Saturday, March 11, 2017

Russia, Ukraine and parsing politicians' positions on foreign affairs

Wolfgang Münchau's Eurointelligence (How to think about Russia 03/10/2017) links to a nearly three-year-old article by Karl-Heinz Kamp at the Carnegie Europe center, Bad Idea, Vladimir! 04/04/2014, that looks at the standoff between Russia and NATO over Ukraine and Russia's annexation of the Crimea that year. He argues that from the Russian viewpoint, re-annexing the Crimea (which was part of Russia from 1783 until 1954), may have taken on more of a burden than a blessing:

In the context of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal to reestablish at least parts of Russia’s bygone empire, the annexation of Crimea looks like a smart move. Yet so far, the cost-benefit analysis of this illegal step seems to leave Russia in the red.

Before the Anschluss, Moscow controlled the whole of Ukraine through the compliant regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych. In the future, Russia will be able to sway only parts of a country that is on a slippery slope toward disintegration. Unwittingly, Putin added another source of instability to his already shaky Russian empire.
The downsides, of course, have a lot to do with the reaction of NATO countries. Kamp describes the lines of confrontation:

However, what looks like a negative cost-benefit analysis for Russia raises concerns in many NATO member states. Since Putin appears too smart to strike a bad deal, it is fair to assume that Moscow assesses costs and benefits differently from the West. If that is the case, Russia might be ready to take even bigger risks than just occupying Crimea to score points at home. The long-standing axiom that Russia would never dare commit an act of aggression against a NATO member because the repercussions would be too dangerous for Moscow could prove hollow.

Baltic governments anxiously ponder the scenario of Russia stirring up unrest among ethnic Russians in their countries to have a pretense to “protect” its citizens abroad. For instance, how would NATO react if Russian forces occupied a 30-mile-wide strip of Estonian border territory as a “safe haven” for ethnic Russians and provided them with Russian passports? Would it send in the NATO Response Force and start a major war over 30 miles of land? Doing nothing would mean the end of NATO as a functioning alliance. [my emphasis]
This is a real dilemma, even if our neocons and "humanitarian hawks" see it as an opportunity, adding the Baltic states to the NATO alliance in 2004 was a reckless move. Or at minimum, not well considered.

Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were also added to the alliance in 2004. Albania and Croatia followed in 2009. But unlike former Warsaw Pact members Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were directly incorporated into the old Soviet Union. It's not hard to understand that, whatever the moral or legal claims may be, the closer NATO's borders get to the border of Russia, the more concerned any Russian policymaker would be about it.

The post-World War II Western decisions about policy toward Russia are still debated today in the historical sub-field of Cold War Studies. The post-1989 Western policies toward Russia will no doubt be debated for a long time, as well. But in 2017, we are where we are.

Kamp links to a Reuters report from 2014 that discusses the position of three former German Chancellors on Russia and the Ukraine/Crimea crisis (Erik Kirschbaum, Putin's apologist? Germany's Schroeder says they're just friends 03/27/2014):

[Gerhard] Schroeder is hardly alone with his criticism of the West. Two other former chancellors, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, have also questioned the treatment of Putin and Russia.

Schmidt, a Social Democrat like Schroeder, has called sanctions against Russia "dumb", saying in the latest edition of Die Zeit: "It would be better, in the interest of peace, to sit down and talk instead of threatening sanctions."

Kohl, a Christian Democrat (CDU) like Merkel, told Bild newspaper in mid-March: "The upheaval in Ukraine was not handled intelligently. There's also been a lack of sensitivity with our Russian neighbours, especially with President Putin."
Schröder does have an obvious financial interest in defending Russian foreign policy positions. But that doesn't necessarily mean his advice is bad on the topic. Especially since two other former Chancellors were expressing similar concerns in 2014. It's worth noting that Schröder's Foreign Minister, former Green leader Joschka Fischer, also worked for Russian energy interests after he left office. But he was far more critical of the Russians' actions in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, he leans toward the hawkish side on NATO affairs in general. (See: Ralf Neukirch,
The Eternal Rivalry of Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schröder Spiegel International 02/15/2010)

The following also notable, in light of current news in the US. A green Member of Parliament is quoting as calling the former Chancellor as basically a Russian stooge:

"Schroeder is spreading the Kremlin's propaganda and everyone should understand that he's now a paid spokesman for Russia," said Manuel Sarrazin, who sits on the European affairs committee of the German parliament for the opposition Greens.

"He's in the service of Russia with a big conflict of interest," Sarrazin told Reuters.
Kirschbaum's report also refers to a TV report, "An ARD TV investigation, called 'The dubious activities of the ex-chancellor on Putin's behalf', said Schroeder took part in a secret meeting at the Russian embassy in Berlin on March 4, three days after Putin announced his right to invade Ukraine."

It's worth mentioning here that Chancellor Willy Brandt had to resign in 1974 after it was discovered that one of his closest staff, Günter Guillaume, was exposed as an East German spy. But he really was a spy. It wasn't a matter of him having some undisclosed meeting with an East German diplomat during a political campaign.

My point here is that we need to take conflicts of interest into account in the position officials or major public figures take on foreign policy. For instance, our ExxonMobil Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was previously the CEO of a company that once had a deal for $500 billion worth of business with Russia, a deal that was put on indefinite hold by the Obama Administration's sanctions on Russia over Crimea. It would be foolish to disregard that aspect of his experience.

But having political positions that match up to those of a foreign government or political group isn't a sign of corruption or treason. Though either could lead to that result. Foreign policy is largely about deciding which countries to favor and which to oppose. And on which issues.

And Germany has its own particular national interests with Russia: "Berlin's economic links with Moscow are much stronger than those of other big Western powers. Germany is the biggest buyer of Russian natural gas exports, and its government has tended to tread more carefully than the United States, Britain or France."

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