Battlefield to conference room

Today’s US/EU/Russia/Ukraine Joint Diplomatic Statement aims to de-escalate a conflict that has been spiraling for weeks.  The steps it proposes are straightforward:

All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism.

All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

Amnesty will be granted to protesters and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.

The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) is to provide monitors, as had been hoped in Crimea (but Russia did not permit it, preferring to annex the peninsula).

Like many diplomatic statements, this one is well-intentioned but riddled with ways to wriggle out.  There will always be violence, intimidation or provocation on which one side can base its own violence intimidation or provocation against the other.  Disarmament of armed groups generally requires a superior force to undertake the task.  Which building and other seizures are illegal is in the eye of the beholder.  Where are those who allegedly committed capital crimes to be tried and by whom?

Whether the statement is a turning point will depend on political will.  It is difficult for me to imagine that President Putin is ready to de-escalate.  He has been on a winning wicket both in Ukraine and in Syria.  Why would he want to stop now?  The statement presumably forestalls further EU and US sanctions, but he knows as well as everyone in the DC and Brussels press corps that agreement on those was going to be difficult.  Ukrainian military and police action to counter Russian-sponsored takeovers in the east has so far failed.  I suppose Putin knows even better than this morning’s New York Times that Russia’s economy was on the rocks even before the Ukraine crisis.  It will get worse, but since when did Putin or Putinism worry about the economy?  Oil prices around $100/barrel are all he has needed to get Russia up off its knees.  Crisis helps keep the oil price up.

So I’ll be surprised if this agreement holds, or even begins to change the perilous direction Ukraine is heading in.  But the statement includes an important bit that should not be ignored:

The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.

The Ukraine crisis, like the Syrian one, is fundamentally a political crisis:  it is more about perceptions of legitimacy and distribution of power than about who military balance or who speaks which language.  We’ve seen in Libya, Egypt and Syria the results of failure to conduct an inclusive and transparent discussion of the kind of state their people want and how its leadership will be held accountable.  It is very difficult to move from violence to the negotiating table unless one side is defeated or both sides recognize they will not gain from further violence.  Tunisia and Yemen have done it, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.

The odds of successfully moving from the battlefield to the conference room in Ukraine are low.  But that is the challenge our diplomats now face, along with the OSCE monitors.  I can only wish them success, no matter how unlikely that may be.

Pulitzers don’t make Snowden a hero

Monday’s Twitter blizzard of Pulitzer congratulations has given way to questions yesterday about the significance of Pulitzer prizes going to reporters who published the Edward Snowden revelations about the National Security Council.

I have no problem with the Pulitzers.  All professions celebrate themselves:  diplomats do it, the intelligence community does it, universities do it, business does it.  Why shouldn’t media give themselves awards?  Certainly the revelations made big headlines and generated much discussion, both within the US and abroad.  What is news about if not big headlines and lots of talk?

Here is where I dissent:  Barton Gellman, one of the Pulitzer recipients, said this on NPR yesterday morning:

Our publication of material that Snowden gave us was our judgment that Snowden did the right thing by telling us what he told.

The Washington Post is entitled to its view on whether Snowden did the right thing, but there is really no need for them to make that judgment in order to publish the material.  They only needed to find it newsworthy.  Nor is there any need for me to accept their judgment.

It is not the media or the Pulitzer committee that should judge what Snowden did.  The main judgment should come from the courts, which are now considering what the government was up to in its collection programs and should also consider what Snowden did.  You may think Snowden a whistle-blower, but the only way of knowing whether he is or not is for him to return to the US and face a jury of his peers.  He may continue to refuse to do that, and prefer to be sheltered by a government whose behavior he surely knows is at least as bad as that of the one he fled, but that doesn’t make him a hero.  It makes him a fugitive.

Let me be clear:  I am not suggesting that the journalists involved did anything wrong.  The government is responsible for protecting its own secrets.  The press in the US is entitled to publish them.  I might wish they had shown more discretion, but they have a right to decide what to publish and what to withhold, which need have nothing to do with whether they thought Snowden justified or not.

Even if he does not return to the US, Snowden will eventually be judged by history, when we know more about why he did what he did rather than pursue other channels available as well as what his relationship has been to the foreign governments that have hosted and protected him.  I obviously have suspicions on those scores–I don’t claim to be neutral in the matter.  I wish the journalists involved had pursued these questions more vigorously than they have.  But I am willing to wait for my answers.

The issue of Snowden’s justification, or not, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Pulitzers, Barton Gellman or other journalists.  They did their job well by the standards of their profession and should be left to enjoy the prizes that come their way.  But they should not tell me that Snowden did the right thing.  That’s for you and me, courts of law, and history to decide.

PS:  To help with your decision about how Snowden is to be judged, here is what President Putin and Edward Snowden had to say today (April 17):

Passover wandering

Like 70% of American Jews, I spent last night at a Seder, celebrating the story of liberation from pharaoh. Here are some of the thoughts that were on my mind.

Three years ago I wrote with enthusiasm about the Passover of Arab liberation.  Two years ago Syria seemed already in the midst of ten plagues and ruled by a pharaoh who wouldn’t let his people go.  Last year I thought things in the Middle East better than expected.

This year I’ve got to confess things are a mess, not only in the Middle East but also in Ukraine.

The war in Syria rages on.  Israel/Palestine peace negotiations are stalled.  Both sides are pursuing unilateral options.  Egypt is restoring military autocracy.  Libya is chaotic.  Parts of Iraq are worse.  The only whisper of good news is from Morocco, Yemen and Tunisia, where something like more or less democratic transitions are progressing, and Iran, where the Islamic Republic is pressing anxiously for a nuclear deal, albeit one that still seems far off.

In Ukraine, Russia is using surrogates and forces that don’t bother wearing insignia to take over eastern and southern cities where Russian speakers predominate.  It looks as if military invasion won’t be necessary.  Kiev has been reduced to asking for UN peacekeeping troops.  NATO can do nothing.  Strategic patience, and refusal to recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea and any other parts of Ukraine it might absorb, seems the best of a rotten bunch of options.

This is discouraging, but no one ever promised continuous progress.  Even the Israelites wandered in the desert.  Everyone forgets the part about getting stuck in one lousy oasis for 38 of those years.  Freedom is not a one-time thing.  It requires constant effort.  There are setbacks.  And there are breakthroughs.

Americans face their own liberation challenges.  While the past year has seen giant strides in acceptance of gay marriage, there have been setbacks to the right to vote.  Money is now speech and corporations are people, according to the Supreme Court.  I’ll believe that when a corporation gets sent to prison and banks start accepting what I say as a deposit.  The right to bear arms continues to expand, but not my right to be safe from those who do, except by arming myself.  In Kansas City Sunday a white supremacist and anti-Semite allegedly shot and killed three people at Jewish facilities, all Christians.

The plain fact is that liberation, as Moses discovered, is hard.  It requires persistence.  There are no guarantees of success.  The only directions history takes are the ones that people compel it to take.  Some of those people are genuinely good.  Others are evil.  Sometimes they are both, as son Adam’s piece on LBJ this week suggests.  There may be a right side and a wrong side of history, but it seems difficult for many people to tell the difference.

Putin and Putinism are not foreover

There are things that are difficult to write, even when obvious.  People all too often mistake analytical statements for normative ones.  They fail to recognize that I can think something is likely to happen without wanting it to happen.  Let’s be clear:  what I am about to write is not what I want but what I think likely if the Russian takeover of eastern Ukraine continues.

Russian speakers, in an effort coordinated by Moscow, are seizing key government and police sites.  But most people in eastern and southern Ukraine before this crisis considered themselves Ukrainian, not Russian, even if they spoke Russian better than Ukrainian.  Anyone even remotely attached to Ukrainian identity will take offense at what Moscow is up to.  Maintaining that sense of Ukrainian identity has to be a primary objective for those who want the country to remain united.  If ever Kiev gets the upper hand, those who are today supporting the Russian takeover will find themselves unwelcome.

We’ve seen this happen in the Balkans, where Milosevic sponsored supposedly local Serb takeovers in parts of Croatia and Bosnia.  Both had ample backing from Belgrade, including from its army.  Once the Croatians got the upper hand several years later, 180,000 or so Croatian Serbs ended up leaving and entering Serbia.  In Bosnia, the 500-600,000 Serbs who lived during the war in Republika Srpska were saved from a similar fate only by the Dayton agreements.  In Kosovo, many Serbs left Albanian-controlled areas south of the Ibar once Serbian troops withdrew.

Someone more erudite than I am could extend the analogy to the Sudetenland, where Hitler’s takeover ended not so many years later with expulsion of German speakers.

I am trying in what I say above to avoid the fraught question of whether people were expelled, left of their own volition, or were summoned out.  More often than not, such mass movements of population have multiple origins.  Having mistreated others during their time in control, some people expect, justifiably or not, similar mistreatment when power is given to their enemies.  Others are expelled.  Still others respond to calls from their “homeland.”  The mix is different in different places, and exponents of opposing sides won’t readily agree on what happened.

But I can be pretty sure that if Kiev ever regains control of the sites Russia is now seizing that an outflux of Russian speakers will ensue.  Some will justifiably fear arrest or mistreatment.  Others will be expelled by hotheads on the Ukrainian side of the ethnic divide.  Still others may respond to an invitation by Moscow, which no doubt will be passing out passports to those who want them, as it did in Crimea.

The only real doubt I have is whether Kiev will ever regain control.  It seems unlikely.  Russia will always  be much stronger.  Even with a well-equipped and well-trained army that would take decades to create, Ukraine is not going to be able to defeat Russia in a slugging match.  So long as it is prepared to devote the resources required, Russia should be able to maintain control.

There’s the rub.  Moscow has a lot of problems other than maintaining dominance in Russian-speaking Ukraine.  Russia is not much different in this respect from the Soviet Union.  Its internal difficulties, both economic and political, are challenging.  While today Russians are enthusiastically backing the takeovers, they are likely to feel differently when the bills start coming in.  Putin and Putinism are not forever.

Peace Picks April 14 – 18

1. Terrorism, Party Politics, and the US: Expectations of the Upcoming Iraqi Elections

Monday, April 14 | 12:30 – 2pm

Room 517, SAIS (The Nitze Building), 1740 Massachusetts Ave NW

Ahmed Ali, Iraq research analyst and Iraq team lead at the Institute for the Study of War, and Judith Yaphe, adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, will discuss this topic.

For more information and to RSVP, send an email to:

Read more…

Shooting yourself in the foot

I’ll be on Al Hurra this afternoon discussing the American failure to give an Iranian diplomat a visa to come to New York to represent his government at the UN.  Yesterday, Eli Lake and I exchanged barbs on the subject:

An Iranian diplomat participated in hostage taking in 1979, 35 years later he can’t get a visa. Typical neocon, guilt-by-asociation smears.


What if the Vietnamese had taken your approach to Pete Peterson as US ambassador there? Would you have supported Hanoi?

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