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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.

Putin’s strategy of equivalence: countering every criticism of his government’s behavior with a page from the West’s own playbook. If his government has a guiding ideology, it is not the concept of restoring the old Soviet Union. It is rather his commitment to exposing what Russian politicians routinely call the “double standards” of American and European foreign policy and revealing the hidden workings of raison d’état — the hardnosed and pragmatic calculation of interests that average citizens from Moscow to Beijing to New Delhi actually believe drives the policies of all great powers." New York Times, March 3.

Here is a dyspeptic look at the economic consequences of Putin's moves in Ukraine: None! Salon, "Why Russia No Longer Fears the West."

The BBC reports the decline of the ruble and exchange rate issues with the euro and the dollar (currency exchanges are running out). The Russian stock market is down, then so is the Dow, etc.

Here is the most hardline view I've read today that can also claim a rational basis (thus I exclude Lindsay Graham and Co.): "Yes, Crimea may already be gone. But we have to make absolutely clear – and in the most credible way possible – that Russian military intervention in other regions of Ukraine is a red line that will mean war with Ukrainian and NATO military forces if it is crossed. U.S. and NATO naval forces need to be deployed to the Black Sea in close proximity to the Ukrainian Coast. Military forces of neighboring NATO member countries, meanwhile, should be deployed closer to the Ukrainian border."  From the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Andrew Kuchins.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Here's my take:  Obama's warning to Putin seems mostly pro forma. He feels obligated to say something, but has little intention of actually doing anything significant about it. The mood of the American people is overwhelmingly against involvement in this affair, despite dislike of Putin.  Putin is surely aware of this; he's going to feel free to ignore the rhetoric.  Because this situation really isn't about us, no matter how the media tries to spin it.

Important opinions countering Ameican media beliefs and the government. No one really has the moral advantage at present. With the Arab Spring in tatters and Africa in bloody baths, not to mention Afghanistant and Iraq, stability might be preferred to another Syria. This post was an education for me. We need people like Matlock and Cohen around to keep things in perspective. The White House surely reads both authors. Hope it helps them. 

Is it historically feeble to be thinking about the Sudetenland? I understnad the call for a quiet diplomacy that allows some face savinf solution and only hope the now totally extinguished - if always fabricated -Olympic torch could be somehow prevail here....

Margaret, thanks for pointing us to that blog post, which seems grounded in practical wisdom.

I happened to read it just minutes after reading this editorial from the Washington Post.  its editors are advocating some specific things that Washington could do to punish Putin and Russia.  I would think that Matlock would find these recommendations ill-advised, too.  

It will be interesting to see whether Cohen defends Russia's takeover of Crimea. There is something noble about his contrarianism on this subject. He makes several good points about the complexities of the situation in Ukraine (though he is wrong to claim that no one in the mainstream media is making the same points). But if he can't bring himself to concede that "thuggish" is the right word to describe Putin's intervention in the Crimean peninsula, then I think it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that Cohen is the one blinded by his parti pris. There is complexity, and then there is perversity.

What absurd articles. Professor Cohen is currently eating crow over his comments on the Crimea and Vladimir Putin's 'good' intentions and reverting to the 2004 Constitution. After spending the first two thirds of his article ensuring that his readers are aware of his amourous relation with Mr. Putin and crying foul about the poor former KGBers treatment in American media, he finally notes that Ukraine's population is divided between east and west. Thank you. No mention of the fact that the vast majority of the Russians in Ukraine were sent there to replace the absence of people following the Hlodomir and collectivization.

Professor Cohen makes special effort to decry the protesters as "the Ukrainian extreme right" "neo-facist" "anti-semitic" with a "hatred rights" but it is Professor Snyder who is vindicated concerning the "arned intervention" after the Olympics. Little or nothing is said of the pro-Russian Russians living in Ukraine and their positive attitude to the 20th century beacon of human rights, Uncle Joe Stalin.

Likewise (Ambassador?) Matlock's ahistorical approach to 19th century nation-state success is similarly naive. I suppose South Korea cannot ever expect " ever be a prosperous, healthy, or united country unless it has a friendly (or, at the very least, non-antagonistic) relationship with [North Korea]"

The Crimea being the conquered ancestral homeland of the so many people (though never the Russians until the 18th century) one wonders why 60% of the current population is Russian. A century ago Russians constituted only a third of the population but the Russian population exploded following the persecution and mass killings of predominantly anti-bolschevik Crimeans and the mass deportation of the Tatars. 

Sadly, at this point Ukraine can only hope for a painful amputation of the infected eastern and southern regions. But let us not call this amputation anything but what it is. Nessary. If the east and Crimea want to join Russia (or become puppet states like Belorus) that is for them to decide. Better to cut off a hand and enter the EU a cripple than for the whole body to be thrown into hell.

I have no idea of the role of the Ukrainaian Orthodox or uniate churches or the Russian Orthodox (which, I understand, usually represent the government position) in any of this or how Pope Francis will choose to weigh in, but I would welcome any posts in this regard,

Haven't seen anything from the Vatican. Presumably there is a papal nuncio somewhere there. Anybody look at Polish sources?

Walter Russell Mead, in the course of making a number of interesting observations, makes this reference to more recent history:

When Ukraine escaped from the Soviet Union in 1990, Soviet nukes from the Cold War were still stationed on Ukrainian territory. After a lot of negotiation, Ukraine agreed to return those nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for what (perhaps naively) its leaders at the time thought would be solid security guarantees from the United States and the United Kingdom. The “Budapest Memorandum” as this agreement is called, does not in fact require the United States to do very much. We can leave Ukraine twisting in the wind without breaking our limited formal obligations under the pact.

If President Obama does this, however, and Ukraine ends up losing chunks of territory to Russia, it is pretty much the end of a rational case for non-proliferation in many countries around the world. If Ukraine still had its nukes, it would probably still have Crimea. It gave up its nukes, got worthless paper guarantees, and also got an invasion from a more powerful and nuclear neighbor.

The choice here could not be more stark. Keep your nukes and keep your land. Give up your nukes and get raped.


Maybe this was explained elsewhere, but complicated history notwithstanding how is Russia sending troops into the Crimea, NOT considered an invasion of the Ukraine?  I've been reading the NY Times, and haven't seen the word "invasion" used in describing this military action- "intervention" seems to be the word of choice in the news.  Is this some kind of wordsmithing, or is it really not an invasion?

It seems oddly tame language for what looks like a pretty aggressive act.

JP - not sure that I agree with the article you link to.  First, this happened more than 20 years ago; second, yes, the nukes were physically in Ukraine but who actually controlled the codes; launch or use of the weapons, etc?  Doubt it was Ukraine but Russian military in Ukraine.  That is where the standoff happened and why the US and other nations executed the memorandums to achieve control of Russian nukes in former Russian satellite nations. His viewpoint is not nuanced and to make his point he paints a rather simplistic black and white scenario.

(Note: The command and control system for Soviet strategic and tactical nuclear weapons remains centered in Moscow. Leaders in other former Soviet states could not launch weapons on their territory, and none stated a desire for operational control over those weapons. Even so, in the past Russian President Yeltsin has stated that he would attempt to gain their agreement before authorizing the use of these weapons. The command and control structure for strategic nuclear weapons involves tight central control. The weapons cannot be used unless President Yeltsin, Defense Minister Grachev, and the Chief of the Russian General Staff generate and transmit the necessary codes. Even though all tactical nuclear weapons have been moved to storage areas in Russia, questions exist about the locks employed on these weapons and possible breaches in security at Russian storage facilities. Many now believe that the risk of acquisition or use by rebels, criminals, or rogue military leaders may be greater for tactical nuclear weapons than it is for strategic nuclear weapons. 

Officials in Ukraine refused to recognize Russia's jurisdiction over nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory. Ukraine insisted that the weapons were Ukraine's property and should be under Ukraine's administrative control, i.e., although only Russian President Yeltsin could authorize the use of the weapons, Ukraine should be responsible for activities related to the weapons and the troops supporting them while the weapons remained on Ukrainian soil. Russian officials objected to the Ukrainian approach and argued that Ukraine's efforts to maintain and store the weapons contradicted its pledge to become nuclear free. Russia also argued that Ukraine's approach contributed to problems with the maintenance of the missiles deployed on Ukrainian territory. Some Russians argued that the missiles in Ukraine did not receive proper periodic maintenance and were, as a result, beginning to become unsafe.

Russian officials contended that the absence of proper maintenance was caused by the fact that Ukraine has taken responsibility for day-to-day operations at the bases but that it lacked the technical ability to maintain the missiles. Ukraine, in contrast, insisted that Russia had agreed to maintain the missiles and warheads as a part of the joint operational command of strategic systems, but that it has failed to provide needed spare parts and technical expertise) 

The goal of the West at that time and in Russia itself was to ensure that former Soviet nukes, nuclear materials, etc. were safe and under appropriate management/control (this was an issue even in Russia).  The US and other western nations (actually spearheaded by non-military associations and groups; civilian corporations, etc.) have worked wonders in former Soviet nations and Russia itself to find, identify, control, and neutralize nukes, nuclear materials, etc.  See this link for a more comprehensive and complete history and current status of this effort (it identifies that your writer's story is half baked and incomplete given the actual nuclear realities)

The most recent, released on Nov. 7, 2012, said that the United States has "greatly accelerated its efforts to reduce nuclear and radiological threats since President Obama"s pledge in Prague in April 2009 to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years.”

Since the speech, the office says, the United States has:

• Removed 1376.1 kilograms of HEU and plutonium (enough material for approximately 55 nuclear weapons).

• Removed all weapons-usable nuclear material from nine countries and areas, including: Romania, Taiwan, Libya, Turkey, Chile, Serbia, Mexico, Sweden and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, activity has continued on implementing the goals of a the 1991 bill authored by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. The Nunn-Lugar program provided U.S. funding and expertise to the former Soviet Union to dismantle stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

According to a running tally compiled by Lugar's office, 7,610 warheads have been deactivated -- 82 percent of the number targeted under the law. The categories in which 85 percent to 100 percent have been deactivated include intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, nuclear-equipped submarines, nuclear air-to-surface missiles, bombers, and test tunnels.

Perhaps most importantly, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine are now nuclear-free.  Ukraine agreed to eliminate all highly enriched uranium -- potentially a key component of nuclear weapons -- on its soil by 2012.

( Note:  The former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan—where the Soviets based many of their nuclear warheads—safely returned their Soviet nuclear weapons to post-communist Russia in the 1990s, but all three countries still have stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Ukraine and Kazakhstan also have nuclear power plants the byproducts of which cannot be used to make a nuclear bomb but might tempt terrorists trying to make a “dirty bomb”—a regular explosive laced with lower-grade radioactive material.)

Nuclear material removals. The United States has helped six countries eliminate all materials capable of making nuclear weapons, most recently, Serbia in December 2010. That same month, the U.S. helped remove 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from Ukraine. The U.S. has now removed or helped dispose of 3,085 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium -- enough material to make more than 120 nuclear weapons, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

But, Russia is threatening to pull out of this agreement going forward with much work still left to be accomplished.  (this is where your writer appears to be simplistic - it is not black and white)

Irene Baldwin: Why hasn't the Russian "presence" in Crimea been called an "invasion"?

At least at the beginning it isn't clear there was an invasion. The Russian have a long-term lease for their Black Sea Fleet whose home is in Crimea. There are no doubt various security foces/military that are part of protecting the fleet, the sailors, the facilities, etc. The first "uniformed" forces to show up had no insignias. Were they from these security forces? Or were they Russian military who "invaded" Crimea. Perhaps intelligence sources know the answer to this. But, so far, they have not been interviewed.


JP and Bd H:   "When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the newly independent Ukraine had on its territory what was the third largest stratetic nuclear weapons arsenal in the world. It was larger than those of Britain, France, and China combined. On June 1, 1996 Ukraine became a non-nuclear nation when it sent the last of its 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads to Russia for dismantling. The first shipment of nuclear weapons from Ukraine to Russia (by train) was in March 1994. In return for giving up its nuclear weapons, Ukraine, the United States of America, Russia, and the United Kingdom signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, pledging to respect Ukraine territorial integrity, a pledge that was arguably broken by Russia's 2013 invasion of Crimea." Wiki

Here Yulia Tymoshenko March 3 speaking on CNN: "We alll well remember that when Budapest Memorandum was signed and when Ukraine was giving up its nuclear weapons then the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia were providing guarantees of peace and independence, integrity of its territory. And now when the crisis is happening Ukraine is relying on its partners, and if Russia in such a cynical and rude way violated this memorandum then every person in Ukraine believes that the United States and the United Kingdom will stick to their guarantees and now it's up to the world to find out the mechanisms which are better to be applied here."

She doesn't consider the Budapest Memorandum a moot point!

But good point, JP about the undermining of non-proliferation. 

Also recall, Ukraine still has the Chernobyl mess on its territory.

The Matlock and Cohen pieces certainly throw cold water on the general message being put out by the US media (and not only the US, it would seem). I remember a friendly argument with a colleague back in the 90s, when NATO was advancing towards Russia. I thought it a bad idea; he -- a Czech refugee from the Soviet invasion of his country in 1968 -- thought it absolutely the right thing for NATO to do. I'm still uncertain which of us was correct. 

I haven't read a great deal of Cohen's work over the years, but I always come away a bit with the sense that he was a rather willing to give Russia, in either its present or its Soviet form, the benefit of the doubt. Which is not by any means to suggest he's wrong, or a pro-Russian apologist, or anything like that. His arguments here seem in ways very sound, though I wonder if he's really correct about the leaders in Kiev being quite so right wing, anti-Semitic, and all the rest of it.

One of the US spokesman on the PBS Newshour this evening claimed that fourteen members of the UN Security Council came down against the Russian actions. Is that true? I couldn't find anything to substantiate it. If it is, I wonder what they know that Cohen doesn't know; or indeed what Cohen does know, that they don't.

Perhaps if a) we did not have a large naval base in a hostile Cuba; and b) paid no attention to the Monroe Doctrine; and c) had not been so willing to resort to force in places ranging from Grenada to Iraq, we might be able to speak with a more convincing voicee.

Could we have a compare and contrast between Russia in Crimea and the U.S. in Guantanamo. Both long-term leases, I believe.

Tonight on the Newshour Cohen was firm in his convictions, including not letting Gwen Ifil interrupt him with what sounded like inane questions.

Don't consider the Budapest Memorandum to be a moot point....on the other hand, don't also accept the unnuanced and simplistic argument laid out by the writer that JP linked to.

Non-proliferation....Ms. Steinfels, suggest you are buying into the same simplistic argument.  Ukraine backed off and postponed the transfer of some nuclear weapons until the US, GB was able to push through the Budapest Memorandum....but, it was a complicated and complex process.  Fact, Ukraine still has tons of fissionable material that some do not consider safe today. 

Ukraine could have held onto the nuclear weapons - but, they would not have been able to use them...that is my point and why this non-proliferation argument is moot or simplistic.


Putin says Russia has a right to use force in response to the coup in the Ukraine.  Is Russia stable enough itself to successfully attack the Ukraine? (I'm still looking for the right verb for whatever it is Russia is doing).

I didn't think Russia was all that strong itself.

Irene Baldwin: Reading the Times this morning suggest to me that perhaps the most accurate word to describe Russian behavior is "infiltration." The locals seem to know very well that the masked men wearing unmarked uniforms in Crimea are Russian military.

In Eastern Ukraine the locals report that some of the most provocative actions, seizing public buildings and harassing local officials, have been carried out by Russian "tourists" and/or members of Russian nationalist groups and  militias. A photo in one story has men looking much like "thugs," the word Putin has used of those who seized power in Kiev.

Of course, Putin and many Russians seem to believe that the various Democracy projects of the U.S. and support for NGOs, etc., are themselves forms of infiltration. Everyone is now calling everyone else "fascists."

Story about Russian "tourists" in March 4 NYTimes.

One of the comments above refers to Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale. Has his article in the current New York Review of Books been linked? If not, here it is:

It is dated February 19th, before the eruption of the present situation, but I found it quite helpful.

I think it counters some of the line propounded by Stephen Cohen in his ubiquitous media appearances yesterday.

Did anyone catch the scene in "The Situation Room" last evening where Cohen enjoyed the fracas between Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour regarding how to characterize the protesters in Kiev? Amanpour thought that Blitzer was seconding Cohen's view and called him on it. Professor Cohen smugly suggested that the "Situation Room" be renamed the "War Room," since it set CNN colleagues at odds.

I take a certain amount of ironic [political?] pleasure [not actual pleasure as real people are invlolved]in this flagrant  show of Russian power..Only because it seems like it was only yesterday the whole American right wing,and the left, [except for a few  like McCain, Graham]were practically lauding Putin for preventing military action against the Assad regime.These right wingers denounced Obama and Kerry  and anyone else who even thought of interveing with the Russian backed Assad governrment Even as this regime engages in a literal holocaust of sunni muslims;by massive bombings, torture prisons, and ,gassing, and now by starvation.These right wingers, hawks when they had visions of genocide dancing in their heads when they  supported the Iraq ,Afghanistan invasions ,became "war weary" as their genocidal  fantasies  or total subjugation against muslims never materialized.Our more  rational and decent military elites and Obama did not give the volunteer  troops a green light to turn the place into a parking lot[our hands were tied the muslim hating  hawks now lament]So civil war or more accurately a Stalinist like regime engaged in  genocide, in the mid east is something they welcome[let Allah sort it out Palin said].So regarding  Syria these right wingers were actually praising Putin for UN vetoes that would harm Assad and help the the sunni victims of his genocidal campagn.Suddenly he was the reaonable, rational,clear headed leader,the man behind the power that prevented the west  from toppling Assad .These right wingers welcome a holocaust of sunni muslims.They  were actually lauding Putin and his pro Syrian government vetoes as they believe  muslims in general should continue to ilve under tyranical regimes .Anyone oppossed to them is now labeled alqada.Putin was also hailed for his crackdown on any  muslim separatists.Suddenly torture, executions, brutality against Muslims is seen as a good thing and Putin believed in that.Now the right  scrambles to denounce him and even  Obama after THEY tied his hands, for not being a strong leader who stands up to Putin.In their hearts they know it was their hatred of Muslims[and Obama] that blinded them to Putin and he Putin capitalized on their professed  "war weariness". Obama and Kerry tried to do the right thing.These right wingers were and are easily manipulated, Putins actions exposes.They are NOTas rational as they profess they are. I'm sure they realize this,If they listen or acknowledge the things they were saying in praise of Putin just a few weeks ago. 

Yahoo News reports on the responses of Russia's former Communist satellites to his Ukrainian move.  They are fearful of his claim that Russia has a right to intervene militarily in the affairs any country which has a substantial Russian sub-population.  The Russian Eurasian alliance is being weakened by this more, with even Russia's former supporters criticizing Putin publicly.

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