The Allies’ collective punishment of the German people was retroactive. They had “started” the war (in the Allies’ eyes) and had lost it. Without a time machine, there was nothing they could do to change any of that. So there was nothing they could do to avoid the economic torment that their neighbors imposed on them for past transgressions. They could only grow sullen and resentful, and plot revenge.

Today’s sanctions on Iran are not like that. They are not for past transgressions but against feared future plans: Iran’s building a nuclear weapon. They are prospective and contingent.

Iran can stop the sanctions at any time by agreeing to forsake nuclear weapons in a credible and verified way. That’s precisely what the talks now ongoing are all about. The Iran sanctions apply economic pressure toward a realizable goal; the German sanctions were punishment for past acts, with no escape and an emphasis on retribution, aka revenge.

The Code of Hammurabi didn’t work so well in the twentieth century, did it?

Individual punishment can work but requires proof

Our horrible last century has good examples as well as bad. After the terrible consequences of the Allies’ collective punishment of Germany had ended with a second German defeat, the Allies got smarter.

With us Yanks in the lead, and under our Marshall plan, the Allies rebuilt Germany, rather than punishing it. We saved punishment for the individuals responsible: surviving Nazi leaders, at the Nuremberg Trials.

The Nuremberg trials had three salubrious practical effects. First, they put human responsibility where it belonged: on leaders. They spared the underlings and common people, many of whom did what they had to do to survive under intense psychological and economic pressure, if not brute coercive force. (There were German heroes, like Oskar Schindler, but you can’t punish people for not being heroes.)

Second, the Trials distinguished and separated the German people as a whole from their erstwhile pathological leaders. In so doing, they gave the German people time and space to contemplate their past and arrive at the marvelous state of contrition that we see today.

Perhaps no nation in history has ever visited such horror on its neighbors and its own people (mostly Jews) as Nazi Germany did. But no nation in history has ever so frankly acknowledged and deeply regretted its crimes as today’s Germany, with its accurate schoolbooks, its official policies, and its many memorials to Nazi horror.

Neither the Turks with their Armenian Genocide nor the Japanese with their Rape of Nanking and atrocities throughout Asia have come anywhere close to Germany’s level of historical realism and contrition. Nor have we Yanks with our near-genocide of our continent’s native people or our disastrous blunder in Vietnam.

The difference lies not in national peculiarities but in the Nuremberg Trials, which made clear for our entire species—at length and with detailed evidence—just where responsibility lay. As always, it lay with individuals, those whose education, wealth, privilege, training, political skill, power and cunning let them lead others into evil.

Conclusion: the lessons of our common human past

So what can the past and our modern probing legal/social analysis teach us? What can we learn from the Allies’ tragic blunder in collectively punishing the German people? from the success of our Nuremberg Trials? from parsing punishment into its three goals: retribution, deterrence and incapacitation?

There are, in my view, four clear lessons. First, collective punishment doesn’t work. It just makes things worse. We must avoid it at all costs. We must not try to punish Russia or Russians collectively, as the Allies did Germans after World War I. If we do, we will beg history to repeat itself, this time with nuclear weapons.

Our modern parsing of the goals of punishment corroborates this point. You can’t take collective retribution on a whole people, at least not justly, because all are not equally guilty. Local prosecutors know this well; that’s why they all prosecute the “little fish” only as stepping stones to get the “big fish.”

The two other goals or punishment are equally inapplicable to a whole people. You cannot deter people who are not responsible for their leaders’ actions and may have no power to change them. All you can do is make them angry and resentful, like post-first-world-war impoverished Germans. And you cannot incapacitate a whole people without annihilating them. That would be genocide, the ultimate crime that we all want to prevent.

The second lesson from the past is that individual punishment can work, but only if meticulously justified, as at the Nuremberg Trials. The Trials were a legal tour de force, run by a United States Supreme Court Justice, with scrupulous attention to fairness and legal detail, and oceans of evidence.

At their outset, the Germans claimed the Trials were only victors’ “justice.” But when they ended, no one who had watched them could deny that Nazi leaders had committed terrible crimes against humanity, of a kind seldom seen even in ancient times. The Trials proved in excruciating detail how Nazi leaders had deliberately treated prisoners and innocent civilians with unprecedented brutality, against all civilized laws and norms, and how their own personal pathological thinking, decisions and orders had led directly to that treatment.

When the Trials were over, there could be no reasonable doubt about what had happened and who was responsible for it. The Trials themselves, with their scrupulous attention to fairness and detail, became part and parcel of the miracle of German contrition that followed. You can’t regret what you don’t know or believe happened.

We should be very careful in punishing individuals for Crimea’s absorption into Russia without such meticulous preparation and proof. Perhaps Yanukovych’s grotesquely luxurious palaces and the deaths on the Maidan are enough to condemn him alone, as he was in charge. But even his direct orders or complicity in the sniper killings requires proof.

As for lesser villains, such as complicit oligarchs, their responsibility requires much greater proof. Without it, their minions, their partisans, and the people of Russia, Ukraine and Crimea may believe they were framed for extraneous political, economic or commercial reasons. Persecution of business people for political reasons, or for sheer economic land grabs, is not unknown, even in the West.

No one gains from sloppy legal work or sloppy affairs of state. Anyone can make claims without solid proof. That’s what pols do every day, in Russia, in Ukraine, even here at home, and especially in Syria.

We did something more at the Nuremberg Trials. We put villains on trial with scrupulous fairness, mountains of evidence, simultaneous translations into all relevant languages, and years of strenuous effort. That care and effort paid off with the Trial of the Century, which became one of the seminal events in human history.

If we aren’t prepared to take similar care and expend similar effort in sanctioning Russian and Ukranian leaders now, then maybe we should pare down our current sanctions and hold greater sanctions in abeyance as deterrents against greater crimes. So far, no significant bloodshed has resulted from Russia’s absorption of Crimea, as distinguished from Yanukovych’s failed attempt to keep power.

The third lesson of the past is something that our modern tripartite parsing of the goals of punishment doesn’t teach directly: the power of example. Making examples of bad actors is one way our species advances. You can call it deterrence, but that word doesn’t capture the entire value of examples.

Making examples of villains does deter similar bad conduct. But it also does much more. It exhorts us all to do better, not only by punishing villains, but by explaining in detail what they did wrong and how they could and should have done better.

So far, that approach is utterly missing from our discussion of Ukraine. How could we have done better if we had stood in Putin’s shoes? Should we have let an untested government of corrupt and selfish oligarchs, motivated and controlled in part by untested street demonstrators, rule the Russian majority in Crimea and take over the Black Sea Fleet? Would we have trusted such leaders, in the long run, to manage the biggest military force in that inland ocean, the gateway to the fractious Middle East?

It’s one thing to point fingers at Russia for not dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s of international law in Crimea’s referendum and annexation. It’s quite another to explore the probable consequences of alternatives. And wouldn’t it be nice at least to acknowledge that, apart from the snipers on the Maidan (for whom Russia and Putin might bear some responsibility), the whole affair so far has transpired virtually without bloodshed?

The fourth and final lesson of history is that the Code of Hammurabi is obsolete. In the twenty-first century, its consequence and physical manifestation is Syria. Do we really want the rest of our world to be like that?

We cannot make big war in the Nuclear Age, whatever the provocation, because we might extinguish our species, as we almost did in October 1962. We can’t make little war because it doesn’t do any good. Usually, it just makes things worse. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are proving that. So war itself is virtually obsolete, at least insofar as careful, intelligent planners have anything to say about it.

From now on, we humans have to resolve our conflicts peacefully, with negotiation, compromise, political action, economic and political pressure and—very occasionally—quick, decisive action like Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

That is the message of the United Nations, with its veto-hobbled Security Council. That is the message of our sanctions on Iran and our current multiparty talks. That is the message of our acknowledgement, tacitly but universally held, that the best we can do after Russia’s action is to try Yanukovuch for crimes against humanity and sanction any other individual leaders who deserve sanctions.

But who deserves sanctions, for what and how strong? Aye, there’s the rub. If we apply sanctions without careful thought and planning, they may go awry, as they did after World War I. At best they may accomplish nothing.

Putin acted decisively and without prior consultation with his allies and “partners.” But so far adverse consequences have been few. Ukraine (sans Crimea) is still free and struggling for political order and economic independence. There is no civil war and, apart from sniper murders on the Maidan, there has been no significant violence. However awkward and insufficient by international standards it may have been, there was a vote in Crimea.

And there may be some long-term benefits. Crimea is now under majority rule; continued minority rule might have produced civil war, or, at best, continued ethnic tension. The Black Sea Fleet is secure and under the direct control of a nation (Russia) which so far has used it responsibly. There is no risk of separatists, extremists groups or terrorists overrunning an historic center of power and a source of stability at the juncture of three continents. Peace appears in the cards for the Black Sea and perhaps for Ukraine, as long as Russia doesn’t overplay its hand in Ukraine’s East.

All this could not have happened without careful thought, planning and restraint on the part of Russia, Ukraine’s new leaders, and both Ukranian and Russian military forces in the area. If we must sanction individuals, we should devote at least as much thought, planning and restraint to them.

Sanctions are the new moral substitute for war, and shooting from the hip is never a good idea, whatever your weapon. This is one time when we Yanks should be content to have a President who thinks long and hard before acting.

P.S. As we apply and shape sanctions against individual Slavic leaders, we should take care not to confuse the actor with the act. We should bend over backwards not to hold grudges from the Cold War.

What would we do, for example, if France had retained a key military base in, say, Algeria? Suppose that an Islamist insurgency threatened the stability of the surrounding region, which had been settled over many years by French military families, and which had become a bulwark of stability in North Africa. Suppose France arranged a hasty plebiscite and annexed the region of Algeria containing the base, to preserve its power in the region, maintain stability against disorder and protect its own people living there. Would we sanction France’s business and political leaders, including President Hollande?

If not, we should be able to articulate precisely the differences and reasons for sanctioning each Russian leader and oligarch, including Putin. (Yanukovych, a clear local villain, is an entirely different story.) And if we can’t justify each set of sanctions, in detail and with reason, then we shouldn’t apply them. Bashing Russians just because they are Russian and because we spent half a century locked in a Cold-War struggle with them is no better than bashing Germans after World War I. That didn’t turn out so well, did it?

Something New: Rehabilitation

While on the subject (if indirectly) of crime and punishment, a word on rehabilitation is mandatory. Strictly speaking, rehabilitation is not a part of punishment, and law schools don’t teach it as such. But rehabilitating criminals has become an important part of our Yankee criminal justice system because it works.

Criminal-justice experts have discovered that not all criminals are such because they have irredeemably criminal minds. Many become criminals because they grew up in neighborhoods that offer few, if any, alternatives. The hard life on their streets trained them as criminals, most often in the lucrative but dangerous drug trade.

The experts who first noticed this put two and two together. Many prisoners went into crime because their environment pushed and trained them into it. Yet while being deprived of liberty as punishment, they have lots of idle time. So why not use some of that idle time to retrain them, give them a more benign and promising economic future, and raise their life prospects and self-esteem?

That’s rehabilitation. It involves such things as teaching illiterates to read, training inmates in a trade, teaching anger management and conflict resolution without violence, personal and psychological counseling, and for some, even higher education. Every year, some inmates “graduate” from college and from prison at about the same time.

When adequately funded and effectively managed, rehabilitation can lower the criminal recidivism rate and turn “wasted” youth into good citizens. It’s part of the genius of social engineering that once made our nation supreme, and that some day may again.

Could we apply the concept of “rehabilitation” to our relations with Russia? At first glance, the notion seems odd and even condescending. But stay with me.

What makes Russia different from the other major powers? Its history. In the last two centuries, Russia has suffered more—from multiple invasions, revolution and Stalinist terror—than any other major power on Earth.

The result is two unique aspects of Russian culture. First is an almost pathological fear of disorder of any kind. That fear made both Russian leaders and Russia’s people see the tumult on the Maidan completely differently from us Yanks. It’s a key source of misunderstanding between our two cultures.

The second unique aspect of Russian culture is a much higher tolerance for authoritarian government than you find in almost any modern nation, including China. To Russians, authority means order, and order means relief from chaos and unbearable suffering, with which Russians are well acquainted.

Respect and even yearning for authority is as deeply embedded in Russian culture as our Yankee tendency to challenge and test authority is in ours. Our old Vietnam-era Yankee slogan, “Challenge Authority,” could not be more foreign to Russians if it were writ in Sanscrit.

These unique aspects of Russian culture are a source of constant friction with the West. Where we Yanks see freedom fighters on the Maidan and Tahrir Square, Russians see chaos leading to horror. They fear that Ukrainian independence will lead to some strongman like General el-Sisi persecuting Russians in Eastern Ukraine as if they were the Muslim Brotherhood.

When Putin vows to protect ethnic Russians wherever they may be, Russians see a necessary warning not to persecute or mistreat their expatriates. We Yanks see a prelude to the Russian bear becoming a bully again and taking back the Soviet Union’s old vassal states. Each point of view is emotionally driven, with aspects of unrealism. But each contains the seeds of miscalculation and error.

What’s the best antidote? Continuing to work together on common problems in both nations’ interest. Ostracizing and isolating Russia would just make matters worse.

“Rehabilitating” Russia sounds condescending. What we really need to do is to continue to rehabilitate our mutual relationship.

Contrary to our mutual fears and mistrust, that relationship has been growing more, not less, cooperative. Russia let us overfly its territory to support our efforts in Afghanistan, which Russia hopes will help stabilize its Islamic south. Russia even pays the fees for air traffic control. Russia is working hard to rid Syria of chemical weapons, which could end up being used by terrorists against Russia, Israel, or us. Russia is helping us negotiate a deal to stop Iran from getting nuclear-weapons capability and end our Little Cold War with Iran. And Russia has every interest in halting Sunni terrorism, if only by attracting all jihadis to the battlefield that Syria has become and slaughtering them.

Should we let Russia’s fait accompli in Crimea blow all that up? I don’t think so.

Rehabilitating our relationship with this central Eurasian power is a long-term project. There will be progress, and there will be obstacles and setbacks. There will always be signaling of divergent interests, such as Russia’s understandable desire to protect its expatriates, and our desire to see a more independent Ukraine. Sanctions on individuals can be a part of this signaling, but we shouldn’t get carried away with them.

What both sides must do is understand and respect each other’s core interests, avoid hysteria, and continue to work together, through good times and bad. Is there really any alternative?


20 March 2014

Is the Ukraine Crisis Over?

[This is what I hope will be the last—at least for a while—in a series of essays on the fast-moving crisis in Ukraine. For a suggestion for a better kind of diplomacy, click here. For other earlier essays (in inverse chronological order), click here, here, here, here, here, here or here. For a 2009 essay on why NATO has outlived is usefulness vis-a-vis Russia, click here.]

Those who want to know whether the Ukraine crisis still has legs should read Vladimir Putin’s speech on annexing Crimea. Those who understand Russian should watch the speech, in its entirety, so as to assess Putin’s attitude and sincerity from his facial expressions, cadence and the nuances of Russian speech.

Although my Russian is rusty, I did the latter. The speech is fifty minutes long, and Putin spoke more quickly than usual because he had a lot to say. So it took me well over two hours, with instant rewind, to review the whole thing.

The result was worth the effort and the time. I got the message from the horse’s mouth, addressed to his own people, complete with all the nuances of in-person delivery that video can capture. And that speech was, is and will remain one of the seminal utterances of a great-power leader in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Some day Slavic people may liken it to Winston Churchill’s postwar castigation of the Iron Curtain.

Putin was speaking primarily to Russia’s political leadership assembled in the hall before him. His secondary audience was the Russian people. The people of Crimea, who had just voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, came in third. Other nationalities in the Ukraine came fourth. The international audience came dead last.

So Putin was speaking “en famille,” so to speak. Of course he was also conscious of his international audience. This is the same man—and the same Russian “great communicator”—who introduced multi-time-zone telethons into Russian politics in the mid-nineties and recently tried to sway us Yanks on Syria with an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

Russia’s perennial detractors, of which our nation has so many, will point first of all to Putin’s propaganda. He said, for example, that the ultimately successful Maidan demonstrators were nationalists, Fascists, Russophobes and anti-Semites.

That statement is probably literally true. Undoubtedly the Maidan had some representatives of each of those groups present. But to imply that extremists were the soul of the Maidan movement is to misconceive both recent history and Ukraine’s distress. It is also to misconceive the yearning for freedom that has animated popular protests worldwide—protests which Putin dismissed with a single cynical comment: “the Arab Spring became the Arab winter.”

Of those two depressing claims, the second is the most troubling. Putin undoubtedly aimed his name-calling at Russians who don’t think beyond tribal labels and villains of the past. We have lots of similar folk in our own home, and our private for-profit ad writers make careers out of stoking their primal fear and hate. We certainly can’t blame Putin for doing what our own pols do every day, fueled by Citizens United and using a propaganda machine more clever and sophisticated than any that Hitler or Stalin ever possessed.

But we can take gentle amusement from the extent to which rampant overuse has diluted the meaning of “Fascist.” Our own President, the Maidan demonstrators, Western Russophobes and Putin himself can’t all be Fascists, as pols in various venues have oft described them. If I were one of the few remaining true Nazis, I would feel offended and demeaned.

More serious is Putin’s dismissal of the Arab Spring. He has a blind spot in his training and perhaps his character. A silovik and authoritarian to his core, he simply cannot fathom that useful and constructive change can come from the bottom up, from common people.

One of the most important things for us Westerners to understand about Russia is that this is not Putin’s flaw alone. It is a deeply shared feeling throughout Russia’s culture. Russians fear disorder more than any other people because they have suffered more from it, far more.

When we Yanks look down our noses at Russia—as we do far too often—we forget that Magna Carta will be eight centuries old next year. We forget the centuries of senseless imperial and religious wars that forged our culture and Anglo-American democracy. We forget the vast disorders and Hundred Years War that literally lasted centuries.

Most of all, we forget that Russia’s last century was probably the worst for any major power, ever. It started with the bloodiest revolution in human history, which fed right into the most senseless war in modern history (World War I), in which tens of millions of young men died for reasons that no one can understand today and that no one but professional historians can even remember. Stalin’s iron rule followed, with deportation of millions for ethnic reasons alone, and then the gulags and the Terror. Next came Russia’s Great Patriotic War, in which one out of seven Russians perished, and more Russians died in a single city (Leningrad) than all our Yankee troops on two fronts. In addition, most of Russia’s territory was overrun and devastated, and the Terror consequently hardened.

The Cold War followed. Imbued with economic nonsense and anti-Western propaganda, Russia squandered its substance out of raw fear, trying vainly to keep abreast of Western investment and innovation in weapons and defense. We Yanks forget the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the cool and mature judgment of two Russians helped our species survive. We forget Russia’s voluntary and spontaneous abandonment of Communism and dissolution of the Soviet Union.

And so, when Putin speaks about the Russian diaspora, we Yanks listen with little comprehension.

Yet that was a key point of Putin’s speech, and a valid one. Russians, he said, have suffered one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, diaspora in human history.

As a Jew (albeit highly assimilated), I at first took exception to that point. But after thinking about it, I had to agree. In sheers numbers and recency, the Russian diaspora matches any in history. Millions of ethnic Russians are now stranded in the Baltics, Moldova, Ukraine, Central Asia, and Crimea. As Putin so dramatically put it, they went to sleep one day in the Soviet Union and woke up in another country, not their own.

This was a voluntary diaspora. No one forced the Russians to do it. They did it of their own accord. They wanted to end Stalin’s history of coercion, deportation, terror and gulags. They wanted to drop their insane insistence that our entire species adopt a fictional economic theory arising out of history’s bloodiest revolution. They wanted the world to respect them again, not fear and hate them.

It was time for the homeland of Chekov, Dostoyevsky, Mussorgsky, Pavlov, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky to come back to its senses, just as the Germany of Bach, Beethoven, Euler, Heine, Göthe, and Planck eventually threw off its Nazi psychosis.

Early in his rule, Vladimir Putin validated this transformation in a national telethon. He was explaining why the City of Leningrad—the site of the most terrible siege in human history—would once again and evermore be called “St. Petersburg.” Communism, he said, had destroyed Russia’s economy and spirit and would never be coming back. The name St. Petersburg was and is a symbol of that transformation, despite the terrible sacrifice of many heroic Russians under the old Soviet name.

Does Putin now want to take it all back? That’s what many Yanks and some people in the old Soviet vassal states now fear.

But that’s not what Putin said, with every indication of sincerity. In fact, he disclaimed any such ambitions. What he wants is for Russians in the Soviet diaspora to be fairly and equally treated, and respected as local citizens. That’s why he urged that Ukrainian and the language of Crimean Tatars be co-equal official languages in Crimea, along with Russian.

Will he keep his word? Some Yanks think “no.” They say he broke his promise not to invade Crimea.

But Putin said he didn’t “invade” Crimea. At least 25,000 heavily armed Russian military personnel were already there. Russians had a near three-quarters majority of the people in Sevastopol and a decisive majority everywhere in Crimea. There was no invasion, only a political recognition of the facts on the ground, and of the absolute strategic necessity, from Russia’s perspective, of keeping Crimea and its Black Sea Fleet in Russia’s hands.

Whether or not you sympathize with Russia, you have to concede that these arguments make sense. And they make even more sense when you consider that Yanukovych and his goons killed many more people on the Maidan than have fallen from any cause, including accidents, since Russia’s direct involvement in the Ukrainian crisis began.

In the final analysis, Putin is a realist. He knows that dispersed Russians outside of Crimea are minorities wherever they live. He knows—with Syria a prime example—what happens when minorities try to rule by force.

Maybe that’s why he made no military threats to support Russian minorities, whether inside or outside of Ukraine. Maybe that’s why he spoke only of economic, political and judicial action.

Of course Putin wants those governing dispersed Russians to know that the Russian bear has claws. But he didn’t bare his claws during his speech. He first wants to trust his neighbors, near and far, to follow the norms of modern civilization and protect innocent minorities, wherever and whoever they might be.

And why should dispersed Russians expect anything less? Are they not human, too?

And so we come to Putin’s chief complaint. From his perspective, the West has never stopped tightening its military noose around Russia. NATO was born for a single-purpose only: to contain the Soviet Union and stop the spread of Communism.

Now the Soviet Union is no more, and Russians have disclaimed Communism, with Putin himself at the forefront. So why does NATO still exist? Why does it still march relentlessly toward the borders of what is now the Russian Federation?

Well you might ask. The short answer is that countries like Poland and parts of Ukraine still fear the Russian bear and want to cage it. They are the ones who relentlessly seek NATO’s aid and protection. But we Yanks, let alone NATO, aren’t going to fight Russia on or close to its home turf. We certainly aren’t going to replay the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and its close brush with species self-extinction.

And NATO itself hasn’t been able to prevail decisively even in Afghanistan. Who thinks it would prevail easily, if at all, on the endless plains of Russia’s home turf? So who is kidding whom? What good does even a threat of war mean if you don’t intend to enter one and probably couldn’t win it even if you did (unless “winning” means extinguishing our species)? The uselessness of idle imperial dreams cuts both ways.

For Russia, the acme of outmoded Western thinking comes in the so-called missile shield proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic. As I outlined nearly four years ago, this “shield” was ostensibly intended to protect Europe against missiles from Iran. But geography and physics make it useless for shielding most of Europe against missiles from that source. It might stop a few missiles aimed at us Yanks from Russia, but it could not ever hope to stop a full-scale Russian nuclear assault.

So what is the so-called “shield” for? Its only conceivable practical purpose would be to try to stop one or two missiles launched by terrorists or other extremists who somehow managed to capture a Russian missile silo. But it scares the hell out of Russians, who fear our technical innovation and believe that the Cold War balance of terror has kept the peace for 69 years.

Why should we want to scare the hell of out people who have voluntarily dissolved their empire, abandoned their counterfactual economic theories, and now seek to join the global economy? Is the off-chance of iffy protection from an improbable terrorist attack worth alienating one of the world’s great powers, now trying to respect twenty-first century moral and legal norms?

Think I mistake Russians’ mood? Well, listen to Putin himself. At the very outset of his long speech, he opined that the world has become less stable since the Cold War’s bipolar world vanished. Like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, he longs for the “good old days” of supposed moral black and white.

Things were much more stable during the Cold War. You knew whom to hate and fear, and the hate and fear were so strong they obliterated any other considerations. The villains’ identities were stable for decades.

But the price was stasis, not stability. Not only did we come close to species self-extinction in 1962. We held global progress in abeyance while vile tyrants throughout the third world genuflected (and supplied oil to) one cartoon ideology or another. Today’s world of near-universal democratic ferment, which Russians almost uniformly see as “chaos,” is a direct result of that stifling stasis.

Surely our global leaders, including Putin, are smarter and more flexible than that. Surely they can see that perpetual enmity and Manichean dualism are not the path to human progress.

The crisis in Ukraine can be over if both sides will it to be. Putin has disclaimed any intent to invade or annex Eastern Ukraine as long as Russians there are fairly treated. We should lean on Ukraine to make sure they are.

The real problem on the ground is that Ukraine is a mess, economically and politically. There is plenty of blame to go around. Putin tolerated and fostered Yanukovych’s despicable and inept tyranny for far too long. We Yanks have delayed and denied help for Ukraine because (1) we know little about it and (2) our business people and economists, with some reason, think it’s a bad investment.

Putin thinks the solution is a Ukrainian strongman like him. We Yanks think the solution lies in the Maidan demonstrators, a sort of dictatorship of the proletariat, Western style. Neither solution is self-evidently promising.

So what we need is new thinking, flexibility, patience and cooperation. Is there really any other rational choice?

Syria is Russia’s biggest foreign-policy blunder since the Soviet Union dissolved. It’s a hard nut to crack precisely because it’s such a self-evident disaster. Pols everywhere have the tendency to double down on failed policies, especially when they don’t know what else to do.

And lest we Yanks fault Putin, let us recall Lyndon Johnson. He passed our modern civil rights laws, making Obama’s presidency possible. He fought poverty here valiantly and, for a time, effectively. Insofar as his domestic politics went, he could have been one of our greatest presidents. But he also devastated Vietnam and Cambodia and lost 50,000 of us fighting on the wrong side of a civil war for national liberation. It took two successor administrations—and the most ignominious defeat in American history—to wind our senseless part in that sad war down.

So we Yanks have no right to expect the light to dawn on Putin in Syria any quicker than it dawned on Johnson and his successors in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, an offhand remark by Secretary Kerry led, with astounding speed, to an international accord on chemical weapons. By this June that accord should have led to removal or destruction of all of Assad’s chemical weapons. With them will recede the risk that terrorists might capture those awful weapons and use them against Russia, Israel, or us.

If we want a new world, we Yanks must do our part. We must wind down NATO. We must stop treating Russia as the Soviet Union’s ghost, and Putin as a clone of Stalin. Neither view has any substantive merit to it. If we want a new relationship with Russia, we must understand its unique history, its qualms and fears, and our need (as Putin said) to take its core interests into account and respect them.

Russia was never going to let Crimea and its Black Sea Fleet go, or suffer them to take orders from a “government” that is self-evidently unstable and, at best, nascent. Thinking that Russia would is no less day-dreaming than believing that Russia can collect all its diaspora into a new empire without incessant conflict and the risk of hot wars.

In his speech, Putin gave evidence that he understands these realities. Do we?

Reconciliation may sound easy, but it is not. Too many of us Yanks are like John McCain (a real war hero) and Lindsey Graham (who spent his military service in a law office). Whether once heroic or not, both men lack the ability to understand, forgive or forget.

There are many oldsters like them. So truly resetting our relationship with Russia may be a generational thing.

The President has always set his political sights on our younger generation. And rightly so. For them, our disastrous blunder in Vietnam is ancient history. So is the Cold War. They can read anything that Russians write today and translate it easily with Google. They can make friends on social media. For them, the people who were once so dangerous and mysterious are just a mouse-click away. For them, if not for history, the President and his advisors must work with Putin, accept this new reality, and wind down the Cold War for good.

Can they do so? Can they treat the Ukrainian crisis as an opportunity to adjust our policy toward Russia, while at the same time drawing a hard line against further Russian annexation and any naked aggression? Can Europe, with Germany in the lead, do the same?

Of course they all can. What they require is good will and understanding. Most of all, they must know that Putin is an authoritarian with a difference. In his speech Tuesday, he expressed great sympathy for ordinary people in Ukraine and Crimea, for their suffering, their want, and their needs. He did precisely the same for his own Russians during his first term as their president.

To my recollection, Putin never used the first-person singular, as our own Dubya so often did. When he used a personal pronoun, it was always “we,” referring to his own people. So much for David Brooks’ “narcissistic autocrat.” If Putin thinks, with Louis XIV, that “L’etat c’est moi,” he keeps that thought to himself.

Don’t get me wrong. Putin is an authoritarian strongman. Like most Russians, he believes that strength is the antidote to disorder, and that disorder is the next worst thing to Hell. He has no Western conception of how democratic disorder can lead to harmony, and his understanding of markets is tenuous at best.

But he has an overweening interest in avoiding war and bloodshed, and a penchant for resolving conflicts peacefully. He is almost certainly ashamed of what Syria has become under Russia’s and Iran’s tutelage. He wants Russia to become a big player in the global economy but doesn’t know quite how to make that happen. He self-evidently wants our Little Cold War with Iran to end peacefully, and Iran to help Russia stay safe from Sunni jihadists.

So we Yanks have enough interests in common with Russia to work together, on Iran, or terrorism and on fixing Ukraine, as on chemical weapons in Syria. If only we Yanks can stop insisting on having everything our own way, and can focus on common goals and reaching them amicably, much is still possible.


18 March 2014

Eastern Ukraine: One Slip Away from Syria

[This is the latest in a series of essays on the fast-moving crisis in Ukraine. For a suggestion for a better kind of diplomacy, click here. For other earlier essays (in inverse chronological order), click here, here, here, here, here or here. For a 2009 essay on why NATO has outlived is usefulness vis-a-vis Russia, click here.]

Minority rule is not a good thing. It’s not a good thing in our Senate, where it has neutered the world’s supposed sole remaining superpower for over a decade. It’s less of a good thing in Syria, where it has reduced a once stable, secular and nominally modern Arab nation to mass graves and rubble.

Minority rule is not even a good thing when it makes a violent transition to majority rule. Just look at Zimbabwe. It has neutered, badly oppressed and driven away its successful white farmers, who, for all their many faults, tried to bring the country a semblance of modern efficiency. Zimbabwe today is what South Africa would have become without Nelson Mandela.

So when Vladimir Putin hints about a Russian takeover in Eastern Ukraine, he must be stopped. There, not in Crimea, is where the West and China should draw the line.

Why so? Because Russians are a minority in Eastern Ukraine, while they are a clear and dominant majority in Crimea. They are nearly three-quarters in Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Yet not a single recognized region in Eastern Ukraine has a majority of Russians, although they are close in two of eight.

Sunday’s referendum in Crimea was, of course, a farce. It gave voters two options only: (1) for Crimea to become an independent nation, like the Lone Star State not long after the Alamo, or (2) for Crimea to become part of Russia. There was no obvious third option: to remain part of Ukraine, whether or not with greater autonomy.

In other words, the referendum was an uncontrolled experiment, a travesty. It was an exercise in Russian propaganda and duress, not democracy.

But the electoral farce doesn’t really matter. Crimea’s demography is clear: Russians have a majority there, and a dominant majority in the big cities.

Furthermore, many of the Russians who live in Crimea are from Russian military families and their progeny. Like military families everywhere, they don’t think much beyond flag and language. In the majority, and given a chance to govern themselves, they will be a force for stability. Forced to suffer what they view as “foreign” minority rule, they could quickly turn Crimea into Syria.

But in Eastern Ukraine, the shoe is on the other foot. Russians, not Ukrainians, are the minority. For Russia to try to force Ukrainians there to suffer minority Russian rule would be nothing less than bald imperialism from the bloody last century. That approach could well produce a Slavic Syria. So Eastern Ukraine is where the West should draw the line.

Of course the line must include credible threats of massive, crippling general sanctions. But sanctions must not be all.

The West and China must also try to act as neutral brokers. They must lean on Ukraine’s new leaders to give Eastern Ukraine a suitable amount of autonomy, with substantial accommodation to Russian speakers where they are a substantial minority. The world must lean on Ukraine’s untested leaders just as hard as our President and John Kerry are leaning on Netanyahu to stop the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Global markets rebounded a bit yesterday, apparently thinking that the danger has passed. Not so. Russia’s absorption of Crimea was practically inevitable. Demographics made it so.

But the demographics and the politics of Eastern Ukraine are as different from those in Crimea as day from night. There is nothing inevitable about Russian absorption of Eastern Ukraine—at least nothing more inevitable than the Syrian people’s acceptance of continuing tyranny by Assad’s minority Alawites.

So Eastern Ukraine is a test that the West and China must not fail.

Angela Merkel is a friend of Russia and a brilliant leader. She has made a political miracle of her own: ridding Germany of the last vestiges of its Nazi past and completing its conversion into an appropriately contrite, rational and admirable nation.

So when she tells us that she thinks Vladimir Putin is living in his own little world, we all must listen up. We must get his, his advisers’ and his people’s attention now. We must jog Putin out of his imperial daydreams. Or else we will endorse a bloodbath and a return to the bloody last century in a critical part of Europe.

The West—indeed, the entire world, including China—must speak with one voice. Now is the time to pull out all the stops, with credible threats of crippling sanctions and hard bargaining with Ukraine’s untested leadership, using all the sticks and carrots available. Eastern Ukraine is worth bargaining hard for, so that NATO, Europe and even China won’t have to fight for it (or to face the consequences of its unwilling absorption) later. One Syria caused by catastrophic Russian foreign-policy blunders is enough.


12 March 2014

Crimea: the Slippery-Slope Fallacy

[This is the latest in a series of essays on the fast-moving crisis in Ukraine. For a suggestion for a better kind of diplomacy, click here. For the earlier ones (in inverse chronological order), click here, here, here, here or here. For a 2009 essay on why NATO has outlived is usefulness vis-a-vis Russia, click here.]

Sometimes even the PBS News Hour falls down. On Tuesday, it fell prey to anti-Russian propaganda.

Not only that. Although PBS usually takes great care to present both sides of every issue, in this instance both guests took the same line.

Neither guest was a well-recognized American expert on Russia. Both aired what, in my view, are two simplistic fallacies about Russia.

The first I call the “slippery-slope” fallacy. It holds that, if Crimea becomes part of Russia again, so will the Baltics, Moldova, Belarus and perhaps even other fragments of the former Soviet Union having substantial Russian minorities. More immediately, this fallacy holds, so will Eastern Ukraine, parts of which now lean toward Russia.

The second fallacy is more subtle. It holds that Russia is purposefully destabilizing countries in its “near abroad” in the hope of drawing them into its orbit. In this view, Russia is using a strategy as old as Caesar: divide, weaken and conquer. The only difference is that Russia is trying to do so without overt war, through economic and political pressure, implied or open military threats, and propaganda.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan sagely pointed out, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. When opinions are based on inaccurate facts, or when they ignore the most salient facts, they cross the line from rational argument into propaganda.

What these two guests failed to recognize is that, among all these supposedly vulnerable lands—all now legally and politically foreign to Russia—Crimea is unique. It is so in three ways.

First, Crimea is the only legally recognized province or region in which Russian speakers have a clear majority. In Sevastopol—the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet—that majority is close the three-quarters. In Crimea as a whole, it’s somewhere between half and two-thirds. Not a single one of the now-recognized regions of Eastern Ukraine has a Russian-majority population.

Thus, if self-determination means majority rule (which it does to nearly all of us), there is and should be no rational fear that Eastern Ukraine will split off and become part of Russia or a separate Crimea. If Crimea splits off and rejects Ukrainian rule, individual Russians living in Eastern Ukraine will have the chance to move there. But they won’t have the chance to convert Eastern Ukraine into a Russian province without a real coup and perhaps a real civil war. Minority rule doesn’t work well, as in Syria and in our Senate.

Second, Crimea and its nominal capital Sevastopol have been settled, over the centuries, by Russian military families. Like military families everywhere, the Russians in Crimea are authoritarian, conservative and inflexible. They want to be part of Russia because they are Russian and speak Russian. They don’t think much beyond tribalism and military loyalty.

The best analogy here at home is San Diego. Like Sevastopol, it has a huge naval base. Like Sevastopol, it is populated largely by conservative military families and their progeny, although that may be changing. Like Sevastopol, San Diego has been a linchpin of military power at an important border. It has helped keep our long southern border with Mexico stable and peaceful since Pancho Villa crossed it briefly in 1916.

Do you think we would let San Diego go just because a substantial minority of legal Hispanic immigrants moved in and grew organically? even a majority? Of course not. That’s precisely how Putin and most Russians view Sevastopol and (to a lesser extent) Crimea.

The third aspect of Crimea’s uniqueness relates to the second. It has a long and bloody relationship to Russia. Ukraine’s relationship with Russia goes back over half a millennium; in some respects Ukraine is Mother Russia’s mother country. Crimea’s relationship with Russia goes back centuries; it has been Russia’s bulwark against the perpetual tribalism and insanity that is the Middle East.

With Europe at peace and the Middle East in chaos and getting worse, control of Sevastopol and Crimea are vital strategic interests of Russia’s. Russia has no such vital strategic interest in the Baltics, Moldova, Belarus or even Eastern Ukraine.

As for Russia purposefully destabilizing its near-abroad, that fallacy is plausible. In its Soviet guise, Russia made atrocious blunders in dealing with neighbors. In the early twentieth century, Stalin treated Poland and Ukraine so horribly that local populations later welcomed the Nazi blitzkrieg and fought against the Communists. They did so until they discovered that the Nazis were even worse and considered them all subhuman, just as the Nazis did Jews.

We Yanks have peaceful, friendly neighbors: Canada and Mexico. We do because we believe that strong, independent, democratic nations make better neighbors than weak, sullen, restive and unstable vassal states. There are no North Koreas, Syrias, or Zimbabwes in our hemisphere.

Is Russia learning that lesson? Possibly. The jury is still out.

But however much Russia may be learning from its last century’s absolutely catastrophic policy toward neighbors, two things are clear. First, Russia has no strategic interest, anywhere in its “near abroad,” like its strategic interest in Sevastopol and Crimea. Second, if Russia tried to annex any other region, including Eastern Ukraine, it would encounter far more resistance, both locally and internationally, than in Crimea.

So the cost-benefit analysis for other annexations is simply unfavorable to Russia. However much Putin may dream of restoring some small parts of the former Soviet Union’s territory, he is a rational man.

So what does all this mean for Western policy? It means we should keep our diplomatic and sanction powder dry.

This is not the time to apply full-bore sanctions. If we do, they will only fail, convincing Russians and the world that the West is weak. With strategic interests as strong as those in Crimea, Russia will call our bluff, and we will lose. We should save our big economic guns for the unlikely event of any additional attempts to expand Russia.

This does not mean no sanctions at all. We should certainly deny visas to, and freeze the foreign bank accounts of, Yanukovych and his cronies, as well as any oligarchs too slow to see the writing on the wall.

Yanukovych was an utterly despicable leader—corrupt, despotic, dismissive of his people, and wallowing in medieval luxury. Even Putin despises him, according to The Economist. Who wouldn’t?

The international community should hold Yanukovych personally responsible for making a mess of Ukraine and stealing its substance. And bank freezes should give Ukraine’s people a chance of getting their stolen money back.

But the international community should not isolate Russia, whatever becomes of Crimea. We did that with the Kaiser’s Germany after World War I, with catastrophic results.

We should keep our big sanctions in reserve. We should let the Russians know that we’re doing so, and that we intend to use them to discourage any further Russian expansionism, whether in Eastern Ukraine or beyond.

Knowing where to draw the line is vital in both diplomacy and war. If we draw it at Crimea, we will lose. We should draw it later, and recognize now that Crimea’s fate is virtually accomplis.

If we save big sanctions for a time when they are unambiguously necessary, we should win. For then we will have unambiguous right on our side and the complete and enthusiastic support of the entire global community.

P.S. There is an additional reason why we should not apply big sanctions now: Vietnam. Remember Robert S. McNamara’s “domino theory“? It held that if South Vietnam fell to the then Communists, so would all of Southeast Asia. It turned out to be nothing more than a paranoid fantasy, as every real expert on Vietnam and China had warned at the time.

As a result of that horrendous blunder, over 50,000 Americans died needlessly, along with countless Vietnamese and Cambodians. In addition, we poisoned huge swaths of Vietnam and Cambodia with mines and Agent Orange, which are still harming innocent people today.

That was not our finest hour.

So we should not make a similar blunder in Eastern Europe, even with diplomacy alone. Each nation and district of that huge region is unique, as is Crimea.

We should treat each case by case, on its facts, while making clear to Russia that further attempts to expand in contravention of local desires will have much more serious consequences. The nation that put men on the Moon, invented atomic weapons and energy, and gave the world the Internet has to be smart enough not to be spooked by paranoid fantasies.

Footnote 1: As noted in an earlier post, The Economist (March 1st through 7th, page 22) has published a helpful demographic map of ethnic proportions in all of Ukraine’s regions, except for Odessa. The facts stated in this essay derive from that map.

Footnote 2: From The Economist, March 1, 2014: “Mr Putin lost a lot of face when Mr Yanukovych was toppled; he despised the man, but placed great store in having a compliant Ukraine.”

Is Putin a Bad Judge of Character?

On this blog, I have made no secret of my general admiration for Vladimir Putin, despite his many warts. In my view he is the most effective Russian leader since Peter the Great. If I were Russian, I might resent his heavy hand but undoubtedly would support him, unless his heavy hand had touched me or my family personally.

That indeed is what most Russians appear to be doing. The vast majority of Russians appears to have gained, not suffered, under Putin. So they support him, whatever abstract misgivings they may have about authoritarian rule and the weakness of democracy and human rights in Russia. Compared to Stalin and Stalin’s successors—except perhaps for Khrushchev, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin—Putin has been a godsend to Russians.

We Yanks must recognize these facts if we ever hope to understand Russia and Russians.

But that’s just inside Russia. Put knows Russia well. He understands his culture and his people, far better than any foreigners. He knows from Russia’s history and his own long experience in the KGB that things could get out of hand in Russia, quickly, without strong and smart leadership.

But Putin’s record abroad, including Russia’s “near abroad,” shows none of the stunning success of his record in Russia.

Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia hasn’t had much of a foreign policy, besides letting the vassal states go and collecting their nuclear weapons. It didn’t need one, and it didn’t have time for one. It was too busy remaking Russia in the image of a modern nation.

Fortunately for Russia, no foreign power took advantage of the Soviet Union’s collapse or Russia’s subsequent navel gazing during this vulnerable time. So Russia could, and did, concentrate on reforming its economy, destroyed by Communism, and reconnecting with the rest of the world.

Now Russia is trying to develop a foreign policy for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse. So far, it hasn’t been very successful.

In fact, its record on big issues is zero for two. It has utterly destroyed a country, Syria, which it hoped to keep stable and save from civil war. And it has all but lost a “near abroad” neighbor, Ukraine, by supporting an inept, despotic and corrupt tyrant (Yanukovych), whom all Ukrainians and many Russians (including Putin himself) despised. Russia is now trying to recover from its second foreign-policy disaster in five years by annexing Crimea, a key historic and current strategic interest.

What does this say about Putin? It says he is nowhere near as smart about the world outside Russia’s borders as he is about Russia itself. His choices of foreign leaders to ally Russia with have been not just execrable, but abysmal. A silovik himself, Putin tends to support what he views as “strong” leaders abroad, apparently without considering whether they have even a fraction of his own brains and political talent.

What’s strong and effective in foreign lands is apparently a complete mystery to both Putin and the apparatus (if any) upon which he depends for advice. And so we have the Ukrainian “crisis.”

The Chinese word for “crisis” contains the characters for both “danger” and “opportunity.” So far, the West has focused on danger, including the risk of Russia trying to push Europe and its former empire down a slippery slope.

But Putin is a smart man. He has to know how badly his foreign policy has failed so far. His move to annex Crimea is an act of desperation, an attempt to salvage something from an utterly failed policy.

That’s why he’s willing to risk sanctions and even war—not to mention unwinding all the peaceful integration with the West he has achieved under his leadership—just to maintain Russia’s key strategic interest in Sevastopol, Crimea and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. He can’t be happy with or proud of this result, let alone its humanity.

To say this state of affairs offers a diplomatic opportunity would be an understatement. But exploiting it would require diplomacy, on the part of the West, much more subtle than anything we have seen so far. It would require, first of all, some sympathy for Russia’s self-inflicted wounds, including making Syria a global magnet for all the Sunni terrorists that Russia fears most. (Recall Beslan and the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow.)

But right now, the West is in high dudgeon. It’s in no mood for sympathy or helpful advice. It’s shocked, shocked to find that Russia is not going to suffer its Black Sea Fleet to live surrounded by (and presumably supplied by) a hostile nation—hostile because Russia once again has mistreated Ukraine, although not as badly as Stalin mistreated it a century ago.

What Russia needs now (although Putin may not know it) is some sympathy and good advice from the rest of the world. It needs foreigners to understand its plight and help provide solutions, not merely enmity.

Can the rest of the world dig deep into its emotional strength and provide that advice and sympathy? Or will it just lapse back into another Cold War, which may some day become a hot one?

The future of our species may or may not depend upon the answer, as it did in October 1962. But the immediate future of our global markets and the happiness of our children, both inside and outside Russia, almost certainly will.