Swallow Hard, Start Over

It is a busy summer.  Economic Principals has many pots upon the stove and relatively little time to read the papers. That seems just as well most days. The news from Gaza, Ukraine, and the southern border of the US is uniformly heartbreaking.

I do, however, find time to look at Johnson’s Russia List whenever a new edition arrives.

David Johnson, EP readers may remember, is a longtime student of the former Soviet Union who since 1996 has tracked, more or less daily, what is written about Russia in the Western and the English-language Russian press. Johnson faithfully reproduces virtually all points of view, and only occasionally and gently intrudes his own, in the form of short precedes to the list.

““What we need is a comparative analysis of current levels of ‘nationalist hysteria’ in Kiev and Moscow so that an informed comparison can be made…. Where is I. F. Stone when we need him?” Johnson asked the other day, reflecting the fact that no persistent voice has yet emerged critical of the US stance. (I notice, though, that he  has begun to occasionally list relevant items  from the Ron Paul Institute.)

Because I have a continuing interest in the end of the Cold War, I pay $50 a year to receive an early email version of what Johnson posts a day or two later online. The email version both lists and conveniently displays the stories themselves. Johnson works a long week: yesterday’s list was the 162nd daily compilation of a year that was only 207 days old.

In the ten days since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down, Johnson has put up six lists containing 287 stories. At one point, he took note of the difficulty of keeping track: “I know that JRL is often too much to read. The problem is that exposure to a lot of information and analysis, often conflicting, is the only way to have at least a semi-informed view. That’s the hard, inescapable reality.”

I skimmed those six lists yesterday, after I decided to delay a complicated story in order to do some more reporting. I came across one dispatch, by the veteran Angus Roxburgh, that I thought did an especially good job of summing up the situation now facing the Obama administration. You can read it on the Guardian page, if you like, but I reproduce it here as well, in the same convenient form it came to me.

EP will be back next week.


The Guardian

July 22, 2014

Let Putin save face

The Russian leader hates being lectured. A change of tack could persuade him to disown Ukraine’s rebels

By Angus Roxburgh

Angus Roxburgh is a writer and broadcaster. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Moscow and Brussels, and also reported for the Guardian. His most recent book is The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia

Reading Vladimir Putin’s mind is notoriously difficult. But watching his latest video address, devoted to the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines catastrophe, I was struck by his appearance. The video was recorded hurriedly, at 1.40am, straight after Putin had been subjected to a barrage of not-very-diplomatic telephone calls from world leaders, threatening reprisals if he did not force his proxies in eastern Ukraine to act in a civilised manner regarding the victims of MH17.

No Botox could hide the bags under his eyes, nor powder his sweating skin, and his demeanour suggested he was fizzing with rage.

I suspect his fury is aimed not only at the Ukrainian government, which he continues to blame for creating the situation that led to the downing of the jet, and not only at the west for demonising him as a monstrous killer – but also at the band of rag-tag Russian separatist gangsters whose sheer incompetence has landed him in such deep ordure.

It is, of course, ordure of his own making. The rebels in eastern Ukraine took their lead from Putin’s annexation of Crimea; they derive succour from the Russian media; and they are fighting for a cause Putin backs. His security services provide intelligence and military supplies – including, most likely, the Buk missile that brought down the plane.

Whatever theories the Russian media may be spreading about Ukraine’s responsibility for the disaster, Putin himself must know the truth – that the bandits operating in his name are responsible.

The fact that they did it by mistake only makes things worse. It turns out that the Kremlin handed missiles to a bunch of drunken, gun-toting hotheads, incapable of doing what anyone with a smartphone app can do – identify a plane flying overhead.

This is not what Putin wants to align himself with, and I suspect he’s had fears about the leaders of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” all along. Back in May, he asked them to postpone their referendum on independence, and when they went ahead with it he declined to recognise its results.

The fact is, Putin does not want the Russian-speaking regions to break away from Ukraine. He has always spoken in favour of a federalisation of the country which would guarantee the language and civil rights of Russians living there.

This in itself is enough to infuriate Kiev, which sees the demand as interference in its internal affairs or as the thin end of a wedge. But the suggestion itself is not unreasonable. And it could provide the kind of get-out clause that would prevent the current terrifying situation from careering out of control.

The west needs to put pressure on Putin – but it needs to be the right kind of pressure. If there’s one thing I took away from three years of working closely with Kremlin officials, it was that Putin detests being lectured by outsiders, and tends to react badly to all criticism. There is not a single instance of his bowing to criticism by doing what the west demanded. There are plenty of instances of his doing the opposite. So David Cameron was right this weekend to combine his threats of further sanctions with a recognition that “there must be protections for Russian-speaking minorities” in Ukraine.

Putin must be looking, desperately, for a way to save face. If the MH17 trail leads, as it surely will, back to the rebels, he may disown them and say it had nothing to do with Russia itself.

The trick then will be for the west to steer him towards real engagement by promising constitutional talks with Ukraine, provided he takes resolute action to kick out the separatists – who, he has now discovered, are nothing but a liability.

Putin could well be president for the next 10 years, and we cannot afford a decade of cold war. It’s time to swallow hard, and bring the region’s dominant powerbroker inside the tent, to help ensure the integrity of Ukraine – and peace in Europe


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