By Frank Thomas and John Lawrence
So Why is This Obama’s Problem (J. Lawrence)
Without any cooperation from Congress, Obama is relegated to using his executive powers to try and effect some meaningful action on his domestic agenda for which the Congressional Republican response is, “Let’s sue him.” The Republican House not only will not cooperate with Obama on any level, they actively oppose his every move. They are worse than a “Do Nothing” Congress; they are an active “Try to Make Obama Fail No Matter What He Does” Congress. The only legislation the Republicans in Congress would support is if Obama suddenly came to them and proposed a massive tax reduction for the rich and a concomitant tax increase on the poor and middle class. Or if he proposed to do away with Medicare and Social Security. Then they would line up in support of Obama and cheer him on.
Obama is tied down like Gulliver by the Lilliputians. Obama would like to do something about America’s aging infrastructure, the latest example of the weakness of which was the recent breaking of a hundred year old water main in Los Angeles resulting in the spewing of 20 million gallons of water that destroyed the Pauley Pavillion and 400 cars. And all this in the middle of the worst drought the state had ever seen.
Where Obama does have some freedom of action is in foreign policy because, after all, he is Commander in Chief. He does not have to ask Congress’ permission to get involved in that except they will criticize his every move in that domain as well. So in order not to be entirely irrelevant, the alternative is to strut the world stage and have a little face off with Vladimir Putin. That commands the world’s attention and puts Obama in the spotlight. The Putin-Obama spectacle is a made for television duel at the highest level. Take that you sorry assed Republicans. Who’s in command of the world situation and the media visibility now?
Of course the Europeans are not so agitated by Putin’s maneuverings in his own back yard as if what happens in Ukraine is really that critical to the world’s equilibrium. To his credit Obama is not proposing military action in Ukraine like some Republicans – if they had the chance – would do. He is taking a rather moderate level-headed approach as is his wont. But why is he concerned at all? What business is it of his? Whatever happens there does not affect US interests one bit. In fact, the best thing from the European and US point of view is that the situation becomes stabilized one way or the other so we can get on with business as usual. Business as usual is the outcome the Europeans want, and mostly they couldn’t care less whether it’s with a Ukraine that has been absorbed into Russia or with a stand alone Ukraine. Either way Ukraine is a basket case and will need outside help. Why not let that be Russia’s can of worms? Does the US and the EU really want to be in the position of sending financial aid to Ukraine?
Instead Obama has proposed sanctions on Russia and now he is upping the ante – more sanctions. Sure this will hurt Russia, but it will also hurt Europe, America’s ally, since they do far more business with Russia than the US does. Putin now has retaliated saying that Russia won’t accept shipments of certain crops from the West. In other words, both sides are trying to hurt the other in terms of the normal peace time activity of trade. And both sides are shooting themselves and each other in the foot. Now Obama has even sent troops into Ukraine to train and equip its National Guard. Nice provocation.
What’s in it for the US? Nothing, but it is a theater in which Obama can play a starring role remaking himself in the traditional American role of telling the rest of the world what they can and cannot do. If Obama had butted out of the situation, Republican hawks would have a field day calling him weak and ineffectual. They still are doing that because they will settle for nothing less than a military confrontation with Russia or at least another Cold War. Defense contractors are licking their chops.
Long story short: Obama, in order to command some attention on the world stage, needs to engage with his arch nemesis, Putin, to bring some drama to the White House and not to seem totally irrelevant – when being pinned down and forced into a corner by Congressional Republicans who are bolstered by hate talk radio busy whipping the American listening public up into a frenzy. It’s mano a mano or superhero (Obama) vs superhero (Putin). Here Obama is playing with fire. Putin considers himself Obama’s equal on the world stage and most likely doesn’t appreciate being talked down to. The situation could easily escalate beyond sanctions.
Most likely though Obama’s sanctions will come back to haunt him in the long run. Sure the American dollar is the world’s reserve currency, and as such, not allowing Russia to settle accounts using the dollar, which is what sanctions amount to, puts Putin in a bit of a stranglehold. However, as a recent conference among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations has made clear, there is a movement afoot to establish another world currency. Obama’s sanctions will only hasten the day when that becomes a reality and the dollar will no longer be able to dominate the world’s currencies. At that time, sanctions will be meaningless. The BRICS have aspirations to challenge the dominance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
This is from Voice of America:
When news broke last month that the so-called “BRICS” nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – had agreed to form their own development bank, some analysts feared the new body would be little more than a political bloc. But others are welcoming the plan, saying the world needs help when it comes to development finance.
Leaders of the BRICS nations meeting in Brazil last month reached an important agreement: they would create a development bank to counter the West’s dominance in international finance.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff:
“The new BRICS development bank should have an initial authorized capital of $100 billion dollars. And an initial subscribed capital of $50 billion dollars equally distributed between its founding members, the five BRICS countries,” said Rousseff.
Some analysts worried – since international finance has long been the territory of established institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, founded and run by Western nations.
Perhaps western analysts will not be so sanguine when other nations, particularly Russia and China, will no longer need the US dollar in order to do business and settle accounts. At such time, Obama’s sanctions will be moot, and the US dollar will have lost a good deal of its preeminence. What that portends for the American people is debatable, but nothing much good can come out of it.
Where Does All This Bring Us – What’s the Solution? (F. Thomas)
It’s obvious Russia has serious problems today as an authoritarian democracy with a weak economic system totally dependent on oil/gas reserves. Putin’s Kremlin has many repugnant policies (e.g. Putin’s coddling of Belarus’ repulsive dictator), and the West has a few of its own (trying to place defense missiles near Russia’s border).
The Western media has a short memory of how Putin has stabilized an economically disintegrating nuclear-armed country. Also he has probably saved Obama’s Presidency and the waste of US military lives by persuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons. Putin then helped ease Obama’s contact with Iran. So Putin has done some good things for which he’s not given much credit. It seems like some politicians are only too eager to reestablish him as some sort of cold war boogie man.
And then there’s the mindless EU ultimatum that in a profoundly divided Ukraine the democratically elected President must choose between Europe and Russia – completely numb to the reality that there are two Ukrainian peoples utterly divided as to whether to join Europe or to remain close politically and economically to Russia. Putin’s proposal for a three party arrangement was prematurely thrown out by US and EU officials.
As to the question of how to come out of this chaos, Sergij Karaganov, a top advisor to Putin in a recent interview with a Dutch newspaper listed four scenarios:
- Russia gives itself over. That won’t happen.
- Russian troops enter the Donbass (contested area of eastern Ukraine). That would be another Afghanistan.
- Status quo. The fighting in Donbass continues. Ukraine collapses (it’s nearly bankrupt) and the manipulation goes back and forth.
- Russia claims the Crimea as a victory for democracy by virtue of the vast majority of pro-Russian Crimeans who voted for rejoining Russia (note: Putin also believes Crimea’s incorporation into Ukraine was constitutionally illegal). Russia then slowly exits out of the Donbass, offers housing to those who, by their cultural cohesiveness and skills, have an enormous potential. Russia keeps the political pressure on Kiev.
His conclusion: Scenario 4 is the best; scenario 3 is the most likely scenario. In all scenarios, Ukraine will be considered victims (pawns) by the West as well as Russia. The Ukraine is doomed. It has failed as a state.
My view is that Russia wants a failed Ukraine state so they can take it over.
A sensible and realistic, albeit not easy, strategic answer to the senseless breakdown among post-Soviet nations and East-West relations has been put forward by Stefan Meister. (see: “Rethinking the Eastern Neighborhood,” by Stefan Meister, 06-10-2014).
He recognizes that very serious sanctions, while probably not workable and mutually very costly, may be necessary if Putin continues to think further aggressive actions in the Ukraine or in other post-Soviet states or even towards Russia’s business elites – will not result in severe reactions. As he says, “Putin must understand that undermining a nation’s sovereignty, and perhaps its own economic stability, cannot stand without consequences from outside and/or inside.”
Meister takes a more EU open engaging approach in creating a new security and economic order including, not isolating, Russia. His strategic policy recommendations include:
- The current crisis stems from fact that after the East-West crisis, Russia has never been integrated in a functional European security system. There’s a lack of instruments to diffuse conflicts. In the long run, Europe and Germany must develop a new conference on security cooperation that includes Russia and other post-Soviet countries. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) needs to play a more prominent role in European security policy. The NATO-Russia Council and EU-Russian Summit are both politicized and poorly suited for conflict resolution due to their exclusivity.
- Debates about a new security order need to be initiated now, and EU member states should be prepared to guide them. The EU lacks debates on urgent strategic issues which could bring Brussels away from reactive policies.
- Instead of legitimizing Putin’s system by continuing cooperation offers which undermine its own value system, German policy needs to realize that change won’t be brought by post-Soviet elites but rather by society itself. Both Ukraine and other states in the eastern neighborhood require further financial and political support. Thus, intensifying the dialogue with civil society and alternative economic and political elites should be a key European policy priority.
- There is more at stake than the sole resolution of the Ukraine crisis. Above all, it is acceptance of unstable post-Soviet states might once have been convenient, but now is a huge problem in such a crisis situation. Russia’s dominance in post-Soviet conflicts have strengthened its sphere of influence and the undermining of the sovereignty of these states.
- Well-intentioned considerations for Russia on historical grounds cannot be the correct response to negative developments in the Eastern neighborhood. The intensification of social exchanges is essential in tackling this issue. A first move should not only include the simplification of visa requirements for small, privileged groups, but for Russian and Ukrainian society as well. Moreover, EU membership perspectives have to remain an option for all those Eastern neighbors who show an interest to reform and integrate, be it in 20 or 30 years time.
- Germany and Europe should resist importing Russian rules and informal decision- making structures by making compromises and instead confront these with their own fundamental universals values. Ultimately, the Ukraine crisis offers the chance to regain credibility and break wrong patterns of behavior. The longer we wait to act and invest, the higher the price will be.
Meister underplays Putin’s’s obsessive commitment to Eurasia – representing a “Russia that is not Europe, post-Soviet bordering nations that are economically integrated with Russia.” But I agree the core problem is a total failure to create a sustainable model of the relationship between the EU and Russia – one suitable to both parties and only achievable through serious dialogue. There are valid concerns the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy will undermine Eurasion integration – leading to severe economic losses and social hardships for Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, etc.
As Putin’s advisor, Sergij Karaganov, has said, “We need an identity that will take into account the changing world world around us and at the same time is based on a realistic assessment of our strengths and weaknesses.” However, Putin’s own delusional imperial ideas that largely mirror Aleksandr Gugin’s ideas are nurturing an invigorated new generation of nationalistic conservatives and radical activists – making constructive engagement extremely difficult. I doubt Putin is comfortable about this rising extreme right development.
It remains to be seen whether Putin can control the radical elements of Eurasianism and survive the exit of the money and investor classes if financial sanctions do prove very painful. Of course, a mutual sanctions war involving Russian gas supply blackmail and blockade of EU imports hurts Europe economically far more than the US.
Summary: (J. Lawrence)
Putin regards himself as following in a long line of Russian autocratic Czars including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. He wants to reestablish the dignity and glory of Russia whose pride was diminished by the demise of the Soviet Union. He can’t tolerate a NATO encroachment in his sphere of influence which could possibly place missiles on his doorstep, jeopardize his warm water ports in the Crimea and bind Ukraine in a military pact with the West. He would like to eventually absorb Ukraine back into Russia in the event it becomes a failed state which is all too likely.
On the other hand Obama needs to make himself relevant on the world stage since it’s impossible for him to make any progress whatsoever on his domestic agenda due to the intransigence of the Republican Congress. His freedom of operation and the area in which he can make a difference in the world is totally tied to his role as Commander in Chief. Therefore, of necessity he must concern himself mainly with those kinds of things. Maybe it’s a little too cynical to suggest that his face off with Putin is a made for television clash between super heroes or a bid for a Cold War redux, but it seems a little high handed to chastise Putin for his operations in Ukraine when the US would never tolerate Mexico becoming a member of the Warsaw pact or any other alliance with Russia much less having missiles placed on its border.
Now that the situation in Iraq has once more become Obama’s main concern, perhaps he will take a more relaxed stand in his propaganda war with Putin who after all is operating in the Ukraine much as Russian Czars have acted for hundreds of years. The Europeans’ main concern is to continue business as usual with Russia with whom they do a considerable amount of trade. The US has no vital interest in Ukraine so why is it provoking a stand off with Putin who has vital interests there right in his back yard including a large number of ethnic Russians?
Frank Thomas is a graduate of Bowdoin and Dartmouth colleges. He was an independent management consultant and entrepreneur working with Dutch international shipbuilding and offshore oil/gas contracting firms for many years.
In recent years, he has been a trainer for such firms as ING, DSM, Siemens, the Dutch Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Justice in The Hague and has been a teacher/lecturer at The Hague University and NTI University in Leiden, the Netherlands.