Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fifteen Years of Putin

As the Russian President looks forward to the fifteenth anniversary of his first election to office, we consider some of the factors that explain his extraordinary political success. 
 Tue, Apr 28 | 2,283 22
The latest documentary on Putin shown by Russian television appears to be timed to coincide with Putin’s 15 years in office.
I should say that I do not entirely understand the timing. Putin became acting Prime Minister on 9th August 1999. He became formally Prime Minister on 16th August 1999. It was fairly obvious (at least to me) that he was running things and that Yeltsin had been pushed aside thereafter.
Putin then became Acting President on 31st December 1999. He was elected President (with 53% of the vote) on 26th March 2000. He was formerly sworn in as President on 7th May 2000.
None of these dates seem to me to correspond with any anniversary over the last few days and as I have said Putin was actually exercising effective power for some months before he formally became President.
Putting that aside, I don’t think anyone would seriously disagree that he has been far and away the dominant figure in international politics over the last 15 years. Even his many detractors have to agree. The vast literature they produce abusing him shows what an extraordinary hold over the world’s imagination he has.
So what qualities does Putin have that have made him so politically dominant?
The first point to make is that Putin is powerful because he is a Russian who is the leader of Russia, which is one of the world’s most powerful countries. 
This banal point is rarely made but the fact is that if Putin had been born in Guatemala or Katmandu or indeed in Britain or France or Japan he would not have made anything like the impact that he has. Much of what people attribute to “Putin” (whether for good or ill) they should correctly attribute to Russia. 
I have previously spoken of the danger of the unhealthy conflation of Putin with Russia that is so common in the West. Russia is more than Putin and Russia matters. Indeed it is one of the great powers of this world and the last 15 years have been a lesson proving that. Westerners who treated Russia as down and out and who now rage against Putin are basically angry because he and Russia have proved them wrong.
Putin does nonetheless possess certain essential qualities that explain his success. I would emphasise three:
1. Putin is an exceptional politician who understands the Russian mind. It is no exaggeration to say that his heart beats with Russia’s. That does not mean that all Russians always agree with him or that everything he does is popular. Nonetheless he has an extraordinary instinct (which no amount of opinion polling can ever replicate) for what most Russians want or think.
2. He listens to advice and takes it from the right people. I have never felt with Putin that he makes his decisions on the hoof or on whim. 
He has put together a very capable and professional team to which he is intensely loyal and which in turn is loyal to him. 
He is careful to take his advice from those who have genuine knowledge of a subject. Thus he takes advice on financial or economic policy issues from people like Ulyukaev and Siluanov (and formerly from Kudrin and Gref) and on security issues from people like Patrushev and Shoigu and not from the enthusiastic amateurs that most other leaders (including previously Gorbachev) like to take advice from. The result is that his decisions are invariably well-informed even if they are not always right.
3. He has the power of decision. We saw this in action last year when he acted decisively over the Crimea. We have seen it again over the last few days when he went to Yerevan to commemorate the Armenian genocide. Contrast this with the contorted obfuscations and over-complicated and pusillanimous evasions of western leaders who have arguably less to lose where relations with Turkey are concerned. 
Needless to say, precisely because he makes decisions, leaders of countries like those of Saudi Arabia, Israel or Turkey, respect him even when they oppose him. By contrast Western leaders, who appear to have all lost the power of decision, respond with bafflement and jealousy.
I don’t pick out these three factors as the only ones that explain Putin’s success. Others will point to his high intelligence and his capacity for hard work. 
Some of his strengths also reflect weaknesses. His grasp of the hearts and minds of Russians does not extend to the intelligentsia to the same degree, which is why he has been less successful with them (though that is probably to underestimate what difficult people some of them are). This is a pity because his public comments show that he is actually a well read and even erudite man. I suspect that a lot of the trouble is that deep down they feel that he doesn’t pay them enough attention, which given the extraordinary demands on his time must be difficult to do.
Regardless, those are my views about some of the reasons why Putin dominates both Russian and international politics to such an amazing degree with no challenge in sight.

Cohen: Kiev Deliberately Undermining Minsk 2 Agreement

The US-backed Ukrainian leadership is making every effort to sabotage the Minsk accord, Stephen F. Cohen emphasized, warning that the alternative to the Minsk 2 agreement is a larger war between Moscow and Washington
 UKRAINE Mon, Apr 20 | 704 7

The Ukrainian leadership is deliberately undermining the Minsk 2 agreement, brokered by Germany, France and Russia in February 2015, underscored Stephen Cohen, a prominent American historian and professor of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, noting that Kiev can do nothing significant without Washington’s backing.
The historian referred to a number of legislative bills signed by Ukraine’s President Poroshenko, who evidently reversed the promises made by Kiev during the Minsk negotiations. Although Poroshenko himself approved the Minsk accord, since then Kiev has acted in contradiction to the deal.
Furthermore, several days ago the Ukrainian President announced that “any concept of federalization or home rule was a poisonous cancer that would destroy Ukraine,” the professor noted.
Another nail in the coffin of the Minsk deal is the legislation banning Communist ideology and symbols and eventually equating communism to Nazism. The point is that the majority of those civilians who supported the Communist party of Ukraine are living in the East, the historian underscored.
On the other hand, the legislation is not a good sign for democracy in Kiev, since it imposes censorship. The Communist party of Ukraine has long been a very important party, enjoying public support in the country. Now it is banned and anyone who speaks in favor of this party is committing a criminal offense, according to the new law, the historian pointed out.
“Electorally, politically it is undemocratic,” Stephen Cohen noted.
At the same time Kiev is supporting ultra-nationalists, adding fuel to the fire of the political crisis in the country.
Remarkably, Kiev’s anti-Minsk stance is evidently supported by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington, the historian emphasized.
The professor noted that Washington continues to blame the Kremlin of the Ukrainian crisis and “military aggression” against Kiev. Still, the US and NATO leaderships failed to provide any evidence of Russia’s alleged engagement in the Ukrainian turmoil.
By aggravating further tensions with Moscow over Ukraine’s crisis, Washington and its allies risk dealing a severe blow to the current geopolitical status quo in Europe. Russia is still an important element of global security and it cannot be isolated, the historian stressed, referring to the fact that since the West imposed sanctions on Moscow, the Kremlin has signed a huge number of international deals, much more that the US itself.
While Washington urges EU leaders to toughen their sanctions policy against Russia, it is obvious that the majority of NATO European allies are against direct confrontation with Moscow and a military resolution of the conflict. The US’ irresponsible policy may lead to an undesirable transformation of geopolitics in the European region, the professor warned.

How the Senate Armed Services Committee Is Undermining Minsk II

A peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine may be at risk 

By James Carden
The Nation

On April 28 three European foreign ministers—Serbia’s Ivica Dačić, Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Switzerland’s Didier Burkhalter—met in their capacities as members of the OSCE’s Ministerial Troika to discuss the latest developments in eastern Ukraine. According to the OSCE, the foreign ministers “reiterated that [the Ukraine] crisis can be resolved only through peaceful means and that the political process in that regard should be advanced without delay” and “called on all sides to fully and unconditionally respect the cease-fire.”

Meanwhile, on April 26, Financial Times reported that Kiev is coming under increased pressure from Western European capitals to do its part to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement. According to FT, German diplomats expressed frustration that Kiev is “dragging its feet” in implementing the agreement. For his part, French President Francois Holland has warned Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that “the only line of conduct is the full implementation of the Minsk accord.”

Yet it seems these calls for a peaceful solution to the crisis are not only falling on deaf ears, but are also purposefully being undermined, in Washington.

To wit: the same day the aforementioned troika met in Belgrade, the 28th, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on “United States Security Policy in Europe,” though perhaps, given the tenor of the hearing, it should have been held under the rubric “The Russians are Coming!”

Armed Services Committee Chairman, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), got right to the point, running down a list of Russia’s sins—real and imagined. He derided the Obama administration’s “so-called reset” policy and warned of Mr. Putin’s “neo-imperial objectives.” McCain accused Russia of violating the Minsk II cease-fire agreement and hectored NATO allies to follow the example of Poland and Estonia and increase its defense expenditures. Unbelievably, McCain closed his remarks by telling the gallery, which included a visiting delegation of Ukrainian parliamentarians, that “none of us wants to return to the Cold War.”

Depressingly, there seemed to be little daylight between McCain and the committee’s ranking member, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI). Both he and McCain have called on President Obama to “provide defense lethal assistance” to Ukraine. Only Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) expressed any skepticism towards the idea of sending lethal aid to Ukraine. The situation that pertains in the Washington of 2015, is in stark contrast to the previous Cold War. Today, it would seem, Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a contest of who can ‘out-hawk’ the other on Russia.

McCain and Reed set the tone of Tuesday’s hearing by striking a martial note at the outset, and the witnesses, representing the Council of Foreign Relations, the Fletcher School of Diplomacy and the Atlantic Council, were all too happy to pick up where the Senators left off.

The most hawkish of the three, the Atlantic Council’s Ian Brzezinski (perhaps channeling his father Zbigniew), opined that the United States should impose tougher sanctions on Russia in order to “aggressively shock the Russian economy by shutting off its energy and financial sectors from the global economy.” Further, Washington should “provide military equipment to Ukraine, including air defense and anti-tank weapons as well as key enablers, such as drones…”

Most alarmingly, however, was Brzezinski’s recommendation to grant the NATO supreme allied commander the “authorities necessary to deploy in real time against provocative Russian military operations,” thereby taking the decision to go to war with a nuclear armed power out of the hands of the commander in chief and transferring it to the NATO commander in Brussels.

Two days later, as it happened, it was that very NATO commander’s turn before the Armed Services Committee. US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who, according to a recent article in Der Spiegel is viewed by many European diplomats as a serial exaggerator, told the committee that NATO’s principle concern is a “revanchist Russia” which in his view is a “global, not regional” threat.

Since, in his view, the current lull in the fighting in eastern Ukraine is only allowing Russia to “prepare for another offensive” it would “not make sense to take any of our own options off the table.” Indeed, later on in the hearing, in response to a question from Senator McCain, the general said, “I support the use, um, [quickly correcting himself] the consideration, of offensive military aid …” His referencing of “offensive” weapons raised an eyebrow from Senator Reed who quickly interjected to ask if the general had misspoken. Breedlove confirmed that he had not.

Breedlove’s testimony also inadvertently helped confirm the basis of one of Russia’s principal objections to American policy: that it is being hedged in on all sides by the American military. Breedlove testified about what he called a Russia Strategic Initiative which seeks to coordinate the various combatant commands which border Russia: CENTCOM (US Central Command); EUCOM (US European Command); USNORTHCOM (US Northern Command); USPACOM (US Pacific Command), the better to respond to a future Russian offensive.

Breedlove also praised the US European Command’s Ukraine Joint Initiative which has carried out a series of 25 visits to Ukraine with the goal of helping Kiev identify and address its most urgent military needs. Breedlove also noted that NATO is “war gaming and table topping scenarios” in the event the US decides to arm Ukraine. Should we fail to send military assistance to Ukraine, the General warned, somewhat paradoxically, that “inaction is also an action and the Russians will react to that as well.”

And so, it is hard, given the tenor of the policy discussion on Capitol Hill over the past week, to escape the conclusion that President Obama is under intense pressure—not only from both political parties, but also, disturbingly, from the NATO supreme allied commander—to wade ever deeper into the Ukrainian morass.
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