The Surreal Tensions With Russia

soldier in crimeaBy Peter Galuszka

Back in the 1950s, when I was a little kid living in North Carolina or the Washington area, our family would take a semi-annual trip to visit my father’s relatives in western Massachusetts. My grandparents lived in a nice two-story house with an old-style brick barbecue in the back but that wasn’t the thrill for me.

The reason I loved visiting was because of Westover Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command facility on constant hair-trigger alert to blow the Soviet Union to kingdom come.

Gigantic B-52s would drill, roaring over the house on takeoff, sometimes in the middle of the night. Interspersed among them would be KC-135 tankers modeled on Boeing 707 jetliners. They would thunder over the house, shaking everything, at intervals of 30 seconds or maybe a couple of minutes. I was too young to understand but the reason they took off that way was to get the bombs in the air before the Russians could nuke the entire area, including my family and me. Use ’em or lose ’em.

So, more than 50 years later, it is bizarre to see Russia and the U.S. in their worst conflict since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis over Ukraine and Crimea. There are actually serious and intensely hedged think pieces online outlining what a modern day war between Moscow and Washington would look like. It could be a proxy war,  an air war but an ocean war is unlikely since the Black Sea is a bathtub and an American ship would be easy meat. The most likely worst case would be a NATO member on the border somehow getting involved and then we go in because we have to by treaty. If things ramp up, military-heavy Old Virginny will be high on the hit parade of love.

Every morning, I go through the surreal headlines about what seems to be Vladimir Putin’s shameless land grab. I agree with analysts who say this is time for firmness but patience. Conservative yahoos should chill their stupid upbraiding of Obama. He didn’t do this. In fact, he’s been much tougher with Putin than George W. ever was. And, there isn’t much he can do. Any doubts, look at a convenient map.

A few takeaways:

  • Putin’s not doing this to win over the Russian people. A poll shows that 73 percent of them want no part of military operations against Ukraine or Crimea.
  • It’s not clear that Putin is doing this to reinstate Viktor Yanukovich who was ousted as Ukrainian president in a street putsch in Kieva couple of weeks ago. Writing in today’s New York Times, Ruslan Pukhov of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies says that Putin actually favored former Ukrainian leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a darling of the West, who was released from prison when Yanukovich was ousted. This is not to say that Putin’s squeaky clean. He’s put plenty of people in prison, including, recently, Boris Nemtsov, a Russian liberal reformer.
  • The global economy can work against Putin. One of my biggest disappointments with the failure of 1980s and 1990s Russian reforms is that they have done little if anything to transform themselves from a fossil fuel kleptocracy into something more economically viable. They have enormous brainpower available but have squandered it. They need to get with the program and/or find someone to buy their oil and gas. The buyer doesn’t necessarily have to be Europe.
  • It’s awfully quiet there. There have been few if any reports of violence since the Crimea incursion began. That’s a far cry from a couple of weeks ago in Kiev. If he withdraws the extra forces, Putin can keep his Crimean bases anyway.

Somehow, I have faith that the fortitude and common sense of ordinary Russians and Ukrainians will prevail. They did when I witnessed, up front and personal, my very own coup in 1993 in Moscow that killed a few hundred (including almost me a couple of times) and wounded thousands. The skinhead guys in the camo fatigues running around with AKs looked very much like some of the characters I saw on TV in Kiev. If they can be kept at bay, the U.S. doesn’t overplay its hand and ignorant American conservatives shut their yap, maybe this madness will end.

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24 responses to “The Surreal Tensions With Russia

  1. Some of those same B-52 airframes are still flying, I betcha. Helluva airplane.

    I agree there is little the US or even NATO can do as Putin asserts hegemony over Crimea, but it he moves onto Kiev that will demand a response. I also agree that Putin wanted an overt and military reaction from the west as a pretext, and the more muted response was probably the wiser one. The people of Ukraine are not cheering him and some radio reports I heard today indicated he’s had to bus in pro-Russian demonstrators from the Motherland to put on a good media show.

    But he is a first class SOB and a new look at containment is in order. I recall the laughter from the Left when Romney said Putin was our most dangerous enemy but he is.

  2. The article makes many good points but taking cheap jabs at “conservatives” and absolving the President of any and all things does not help a reasoned discussion.

    Remember, the current border between Russia and the Ukraine has not existed for centuries, only a few decades. Many of the talking heads on TV news make it sound like the borders were handed down by God with the 10 Commandments.

    These are the same talking heads who thought it was fine to break up Yugoslavia into six nations and supported the Clinton bombing of primarily civilian targets to coerce the populace to go along. As much as I hate to say this, if the current situation can be peacefully resolved by adjusting the border where most of the population is Russian – this could make sense. And there would be no need to bomb anyone.

    And, as there are no Muslims involved (my cheap shot!), the Obama White House will not see the need for assisting violent regime changes like in Egypt and Libya.

  3. well to tidy things up a bit – Muslims were at issue in the Ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War….

    and then we have the Russia and US response to Georgia –

    ” also known as the 2008 South Ossetia War, Five-Day War or August War) was an armed conflict in August 2008 between Georgia on one side, and Russia and the separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other.
    The 1991–92 South Ossetia War between ethnic Georgians and Ossetians had left slightly more than a half of South Ossetia under de facto control of a Russian-backed, internationally unrecognised government.[51][52] Most ethnic Georgian parts of South Ossetia remained under the control of Georgia (Akhalgori district, and most villages surrounding Tskhinvali), with Georgian, North Ossetian and Russian Joint peacekeeping force present in the territories. A similar situation existed in Abkhazia after the War in Abkhazia (1992–93). Increasing tensions escalated during the summer months of 2008. On 5 August, a Russian spokesman said Russia would defend Russian citizens in South Ossetia if they were attacked”

    then of course we have our own incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan

    Putin will be glad to point these things out if we want to get into pot, kettle, black food fight.

    I never quite understood why the whole world is in the US national interest but if other countries make a similar claim – it’s naked aggression by bad guys. We have to police the world .. we have a bigger “defense” that the next 10 countries combined including our allies, Russia and China but they are the “threats”?

    the world is not a simple place but our view of the world is more like a comic book than reality – sometimes.

    when people in our country cannot fill in the names of the countries on a unlabeled geographic map of eastern Europe, much less name the leaders or the cultural demographics that can go back hundreds of years before the existence of the US – I think blame for a “weak” US foreign policy is about as silly as we can get.

  4. So, “ignorant American conservatives” need to “shut their yap.”

    Just trust Obama to handle it. Just like he drew a red line regarding the Syrian chemical weapons. And what happened there? Oh, yeah, the Assad still has 2/3 of his weapons and has ceased cooperating with international authorities. And what is Obama doing about that? Nothing. Putin has taken Obama’s measure and judged him to be a non-entity.

    By the way, how did that “reset” with Russia work out? I thought all problems were due to the provocations of that swaggering cowboy/ignorant chimp George W. Bush. Is it possible that Obama misjudged Putin?

    • You don’t “trust” Obama any more than you’d trust Reagan or Clinton or Bush – each of whom had their own issues such as Iran-Contra, the Marines in Beirut, the Cole, the bombing in Sudan, Georgia, the dumbass “deficts don’t matter” invasion of Iraq due to “weapons of mass destruction”, etc, etc.

      the point here is why is Obama being held to a different standard – as usual – by the yapping Conservatives .. the NeoCons like Cheney, McCain, Graham, et al who seem to love getting us involved in every tom, dick and harry country to show our mighty testosterone big stick…

      the conservatives these days are idiots. they are so bound up with a partisan jihad that they are incapable of anything beyond kneejerk yapping.

      Henry Kissinger just wrote an Op Ed about this.. folks ought to read it.
      ” How the Ukraine crisis ends”

  5. Jim, Jim, Jim

    What can Obama do about Syria? Bomb the hell out of Assad? Invade with U.S. troops? Hold his breath until he’s blue?

    You don’t say.
    The problem with you conservatives (besides the yap) is that you always have these strong man delusions of U.S. power on one hand and then, on the other, you criticize the U.S. deficit spending for unneeded power incursions.

    Fact is Assad has been in Russia’s pocket for decades. They have given him billions in military aid. They even have a small naval base there. We have ZERO influence with Assad. Putin does have influence. If we do some testosterone-wise chances of failure are great and then we have even more than ZERO influence.

    Putin also seems to have more influence with Iran — an even bigger problem.

    We need to get Putin on board in dealing with both places. We need to be firm about this Crimean nonsense. But you offer no concrete tactics, strategies or solutions, just another badmouth of Obama. If you have serious ideas, let’s hear them.

    Otherwise, no more yap.

  6. Larry is right. One of the problems is that today’s conservatives are so doctrinaire (and some Dems, too) that you can’t get past simple arguments and dogma and find the sophisticated level where you might achieve some positive diplomacy.

    One problem is that there’s no one left with much Cold War experience. Eisenhower knew enough to keep the military and other hawks down. Kennedy played his dangerous cards over Berlin and Cuba although Vietnam was a mess. Johnson blew Vietnam. As much as he can be hateful, Nixon was a master diplomat who played Moscow against Beijing and open new doors. Even Reagan didn’t screw up things with Gorbachev (although he almost brought us to needles nuclear war in 1982.

    WHo do we have now? Eric Cantor? Paul Ryan? Rand Paul? Various Texans? The Tea Party? How many of them have ever had passports in their life?

    And speak of reaction. I’ll never forget this blog when Obama nailed Osama bin Laden. I merely pointed out that it was Obama who did it and many of our regular commenters went absolutely batshit crazy. It was unbelievable that this socialist, African American, actually would do something like that. “Say it ain’t so!”

    • oh.. and the Conservatives are going ape-shit over Obama “killing” US citizens with drones and loving the NSA like a Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or like – yet the conservative blatherbutts say the POTUS is “weak” … at the same time they are saying he is a “dictator”.

      this just shows how whacked out the Conservatives are these days…

      Rand Paul a chicken-hawk like John McCain or Lindsey Graham?


      Bosnia was the awful truth – ethnic cleansing – and Clinton sending in our guys to try to stop the slaughter of Muslims.. Can you imagine Obama being put in that position these days where he has to use our military to protect Muslims?

      the right would go into super ape-shit mode…

  7. “Leaders of all sides should return to examining outcomes, not compete in posturing. Here is my notion of an outcome compatible with the values and security interests of all sides:

    1. Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe.

    2. Ukraine should not join NATO.

    3. Ukraine should be free to create any government compatible with the expressed will of its people. Wise Ukrainian leaders would then opt for a policy of reconciliation between the various parts of their country. Internationally, they should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland. That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.

    4. It is incompatible with the rules of the existing world order for Russia to annex Crimea. But it should be possible to put Crimea’s relationship to Ukraine on a less fraught basis. To that end, Russia would recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea. Ukraine should reinforce Crimea’s autonomy in elections held in the presence of international observers. The process would include removing any ambiguities about the status of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

    These are principles, not prescriptions. People familiar with the region will know that not all of them will be palatable to all parties. The test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction. If some solution based on these or comparable elements is not achieved, the drift toward confrontation will accelerate. The time for that will come soon enough.”

    Now the question is – who said the above? If Obama said the above – what would be the response of the right wing “yappers”?

    they’d no doubt launch into “Obama is weak” mode and asserting that Obama spends too much time talking and not enough time showing Russia what a “strong” POTUS would do.

    wanna guess who said the above?

  8. Nice column by Peter.

    One can agree with Sen. McCain that we’ve badly handled — I’d say blown — opportunities to rid Syria of Assad beginning before things got violent, and after that by failing to aid the moderate rebels before Islamic extremists dominated. “Feckeless” foreign policy at work, for sure.

    But surely Obama has handled Syria very nicely so far — Kissinger and the Economist would agree. The economic and political sanctions will be sever and can work in time. That Republican leaders lack any capacity to draw distinctions — to haul out Benghazi and so forth — and utterly to ignore George W’s failure to balk Russian trampling of Georgia, taking and still holding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, highlights their pathetic and relentless partisanship over all else.

    Check out Ann Applebaum’s column in the Post today on how western greed has benefited from Russia’s kleptomania. The worst of capitalism at work. But can we expect Republicans to address this issue? Not holding my breath.

  9. Sorry, just noticed my error. I meant Obama has handled “Ukraine” well — not Syria! (Really just a test of my readership.)

    Putin knew that military options for the US in Ukraine were non existent, whereas covert aid in Syria was, early on, possible.

    George W. Bush’s failure to respond effectively with economic and political sanctions after Russian aggression in Georgia is the precedent Putin understood when he became aggressive in Ukraine, which he was encouraged to do when he saw the weak efforts of the EU in pressuring Yanukovich for a deal.

    Probably our “reset,”was a bit naive, but it certainly demonstrated our peaceful interests then, and justifies a strong position now.

  10. I’d just like to point out the premise that the US thinks about military options on many if not most of these issues, oftentimes -first whereas the rest of the world including the OECD is not thinking the same way for their potential involvement and never unilateral – most often as a NATO action.

    German, Japan, Australia never talk about “military” options when hotspots develop in the world much less unilateral ones.

    but the US – it’s almost kneejerk response almost all of the time, no matter who the POTUS is – can we put ” boots on the ground”?

    I’m not saying the world is not a dangerous place or that there are times and places were force is required, perhaps even unilateral .. but the way the US goes about this – seems inherently more overtly aggressive than anyone else…and when it’s not aggressive, our people call our POTUS – “weak”.

    there’s a certain amount of arrogance in our views of the rest of the world sometimes – and the rest of the world notices this and it’s not particularly helpful when seeking support on issues.

  11. Whether or not anyone’s still reading this, few developments since Iraq have been more absorbing, and my sense is that how we respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine may have even longer-range effects. So I get this off my chest.

    I believe that the US is playing the Ukraine action appropriately so far. But in retrospect, on refreshing my mind on Obama’s Russian responses since 2008 — and at 74 not too old to learn — they were, on one hand, generous and in the spirit of world peace that America values. But on the other hand they clearly gave Putin the wrong signal. So, Monday morning, the “reset” actions were mistaken, as Krauthammer (always overstating), Gerson et all., and McCain have said, however noble and understandable they were. But that said, now the world could be mobilized to respond effectively, as it wasn’t likely to after Russia’s aggression in Georgia (or Moldova). Reset showed US hopes and policies, now dashed.

    No one seriously considers military action. (Other than nut cases). So, now we we must apply economic and political measures to forestall more future Russian blackmail and more corruption of our invaluable (but much-distorted) capitalism as per Ann Applebaum’s description in the Post.) These tools, which Europe must also embrace can be powerful, but they entail retaliatory risks, which Juan Zarate today nicely analyzes.

    But is America, and the West, ready for this focused dedication to achieve such good (and indeed, required) purpose? A few of us recall the days of WWII — ration cards, a simpler and less prosperous life — and those post war days of bi-partisanship in international affairs. That kinds of dedication will be required, and American’s understanding that we are part of a larger world, that we have a role to play in fighting for democracy and the civilized, law-abiding capitalism that can offer, and has offered, economic opportunity and freedom.

    I fear we’ve become, as a people, too disillusioned, narcissistic, and that those with the most influence are too comfy, and of course too politically/religiously polarized.

  12. The writer made a good point: “…. an ocean war is unlikely since the Black Sea is a bathtub and an American ship would be easy meat….”
    I wish the White House read this site because they just sent a US ship into this bathtub. That does not seem to be the right thing to do.
    Hopefully someone remembers the Gulf of Tonkin.

    • All warships are dead meat… the only way an American warship can go into hostile waters is with air support – a carrier group..

      If you are a ship in hostile waters and do not have an air umbrella – you’re living on borrowed time.

      this is what led to the USS Vincennes downing a civilian airliner – over a decade ago.

      You put a ship like the USS Vicennes in the Black Sea – and you can effectively scratch it off the active list of US ships unless it is accompanied by a carrier group air umbrella..and even then.. probably toast as well as much of the carrier group… it’s a no-go.

      we can’t even put warships in the Persian Gulf without high risk.

  13. I’m still reading… and I simply do not think most of us know all the bits and pieces of the internal relationships between the US and other countries so what looks like one thing in the news may not be at all like what is going on underneath.

    but I also again go back to the idea that even when this country is saying “no boots on the ground” – we are at the same time thinking about what other “options” we have – like Drones, or the threat of force or any number of ways that we could use to directly intervene in the affairs of other countries.

    it seems to be in our (the US) DNA whereas many other countries including the OECD countries seem to have a very different view of their feelings of justification to become involved in the affairs of other countries.

    Again – I’m not advocating that we become isolationist.. or run away from bad guys on the world stage – but I am asking why we feel we are justified to interfere with other countries to start with… what gives us that right when other countries don’t seem to believe it is their right?

    Crimea is about as Russian as you can get from a historic and demographic perspective.. and Russia has it’s southern military port there and has had it there for decades…

    The people of Crimea seems to align with Russia.

    It’s amazing to me that Crimea ever decide to become independent of Russia but I’d be the very first to admit – there is a whole lot I don’t know about that whole deal.. but I do not presume that the US is automatically righteous here either.

    we have, in my view, way too many folks in this country who do not see a problem with us bombing the hell out of some hapless middle east country as an “alternative” to boots on the ground… why?

  14. That ship we sent through the Bosporus had been long scheduled to visit Romania, so far as I know. Won’t get close to Crimea.

    Larry, I don’t see the Administration seriously considering anything other than economic and political (e.g. visa) restrictions. There’s no way on gods’ earth we could, or should take military action.

    And clearly, Crimea is in Russia’s bailiwick, nor do I see any reason why it shouldn’t become part of Russia, so long as that is done with due regard to the laws and desires of Ukraine. After all, we’ve Scotland’s independence vote coming up in September. So this is something appropriate for international negotiation — which Putin, so far, is unwilling to undertake.

    I’m puzzled about why Americans should be comfortable having let the Russian mafia (or, if you prefer, the robber baron oligarchs) assume such influence — in NY, in London, in Geneva, and around the world. They further distort the global market place. And enrich Putin. To let this aggression stand, without concern for international law, for even the most perfunctory regard for the UN (with all its flaws) smacks, to me, of what Chamberlain and Leon Blum did in the late 1930s (albeit with a different and more dangerous beast).

    Even so, we have a tiger by the tail if we retreat into our comfort zone and allow this precedent to go unaddressed except for a slap on the wrist.

    • I’m not really disagreeing… but when our military is bigger than the next 10 countries combined – including our allies and our enemies…we are paying a severe economic price for it.

      the politics of it are such that we cannot stand by and do nothing – and it does not help when the whackobirds are egging on the POTUS by calling him “weak” .

      what is in the interests of Europe? Should we attempt to do economic damage to Putin when Europe is the collateral damage? How many folks in Europe are going to damage their own interests to pay more attention to our “interests”?

      It’s not simple and I’m quite convinced that if Bush or Reagan were in this situation -there would be mucho bellicose statements but at the end of the day – saber rattling would be how they inoculate themselves from being called “weak”.

      Why must the NeoCons be the de-facto drivers of our foreign policy?

  15. one should read the wiki account of ” Iran Air Flight 655″ to get an idea of why ships and air power are not as simple and clean replacements for boots on the ground.

  16. The Administration is focused on economic and political sanctions, period. Those actions will, over time, make Russia pay a high cost. Rightfully, we’re providing our NATO allies — Poland, Latvia, Romania — with assurances, and some very modest military additions, that we’ll abide with our NATO treaty. Needless to say, they have Russian ethnic populations there as well, so they’re nervous. But General Dempsey — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs — says he’s in regular daily contact with his counterpart on exactly what we’re doing and why. Unless there’s a fire fight between Russian and Ukrainian troops, I don’t see a military action needed or likely. But there is that risk!

    Europe’s support of sanctions etc. is key, and I believe that will occur. Germany and France understand that Eastern European nations are part of Europe, and part of NATO. Granted, they weren’t exactly prompt and forthcoming during the Bosnian debacle, and we took the lead (belatedly), but they came around, and they will this time. The stakes are higher for them both ways — risk of inaction, risk of action.

    • Mbaldwin – again.. not defending Russia’s behavior – just saying that our options are very limited because I do not think Europe is going to support sanctions in part because a lot of their energy resources come from Russia.

      Ultimately, over time, changes could be made (like fracking in Europe and Ukraine – ironic eh?)… and other sanctions but economic sanctions do not lessen the possibility of cold war – they increase it because action is taken against Russia, they will retaliate and escalate.

      there are no easy answers and for our folks to call our POTUS “weak” on this is yet more comic book style thinking.. in my humble opinion of course.

      We cannot “make” countries do what we want them to do no more than you or I can force the neighbor down the road to do something … it’s just the way the world works.. unfortunately.

      but I much appreciate the dialogue .. and trading viewpoints… without rancor…!!

    • interesting article.. I always check to Bona fides of authors and did so with this one. He’s a solid journalist but I do not see credentials specific to Russia, the Ukraine, or energy or world economics.

      does not disqualify him nor negate the points he makes in the article…

      basically he’s saying that Europe can switch to other sources of energy from Norway and Shale gas.

      but here’s the deal – Russia has a history of messing with the gas supply already.. and so Europe has had ample time and opportunity to distance themselves from a supply that has a history of being manipulated and has not.

      they now have another opportunity – but it’s not going to happen overnight and not seeing numbers.. I’d certainly, in an article want to show how much is currently imported verses the numbers for the replacement energy.

      This is an area, in my view, where we could assist in the development of energy supplies for both Europe and the Ukraine.. to make our technology more readily available – to HELP those affected by Russia’s behavior more than just directing sanctions at Russia…

      Use our technology to help others..

      and this also points up another issue – the development of new and alternative energy sources to wean ourselves off of fuels that are finite and not found everywhere, creating energy winners and losers just by virtue of where their location and availability.

      Europe still has a lot of coal – they want to use cleaner fuels – that they are importing . How about a “clean coal” initiative?

      the development of cleaner energy sources is something that would benefit everyone – and at the same time loosen the Russian tentacles that they willing use as extortion.

      There are many things we can and should do – once we rid ourselves of our own cold-war, “let’s force them to do what we want”, type mentality.

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