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Secretary Kerry: Nice Try

Secretary of State John Kerry's effort to bring the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off to another level is clearly failing, if it has not already failed. So what's next? Some weary but knowledgable observers offer their thoughts. I read them to say in general: time for the United States to sign off.

Tom Friedman at the NYTimes: "The truth is Kerry’s mission is less an act of strategy and more an act of deep friendship. It is America trying to save Israel from trends that will inevitably undermine it as a Jewish and democratic state. But Kerry is the last of an old guard. Those in the Obama administration who think he is on a suicide mission reflect the new U.S. attitude toward the region. And those in Israel who denounce him as a nuisance reflect the new Israel."

Henry Siegman at Haaretz:  America has been seen by the entire international community as “owning” the peace process, not because its statesmen are believed to be wiser than all others, but because it enjoys leverage with Israel that uniquely enables it to influence the Jewish state’s policies.....[I]t is the consequence of the many decades of unprecedented U.S. generosity towards the Jewish state in the form of virtually unlimited military and economic assistance.... It has long been assumed that a point would surely come when Washington would use its long-accumulated leverage to inform Israel’s government that it could no longer fend off international criticism of Israel’s occupation without incurring serious damage to its own credibility and national interests. It was believed that when the U.S. reaches that point, Israel would have no choice but to withdraw from the West Bank to the pre-1967 lines, subject to minor mutual border swaps and appropriate security guarantees....But that moment of truth never came, and no one believes any longer it ever will.

Paul Pillar at National Interest: Reviews "What to Do After Peace Process Failure."

Abducted in Cameroon

Sr. Gilberte Bussiere; photo courtesy Congrégation Notre-Dame

Two Italian priests and a Canadian nun were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in Cameroon on April 5. The radical Islamist group Boko Haram from Nigeria is suspected. I don’t remember how I came across the story. Did I read it? Was it on the radio? But I know it registered. These were Catholic missionaries. Who were they? The news story didn’t say.

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Putin: Why Did He? UPDATE: And why won't he.

Putin's motives and actions have been cloaked in a fog of political confusion and media alarum. Here is a piece, the first I've seen, that makes some sense about what has happened in the Crimea.

One item: "Safeguarding this maritime muscle [navy base in Crimea] may well have been one reason President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent armed forces to seize Crimea. But is it possible that the Sevastopol base is just the most concrete manifestation of Russia’s deep interests in Ukraine that the United States and its NATO allies either ignored or forgot as they tried to bind it more tightly with the West?"  NYTimes.

Have you seen stories that throw light on Ukraine, Russia, etc?

UPDATE: Here is William Pfaff (corrected link) in CWL on why Putin has gone as far as he will go. Too Sanguine?

Counter-typical thinking: Russia-Iran Division

Now that Russia has become enemy numero uno again, suspcion has fallen on their attitude toward Iran and the P5+1 negotiations to prevent Iran building nuclear weapons. But why would Russia, right next door to Iran (closer than Israel), want its islamic near-neighbor to have such weapons? Doesn't make sense.

Paul Pillar makes that obvious point. He goes on to speculate that Russia's hint that it might ratchet down its sanctions participation against Iran and begin trading could help bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

His argument: "Actually, some opening up of commerce with Iran, whether at the initiative of the Russians or of someone else, would probably help the negotiations....What is most needed now to sustain Iranian cooperation and seriousness is not still more sanctions; if that were true we would have seen results long ago. What is needed more is to persuade Iranians who matter...that all those sanctions really were for the declared purpose of eliciting Iranian agreement to arrangements that preclude an Iranian nuclear weapon. That is needed because the Iranians have been given much reason to be skeptical about whether that is the true purpose of the sanctions. And it is needed because, after the Iranians made major concessions in the preliminary agreement reached last November in return for only meager sanctions relief, they are still waiting for proof that their cooperation is buying the economic relief they seek."

In other words, the Iranians have to be convinced that the sanctions are not finally for the purpose of regime change (the goal of some U.S. policy makers and congress men/women).

"Grass is Greener" conundrum; more conundrum

While there is still a lot of hand-wringing in DC about Crimea becoming part of Russia, we might consider this story in the NYTimes about the consequences of joining Russia. South Ossetia signed up in 2008 after a scuffle between Russia and Georgia; now a certain amount of seller's remorse has emerged, at least economically.

Even if the Times story suggests a bout of schadenfreude, the outcome may be of interest to the Crimeans. "These days South Ossetia’s economy is entirely dependent on budgetary funds from Russia. Unemployment is high, and so are prices, since goods must now be shuttled in through the tunnel, long and thin like a drinking straw, that cuts through the Caucasus ridge from Russia. Its political system is controlled by elites loyal to Moscow, suddenly wealthy enough to drive glossy black cars, though many roads are pitted or unpaved."

William Pfaff speaks: Right here at Commonweal, a balanced and brief assessment of what Putin is NOT likely to do.

UPDATES: Leadership is a major challenge for Ukraine as it attempts to move ahead. The heroine of the moment, Yulia Tymoshenko, recently released from jail is likely to be a candidate in the coming elections. This profile shows why many Ukrainians who hope for change might hesitate to re-elect her though as Putin has said, "She's the only man in Ukraine." He should know!

A Round-Up of what the EU missed in the run-up to the Ukraine conundrum. Detailed but succinct analysis; some helpful maps. Ukrainian Tumult Highlights EU's Past Missteps and Future Dangers.

A Kathleen Parker interview with Nikita Kruschev's (he gave Ukraine the Crimea) great-great grandaughter; it's about Putin and what he did and is likely to do (or not). HT: Jim Jenkins

Tourist season in Crimea

The ATMs in Crimea have run out of cash and local banks are restricting withdrawals to prevent a run. Also, the hotels and other tourist attractions are having serious cancellations. No doubt, the Russians could take up the slack in this vacation spot for Czars and Czarinas, etc. But will they? It puts you in mind of short term, small consequences that politically excited citizens might not think about when carrying out a revolution.  NYTimes (March 18).

AND HERE: Great Reporting. C.J. Chivers the NYTimes battlefield guy has gone to Kharive in eastern Ukraine where he reports on a demonstration and "confrontation" between proponents and opponents of the interim government in Kiev, "The Curtain Goes Up and the Clash Begins." He captures the choreography of staged events that no doubt have some political resonance. Nonetheless his story suggests that no one wants things to get out of hand. This seems to be a ballet staged for the benefit of Russian TV, but maybe they're just having fun.  Chivers is probably a Russian-speaker and captures the rhythm of events and has some good quotes.

As a frequent critic of the NYTimes (every day I am cancelling the subscription, and every day I don't), I applaud the resources they are putting into their coverage in Ukraine, Russia, Crimea, etc. The photo in the Chiver's story is attributed to Tyler Hicks, who we will all remember from his horrific and heroic Iraq photos.

Nate Silver weighs in on the Crimea vote

Fans will be delighted to know that 538 is back up and running. Leading off is an assessment of what the citizens of the Crimea may really have thought: an interview with leading pollsters on polling in the Crimea and Ukraine. Headline: "Many Signs Pointed to Crimea Independence Vote--But Polls Didn't"

Ukraine: Some Politics

Confusion over the politics behind the opposition in Kiev is gradually clearing. This profile of a rightist group leader underlines the problem of political maturity--or as some of the quotes suggest political immaturity. It is interesting and instructive to watch the NYTimes reporters on the scene catching up with the blogosphere and providing a clearer picture of the situation, though it is still not the whole picture. "Front and Center in Ukraine Race, A Leader of the Far Right."

Yes, there is also thuggish behavior (and worse than thuggish) in Sevastopol, Crimea. The Washington Post has this story, including the disappearance of those opposed to a union with Russia.

Ukraine: 3/10

Francis will probably say something newsworthy again soon, but in the meantime, here is more ruminations on the situation in Ukraine.

In an interview with McClatchy DC, former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, just returned to the U.S. says: Putin is "a shrewd leader who wants to show the world a modern, new Russia but too often operates out of what the ambassador called an 'exaggerated' sense of U.S. power in the world." Putin sees the US as “fomenting instability and revolution in the Middle East, in Russia and, now, Ukraine.” (Side question: is it prudent to change ambassadors in the middle of a crisis?)

C.J. Chivers in Kiev (NYTimes) talks to locals about people missing in the aftermath of the protests. Some 600 were reported missing; many have now been found; but a couple of hundred have not. Kievians tell Chivers that in the midst of the chaos there may have been Russian agents/troops involved in rounding up people. This goes along with stories about men breaking up pro-Kiev demonstrations in other parts of Ukraine. (Fact? Fiction? Paranoia?)

At Foreign Policy, Leon Aron, argues that foreign adventures keep Putin's approval ratings up when everything else is in a downward direction. "As the economy staggers along at 1.5 percent growth, as capital flees the country at a record pace, and even as nearly half of Russians agree that the ruling "United Russia" party is the 'party of thieves and swindlers,' Putin can still point to his wins on the world stage -- from saving Syria to shielding Iran from U.N. sanctions after 2010 to, more generally, returning Russia to its former position as a power that counts, one that happily wields its U.N. Security Council veto -- to convince his compatriots that the motherland is in good hands." Hmmm! Sounds vaugely familiar.

International New York Times: More on the anti-Semitism issue in the Ukraine-Russia stand-off. (File in use and abuse thereof.)

More Ukraine

Some follow-up stories on Ukraine, Putin, the snipers, and anti-Semitism.

Who were the snipers in Maiden that provoked the outrage that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovich? At first, rumors were Ukrainian intelligence services, then it was elements of the Opposition wanting to provoke more outrage, and now?  The Russians, of course.  Here: an AP report from Haaretz.

Why did Putin do this: Stephen Lee Meyer of the NYTimes, writing from Moscow, has a story suggesting that this was an ad hoc decision born of Putin's anger at Western interference in Ukraine. It is suggestive that Meyer seems to have gotten the story from leakers in the Kremlin and business world who may not be happy about how things are turning out.

Here is James Stewart on the NYT Business Pages "Why Russia Cannot Afford Another Cold War," offering an optimistic assessment of why Putin's plan will not work: Why? Russian capitalism. Too optimistic?

Anti-semitism? The Jewish Daily Forward, here in NYC, has an account.

And the Tatars? 300,000 live in the Crimea and form 15 percent of the population. They do not want to be joined to Russia. The New Yorker has this account.

Pope's trip to Israel canceled? Or not?

The small but dedicated world of Jewish-Christian relations is busy this morning trying to figure out what's going on. The Times of Israel reported yesterday that the Pope's trip to Israel has been canceled due to a labor dispute.

A source at the [foreign] ministry confirmed to The Times of Israel on Thursday that the pontiff’s trip was cancelled because Foreign Ministry workers are currently on strike and are unable to make the necessary arrangements for the high-profile visit.

The cancellation is likely to cause “large, measurable economic damage, with all the lost tourist revenue that would have accompanied the visit,” the source said.

The strike within Israel's diplomatic service would also endanger a visit from British PM David Cameron.

But a few hours ago, the Jerusalem Post countered yesterday's news:

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The fog of being well-informed about Ukraine

The sniper shootings in Kiev's Maiden Square led to charges that President Yanukovich had ordered the killings. Putin dened the charges on behalf of Yanukovich. Now a YouTube Video has the Foreign Minister of Estonia telling Catherine Ashton of the EU that the snipers shot both the police and the opposition. What to conclude? The medical doctor who was the source of the FM's story denies it; she attended the wounded and does not know who shot them. The YouTube video has gone viral.

In the meantime, our own media asks, "Who in D.C. is to blame for Ukraine?"

  • Obama? He let Assad Syria cross a red line! 
  • GWBush? He invaded Iraq!
  • Lindsay Graham: "It all started with Benghazi." Or when the South lost the Civil War.
  • John McCain accused the Intelligence Services but attacked SOD Chuck Hagel who happened to be sitting there trying to testify about defense cuts.
  • Paul Ryan declared it was Putin.

In Kiev, C.J. Chivers, the NYTimes reporter who knows about Kalashnikovs and men at war interviewed the Opposition groups still occupying  Maidan in Kiev, including members of the Right Sector (often described as ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic). According to their pr guy: "The Right Sector hoped to win enough votes in elections in May to become a formal party. Until then, he said, its ranks would remain on the square. He also said that the group was wary that Russia could portray any further actions by its members as the work of fascists, so its leaders forbade members from traveling to Ukraine’s east." 

Those fascists? Trying to conceal their real goals!!

There is Henry Kissinger sounding sensible (good old Henry!): "We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction. Russia and the West, and least of all the various factions in Ukraine, have not acted on this principle. Each has made the situation worse. Russia would not be able to impose a military solution without isolating itself at a time when many of its borders are already precarious. For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one." Washington Post.

Ukraine: More! AND MORE!

For those of you following events here are some more (and other) comments/views, etc.

Francophones: Le Monde "The Ukraine Crisis in Five Minutes," a short history ending in the current crisis. My French is fading, but I could make it out.

David Ignatius in the Wash Post: "Putin's error in Ukraine Is the Kind that Leads to Disaster."

Dana Milbank in WP offers a vigorous riposte to Obama's critics ending in a mild defense of the president.

Ann Olivier forwards this: Time, "How Putin's Ukraine Invasion Is Already Losing in Ukraine."

Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO  (1993-98): Nato, Russia, and Ukraine.

Chancellor Angela Merkel: She may be the key to a stand-down. NYTimes, March 4

MORE: The British take: Do the U.S. and the EU know what they're doing?

Can of Worms?

In the Ukraine-Russia stand-off, the word “fascist” is increasingly used to describe the opposing force. Russians are calling the Kiev forces “fascists”(and anti-Semites). While some in Eastern Ukraine have characterized the Russian “tourists” infiltrating their cities as “fascists.” It is a derogatory word invoking the history of Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet Union’s control of Eastern Europe down to 1990-91. The word may carry emotional clout in the struggle that’s now going on, but does it throw any light on the character of those forces.

Philosophers, historians, linguists, newspaper readers, liberals, fascists, and communists, what do you say?

Here is Wiki’s summary (which it declares in need of further work):

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History not only bites

You might say it also regurgitates. All of us following events in Ukraine (including Crimea) and surroundings  now know far more about its georgraphy, history, languages, etc., than we did a week ago. We may not know all that much about how matters have come to this pass, but it has a certain familiarity.

The U.S. media is big on the events of recent days and, in some cases, the perfidy of Vladmir Putin. But nothing's simple, including Ukraine. This post by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, (19887-1991) Jack Matlock steps back from the fray, offering a cool assessment of what is going on. Here is his take on Obama's "you will pay a price."

"Obama’s 'warning' to Putin was ill-advised. Whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment—it was a failure to understand human psychology—unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe."  Matlock's whole post is here.

In the same vein, news that SOS John Kerry will go to Kiev seems ill-advised. A drawback to big shows of support by the U.S. is that it encourages people to do provactive things (case in point, the Syrian Opposition when Obama said Assad must go), and then we pull back. 

Here is Professor Stephen F. Cohen, another Russian expert, on U.S. media coverage. 

Professor Charles King of Georgetown: "The Crimean affair is a grand experiment in Mr.

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History Bites

Events over several decades in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans remind us that upheavals in the present looking to the future also summon the past. Ukraine is a case in point. 

A reminder of its past is captured in the phrase, "fascist riffraff," shouted by Russian-speaking Ukrainans against the Ukrainian-speaking groups now in charge in Kiev. It summons the Russian memory that the parents and grandparents of the current protesters fought with the Germans against Russia in WWII. Putin and Company's charges of terrorism and extreme nationalistism refer to this  history. As prior dotCommonweal posts have noted Ukraine has been part of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Luthuania as well as Russia. It is a borderland as the geo-politicians like to point out. It is also Bloodlands as historian Timothy Synder called it in a history that examines the war between Hitler and Stalin; both engaged in the mass killings of Ukrainians and other inhabitants of the borderlands before and during the war.

In the meantime, here is a brief assessment of the dangers all around: New Yorker

Letter from Ukraine.

Yesterday, the New York Times published a letter from Myroslav Marynovych, vice rector of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, in response to this disturbing report--one of many about the ongoing crisis there. Marynovych has written a longer open letter titled, "What Can Ukraine Expect from the West Now?" Here it is, in full:

I write to you as a former prisoner of conscience of the Brezhnev era. All other titles are rapidly losing sense in the light of the bleeding Ukrainian Maidan [the central Independence Square].

All my life I admired Western civilization as the realm of values. Now I am close to rephrasing Byron’s words: “Frailty, thy name is Europe!” The strength of bitterness here is matched by the strength of our love for Europe.

If it still concerns anybody in decision-making circles, I may answer the question in the title.

First and foremost, stop “expressing deep concern”. All protestors on the Maidan have an allergy to this by now in these circumstances senseless phrase, while all gangsters in the Ukrainian governmental gang enjoy mocking the helplessness of the EU.

Take sanctions. Don’t waste time in searching for their Achilles’ heel: it is the money deposited in your banks. Execute your own laws and stop money laundering. The Europe we want to be part of can never degrade the absolute value of human lives in favor of an absolute importance of money.

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New stories on the homepage

Two new stories to highlight on our homepage. First, in "Botched Arguments," the editors comment on political gestures and the pro-life cause, in light of a recent New Yorker article that

makes the case that desperate women will seek abortions regardless of the dangers, and that restricting access to the procedure only guarantees their further victimization. This has long been the argument for keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” If the prolife movement is going to respond to it persuasively, it will have to convince Americans that its concern for the women involved in abortion is as great as its compassion for the unborn. As Peter Steinfels wrote in these pages (“Beyond the Stalemate”), the movement needs to shift more of its energies from partisan gestures and all-or-nothing legal gambits to the tasks of persuasion and witness. Gestures like the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” will change no one’s mind—and are not intended to. Neither do they protect the unborn—and they are not expected to.

Read the whole thing here.

And, in "Secularists for Christmas!," Albert Wu discusses the rise of groups in France like Résistance Républicaine that are wielding an old notion of "secularism" (laïcité) in a new way:

[T]hese groups employ the term as a form of aggressive anti-Islamic politics. They take pride in their contempt: the Résistance Républicaine website proclaims, “Islamophobia is not a crime…. It’s legitimate defiance,” and, “I’m an Islamophobe and I’m proud.” At [a] December demonstration, marchers switched seamlessly from chanting “Hands off Christmas” to “Islamists, fascists, killers.”

It might be easy to dismiss this hyperbolic rhetoric as limited to fringe groups. A routine demonstration against unemployment and inequality earlier in December attracted four thousand (about four times as many people as the Résistance Républicaine rally drew). An antigay marriage protest in May brought out nearly a hundred fifty thousand. But defining laïcité in a way that preserves France’s Christian identity is far from a marginal idea. It is also taught to new immigrants at a “day of civic formation,” a full-day class on French law, history, culture, and “Republican values.” Attendance is mandatory for all who wish to obtain a long-stay visa. Truancy can result in the rejection of future visa applications.

Read it all here.

Israel gets mad (at Kerry) and others

As Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to present the U.S. framework for two-states in Israel and the Occupied Territories, the rhetoric is heating up. And so is the politics. There is a rich trove of news and opinions this week-end some of it focused on the impact of BDS on Israel and on the Israeli government's reaction; some of it focused on U.S.-Israeli Relations.

PM Netanyahu and Israeli cabinet members: "strongly criticized groups who are threatening a boycott of Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians. Their remarks were a sharp retort to Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned a day earlier that the risk of boycotts would intensify should the current Middle East peace effort fail."

The State Dept retort: "Secretary Kerry has a proud record of over three decades of steadfast support for Israel’s security and well-being, including staunch opposition to boycotts,... At the Munich Security Conference yesterday, he spoke forcefully in defense of Israel’s interests, as he consistently has throughout his public life. In response to a question about the peace process, he also described some well-known and previously stated facts about what is at stake for both sides if this process fails, including the consequences for the Palestinians. His only reference to a boycott was a description of actions undertaken by others that he has always opposed.” Even a little wishy-washy there at the end sent Netanyahu off the cliff. NYTimes.

And there are these: "Israeli Official Paints Bleak Scenario of Failed Peace Talks" / "Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners" / "Loosing the Propaganda War" / "Why Israel Fears the Boycott" / "A Star Stumbles in the Settlements"

Always reasons to hate Iran

In the State of the Union, President Obama said he would veto any effort to increase sanctions on Iran. Previous White House threats seemed a bit oblique, now his direct threat has pulled some Democratics back from the brink of voting for the "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act" introduced by Senators Mendez (D.) and Kirk (R.). Rand Paul, one of the few Republicans to stand back from supporting the bill, now opposes it. All to the good.


Paul Pilar, senior fellow at Georgetown and The Brookings Institutions as well as a former CIA officer, has a long memory. He enumerates all the ways over the years in which relations with Iran have come under fire, and not just for their nuclear program. In the National Interest. He expects that as negotiations continue other and older reasons to bring down Iran will emerge.

Previous disucssions at dotCWL. Let's Have a War and War or Peace? Raise Your Hand.