Stephen Cohen Putin Apologist

Is Stephen Cohen a Putin Apologist?


Howard Adelman


My target today is not Vladimir Putin himself but those who act as voices for his position even though they are critical of both Putin and what he has done in Russia. My main target is the renowned American scholar on Russia, Stephen Cohen, but there are more modest and less bombastic Canadian versions such as Mark MacKinnon, senior international correspondent for The Globe and Mail who has been a bureau chief in Beijing, Moscow and the Middle East. MacKinnon has won the National Newspaper Award four times and is author of a 2007 study, The New Cold War Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union. In Saturday’s Globe (8 March) he published a two-page spread entitled, “How the West Lost Putin” arguing that the bad blood between the West and Putin has been developing over the last fifteen years and has largely been the responsibility of the West which, over the years, never appreciated or offered any proper acknowledgement of Putin’s efforts to cooperate with the West.

Early on, Putin was torn between his KGB training and background and some attraction towards western democratic values expressed best in the early years when he was an aide to Anatoliy Sobchak, the reformist governor of St. Petersburg. He had expressed sympathy with George Bush after 9/11, shared intelligence and offered airspace for America’s war in Afghanistan, and even allowed the U.S. to create a no-fly zone over Libya. According to MacKinnon, he got bubkas (my expression, not his) in return and was gradually pushed into regarding the West as the enemy of Russia determined to hem Russia in, an interpretation that reinforced his view that the implosion of the USSR in 1991 was the greatest disaster to befall Russia.

However, my main concern is Stephen Cohen; I mention MacKinnon to indicate that Cohen is not alone in the position he adopts. In launching this criticism, I recognize that I am an amateur in contrast to the expertise of both Cohen and MacKinnon.

Several nights ago I watched and listened to Stephen Cohen on CNN and heard him describe two Ukraines: an eastern and southern Russian-oriented Ukraine and a western European-oriented Ukraine. He then went on to blame Obama specifically. He did not hold Putin responsible for the current crisis because, back in November, Obama, with the EU in tow, had “forced” the Viktor Yanukovych government to choose between Europe and Russia, playing an either/or game and not a both/and game. At the same time, Cohen criticised Obama and his predecessor for not paying sufficient attention to Russian sensitivities in the efforts to move NATO closer and closer to Russia’s borders and failing to understand that Russia had deep interests in the Ukraine and could not possibly tolerate a neighbour oriented against Russia. 

According to Cohen, “every informed observer knows—from Ukraine’s history, geography, languages, religions, culture, recent politics and opinion surveys—that the country is deeply divided as to whether it should join Europe or remain close politically and economically to Russia. [So far, no problem!] There is not one Ukraine or one ‘Ukrainian people’ but at least two, generally situated in its Western and Eastern regions.” Cohen repeats this claim over and over; it has become his mantra.  “Ukraine is splitting apart down the middle,” he repeats, “because Ukraine is not one country, contrary to what the American media, which speaks about the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Historically, ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, it’s two countries. One half wants to stay close to Russia; the other wants to go West.” 

After Cohen made his pitch on CNN, I heard a very articulate refutation of Stephen Cohen’s first point from a young protest leader in Kyiv, Katryna Krak, about whom I was unable to find out anything further, but she is, for Cohen, a priori, not a very informed observer for she refutes Cohen’s refrain about his “two Ukraines.” She conceded that Ukrainians were truly divided over policy in that some wanted a more pro-Russian policy and others wanted a more pro-European policy.  To her, Ukrainians were generally united in a) still being Ukrainian and b) wanting a democratic and honest government accountable and abiding by the rule of law. Indeed, the yearning for a democratic regime was a uniting force.  To describe Ukraine as consisting of two Ukraines was insulting to Ukrainians and blind to genuine fears they had of using this political difference to divide Ukraine politically. After all, the US is divided into red states and blue states, but this would be no justification for suggesting there are two different Americas and two different peoples inhabiting America, but only suggesting that there are different parts of America which tend to be differentially oriented politically. But they are all Americans.

In a recent article in The Nation, to which Stephen Cohen is a contributing editor and his wife an owner, entitled “Distorting Russia: How the American media misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine,”, he accused the American media of malpractice, “failing to provide essential facts and context” and refusing to print opposing opinions. (Not my experience – see MacKinnon above as an example.) He accused the American media of being as ideological as they were during the Cold War. The misrepresentation began with ignoring the looting of essential state assets in the early nineties in favour of a narrative that depicted Russia as undergoing a difficult transition from communism to democracy.  In doing so, the media supported the “armed destruction of a popularly elected Parliament and imposition of a ‘presidential’ Constitution, which dealt a crippling blow to democratization.”

Further, Cohen also repeated a claim he had made that the revolt in Kyiv was being controlled and orchestrated by fascist elements in Ukraine, a position Wolf Blitzer repeated only to be scolded vehemently by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Wolf Blitzer repeated a claim by Russia’s United Nations Ambassadoir Vitaly Churkin that Nazi sympathizers have taken power in Western Ukraine. Amanpour admonished Blitzer for repeating that charge. “You’ve got to be really careful putting that across as a fact,” Amanpour said. “Are you saying that the entire pro-European Ukrainians are anti-Semites? That’s what the Russians are saying and that’s what Professor Cohen is saying.” 

Is the whole revolt really controlled by anti-semitic fascists? Did the American media really support an “armed destruction of a popularly elected Parliament”, a position that MacKinnon also seems to endorse? Did the American media support the imposition of presidential constitution that undermined the process of democratization which abetted Putin’s choke-hold on the Russian polity? That is not what I recall, but I remain open to being convinced if the evidence is persuasive, particularly since I do not trust my memory at all. Unfortunately, Stephen Cohen levelled these sweeping accusations with little evidence. The media was also accused of supporting the war in Chechnya that gave rise to terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus thus enabling Putin to rig his own re-election in 1996. According to Cohen, most media reports in America still “give the impression that Yeltsin was an ideal Russian leader”.

I had no idea the American media had such a powerful effect on domestic Russian politics! Since Cohen supplied no evidence, though he accused journalists of shameful unprofessional practices, inflammatory writing, and even malpractice for failing to provide essential facts and context (an accusation that Cohen in his writings allegedly went back to American anti-Red coverage at the time of the Russian revolution as documented by Walter Lippman and Charles Merz), I decided to do a quick and fairly arbitrary check. I would simply google key words and see what came up on the presumption that if Cohen was correct, most newspaper articles that came up would support his views.

I first typed in “1993 American media coverage of Russian economic privatization”. The first item that popped up was chapter one of Stephen Cohen’s own 2000 book, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post Communist Russia that appeared in the New York Times apparently that year when Cohen levelled those charges in a book-length form, except in that chapter he went back to the Clinton years when he had to stand up single-handedly against the “Washington Consensus” and its crusade to convert Russia to a replica of American values in a condescending policy of American tutelage. I then recalled that it was true that America did adopt a policy of trying to teach the republics that broke away from the Soviet Union, including Russia itself, American democratic practices and the rule of law, the stability of political institutions and the values of free speech and democracy. I also noted how well they took in Hungary when I was there to help that country reform its refugee laws as well as in other former satellites such as Poland and the Baltic states.

However, as Cohen told the tale in 1990, that policy in Russia “crashed on the rock of reality”, Cohen’s reality that Russia was a very proud and great nation that resented such American chutzpah and, in turn, became more anti-American than it had been in the previous forty years that he had studied Russia. In turn, American investors, including his bête noir, George Soros, lost $80-100 billion in the 1998 crash, Soros’ Quantum Fund alone losing $2 billion. Why did this happen? Because, “according to a 1996 survey” Moscow correspondents reported on Moscow “through the prism of their own expectations and beliefs” resulting in a Manichaean and one-dimensional account as propounded by American officials in a tale told of the conflict between the liberal democratic economic and political reformers and “On the side of darkness was the always antireform horde of Communist, nationalist, and other political dragons ensconced in its malevolent parliamentary cave”. Yeltsin was the hero, “including Yeltsin’s designated successor, Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer”.    

In telling of this massive one-sided tale, the support for his position, interesting enough, comes almost exclusively from the media itself, such as a 1999 study by two journalists that Chubais, one of the heroes of the so-called Washington consensus, had been “little more than a conduit for a corrupt regime”. Further, the Clinton administration and its media claque encouraged “Yeltsin’s unconstitutional shutdown of Russia’s Parliament and then cheering his armed assault on the elected body.” My own memory is that there had been a great deal of criticism of Yeltsin at the time and especially of the economic shock therapy in the transition from communism, criticism that, in particular, depicted the “unpaid wages and pensions, malnutrition, and decaying provinces”, but this may have been because I read the Canadian press or because my memory had been corrupted. Once again, it was an investigative reporter who, contrary to the Washington consensus revealed that, “The whole political struggle in Russia between 1992 and 1998 was between different groups trying to take control of state assets. It was not about democracy or market reforms.” It seems hard to prove a media consensus when it’s the media that offers the evidence of the criticism of that alleged consensus.

Robert Kaplan whose op-eds on the current crisis have appeared frequently, reviewed Stephen Cohen’s 2000 book. In that review, he began by focusing not on the errors of government officials, businessmen, academics and journalists, but on the difficulty in changing a country of 140 million people spread over seven time zones with seventy years of comprehensive totalitarianism following centuries of absolutism that “left an institutional and moral void”. This history, geography and demography when combined with the suddenness of the collapse made the problem of transformation “impossible to overcome”. However, then Kaplan departs from Cohen. “Cohen attacks people — including Richard Pipes and Zbigniew Brzezinski — who understood in the 1980’s, as he did not, that Soviet Communism could not be salvaged. He fails to emphasize that the Russians never implemented much of the advice of the very experts he attacks for losing Russia. And his own advice — that we should not have bombed Serbia or expanded NATO and that we should adopt instead the ‘collective approaches’ of the United Nations, all for the sake of courting Russia — amounts to capitulation, not engagement.”

But then Kaplan commends Cohen for recognizing that the shock therapy would never work. “According to Cohen, a people’s historical experience supersedes economic theory. Thus, as he explains, what worked for Poland — a small, ethnically homogeneous country exposed to the Enlightenment, with a rudimentary market infrastructure even before the collapse of the Berlin Wall — would not necessarily work for Russia. Cohen provides a stimulating counter-chronology to challenge the official Washington view of post-cold-war Russia as a string of qualified successes and disasters avoided, in which good democrats, led by former President Boris Yeltsin, have battled bad neo-communists, particularly Yevgeny Primakov, a former prime minister and foreign minister.”

Culture and history supersede economics. I, personally, could not agree more. On the other hand, culture and history do not quash economics and make change impossible. Within every culture can be found the elements of its own transformation. Cohen and Kaplan both point out that these were already present if they had not been blind-sided by the Chicago economic school, had trusted more in Mikhail Gorbachev’s belief in the rule of law and Primakov’s belief in the importance of institutional practices. Both of these Russian leaders opposed Yeltsin’s arnarchistic, bombastic propensities. As Kaplan concludes, “Cohen himself sounds somewhat like a missionary by ascribing so much importance to his own society’s impact on such a distant, vast and intractable country.”

In the next Google entry, Andrei Sheifer (a professor of economics at Harvard) and Daniel Treisman (Political Science, UCLA) in their study, “A Normal Country: Russia After Communism (Journal of Economic Perspectives 19:1, Winter, 151-174) write that Cohen’s viewpoint was the consensus, that the transformation in Russia from 1990 to 1999 had been a disastrous failure, particularly for the Russian people. The consensus depicts Russia not as a middle-income country but “as a collapsed and criminal state” a view supported by both left and right. President George Bush was a leading voice against this consensus when, in late 2003, he “praised President Putin’s efforts to make Russia into a ‘country in which democracy and freedom and the rule of law thrive’.”

Except, without the jingoism of George Bush, the two authors offer lots of evidence to conclude that, “We find a large gap between the common perception and the facts. After reviewing the evidence, the widespread image of Russia as a uniquely menacing disaster zone comes to seem like the reflection in a distorting mirror—the features are recognizable, but stretched and twisted out of all proportion. In fact, although Russia’s transition has been painful in many ways, and its economic and political systems remain far from perfect, the country has made remarkable economic and social progress. Russia’s remaining defects are typical of countries at its level of economic development. Both in 1990 and 2003, Russia was a middle-income country, with GDP per capita around $8,000 at purchasing power parity according to the UN International Comparison Project, a level comparable to that of Argentina in 1991 and Mexico in 1999. Countries in this income range have democracies that are rough around the edges, if they are democratic at all. Their governments suffer from corruption, and their press is almost never entirely free. Most also have high-income inequality, concentrated corporate ownership and turbulent macroeconomic performance. In all these regards, Russia is quite normal.” 

It appears that while the narrative was emerging as much more varied and nuanced, Cohen was still struck in the trope he had set down in 2000. Most commentators I read, whatever their many disagreements, do NOT ignore Russia having legitimate political and national interests as Cohen contends they do. They do object, however, to the means Putin resorts to express those interests or to any presumption that Russia’s interests a priori trump Ukraine’s national interests, especially to remain an independent and unified country oriented politically and economically west.

Finding logical consistency in Cohen’s argument is a challenge.  Cohen castigates Putin on the one hand but sympathizes with him on the other hand. When it comes to American thought processes, any complexity and nuance drops away.  Instead, he treats the media with a homogeneous, and wholly unsympathetic, portrait of a blind and one-sided industry while he repeatedly cites that same media to support his own views.  “Anyone relying on mainstream American media will not find there any of their origins or influences in Yeltsin’s Russia or in provocative US policies since the 1990s—only in the ‘autocrat’ Putin who, however authoritarian, in reality lacks such power. Nor is he credited with stabilizing a disintegrating nuclear-armed country, assisting US security pursuits from Afghanistan and Syria to Iran or even with granting amnesty, in December, to more than 1,000 jailed prisoners, including mothers of young children.” Sorry? Where else but in the media did I first find Cohen’s views expressed?  While I myself reflected many in giving credit to Putin re both Iran and the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, Cohen goes far too far in giving credit to Putin for granting amnesty to the thousand jailed prisoners, many like the members of Russia’s Pussy Riot, two of whom are mothers, whose arrest and imprisonment he orchestrated and whom he allowed to be beaten up after their release by his thugs.  Shame on you for this alone Stephen Cohen!

Why can’t we acknowledge that Putin has performed some commendable international diplomacy yet still regard Putin as a “thug”? Why do we have to be as simpleminded as the industry he finds so reprehensible, the very industry that gives him so much air time?  

This is not the first time that Western observers have gotten twisted up over a Russian thug.  Even Putin’s critics do not deny that he enjoys widespread support of 60-65% in Russia. But Stalin was also once a great hero of both the West and of Russians. Nor do such critics, again including amateurs such as myself, believe that democrats will necessarily succeed Putin. We are not unaware that even more formidable ultra-nationalists are in the wings and they would be a lot worse for the Russian people and for the West than Putin. But does this require apologizing for Putin, accepting his faults as an inconvenience?

The fact is that Cohen also operates within a Manichaean framework, only for him the greatest evil doers always seem to be American. Jeffrey Sachs is one of his targets. Sachs went to advise the Russians on reforms in 1991 and thus was part of America’s zealous missionary crusade in Russia. But here is Sachs’s defence in 2012. “I advised on how Russia could emulate the successful transformations underway in Eastern Europe.  My work in Russia lasted from December 1991 to December 1993 (and I publicly announced my resignation January 1994). I stress these points because there is a long-standing narrative that says that I was out to help impose the “Washington Consensus,” a Milton-Friedman-style free-market economy.  This is patently false.  Yet it is repeated.  It should stop being repeated. There is another narrative that says that I was ruthlessly in favor of a market economy and uninterested in the rule of law, institutions, or social justice.  This is even more patently wrongheaded.  I have always regarded economic reform, institution building, and social justice to go hand in hand.  I have always fought corruption, and resigned from Russia in 1993 because I found corruption to be growing and out of control.  I have always paid attention to the plight of the poor, and looked for progressive measures to support macroeconomic objectives (e.g. the end of hyperinflation) in ways that give sustenance and support for the poor.  For 27 years, since the start of my work in Bolivia, I have been a consistent champion of debt relief for over-indebted low-and-middle-income countries, precisely to help these countries find the economic and fiscal space to support the poor and the investments needed to end poverty.”

Sachs was successful in Bolivia and in Poland but largely failed in Russia. To Cohen, the failure was because Sachs belonged to a Washington monolithic consensus.

Cohen mis-reports facts. I personally did some detailed investigations of the depth and breadth of anti-semitism and Cohen’s charge about “the proliferation of anti-Semitic slogans by a significant number of anti-Yanukovych protesters.” I concluded that there were certainly some, but they were a very minor part of the protest movement. I offered a sample of evidence in a previous blog.

Stephen Cohen may be a retired professor of Russian studies from New York University, but he is also a dogmatist, deliberately hypocritical, and a quasi-apologist for the same positions as Putin. He is as caught up in as Manichaean a framework as those he dismisses.  But in his view, the really evil-doers are the Americans. His expertise does not trump my amateurism; it is flawed by contradictory assertions, unsupported claims, indifference to nuance, and sweeping oversimplifications.


Appendix on the Nuland-Pyatt Tape

As another example of America-bashing and Putin apologetics, Cohen cites the taped 11 December 2013 conversation between Victoria Nuland, the State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, and the US Ambassador in Kyiv, Geoffrey Pyatt, that proved that “high-level officials were plotting to ‘midwife’ a new, anti-Russian Ukrainian government by ousting or neutralizing its democratically elected president – that is, a coup.” (Mark MacKinnon also alluded to this evidence supporting Putin’s position.) The conversation was posted on YouTube.

President Viktor Yanukovich had offered to make opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk [leader of the fatherland opposition parliamentary faction] the new prime minister and award the position of deputy prime minister to Vitaly Klitschko [leader of the opposition United Democratic Alliance Reform (UDAR) party and a former heavyweight boxer – see Anderson Cooper’s interview with him on CNN 360 Live from Kiev, 6 March]. In that taped conversation, Nuland said: “I don’t think that Klitschko should go into the government. I don’t think it is necessary. I don’t think it is a good idea.” Pyatt replied: “In terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework.” “In terms of the process moving ahead, we want to keep the moderate democrats together.

It is clear that Nuland and Pyatt were NOT strategizing about how to make this come about. They were asserting their preferences and the reasons for them. This is what state department and foreign affairs officers do all over the world. There is no suggestion of how they could influence such an outcome let alone of any discussion of a coup, that is, an appropriation of power or a takeover. It is the opposite of a coup in two respects. It is advice on who should stay out of power to keep the democratic forces united. Second, it is advice  and an indication of what Americans would support and not pressure, let alone coercive pressure, to bring about such an outcome. Observers, or rather listeners, seem to be exercised, not only about the use of “Fuck you” in referring to the use of the UN versus the EU, but the allegation that such talk and presumably advice is interference in the domestic affairs of another country.

When America expressed its preference for Pearson versus Diefenbaker, when Netanyahu signalled his preference for Romney rather than Obama – and these were not just officials – that did NOT constitute interference, let alone a coup, though in almost all cases, it is usually imprudent and poor diplomacy if such opinions are made public. But certainly they are the norm. The conversation nowhere implies that the United States “has been secretly plotting with the opposition”. That does not mean they were not, but the evidence does not support such an interpretation.

As Nuland sees it, Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk should be in charge of the new government and Klitschko would not get along with him. “It’s just not going to work,” was her opinion. This cannot be construed as the US acting as the midwife of the new government unless it could be shown that the US was offering financial incentives to different Ukrainian politicians to support the American’s beliefs. In any case, the Ukarainians clearly did not accept the American advice.


Putin’s Propaganda

Putin’s Propaganda


Howard Adelman

To test Vladimir Putin’s claims about the Ukraine to back up his rationale for his occupation of the Crimea, and to refute his rationale that I provided yesterday, I list those claims under propaganda and then depict the actuality as observed by those who were there. Many of these sources are Jewish, some who stand in strong opposition to former President Viktor Yanukovych and to Putin, usually from Kyiv, and some who strongly back Putin’s position, usually from Odessa. Putin is not the only one who spouts his line. There are plenty of Ukrainians, Jewish Ukrainians among them.

Lev Gudkov, Russian sociologist  and Director of the independent LevadaCenter: “In propaganda it is very important to consider the effect of squeezing out alternative versions of events, all alternative information. As a result, even people who don’t believe or who doubt the official information are not in a position to work with other points of view. And this is the foundation of propaganda.”


Russia is concerned with defending the rights of the residents in Crimea.


Black Sea TV, an independent Crimean TV station, was cut off from broadcasting on Monday. It still reached cable and satellite viewers (one-third of its normal audience) until the station’s electricity was cut off.


Russian channels and the government channel in the Crimea claimed that ultra-nationalists are coming to force everyone to speak Ukrainian.


The Russian Language Act withdrawing Russia as an official language was itself withdrawn after it passed. In any case, whatever the faults of the Act, it never envisioned forcing anyone to speak Ukrainian.


In addition to protecting Ukraine’s Russian minority, Russia is involved in the Ukraine to combat anti-Semitism espoused by elements of Ukraine’s far-right nationalist movement. Ukraine in general is being overrun by gangs of anti-Russian fascist thugs. Inna Olar, a Jewish 55-year-old information-technology manager who lives in Odessa, the Black Sea port in the south of Ukraine, claimed that the nationalists are Nazis and anti-Semites with symbols derived from those used by the SS and they revere Stepan Bandera who regarded Jews as agents of Soviet imperialism.


According to Arseniy Finberg, a 31-year-old director of a tourist company and father of two who participated in the demonstrations in Maidan, there was no need for Russia to step in on their behalf. Hundreds of Jews stood on Maidan; allegations that anti-Semitism tainted the protests are largely exaggerated. The handful of attacks on Jews in the square—including someone who had a drink poured on her when she tried to stop young nationalists from putting up anti-Semitic posters—were unusual. He suggested that they were the work of those looking to discredit the Maidan movement. Further, two IDF trained soldiers of Ukrainian origin organized the patrol to prevent hooliganism. (For the full stories, see Tablet Magazine.)

Further, virtually all the thuggery has been sponsored by Russia. In Crimea, gunmen seized part of a Ukrainian missile facility in CapeFiolent, near Sevastopol, according to Ukrainian officials. Further, a senior United Nations envoy was forced to cut short his mission and decided to leave the country after being “threatened” by a gang of armed men shouting “Crimea is Russian! Putin! Putin!” After pro-Western Ukrainians had reinstalled the national flag on the roof of the regional government building in Donetsk, a dozen people were hurt when pro-Russian protesters took back the building by force and re-installed the Russian flag.


Putin blamed Ukraine’s opposition for the ongoing crisis, calling it a Western-backed “unconstitutional coup” and “armed seizure of power.” Innar Olar echoed this view and opposes the new government. “It came to power in a coup.” Putin refuses to recognize even the early elections scheduled for 25 May 25 to be held “under the auspices of terror”.


The authorities in Kyiv were elected and, in turn, by a democratic vote in Parliament open to the media, selected the new Prime Minister and President.


A woman who lives in Donetsk called the Maidan protesters terrorists. “All of Ukraine thinks that. No one came for himself. They came to earn money.” On a trolley recently, she overheard a group of miners saying they had been offered 10,000 hryvnia—about $1,000—to join the protests. “All the people there were paid.


Alexander Roitburd, a famous Ukrainian artist of Jewish origin who participated in Maidan, portrayed the conflict as one between the rule of law and Western values versus being forever trapped in a post-Soviet space.


The events in Kyiv were fomented by Western sources eager to economically exploit the Ukraine and include the Ukraine within the Western hegemony of power.


Roitburd insisted that Maidan was a spontaneous civil movement that succeeded in attracting the support of the country’s richest men and was a revolution of everyone from the lowest people to the oligarchs, who secretly helped.


Western media as working for spy services to foment revolution.


CBC and CNN had crews in Kyiv and reported no evidence of media playing a role in stirring up the people.


Hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking refugees have fled a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

Russian media widely reported that more than 650,000 Ukrainians crossed out of southeastern Ukraine into Russia since the beginning of the year.  


The latter was illustrated by an undated photo but revealed to have actually have been taken at the Shehyni border crossing between Ukraine and Poland. Further, the UN’s High Commissioner on Refugees says it has seen no evidence of unusual migration on the border. There is no evidence of any refugee flow outside of Crimea though many Tatars have relocated to Istanbul and Kyiv while others remain back to guard their property.


The current Crimean authorities were elected legitimately.


The new pro-Russian Crimean leader, Sergei Aksyonov, was installed last Thursday in a closed session of the regional parliament not open to the press to verify, at the very least, that there was even a quorum present, with the parliamentary session itself was occupied by armed men and the parliamentary building surrounded by Russian troops. Before being “elected”, Aksyonov led a party with only three of the one hundred seats.


The armed men in Crimea surrounding the army bases in Crimea, according to Putin, are not Russian troops but pro-Russian local self-defence groups.


If you believe the above, then you could believe the moon is made of cheese 

The reality is that current Russian initiatives as instigated by Putin are driven by a Russian messianism and phobia of the West. (See

Putin’s Defence

Putin’s Defence


Howard Adelman

Astri Suhrke, a Senior Researcher at the Christian Michelsen Institute in Bergen, Norway, and a long time collaborator of mine, wrote in response to my blogs on Putin as follows:

“Am enjoying your blogs, even when strongly disagreeing. For instance, you write, ‘if America is unwilling to contemplate some form of military action when its vital interests are challenged in Europe…..,’ with reference to the Russian invasion of Crimea. As I see it, the Russian reaction is precisely that, a reaction to prevent a change to the status quo in Crimea, which Russian has long had the right to use for its Black Sea naval fleet – only warm water port and access to the Mediterranean etc. Change in Kiev  – welcomed and encouraged by EU and NATO – made it quite possible that Russia might lose that access. So Russia reacted. (Also recall that until 1954. Crimea was part of Russia (within the USSR)). So Russia reacted. How can a defense of the status quo ‘challenge vital American interests’? And if any wider American  interests are affected, it will be primarily in the Middle East rather than  Europe.
“Comparing this with the Anschluss, and affixing  the label of appeasement  on Obama (as you did in your earlier blog), seems not only unfair, but counterproductive  to efforts to defuse the situation  and prevent a really serious conflict. Just noted that Poland has asked for consultations in NATO under para 4 of the Washington Treaty. Seems opportunistically belligerent.


Here is how I replied though I corrected my typos.

I can’t be;\believe it! Do you really swallow Putin’s lie – a blatant lie – that the Russian action is just a reaction “to prevent a change to the status quo in Crimea”? Where is there any evidence Russia’s military position in Crimea was under threat??? It would be akin to the U.S. attacking Cuba on the pretext that its base in Guantanamo was under threat. Where is there any evidence even that there was any threat to the majority ethnic Russian population in Crimea?  Even the stupid language law withdrawing permission for Russian to be taught as an official language was NOT a real threat when the stress is on “official” and when, though it was passed, it was withdrawn before the President of Ukraine vetoed it. The defence of the status quo was something that did not need a defence let alone an aggressive invasion and occupation.

As far as America’s vital interests, surely it is in America’s vital interest to see that country’s cannot invade other countries and occupy and de facto take over territory, just as it is in the interest of other country’s when America attacked and occupied other countries. Both kinds of attacks have to be challenged. I did not say America had to respond by deploying military troops, but did suggest that America and the EU might consider responding with military guarantees before Putin attempts to invade Eastern Ukraine.

Finally, I never called Obama an appeaser. Can you point out where I did?. I am a strong supporter of Obama, though not always uncritical. But I do believe the reset here worked in spite of the fact that I supported that reset. Neither I nor Obama can always be right.

Nice to hear from you.

All the best.


Astri came back strongly:

“Yes, I accept that Russia had reason to believe that its position in Crimea would be threatened. They made a pre-emptive move to secure their position. They have so far occupied key buildings and sites.

Yes, I agree that it is certainly in the interest of the US and other countries not to sanction invasions. That the US twice in the past decade or so has invaded other countries, and formally occupied one, does make me pause, however, before leaping to the defense of the US on that particular ground.

And, yes, in your first blog on Putin and Crimea, you said that ‘Obama will have no choice except to be the Neville Chamberlain who surrendered the Sudetenland of C… to Hitler.’ That’s pretty close to calling him ‘an appeaser” – no?

Wish you were here so we could talk this out over a walk and a meal!



I wrote back as follows:



I wrote ‘Obama will have no choice except to be the Neville Chamberlain who surrendered the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, but he will not sign an agreement acceding to the seizure of The Crimea.’ That is not a charge of appeasement. That is, as stated throughout the blog, an acceptance of realism. But that realism will not be signing onto the deal and waving a piece of paper saying ‘Peace in our time.’ Obama is expected and will fight back to ensure nothing more. Further, to my surprise, at least rhetorically, he seems to be pushing for full withdrawal. I am totally sceptical about that, but maybe? In any case, both the last half of the sentence and the rest of the blog is clear that I am not accusing Obama of being an appeaser. You say I affixed a label of appeaser. I did not use the term, did not affix the label, though I did suggest there was an element of realism in Chamberlain and Obama’s actions. But realism is not appeasement. Though Great Britain was in no position to fight Germany in 1938, and nor was Russia, Chamberlain’s appeasement was legally signing away the Sudetenland as Germany’s entitlement.”

Quite aside from never labelling Obama an appeaser, let me take Astri’s main argument seriously, namely that she accepts Putin’s argument that Russia’s interests in the Crimea were under threat and the response was “a reaction to prevent a change to the status quo in Crimea.” To do that I will have to elaborate on the analysis underlying her claim.

1. Crimea was for several centuries part of Russia.

2. When the Ukraine and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev ‘arbitrarily’ gave the Crimea to The Ukraine in 1954.
3. Throughout the twentieth century, Russia based its warm water fleet (the Black Sea Fleet) at Sevastopol .

4. When the USSR broke up in 1991, Russia found itself in the humiliating position of having to negotiate a lease for its main naval port; the lease ran for 25 years from 1992-2017.

5. In 2008, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of the Ukraine announced that under no circumstances would she renew the lease in 1917.

6. Yulia Tymoshenko had just been released from jail and there was a real danger she would win the elections which were now to be brought forward to this Spring.

7. Chaos as well as succession by an opponent of the lease would also threaten the stability necessary for the naval base’s security.

8. The cancellation of the lease would threaten Russia’s complete maritime defence capability or its ability to be an influential player in the Middle East.

9. Further, cancellation of the lease would be devastating for the tens of thousands of Russian civilian employees living in The Crimea who work directly or indirectly to maintain Russia’s maritime military capability.

10. Viktor Yanukovych’s extension of the lease in 2010 for a further 25 years reduced the threat.

11. However, on the Ukrainian political horizon a possible direct threat to Russia’s interests emerged because elected “radicals” could threaten to cancel the lease extension.

12. That fear was greatly exacerbated by the events in Kyiv.

13. That threat was realized in full when President Yanukovych was illegally deposed by Parliament and forced to flee the Ukraine.

14. Hence, Putin sought and received on Saturday, 1 March 2014 authorization and permission by the Duma to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of the Ukraine, not to annex any territory, but until the situation stabilized.

15. Obama’s “warning” then only reinforced Putin’s fears and determination to take pre-emptive action.

I hope I have stated the argument for the defence of Putin as clearly and as fully as the space allowed. Putin in his first public press conference since the Crimean crisis began, reinforced this argument when he lied and claimed Russian forces had NOT intervened in Ukraine and further stated that,  Russia “reserves the right to use all means at our disposal to protect” What is wrong with this defence of Russia’s position? 

1. Whatever the past, Russia has agreed in a plethora of international legal documents that the Crimea is NOT part of Russia but is part of the Ukraine.

2. If the Ukraine cancelled the lease and not just threatened to do so, Russia had multiple non-military punishments that could cripple Ukraine and fairly easily get the Ukraine to back off.

3. The United States was part of the agreement guaranteeing Russia’s use of Sevastopol.

4. There is no way that Ukraine could enforce such a cancellation.

5. Theoretical future threats to a country’s defence interests do not justify an illegal military invasion.

Behind all the hot air and rhetoric, there is a deeper problem, the failure of the United States and Russia to actually work together in resolving crises in Russia’s backyard. Putin argues that he helped get American chestnuts out of the fire in getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons. He claims he has helped the U.S. over Iran. What has he gotten in return for his cooperation when Russia’s own vital interests are at stake? American diplomatic conspiracies, which Russia had the tapes to prove, to remove the legally elected president of the Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, in an effective coup. In fact, America had set up the crisis earlier by supporting sucking Ukraine into the EU economic and political orbit without taking into account Russia’s vital economic, political and military interests in Ukraine. Instead of allowing and encouraging Ukraine to play the EU and Russia off against one another, instead of pushing the EU Association Agreement, the focus should have been on working together to stablilize Ukraine in recognition of Russia’s genuine fears of instability there given Ukraine’s inherent proneness to chaos as a multi-ethnic state.

I hope I have been fair to what I interpret as Astri’s argument.

I will offer a full reply tomorrow in my analysis of Russian propaganda.

Putin, Crimea and Iran

Putin, Crimea and Iran 


Howard Adelman


Netanyahu may have been visiting Kerry and Obama in Washington yesterday, but the greatest concern of all three had to be Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine in spite of the immanence of Abbas’ visit to Washington in two weeks. Besides, in spite of Obama’s tough letter to Netanyahu preceding his visit, Netanyahu is now largely onside. Abbas still only understands the costs of failure. The main focus of the talks with Obama was likely Iran. As Secretary of State John Kerry stressed all other options must be exhausted before considering military action. On the other hand, if America is unwilling to contemplate some form of military action when its vital interests are challenged in Europe, does such a verbal statement carry any weight? For although Iran is in the process of implementing the planned deal and the UN reported that its stockpile of highly enriched uranium had been reduced by 50 percent, there are still serious fears that Iran is using the interim period of the agreement to develop its delivery capacity (ballistic missiles and warheads) and to get ready to deploy its newest far more efficient centrifuges. How Obama leads the response to Putin’s actions in the Crimea will affect how Iran will respond to Western efforts on decommissioning the nuclear arms preparations in Iran and Netanyahu’s trust in Obama’s resolve.

When Netanyahu faces AIPAC today, he will be addressing a much weakened political lobby. For just as Putin has embarrassed Obama with the Russian invasion of The Crimea and temporarily established that the U.S. is a paper tiger, Obama in turn faced down AIPAC and proved that, when push came to shove, AIPAC could not deliver on its determination to pressure the House of Representatives to press forward with the Menendez-Kirk Iran Sanctions Bill (S1881). AIPAC was not able to get the Senate on side and to round up enough votes in the House to override a Presidential promised veto, though Menendez and Kirk will introduce Netanyahu when he addresses AIPAC today. In spite of pressure from veterans, Republican Senators embarrassingly voted against veteran benefit legislation after their efforts to attach an Iran sanctions amendment had been stripped from the legislation. As American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Delinger said in a press conference last week, the vote of the 41 Republican Senators was “inexcusable”. It was a humiliating loss to the Republicans all around, but especially AIPAC.  Although they are no at all on the same level and the comparison if far fetched, nevertheless Obama’s dealing with AIPAC showed considerable resolve.

Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute  and of the Weekly Standard and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, reported in yesterday’s Tablet on AIPAC’s routing and fall from grace. For AIPAC tried to ride two widely diverging horses at one and the same time – bipartisanship and pressure for sanctions that became only a Republican issue. To save the principle of bipartisanship, AIPAC pulled its punches and folded into its corner by agreeing with Democrats in delaying the sanctions bill until the results of the Iran negotiations are further along, leaving the Republicans stranded without a vocal Jewish lobby behind it. There is now a danger that AIPAC will split and hive off a Z-Street of Z-Pac purely rightist Jewish lobby. Resolve on one side is helped by weakness on the other.

The AIPAC meeting today, haunted by the Iran issue and the question of the failure of Obama’s reset with authoritarian regimes, will be particularly poignant in light of rumours of Putin’s escalation of the crisis by demanding that the Ukrainian troops in The Crimea disarm and surrender and that the seamen aboard the Ukrainian military vessels (two) and the coast guard do the same. Russian official spokesmen have adamantly denied the rumours, but the Putin regime has lost all credibility since it insisted first that it had no intention of occupying The Crimea and then said it was doing so only to protect Russians, a clear and blatant lie if such a move requires evidence that Russians were under threat. I suspect the Russian Defence Ministry is correct, nevertheless, since Russia has no need to disarm the Ukrainian troops at this time, but then how do we explain the reports by Ukrainian naval officers to their government that the Russian Commander of the Black Sea Fleet visited the Ukrainian navel vessels and not only demanded surrender but threatened an attack? How do we explain Russian troops firing warning shots this morning at unarmed Ukrainian soldiers trying to repossess their aircraft? In any case, soon enough the Ukrainian military personnel in The Crimea will have to surrender just to be able to bring in provisions so the Russian military has no need to attack at this time.

In the interim, a key question in international law is the legitimacy of the current government. Russia backs Viktor Yanukovych who, contrary to his previous insistence that he would never ask for Russian military intervention, has now formally requested Russian military intervention in ALL of Ukraine “to establish legitimacy, peace, law and order, stability and defence of the people of Ukraine.” Edgar Savisaar, Mayor of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, urges Ukraine to establish a “strong” democracy, and claims the current government is radical and was put in place with baseball bats, and, thus, is not legitimate and even lacks the ability or power to hold free and democratic elections. However, the rejection of Yanukovich was voted on by parliament. That majority vote included many members of the President’s own party. However, those representatives of the Party of Regions were too few and the government is dominated by supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko and does include some “radicals”. Nevertheless, The Ukrainian parliament, with a majority 336 votes, including many from Yanukovich’s own party, voted to remove Yanukovich from the presidency.

Until yesterday, we had not heard nearly sufficiently about why Western democracies considered the current Ukrainian government legitimate and why Yanukovich, crook that he is, lacks any political legitimacy. Further, some detailed analysis is needed of the ostensible trigger, the passage by the Ukraine legislature to cancel the 2012 bill to permit Russian to be made an official language in regions of the Ukraine in spite of  Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov’s promise to veto the legislation. But the rationale does focus one’s attention on Putin’s invasion as an effort to protect the Russian ethnic significance in the Ukraine and his defining of all opposition to such an allegedly R2P (Responsibility to Protect) effort as resisted and defended only by fascists elements in the Ukrainian polity.

Let me deal with the legitimacy of the current Ukraine government first. Stephen Cohen called the effort (leaked) of US Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, and American Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, to analyze scenarios for supporting a democratic transition in the Ukraine as a plot to carry out a coup against a democratically elected president. But there is a difference between a coup and efforts to influence events through diplomatic means in a particular direction. The latter is not an example of neo-colonialism as isolationist realists like Jacob Heilbrunn (The National Interest 6 Fenruary) contend. As John McCain argued, this is very different than Putin using nineteenth century real imperial actions to intimidate and coerce a government. But the legitimacy of the current government still needs to be explained.

After attacking Putin’s rationale for his invasion as an effort to protect minorities and from radicals and anti-semites as a preposterous fabrication and the invasion as a breach of Article 2 of the UN Charter, Russia’s obligations under the 1975 Helsinki pact and its obligations under the 1997 bilateral Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Russia and the Ukraine, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ambassador Lyall Grant of the UK Mission to the UN, in addressing the Security Council meeting on Ukraine yesterday, provided the most solid and succinct answer to that challenge.

The Russian representative claims that Mr Yanukovich has called for Russian military intervention. We are talking about a former leader who abandoned his office, his capital and his country. Whose corrupt governance brought his country to the brink of economic ruin. Who suppressed protests against his government leading to over eighty deaths and whose own party has abandoned him. The idea that his pronouncements now convey any legitimacy whatsoever is farfetched and of a keeping with the rest of Russia’s bogus justification for its actions. The government in Kiev is legitimate and has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the Ukrainian parliament.

With the invasion of eastern Ukraine not only a prospect but possibly immanent, the West will have to take some military action and not just diplomatic and economic action. Will NATO invite the Ukraine to join NATO? Sensitive to Russian concerns about having NATO adjacent to its borders, NATO discouraged such an application by both Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, even though NATO had recruited 12 other former Soviet satellites to join, a move Malcolm Fraser of Australia and American Russian expert Stephen Cohen considered “provocative” and “unwise”. Further, previously, only 22% of Ukrainians supported such a move. But given Russia’s action, I suspect the mood of both Ukrainians and most of the legislature has radically shifted with respect to this issue.

This is the most urgent issue – determining whether NATO has potency or not in the face of an overt invasion without even the facsimile of a legitimate cause, at least for invasion — though possibly for concern. Russia considered the potential EU agreement itself to be a Trojan horse for NATO since the agreement included a clause that said: “The parties shall explore the potential of military and technological co-operation. Ukraine and the European Defence Agency (EDA) will establish close contacts to discuss military capability improvement, including technological issues.” Putin would regard Ukraine joining NATO at this time as a significant escalation. And it would be. But given Putin’s unwillingness to reconsider his invasion of Crimea, one could expect from such a pugilist a direct response not simply in fomenting trouble in Eastern Europe but a direct or indirect invasion be sending in “volunteers”.  This is the danger and the conundrum: how does the West respond with conviction, with determination and with effectiveness without setting off a 1914 sequence of actions and counter-actions that lead to war rather than de-escalation?

The second verbal part of the action – defence against the charge that the Ukraine Parliamentary actions are threatening the rights of Russians and other minorities in the Ukraine – requires attention. The Ukraine Parliament did act precipitously, and unnecessarily, in cancelling the 2012 law “On State Language Policy” and the right of the country’s regions, including Crimea with a majority of Russians, to make Russian, or other languages, a second official language if at least 10% of the population spoke that language. The cancellation of the law stood in blatant opposition not only to Russia but to the EU Parliament which called on the Ukraine parliament to protect the rights of minorities, including their language rights, and to respect the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Thirteen of Ukraine’s regions, 11 in the east, adopted Russian as a second official language. Two western regions introduced Romanian and Hungarian, respectively. The reality is that the rejection of the 2012 minority language law was both a snub to both Moscow and Brussels, but was NOT a justification for a Russian invasion. Even if some of the parliamentarians considered the law too generous and in need of modification, taking such action just after dismissing the President was unnecessary and rash. Part of the diplomatic efforts to get Putin to back off must include a promise to pass a new form of minority language laws.

After all, the Crimea was not the only eastern region to respond negatively to the cancellation of the law and the ouster of the President. Several regions rejected the appointed governor of the region and replaced that individual with a locally elected head. That means that the Kyiv Parliament has to enter into a dialogue with the regions and not simply run roughshod over their wishes and priorities.

This raises the question of Obama’s reset of his reset with Russia. Russophile and eminent Russian Expert, Stephen Cohen, has been perhaps the most prominent exponent of the initial reset arguing for Obama cooperating with Russia and Putin in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and in the battle against terrorism since that battle is a central interest of Russia. But as a contributing editor to The Nation, Cohen recently penned an essay, “Distorting Russia” in defense of Putinism and attacked what he alleged was the demonization of Putin and his portrayal as an autocrat. Even as Cohen continues to defend and apologize for Putin’s authoritarian and anti-gay Russian ethno-nationalist autocratic behaviour and urged Obama to go to Sochi out of gratitude to Putin, Putin was planning action that undermined the whole reset doctrine. Obama now must discard Cohen’s advice in light of Putin’s violations of international law and previous agreements and reset the reset. But how strong a reset will it be? How much should it also take into account Russia’s expressed concern with Russian minorities and rights and with the precipitous actions of the Ukrainian parliament?

Economic sanctions will also be considered and will undoubtedly be imposed, but the issue of sanctioning Russian oil and gas exports can be left to a later date, especially in light of Germany’s dependence of Russia for one-third of its supplies, at least until alternate sources can be put in place. But what then is to be done about the 40% of Ukrainian exports that go to Russia? What about Putin’s offer in December to reduce gas prices to the Ukraine from $400 to $268.50 per 1,000 cubic metres?  Ukraine will need massive amounts of economic interim aid while the Ukrainian economy is integrated into Europe. On the verbal as distinct from the action channel, there is a need to deal with three issues, first and foremost, what government is legal secondly, the minority language issue and why the plans for new elections broke down. More pragmatically, is there any real and immanent threat of Ukraine disintegrating into an ethnic war or is this just a projection of Putin’s own ethno-nationalism in giving as a key reason for his invasion the need to protect ethnic Russians?

Putin, the Crimea and Syria

I received a number of responses to yesterday’s blog, many of them almost immediate. Here is a sample:


“This is a beautiful and timely essay. Thank you Howard.”




“Uncanny — no? — how empires then partition the nations they reluctantly sire?


Actually, you could also flip the Sochi-Crimea story and say that what’s remarkable — and revealing — about Putin’s moves is his willingness to throw away $50b in Olympic spending to announce Russia’s resurrection into a 21st century ‘power’ by dragging it all down with a 20th century land grab.”



Don’t be so sure of Russia’s continued rise. It is a decayed and deteriorating society. He will bite off more then he can chew and indigestion will follow.

He’s a thug and he surrounds himself with thugs. He should be treated as such. Unfortunately the West is bankrupt, not only economically, but in terms of thought and especially leadership. When it’s the last quality we have really needed for the last years, golf appears a priority. Unfortunately, the US is governed by a rank amateur, and one that appears to have little regard for the truth, whose only saving grace is a corrupt congress.

Best Regards,”


“This is a very insightful analysis.

I have read both of Remnick’s books on Russia. Lenin’s Tomb was a masterpiece.
I will check out the New Yorker article. Remnick always writes so well.

I really enjoyed your article. I found it very valuable to understand modern Russia and Putin’s motivations.

Putin seems to know when to hold them and when to fold them.”



The Ukraine is now mobilizing. The question will quickly come to the fore whether the West is willing to challenge Putin militarily through NATO. We will very quickly see how Obama et al will handle a bully and whether Putin knows when to hold and when to fold. Some of this action will be played out on the periphery.



Putin, The Crimea and Syria


Howard Adelman


As the West and Russia clash over The Crimea diplomatically and economically, and the possibility of a clash militarily creeps closer in spite of the unwillingness of all parties, including Putin, to clash in that arena, what will the effect be on Syria? Whatever either the US or Russia henceforth do, there will be serious repercussions. One will be on the prospects of enhanced warfare in Syria as well as other fallout on U.S.-Russian relations. After all, Bashir Assad has been strongly supported by Putin and US backed off its red line when Russia got the Assad regime to surrender its chemical weapons.

As the situation deteriorates – and it will before and if it gets better – will the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal stop even though it is in no one’s interest to do so? That would be one way to counter the economic and diplomatic initiatives now underway by the West. Putin may send a signal, “If you do not cooperate with me when Russia’s vital interests are affected, if you seem on the verge of bringing NATO troops right up to the borders of Russia, if you seem to threaten the ability of the Russian fleet to mobilize and move through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, then my efforts to cooperate with the West must stop immediately.”

Further, the U.S., particularly American hawks, may now see an opportunity to resurrect its strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and offer real military support to the rebels, especially now that the radical Islamists, ISIS and al-Nusra, have totally fallen out. Hawks have been calling Obama a weak-kneed statesman, especially for trusting Putin and allowing Russia to become a key player in the Syrian peace talks. In taking up that role, Putin made sure that Assad would not be required to resign as a condition of peace. As a result, the peace talks were going nowhere fast.

The emptiness of those peace talks will become totally evident. They will end very soon and the West will not only have immediate decisions to make about NATO-Ukraine relations, but about its backing for the rebels in Syria with significant military supplies. The West has few ways it can influence Putin directly. As the action focuses on NATO and the Ukraine, other political and economic action will shift to the margins, particularly since Obama now owes Putin nothing for saving Obama from having to cross the red line and intervene militarily in Syria. Obama now has to calculate how he can weaken Russia’s leverage in the Middle East, weaken Assad, yet not strengthen the radical jihadists.

In opting for direct military action against all international norms and agreements, given his belief in the primacy of a president and his use of Parliament only as a rubber stamp, in getting the Russian Duma to authorize the deployment of Russian military forces in all of Ukraine and not just The Crimea, Putin has opted not to use proxies in Kyiv because they failed him. Putin has the “cover” of claiming to act on behalf of the legitimately elected government of the Ukraine. As John Kerry has said, that is a cover that is so transparent and thin as to be more revealing than concealing. Will Putin also desert his past record of caution and deliberate and stealthy moves now that the challenge is on his doorstep? He may or may not use direct action in eastern Ukraine, but he is bound to stir up the Russophiles.

Putin has repeatedly despised the way the USSR folded up and gave away its western frontier states because of its unwillingness to use force when the people revolted. He has always admired the way the Hungarian and Czech revolts were put down deliberately and decisively. Is he still convinced that NATO will continue to stand down in the face of a direct challenge when a society like Ukraine is on the verge of taking the next crucial step in throwing off the autocratic yoke of Russia?

Recall that Putin has his own domestic demons, a society he believes he can and, more importantly, needs to rally behind him in the face of alleged external threats. So his supporters peacefully rally without interference while those advocating peace and criticizing Putin are rounded up and arrested. Putin does not want to go the way of Recep Tayyip Erdogan where the endemic corruption of the extractive kleptocratic economy becomes apparent for all too see and he loses his last tenuous hold on the loyalty of the Russian people. What better way to rally the troops than giving proof that the U.S. and the West cannot be trusted and intend to surround Russia with military troops in its expansionist vision!.

The Syrian peace prospect has been dead for a long time. That announcement will soon be forthcoming, but there will unlikely be time for a funeral. There will continue to be an escalation in military activity on the Syrian front and Saudi Arabia hopefully will be pulled away at the last minute from its flirtation with Putin. As Putin moves speedily to foment dissent in Eastern Ukraine where Russians are decisively in the minority, distractions will be needed. Expect the periphery to heat up considerably as well.

 It already has. Assad’s escalation in the barrel-bombing campaign on Aleppo has driven out residents and rebels by the tens of thousands. What is the difference between the depopulation of Darfur of sources of rebel strength in the Sudan and the depopulation of Aleppo and its surroundings? After all, proxy forces, including both the Palestinian Quds Battalion and Hezbollah’s Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, have been active in cleaning up the villages around Aleppo of rebels leaving only the radical Islamists in contention, both with one another and the Assad regime. Will the U.S. finally supply the rebels with shoulder-launched anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and risk those weapons falling into the hands of jihadists? Will the U.S. provide direct military support for the rebel training camps and rally their morale? Will the rebels reassert themselves on the Daraa front to offset losses along the Turkish border? Will Obama decide that the regime needs to overthrown or will he allow the rebels to be beaten on the battlefield? Or is it already too late? Will Obama and the West reset the reset policy in time, but with care and prudence?

Putin and The Crimea

Putin’s High Risk Poker


Howard Adelman


David Remnick in the 3 March 2014 issue of The New Yorker, of which he is the editor, offers a wonderful portrait of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in his essay “Patriot Games”. After a preliminary and succinct introduction to Putin, Remnick begins the second section of his essay as follows: “Great powers seldom retreat forever. But to people who suffer their fall, the sense of diminishment is acute.” For Putin, the fall of the empire of the Soviet Union was humiliating. “Power, a sense of greatness, was slipping away.”

Remnick understands Russia. He is fluent in Russian and wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire a few years after the USSR fell apart. Since that time, Putin has spent his energies trying to reverse course, symbolically, spiritually and in terms of both geography and international influence. His $50 billion  Olympic Winter Games extravaganza took place beside the subtropical Sochi, not by accident next door to Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Putin managed to detach from Georgia in the all-too-brief Russian-Georgia war of 2008. Putin is in the process of repeating the exercise with the Crimea.

As Remnick writes: “Sochi was a theatrical event before it was a sporting event.” Sochi “wasn’t about ‘slope-style’ snow boarding; it was about the televised revival of a demoralized country.” Troops on the ground in the Crimea are part of the effort to make the symbolism real. Putin, the autocrat, frenetic macho muzhik, will not be deterred by a ninety minute conversation with Barack Obama who has found Putin’s moves into the Crimea objectionable. After the occupation, “Obama warned Russia not to violate Ukraine’s sovereign territory.” Had Obama already conceded that The Crimea was no longer part of Ukraine?

The Sochi games, in spite of and perhaps because of their enormous costs, were a triumph for Russia. The secession – perhaps blessed by a successful referendum for the autonomous region of The Crimea, if Putin thinks he needs that cover – is a forgone conclusion. Of the 2 1/4 million people (almost a third of a million in Sevastapol itself) in The Crimea, two-thirds are Russian and only one-quarter are Ukrainians. In a poll at the beginning of the twenty-first century, not one Russian in the Crimea accepted Crimea’s status as an autonomous entity within Ukraine while 15% wanted the Crimea to be made an autonomous republic within Russia. Almost all the schools in the Crimea until very recently taught in the Russian language and attempts to increase the number of schools in which the language of education is Ukrainian has been resisted. The Russian flag already flies over government buildings in The Crimea. The Crimea is as I write under the military and economic protection of Russia 

Obama is fighting a rearguard defence to try to ensure that the capture of eastern Ukraine, and perhaps even all of Ukraine, will not to follow. The fact that the military occupation of Crimea without even a fig leaf of a provocation was in blatant breach of international law and the 1997 agreement over the military and huge naval base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol is irrelevant to Putin. Putin crushed the domestic opposition within Russia two years ago, swept aside the psychedelic Pussy Riot protesters like a bothersome fly, and will ignore Western pressure.

Boycotting the G-8 summit in Russia in 3 months will follow. Russian oligarchs who partner with Putin in carving up The Crimea for economic exploitation may have their bank accounts and assets frozen in the West.  But what else can the West realistically do since it is clearly unwilling to go to war over The Crimea. The West will even pressure the new government of the Ukraine to be cautious lest it to be eaten up once again by the Russian bear.  The US will not accompany that caution by provocatively deploying its Mediterranean fleet into the Black Sea as the hawkish Charles Krauthammer has advised.

Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov of the Ukraine may have announced that the country’s armed forces have been put on the alert, but he will not mobilize. Assuming that he could even rely on his largely Russian trained and equipped army, the Ukraine will not want to give Russia a pretext to invade eastern or even all of Ukraine. What can NATO do to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine? Well it can do something. Ukraine could immediately vote to join NATO and be just as immediately accepted. A Marshall plan could be developed for the bankrupt Ukraine. The cost of the Russian success with The Crimea could be the final and permanent loss of the Ukraine to the renewed Russian imperial ambitions.

Putin will not take such a loss easily. Expect many efforts by the KGB to engage in many attempts at economic and political destabilization. He will not simply wait passively to see if Western economic and diplomatic intervention is successful.

However, the costs to the West will also be enormous – $35 billion dollars in life support over the next two years. (Putin’s counter offer of $15 billion was just a down payment.) Further, there are no guarantees of success even with Viktor Yanukovych taking refuge in Russia. The opposition that just came to power in the Ukraine is bitterly and deeply divided, of which the split between Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushshenko is only the surface. Ukraine’s underlying situation is even worse. Its population was 52.5 million when the USSSR fell apart. Although there was a brief burst in the early nineties when a million and half repatriated to the newly independent Ukraine, the population was down to 48.5 million at the last census in 2001 and 45.6 million in 2012, 80,000 less than in 2011. Death rates, among the highest in Europe with very high rates of acute and chronic suicide (smoking), exceed birth rates of only 1.4 per female; emigration was greater than immigration until 2005. Locally-born kleptocrats robbed the Ukraine blind when the Ukraine finally got on the bandwagon of economic growth.

Ukraine is riven with ideological, religious and ethnic divisions. The 77.8% Ukrainians population is divided between Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox (50-60%) enjoying full communion with The Vatican with a small Roman Catholic population. The 17.3% Russian population, much less now with The Crimea detached, is concentrated in the Eastern Ukraine and no where outside of Crimea constitutes a majority. With the de facto excision of The Crimea from the Ukraine, its Tartar problem has been delivered back to Russia. However, there are significant concentrations of Romanians, Moldovans, Bulgarians and Hungarians (160,000 of the latter in Transcarpathia) in Western Ukraine. If Ukraine can get its political act together and if it can sign the deal negotiated with the EU, Ukraine could follow the Polish path to prosperity, as well as gain a heightened sense of morale and national purpose, unfortunately without The Crimea.

So the West will bail the Ukraine out and help integrate it into the EU. The West will provide help in stabilizing its democracy. Obama will have no choice except to be the Neville Chamberlain who surrendered the Sudentenland of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, but he will not sign an agreement acceding to the seizure of The Crimea.