A failure of American nerve
“Democracy needs champions,” President Biden said on December 9 as he called to order his summit of democracies. It sure does. Yet Biden has a funny way of championing it.
Less than a year into his term, the number of global democracies has already decreased by one. Two others are under threat of invasion and extinction. What happened in Afghanistan, and what might happen to Ukraine and Taiwan, is a reminder that democracies do not vanish because of a failure to pass a partisan agenda or win an election. They die when the rule of law collapses. And that can happen in two ways. A polity can descend into anarchy. Or an adversarial force can replace a democratic state’s monopoly on violence with its own.
Both threats are serious. The risk of internal decay was manifest in the riots of 2020 and the storming of Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021. The moment demands that both Republicans and Democrats recommit to the rule of law, to constitutional deliberation and procedure, to empirical evidence, and to civil peace. But domestic challenges should not blind us to external dangers.
Otto von Bismarck once joked that the United States is blessed to be bordered on two sides by allies and on the other two sides by fish. Not every democracy is as lucky. The fate of freedom elsewhere is tenuous. For the last 80 years, American power and American security guarantees have sustained and expanded the ranks of democratic nations. The tinier and more fragile the state, the more hazardous its neighborhood, the more it depends on American aid and American strength. Remove America from the equation, and the jackals take its place.
That is what happened when America cut off aid to South Vietnam in 1975. It is what happened only a few months ago when President Biden overruled his national security team and the generals on the ground and withdrew U.S. forces from Afghanistan with no plan for the evacuation of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents as the Taliban advanced. Was the democratically elected government of Afghanistan flawed and corrupt? Yes. Was its control limited to the major cities? You bet. Did it nevertheless provide countless Afghans (population of Kabul: four million) a measure of freedom, security, and opportunity in which they could pursue their destinies in peace? Incontrovertibly.
And it’s gone. Because Biden lacked the will to sustain a relatively low deployment of U.S. troops to aid Afghan forces. America’s weary democracy endures. Afghanistan’s does not. And the man who condemned Afghanistan to misery—and who incidentally also had no problem abandoning South Vietnam to one-party Communist rule—now says the contest between authoritarianism and liberal democracy will define the twenty-first century. What he says is right. But what he does is wrong. Terribly wrong.
Consider Ukraine. It too is a democracy—and it too must be worried about Biden’s resolve. For the second time this year, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has built up his forces across Ukraine’s eastern border. A Russian invasion is a real, if unlikely, possibility. Putin is not “securing his border,” as if Ukrainians were entering Russia illegally looking for work. There isn’t any. Nor does Putin “feel threatened” by NATO. He’s the one making the threats. He’s the one who annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014. He’s the one raising the prospect of a major military operation against an independent state. It’s funny how many of America’s most famous “nationalists” don’t seem to be bothered by imperialism, so long as the imperialists speak Russian.
President Biden is vocal in defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence. But he is also playing into Putin’s strategy of “reflexive control.” Biden agreed to a video teleconference with Putin that had one upshot: elevating the autocrat’s status. Biden warns of sanctions, an end to pipeline construction, and reinforcement of NATO allies in Eastern Europe. The trouble is that the measures would happen only if Putin invades. At this point Biden has done nothing concrete, has established no facts on the ground, to dissuade Putin from his present course. On the contrary: According to the AP, Biden wants Ukraine to recognize the “autonomy” of Russian-backed separatist zones. According to Bloomberg, he wants NATO members to negotiate with Russia over the future of the alliance.
Biden wants to avert war by naming potential reprisals. This is like telling your kid to behave or else you will send him to his room. Chances are he won’t listen. Why? Because he’s heard the same thing many times before without lasting consequences.
“I will look you in the eye and tell you, as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said to the White House press corps on Pearl Harbor Day. Let’s hope so. Whatever President Obama did seven years ago—and he didn’t do much—had no discernible effect on Putin. Why then should Putin be worried about Obama’s former vice president—especially since Biden currently opposes sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, hasn’t yet retaliated against Russian-backed cyberattacks, and is going out of his way to address Putin’s phony grievances?
Deterrence doesn’t run on promissory notes. Deterrence raises the cost of hostile action in the here and now. Which is why Biden’s video conference was a mistake, and why his preemptively ruling out U.S. boots on the ground was too. No one wants or expects the commitment of U.S. forces in the case of Russo-Ukrainian war—but no one should tell Putin he doesn’t have to worry about that possibility either. Deterrence is about keeping Putin on his toes: by calling for real increases in the defense budget, by reinforcing the Baltic states sooner rather than later, by selling drones and other lethal materiel to Ukraine, by pledging construction of additional liquefied natural gas facilities in Poland, Ukraine, and Latvia.
What’s happening in Ukraine today is the result of what happened in Afghanistan over the summer. And what might happen in Taiwan in the coming years depends on what happens in Ukraine now. The failure of American nerve in Afghanistan caught the attention of authoritarians everywhere (including in Iran). They watched as America bolted and a democracy collapsed. They saw that democracies don’t live or die on talk. Democracies live or die upon their willingness to use force to defend their way of life. And that willingness, in turn, depends on the leadership and support and resolve of the world’s oldest, richest, and most powerful constitutional democracy.
This isn’t theory—ask the Afghans. Democracies perish when America bugs out.
The United States should be prepared to act if Putin tries to repeat in Belarus what he did in Ukraine.
America’s great power competitors, China and Russia, are pushing back against the free world. China’s arc stretches from Hong Kong and the South China Sea through the Himalaya border with India and along the Belt and Road intrusions far into Europe. Its debt-trap strategy on the African continent is binding ever more governments to it. Meanwhile, Russia continues its expansionism from Syria, through Crimea and the Donbass all the way to Libya. Across these vast regions, they trample on democracy and the rule of the law, with the ultimate intention of pushing back against American influence. Belarus is becoming the latest theater of competition. Washington should make it unambiguously clear that Russian meddling against the democratic will of the Belorussian people will not stand.
President Donald Trump has succeeded in keeping out of new wars. His firm declaration of his intent to safeguard American national interests has held adversaries at bay, and he has maintained a strong enough defense posture so as not to have to respond to provocations, such as from Iran. Yet an aggressive move by Russia in Belarus on the scale of what took place in Ukraine would be another matter altogether. It is urgent for the United States to underscore how serious the consequences will be if Moscow takes an adventurist wrong step. Vladimir Putin should not think that he can occupy Minsk the way Brezhnev occupied Prague—but the United States should be prepared to act if he tries. This requires mobilization on multiple levels.
First, it is urgent to launch intensive diplomatic consultation with all the NATO members. The transatlantic alliance is not in the best of shape at the moment, to say the least. Some European allies bear a lot of the blame. The world just witnessed the vote of the Security Council where England, France and Germany chose to abstain from extending the arms embargo on Iran, as if more arms in the hands of the Mullahs will bring peace to the Middle East. The E3 are clearly upset at the Trump administration on a range of issues. Plus, European leaders tend to underestimate security threats. In contrast though, the prospect of Russian troops marching through Belarus to the border of the EU may prompt them to think again about the need for a robust defense cooperation. A repeat of the Yugoslav wars may be looming in the European northeast, including another wave of refugees, and Europeans will have to rediscover how much they need the transatlantic alliance. It is time for Washington’s diplomatic corps to be reminding them of the dangers in their neighborhood.
Second, diplomacy has to lay the groundwork for a suspension of the 1997 NATO Russia Founding Act. That post-Cold War document was premised on a non-adversarial relationship with Russia, and the expectation that Russia would contribute to European stability, democracy and peace. Moscow has broken that agreement time and again, in Ukraine, through assassinations in the United Kingdom and in Germany, and through the suppression of democratic forces domestically. The hour has long passed when NATO and the U.S. in particular should be reticent about stationing troops in the Central European countries that became free after 1989. NATO’s European members should hear America make that case and join in supporting defense build ups along the new eastern front that stretches from Estonia to Bulgaria. That troop repositioning will take considerable diplomatic and logistical efforts. The time to start is now. The decision to move troops from Germany to Poland is an auspicious first start.
Third, precisely those eastern flank countries need clear reassurance of American support. Fortunately, the Trump administration has succeeded in building firmer ties in this “new Europe,” but more could be done. A ministerial level gathering in Washington in the fall, including leaders from the Baltics, the Visegrad four, Rumania and Bulgaria would be an opportunity to signal Washington’s firm commitment to friends in those countries and to counteract the Kremlin disinformation campaign that is persistently active and outstrips the State Department’s own meager communication strategies. Yet of equal importance, a Washington gathering of the partners in Eastern Europe would signal to the world that the front line of freedom will not be surrendered to Putin’s addiction to military adventures abroad.
Fourth, it is time as well to pressure “old Europe,” especially the former front-line state, Germany, to live up to its commitments. At stake is not only the evergreen problem of burden-sharing, German underspending on defense. Even more glaring is Berlin’s persistence in collaboration with Russia on projects like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite objections of its European neighbors, despite Crimea, and despite killings carried out by Russian agents in Berlin, nearly in the shadow of the Chancellery. Germany should use its considerable influence in Moscow to forestall any meddling. To do so, it could make completion and operation of the pipeline contingent on Russia staying out of Belarus. Putin already has too much foreign fighting on his hands.
Belarus is part of the European theater, but it is also a piece of the encompassing global competition. Weakness in Northeast Europe will tempt adversaries in East Asia. One has to plan for worst case scenarios: a conventional Russian advance in Belarus could be followed by a Chinese move on Hong Kong or even Taiwan. Preventing such catastrophic developments requires clear expressions of commitment, fortifying our alliance and building a defense posture appropriate to today’s circumstances, not to the last war.
The innumerable pathways of history to successes or failures are richly paved with a plethora of knowledgeable, yet in many cases erroneous 20/20 hindsights by contemporary as well as future generations. A case in point is the stormy and acrimonious history of the novel state of Ukraine. Suffice it to say that the word “ukraina” had been used for almost a millennium to designate the outer territories of various states and empires but not a sovereign state. Throughout the 16th, the 17th, and the 18th centuries, most of today’s Ukraine was the regional name of the then existing border regions within the Polish Kingdom. From the end of the 18th century on, the word “ukraina” was replaced in the Russian Empire with its official designation as “Little Russia.”
World War I found the people who lived in the territory of today’s Ukraine in the crossfire between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Russia. Following the October Revolution in St. Petersburg, this territory was mired in a protracted civil war. Attempts at establishing a separate Ukrainian state failed both in Kiev as well as in Lvov. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles divided this territory among Poland, the Kingdom of Romania, the newly established state of Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.
During World War II, the joint invasion of Poland by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union expanded the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s territory westward. From 1945, and until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine remained an integral part of the Soviet Union. The subsequent Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine on August 24, 1991, established the independent Ukrainian state.
History matters. Calling the intervening three decades politically, economically, financially, culturally, socially, and ethically/morally tumultuous might be an understatement. Politically, a collection of lightweight political figures who used the presidential office to cement shameless corruption and indulged in personal enrichment, created a criminal state rather than a democratic republic promised in the constitution.
Economically, very few new enterprises of any national or international value were created. Profits were siphoned out of Ukraine faster than they were created. Financially, the value of the hryvnia was oscillating between total irrelevance and bare tolerance.
Socially and culturally, Ukraine is a veritable patchwork of about hundred thirty nationalities with their unique and separate languages and cultures. At least twenty two percent of the population is composed of ethnic minorities. Largest among them are the Russians, comprising at least seventeen percent of the population. Concentrating mostly in the southern and eastern parts of the state, they have built a fairly homogeneous and contagious ethnic enclave within the state. In addition, Romanians, Belorussians, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Polish, Armenians, and Hungarians rounded up the rich collections of larger ethnic groups inside Ukraine. The much hailed Euromaidan protests and the so-called February Revolution only deepened the historically existing divisions between the western and the eastern parts of Ukraine. Moreover, divisions among the smaller ethnic groups also have been exacerbated by the extreme fascist elements of the Ukrainian population. In particular, the Hungarian minority in the north-western corner of the state, with its unique language, have felt discriminated against and complained regularly about being oppressed by the majority ethnic Ukrainians.
Instead of mitigating and ultimately solving these problems, first the interim Yatsenyuk and then the elected Poroshenko governments failed to act upon the ethnic grievances of these minorities. By relying heavily on the Svoboda party, widely viewed as an ultra-nationalist, and even fascist political movement, which has espoused the late Bandera’s racist policies, and by turbo-charging corruption, both administrations failed miserably by forging Ukrainian national identity and state-wide prosperity.
As a result, Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia. Moreover, the separatist war in the south-eastern region of Ukraine has brought untold sufferings and the loss of human lives to the people since 2014. As a by-product, the all encompassing poison of corruption has enabled terrorists of many persuasions to use the territory of Ukraine to plot armed attacks against the whole of Europe and beyond.
Last spring, amid this total chaos, national elections were held. The reigning President Petro Poroshenko was soundly defeated and a popular actor Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President with an overwhelming majority in the Parliament (Rada), in Kiev. The new President’s mandate has included the total rejection of his predecessor’s policies, the ruthless elimination of corruption, the establishment of an honest and transparent government, and last but not least the restoration of peace and Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
On the last item, President Zelensky promised the voters during his campaign that if elected he would end the undeclared war with Russia. Once elected, first he began to push for the revival of the moribund Minsk Agreement of 2015. Predictably though, the irreconcilable interpretations of the agreement led both Russia and Ukraine into a complete political cul-de-sac. Next, President Zelensky moved to breathe new life into the equally moribund so-called Normandy Format of peace talks comprising the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany.
In order to bring about such a summit, President Zelensky pulled back the Ukrainian military from frontline positions in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, he committed his administration to implementing the so-called Steinmeier Formula, which designed a roadmap for elections in the separatist controlled territories of the Donbas region. These one-sided concessions sparked large-scale protest across the country. The subsequent summit that took place on December 9, 2019, in Paris, merely yielded three small commitments, including the exchange of prisoners, but no real tangible results. Since this summit, nothing of importance affecting the status quo has really transpired between Ukraine and Russia respecting the Donbas and Luhansk regions.
Beyond attempting to solve the civil war in the south-eastern region, President Zelensky has accomplished precious little domestically. Ukraine is still ripe for corruption. The economy has not been reformed and instead of developing, it has been regressing steadily. As a consequence, Ukrainians are leaving for Central and Western Europe in the hundreds of thousands. For all practical purposes, Ukraine is bankrupt. The IMF loan package is stuck in the Parliament, the Rada, the casualty of political and false patriotic squabbling among various interest groups. Even if the Rada would approve all the changes required by the IMF, the loan amount would only suffice to pay off some of Ukraine’s onerous mountain of debts.
Presently, Ukraine appears to be beyond redemption. The country’s political, economic and ethnic fragmentation is real and in the absence of a unifying national identity it seems to be unbridgeable. Ukraine’s breakup appears to be very likely. Whether such a breakup would occur peacefully or through a bloody civil war is still open to question.
Bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union and to NATO, or even elevating it to full membership in both organizations, are desirable objectives. However, such developments would surely raise strong resistance from the Kremlin. Realistically, excluding Russia from decisions concerning Ukraine’s future international orientation would only expedite its dissolution. Russia’s reaction to the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014, and the subsequent political developments, should be an unambiguous warning for the United States of America as well as the European Union. Clearly, the international nonpartisanship of Kiev is of extreme importance to the Kremlin. Crossing this “red line” would certainly trigger another indirect, or even direct, military intervention by Russia.Ultimately, Ukraine’s problems must be solved by its citizens. The United States of America and the European Union could help Ukraine. Yet, the best solution would be if Washington and Brussels would join forces with Moscow in establishing a truly democratic, prosperous, and non aligned Ukraine between the western and the eastern parts of the European continent.
There are uncountable narratives when it comes to the actual and perceived domestic as well as international predicaments of the newly independent state of Ukraine. As a rule, known facts are mixed with unsubstantiated rumors, which, in turn, give birth to fantastic conjectures, ungrounded intuitions, and outright lies in the service of partisan political interests. In reality, the Ukraine question is extremely complex. Yet in the United State of America, both politicians and the media present this complexity to the public from a one sided, exclusively distorted American perspective.
Meanwhile, successive and mostly short-lived Ukrainian governments have tumbled from ever escalating crises to misguided revolutions and repeated implosions in predictable intervals. First the two high ranking former communists dubbed the “Red Barons”, former President Leonid Kravchuk and former President Leonid Kuchma, made half-hearted attempts at the privatization of the state owned economy. Called the “voucher privatization” and originally aimed at distributing state assets judiciously among all Ukrainians, this privatization scheme resulted in the creation of the Ukrainian oligarchy. This development, in turn, deepened the already pervasive corruption that was the essence of the Soviet Union.
Then, following a badly botched presidential election, came the “Orange Revolution” that brought forth the allegedly enlightened and pro-Western Victor Yushchenko. Paralyzed by his petty and incessant bickering with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, he lost badly to his main rival, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. The latter was chased from office before his term expired by what was termed by the Kremlin as a coup d’etat but was viewed by the West as a popular revolution against Yanukovych’s vacillation to sign an association agreement with the European Union in Vilnius on November 28, 2013.
Almost immediately after the foiled signing of the association agreement, protests against President Yanukovych commenced. What later was elevated to the mythical heights of the “Revolution of Dignity” forced President Yanukovych to flee Ukraine. In the subsequent presidential election of May 2014, Ukrainians elected with overwhelming majority one of their country’s oligarchs, the “Chocolate King” Petro Poroshenko. In the interim, Russia invaded and then annexed the Crimea. To add insult to injury, Russia also has triggered an armed uprising in eastern Ukraine that has a significant concentration of ethnic Russians.
True to the past of the sovereign state of Ukraine, President Poroshenko did fail in an abysmal fashion, too. In the second round of the presidential election, on April 21, 2019, 73% of the Ukrainian voters chose a non-politician by the name of Volodymyr Zelensky as their new president. Clearly, the vast majority of Ukrainians decided to close the book on almost three decades of arrogant incompetence and shameless corruption by their politicians and oligarch allies. Finally, they expressed their desire to live and raise their children in a normally functioning, peaceful, and transparent state, politically as well as economically.
Although the lion’s share of the blame must be assigned to the Ukrainians themselves, American policy toward the independent sate of Ukraine was burdened by glaring incompetence, unrealistic illusions, erratic oscillations between Russia and Ukraine, and outright idiocy. Instead of assisting the newly independent Ukraine to establish the political and economic foundations of a unified state by harmonizing the old and new forces, the late President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton paid little if any attention to the troubled country. The formers son and his successor President Barrack Obama’s, attempts at interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs generally only made the situation worse. Especially, the Obama administration’s role in the early and violent removal of President Yanukovych proved to be a double edged sword. On the one hand, President Poroshenko was unable to accomplish the objectives of the Maidan revolution. On the other hand, it triggered Russia’s direct intervention in the Ukrainian mess. Moreover, Vice President Joe Biden’s private diplomacy to help his son Hunter Biden enrich himself and the family gave license to President Poroshenko and the oligarchs to continue unabated their corrupt and destructive activities within and outside Ukraine.
As a result, President Volodymyr Zelensky has inherited a situation in which the oligarchic system was discredited and the democratic values of the United State of America have become objects of ubiquitous scorn. Presently, Ukrainian society is completely traumatized and gripped by an existential fear of enormous proportions.
What can and needs to be done? One does not have to look further for a possible solution that to the almost identical history of the Republic of Finland and its troubled relations with imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and today’s Russian Federation. For centuries, Finland had managed to balance its relationship with Russia and its loyalty to the rest of Europe. From the Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire to the wars against the Soviet Union in 1939 and in 1944, which resulted in Finnish territorial losses, the country survived the Cold War’s Finlandization period. Presently as a full member of the European Union and a close cooperating state with NATO, Finland follows highly pragmatic policies vis-a-vis the Russian Federation. In a recent interview with Bloomberg: Business News, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto described his country’s attitude toward its powerful neighbor thus: “A Cossack takes everything that is loose. You have to be very clear and not let things become loose.”
President Zelensky would be well advised to follow this old Finnish wisdom. He will have to show firmness and resolve with Russia. Furthermore, he must be practical. He must know Ukraine’s strengths and limitations. Becoming a member of the European Union is clearly attainable. Full membership in NATO presently is not. However, being prepared for future Russian aggressions is within the capabilities of Ukraine. To achieve these goals, the Zelensky administration will have to move ever closer to the West by relentlessly promoting Western values inside Ukraine and simultaneously maintaining normal relations with Moscow.
Peace, stability, and prosperity have always been the Sisyphean endeavors of mankind. No doubt, President Zelensky will have to show real leadership. Otherwise, he and Ukraine will end up on the dust heaps of history.
Column: How wealth and cronyism transformed American democracy
Ironies pile up. Both participants in the July 25 call between President Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky are outsiders whose fame catapulted them to high office. Foreign policy experts assumed their similar profile would promote goodwill and understanding. That was incorrect. This star-crossed encounter has damaged the careers of both men. It also has thrown light on the nature of their societies.
Reality TV star Trump leveraged social media and anti-establishment politics into a takeover of the Republican Party. In his television show Servant of the People, comedian and filmmaker Zelensky portrayed a high school teacher whose rant against the political class goes viral and becomes the basis for a successful presidential campaign. Servant of the People debuted in 2015 and proved disturbingly prescient. In a double case of life imitating art, both Trump and Zelensky wound up portraying versions of Zelensky’s character Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko in real life.
What is real life? These days it is hard to tell. The impeachment drama commingles fact and fantasy, ineptitude and insinuation, in a plot that may be more familiar to Ukrainian audiences than to American ones. The opening scene of Servant of the People takes place on a balcony in Kiev overlooking the Maidan. Three oligarchs discuss the forthcoming elections and the rival candidates they support. At the end of the day, the trio concludes, all that matters is they maintain control of the political process. That’s not how it works out.
The show is a comedy. And there are certainly humorous aspects to the present situation. But, if you watch Servant of the People on Netflix today, the parallels between its storyline and contemporary politics are glaring and serious. The fictional conversation described above could have taken place in certain quarters of the United States in 2015, in London in 2016, in Kiev in 2019. It cannot be a good thing that American democracy has taken on some of the characteristics of the Ukrainian version.
In a sense it is fitting that a former province of the Soviet Union beset by corruption, cronyism, and war has become the crux of Democratic efforts to impeach Donald Trump. This beleaguered country is not only a crossroads between West and East, Europe and Eurasia, NATO and Russia. It is also a field from which America’s bipartisan elite has reaped considerable bounties in contracts and directorships, in consulting and lobbying. What has been happening in Ukraine for decades is emblematic of the self-dealing and self-seeking that has exhausted voting publics and inspired populists across the world. Unexpectedly, Trump’s relation to Ukraine threatens the viability of the movements it helped create.
Just as Trump needn’t have broken any laws for the Democrats to impeach him, Hunter Biden needn’t have violated any statute to symbolize the cronyism of America’s political class. It takes the willing suspension of disbelief to argue that politics had nothing to do with the appointment of the son of the vice president to the well-compensated board of an oil and gas giant two months after he was kicked out of the U.S. Navy for cocaine abuse.
And it requires unblinking partisanship to deny that both Republicans and Democrats, from Paul Manafort to Greg Craig, from BGR Group to the defunct Podesta Group, have profited from connections to Ukraine’s various governments and officials. “If you want me to leave the U.S. on Monday 6/16 and return on Friday 6/20,” Democrat Tad Devine wroteRepublican Rick Gates in reference to a Ukraine job in 2014, “that would be 5 days at $10G/day for $50,000.00. You would need to make the travel arrangements, and transfer the $50G before the trip.” That’s top dollar for someone who once consulted a socialist.
For decades, the economies that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Empire have been playgrounds for American political professionals to deploy their tricks of the trade, their skills at campaign management and public relations, in lucrative arrangements. Perhaps we should have expected these politicos might return home with pieces of post-Soviet political culture in their carry-ons: love of intrigue, of information operations conducted in digital and social media, of conspiracy theories, of national populism and of socialism, of high-dollar payouts made against the backdrop of gray-zone conflict between authoritarian and democratic states. The vocabulary of American politics has appropriated Russian terminology: maskirovka and kompromat, nomenklatura and czar.
This influence is manifest in the conduct of impeachment so far. Anonymous whistleblowers from within the intelligence services trigger investigations of the president. The speaker of the House announces an impeachment inquiry but does not call the roll. The quasi-official status of the investigation allows the Democratic majority to minimize Republican involvement. Hearings are secret. Selective leaks to media drive the impeachment narrative and consolidate partisan support for the president’s removal. To speak of narratives rather than evidence is to acknowledge our postmodern condition, where interpretations are more powerful than facts.
From Varsity Blues to Jeffrey Epstein, from China and the NBA to Ukraine and Hunter Biden, Americans are taking a crash course on the ways in which powerful people manipulate the system for personal advantage and globalization merges political cultures as well as economies. What has been uncovered as impeachment rolls on does nothing to spur confidence in the integrity of our system. America is exceptional, but our elites are not. Today we are all Ukrainians.
Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on the allegations that Attorney General Bill Barr is now somehow “implicated” in the Ukraine controversy because he spoke with counterparts in England, Italy, and Australia about assisting in the investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham. If those calls were truly about the Durham investigation, it would be entirely proper for Barr to ask for such assistance. I have always maintained that the Congress has a legitimate interest in investigating the Ukraine controversy. However, the chorus of recriminations on the Barr matter reveal the hype triggering much of the hypoxia.
Here is the column:
With all of the breathless headlines of the last two weeks, it is astonishing that the entire city of Washington is not swooning from hypoxia. Much of the media have blasted out the news that Attorney General William Barr is “implicated” in the Ukraine scandal, after sources said he pressed leaders in Australia, Italy and England to supply evidence about the origins of the Russia investigation. Esquire Magazine was a tad more descriptive, proclaiming Barr was now “far up s–t creek” because of his calls.
Yet not only is there a valid reason for such calls, but they could indicate that the creek could become a storm of sorts for Democrats over the coming weeks. The calls made by Barr were reportedly linked to the ongoing investigation by United States Attorney John Durham into the origins of the Russia investigation. It is not uncommon for an attorney general, or even a president, to ask foreign leaders to assist with ongoing investigations. Such calls can shortcut bureaucratic red tape, particularly if the evidence is held, as in this case, by national security or justice officials. A call to request assistance for the Durham investigation would “implicate” Barr in nothing other than an official investigation.
I supported the appointment of a special counsel after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. I also supported an investigation into the origins of the FBI investigation. The country is divided on the merits of both with legitimate concerns raised on each side. With the start of a House impeachment inquiry, it is more important than ever to have transparency along with a review of both investigations.
Moreover, Durham could answer some disturbing aspects of the origins of the Russia investigation, including the mysterious role of Professor Joseph Mifsud. Efforts by Durham to gain cooperation from Australia, England, and Italy likely concern figures such as Misfud. The professor seemed eager and focused in revealing that there were “thousands of emails” in the hands of the Russians in conspicuously opportunistic meetings with key figures.
An academic from Malta, Mifsud has long been tied to Russian interests and appears at critical moments throughout the Russia investigation. He met with former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos in both Rome and London. In one of those meetings, he referenced the existence of hacked emails.
We have never established the real facts or loyalties of Mifsud. Some have suggested that he may have been a Western asset working for American, British, or Italian intelligence services. Fueling that speculation was the fact that the special counsel report indicates Mifsud lied repeatedly to investigators on sensitive national security issues. While Robert Mueller charged others for minor discrepancies in the stories that they told investigators, Mifsud somehow escaped any such charge.
Information on Mifsud would be found in countries like Australia, England, and Italy, as would be information on the work of former British spy Christopher Steele. The Clinton campaign paid him and an American opposition research firm a large sum of money to seek dirt on Trump, including Russian and other foreign sources. Such information is not easily shaken loose without a high level prompt from someone like Barr.
However, many of the very same figures in Congress and in the media who previously called for full disclosure of every aspect of the Russia investigation are now criticizing the effort to gather evidence in the Durham investigation. It appears the public “right to know” does not extend that far. The reason is that a key report by Durham likely would come at a most importune time in advance of the 2020 election.
Democrats already are moving to impeach Trump on the Ukraine matter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others have told fellow Democrats to focus on Ukraine instead of on Russia conspiracy or obstruction, which led to more than two years of investigation. One reason for this is that Trump would be able to call his own witnesses during a Senate trial, particularly with a Republican majority dictating the rules. If the Russia investigation winds up as part of an impeachment trial, then Trump would be able to use these reports and earlier disclosures to place the conduct of the Obama administration under the spotlight before the public.
Trump would have plenty to work with in such a trial. The original focus was on his campaign aide Carter Page, who ultimately was not indicted on any crime. Mueller could not find a single crime by George Papadopoulos other than a marginal false statement that led to a whole 12 days in jail. Mueller ultimately found that no Trump official knowingly dealt with Russian hackers or trolls. If Durham finds irregularities and improper conduct in the Russia investigation, it will reinforce the claim by Trump that his campaign was improperly targeted by hostile FBI officials.
Even worse is there could be a one two punch coming on the Russia investigation. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is said to be close to releasing his report on the secret surveillance targeting Trump officials. The report is expected to be both comprehensive and damaging for many involved in the start of that investigation. Durham and Horowitz will not be easily dismissed. Both are widely respected and are working with career investigators. If either finds improper conduct, it could reinforce the position of Republicans and moderate Democrats in voting against the impeachment or removal of Trump, who strongly maintains that the Obama administration not only improperly targeted his campaign for investigation but proved lax in investigating allegations against Democrats ranging from Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden.
Convicting a president in an impeachment trial requires evidence and clarity. Even if Democrats only proceed on the Ukraine call, Trump will be able to claim that he sought evidence tied to the Russia investigation to assist Horowitz and Durham in their own investigations. He will be able to call witnesses like Hunter Biden on his business dealings in Ukraine while his father handed out more than a billion dollars in aid.
It is doubtful that Democrats could resist references to the Russia investigation in an impeachment trial, which would trip the wire for Trump to bring in countervailing evidence from the Horowitz or Durham reports. Esquire Magazine could right about the nature of this river, but while it may lead to many things, clarity is not likely one of them.
by Adam Kredo • Washington Free Beacon
Two airlines sanctioned by the United States for enabling Iran’s global terrorist operations appear to have played a central role in moving illicit missile components from Ukraine to the Islamic Republic, according to information obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Ukrainian authorities confirmed this week they had seized a shipment of missile system components bound for Iran, which could put the Islamic Republic in violation of international bans prescribed under the nuclear agreement.
Video of the seizure show Ukrainian authorities uncovering 17 boxes of missile parts bound for Iran and meant to be used in its Fagot anti-tank guided missile system.
Sources familiar with the incident told the Free Beacon that the airlines involved in this illicit activity have long been sanctioned by the United States for providing support to Iran’s global terror network. Continue reading
By Charles Krauthammer • The Washington Post
His secretary of defense says, “The world is exploding all over.” His attorney general says that the threat of terror “keeps me up at night.” The world bears them out. On Tuesday, American hostage Kayla Mueller is confirmed dead. On Wednesday, the U.S. evacuates its embassy in Yemen, a country cited by President Obama last September as an American success in fighting terrorism.
Yet Obama’s reaction to, shall we say, turmoil abroad has been one of alarming lassitude and passivity. Continue reading
Despite Ukraine’s September 5 cease-fire, a “protracted conflict” continues in the East, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights warned Wednesday. Over 3,600 people have been killed in fighting since April, with nearly 10% of those fatalities occurring since the cease-fire. Rebels continue to fight for control of key sites, including the Donetsk airport, while Russian forces have increased their presence east of Mariupol, raising concern that rebels plan to launch a new offensive against that strategic port city or even to establish a land bridge to Crimea. Meanwhile, the separatists are using the relative lull to solidify their hold over their self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, replete with their own nascent KGB. As the U.N. noted, “Armed groups continued to terrorize the population in areas under their control, pursuing killings, abductions, torture, ill-treatment and other serious human rights abuses.” Continue reading
‘Spike’ in Bear H flights over past week seen as test of U.S. air defenses
by Bill Gertz • Washington Free Beacon
Russian strategic nuclear bombers conducted at least 16 incursions into northwestern U.S. air defense identification zones over the past 10 days, an unusually sharp increase in aerial penetrations, according to U.S. defense officials.
The numerous flight encounters by Tu-95 Russian Bear H bombers prompted the scrambling of U.S. jet fighters on several occasions, and come amid heightened U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine.
Also, during one bomber incursion near Alaska, a Russian intelligence-gathering jet was detected along with the bombers. Continue reading
by Dr. Miklos K. Radvanyi
In the book entitled “The Documentary History of the Roots of the German Hanseatic Cities” it is stated that already in the 14th century the Hanseatic confederation laws absolutely prohibited the citizens of its member cities to provide Russians goods on credit; lending them money under any circumstances, including humanitarian assistance; or even borrowing money of them, under the threat of speedy and drastic punishment. This draconian criminal provision was inserted in the law as a consequence of frequent complaints by German merchants about serial Russian dishonesty in the form of sham furs; false trademarks; lying about the existence or non-existence of contracts; tinkering with quantity and quality of exported goods; forced bribes that were pocketed by ruthless bureaucrats; and other unimaginable deceits perpetrated with impunity by Russians of all walks of life. Continue reading
by Dr. Miklos K. Radvanyi
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 departed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur at 11:14 am GMT with 298 people on board, including 15 crew members. At 2:15 GMT the flight lost contact and disappeared from the radar as it flew over Ukrainian airspace. Shortly thereafter, it crashed north of Torez, next to the village of Chomukhine, Luhansk Oblast, some fifty miles northwest of Donetsk, and about twenty-five miles of the Russian border. Continue reading
NATO faces a challenge to modernize and sustain its nuclear posture and missile defense deployments in Europe at a time of declining defense budgets on the one hand and expanded threats on the other. The threats from Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa are serious and growing from both ballistic missile arsenals and nuclear programs.
At the same time, there are political pressures within NATO pushing for the adoption of a “zero nuclear” posture as well as efforts to delay significantly U.S. and allied missile defense and nuclear modernization deployments. This comes as threatening countries adopt military and political doctrines that emphasize the use of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as instruments of state power. Continue reading
Putin orders military exercises amid new Ukraine tensions
Russian strategic air forces fired six new, precision-strike cruise missiles in test launches Friday amid new tensions between Moscow and the West over the crisis in Ukraine.
Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Friday that the missile firings took place during exercises involving eight Tu-95 Bear bombers—the same type of strategic bomber recently intercepted 50 miles off the California coast by U.S. jets.
Russian bombers, meanwhile, continued saber-rattling air defense zone incursions against Canada’s arctic and in Europe over the Baltic Sea. Continue reading
Russia’s cutoff of natural gas supplies to Ukraine on Monday is a reminder that Ukraine is still highly dependent on its powerful neighbor.
“They’re going to need the gas, there’s no question about it,” said Ian Brzezinski, an analyst at the Atlantic Council who was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO under former president George W. Bush.
Ukraine’s economy is so dependent on Russian natural gas that the cutoff threatens manufacturing plants, could cause massive layoffs and imperils newly elected President Petro Poroshenko to turn the economy toward Europe, Brzezinski said. Continue reading