Sunday, March 23, 2014

Crimea and punishment:
Putin’s error and its consequences

NEVER MIND the to & fro going on in councils of state of Brussels, Moscow and Washington, the objections of the United Nations Secretary-General (and what’s happening on the bleeding streets of what had been southernmost Ukraine). What may be the most important development in the theft of Crimea by the Russian Federation has taken place in the offices of National Geographic Magazine.

U.S. News & World Report, on Tuesday, reported that “National Geographic will show the peninsula as part of Russia after the Duma officially votes for annexation.” On Friday, engaging in his own March Madness, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed the order of annexation of Crimea, the first territorial expansion of Russia since World War II.

What Juan José Valdés, NatGeo’s geographer, told U.S. News was chilling in its embrace of what, world objections aside, has become something of a fait accompli. “We map de facto,” Valdés said. “In other words we map the world as it is, not as people would like it to be.”

Another, parallel conflict of cartography is developing: U.S. News reports that Rand McNally, the other major mapmaker, is holding out for the State Department’s designation, and Wikipedia and Google Maps are still undecided about which way to go.

But for now, the action that NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Wednesday called “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the cold war” is a fact on the ground. The stability of Europe may hang in the balance. So too does the stability of Russia itself, in ways Putin has scarcely considered.

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In the short term, Putin has been hailed by the Russian people as something just short of a messiah, with his domestic opinion polls soaring (we’ll forget for now what it says about a country when it takes a warrantless invasion to get that country’s people feeling good again).

After the Crimean referendum, which saw 93 percent of voters supporting Putin’s move — an election result that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting despot — Russian forces have moved quickly to reinforce with military might what the referendum had apparently secured at the ballot.

William Saletan of Slate got Putin’s method of achieving “overwhelming victory” just about right: “First, you narrow the ballot to two choices: joining Russia or increasing Crimea’s autonomy from Ukraine. You exclude the status quo. Then you saturate Crimea with 21,000 Russian troops and put armed men outside polling stations.

“The effects are impressive.”

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THE WORLD waits for Putin’s next move, and the wait itself is troubling. Some believe that the Crimea incursion will be the end of it, that he’s achieved the ultimate prize by returning a region of what was Ukraine back to the Russian orbit.

But by gaining a dramatic expansion of the Russian map basically without firing a shot, there’s every reason to think Putin will keep going, that given the Crimean inch, he’ll go the extra mile and undertake a full invasion of all of Ukraine.

If that’s the logic of the ex-KGB man, Putin will discover that “дьявол кроется в деталях” — the devil is in the details. The Russian leader has tried to impose a generally militaristic solution on what, at the end of the day, is a social and economic dispute. And though he’s won in the short term, Putin faces challenges of economics and infrastructure, challenges neither he or the tender Russian economy are ready for.

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First, the money shots. The Wall Street Journal reported on how the crisis in Crimea may be an opportunity for Ukraine. “The loss of Crimea is a political body blow to the new government from Kiev, but it also relieves Ukraine of an annual $1 billion budgetary drain,” The Journal reported last week.

And Ukraine’s economic gain is already Russia’s loss. On Thursday, Fitch Ratings, the respected investment forecasting concern, revised its economic outlook for Russia downward, and did it in language that couldn’t be more downbeat.

“The current climate is negative for economic growth,” Fitch declared. “Russia was already experiencing a slowdown, with growth falling to 1.3% in 2013 and investment declining. Fitch has revised down its growth forecast to less than 1% in 2014 and 2% in 2015. These projections still rely on a mild upturn in investment, which is now less likely. Indeed, recession is possible, given the impact of higher interest rates, a weaker rouble and geopolitical uncertainty.”

This, of course, follows the block of economic sanctions imposed last week by the United States, including President Obama’s executive order to impose sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy. That no doubt led Visa and MasterCard to cut operations with Bank Rossiya, the personal ATM for senior Russian officials, and a bank with millions of individual customers.

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ON SATURDAY, The New York Times reported that Russian finance minister Anton Siluanov said “[i]mposition of the sanctions is definitely a negative for the general perception of our country’s economy,” according to the Interfax news agency. He cited more costly borrowing and the continuing pressure on the stock markets, one of which has fallen 21 percent this year.

“Whatever the political consequences, economists say the uncertainty that now hangs over nearly every profitable enterprise in Russia is what poses the gravest threat to the country’s long-term prosperity, rather than any immediate consequence of the specific sanctions,” Siluanov said.

Oleg Ustenko, director of the Center for World Economies and International Relations, was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal on March 18. The Journal reports: “Even before the crisis, Mr. Ustenko said that many investors steered clear of Crimea because of infrastructure problems and high levels of criminal and ‘shadow economy’ activity. Now, it will now be out of the question for international, Ukrainian or Russian private investors to put new money into the region, he said.”

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And then there are the thorny matters of the dependency of Crimea on various parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure. Up to now, Putin’s ace in the hole — his presumed leverage over any actions taken against Russia by the European Union — has been the towering EU dependency on Russia’s oil and gas reserves.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The rolling blunder of Vladimir Putin

MAYBE THE Sochi medal count went to Vladimir Putin’s head. It’s been a busybusy week for the Russian president and his army. Since seizing control of the Crimean Peninsula on March 1, Russian armed forces have steamrolled (without insignia) through the region, securing the airport and major buildings, attempting to reinforce Putin’s claim to part of a sovereign nation.

On Sunday, acting Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced he would fly to the White House this week for talks on “resolution of the situation in Ukraine,” Interfax reported. Last week, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton condemned Russia's “unwarranted escalation of tensions.” On March 1, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned "the Russian Federation's invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory.”

The regional parliament in Crimea set a March 16 referendum on leaving Ukraine to join Russia. And the Kiev Post reported on Saturday that a bill that would ease the process of annexing Crimea to Russia could have its first reading in the Duma, the Russian parliament, on March 21.

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As the rest of the world hammers out the proper reaction, President Putin has briefly realized the element of surprise. But as this crisis of his own creation evolves, there’s abundant gathering evidence that the Russian president has engaged in a grand blunder, regardless of the Kremlin’s short-term swagger. By undertaking the invasion in the first place, Russia has ignored the very international agreement it signed recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty.

By doubling down on the use of military might to achieve an objective that was imprecise at best, Putin makes use of exactly the wrong weapon in his arsenal, ignoring facts of natural resources and infrastructure that may make keeping Crimea much harder than invading it.

And the use of that armed might, on the flimsiest of pretexts, has caused at least a short-term disaster for Russia’s domestic economy and for its prospects as a world economic power — precisely what Putin has been hoping to avoid.

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THE JUSTIFICATION for Russia’s Crimea invasion — Ukrainian unrest posed an existential threat to the well-being of Russian military personnel, citizens and sympathizers — has hardly been supported by independent observers. Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute, said on MSNBC: “After the events in Kiev ... there was no evidence that the Ukrainian government planned any threat against the Russian military installations in Crimea.”

Geopolitically the Russian incursion may have long-term repercussions for Russia’s relationship with the world powers whose ranks it hopes to join — in no small part because of Russia’s willingness to blithely violate agreements it signs. One in particular: the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, an agreement signed in December 1994, by U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister John Major, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, pledging them “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

Signing the agreement was pro forma for the United States and Britain, which gave Ukraine those “security assurances” in exchange for surrendering over time what was then the world's third largest nuclear weapons stockpile. But Ukraine no doubt signed the agreement with a sharp side-eye on Russia ... for reasons that are, now, all too obvious.

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We’ve been here before. Last week, Peter Baker of The New York Times interviewed James F. Jeffrey, who was President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser. Jeffrey said that in August 2008, he told Bush that Russian troops were moving into Georgia, responding what the Kremlin then characterized as Georgian aggression against South Ossetia.

Jeffrey, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Times that “Bush confronted Mr. Putin to no avail, then ordered American ships to the region and provided a military transport to return home Georgian troops on duty in Iraq. He sent humanitarian aid on a military aircraft, assuming that Russia would be loath to attack the capital of Tbilisi with American military personnel present. Mr. Bush also suspended a pending civilian nuclear agreement, and NATO suspended military contacts.”

“We did a lot but in the end there was not that much that you could do,” Jeffrey recalled.

Jeffrey, Baker reports, said “Mr. Obama should now respond assertively by suggesting that NATO deploy forces to the Polish-Ukrainian border to draw a line. ‘“There’s nothing we can do to save Ukraine at this point,’” he said. ‘ “All we can do is save the alliance.”’

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LEFT UNSAID, however, is the possibility that Ukraine could save itself. The conflict that Putin has immediately characterized as a military one may come down to finances more than fighting. The New York Times reports that Yatsenyuk, the acting prime minister, “had said that the government’s first responsibility was to begin negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and start to put in place the economic reforms and painful austerity measures that the fund requested in exchange for help.”

We’ve all heard the good advice of not bringing a knife to a gunfight; with his Crimea adventure, Putin may have brought a gun to an economics fight — trying to impose a military solution on a problem that’s more monetary than anything else.

Hoping to strategically ride to the rescue of Ukraine after ousted Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich reneged on a pledge to sign a trade agreement with the European Union — ushering in the unrest in Kiev — Putin offered Ukraine an €11 billion ($15 billion) loan package ... in exchange for rejecting economic entreaties from the West.

That $15 billion bailout Russia had pledged when Yanukovich was in control was suspended by Ukraine’s upheaval, and certainly won’t be restored any time soon. That $15 billion was one of only a few persuasive arguments Putin could have made for Ukraine remaining in the Russian orbit.

Now that Putin’s abandoned the economic carrot and gone all in on using the military stick, he’s abandoned any pretense of negotiating with his neighbor to the west. The hell with good arguments, now it’s all about force. Knowing that, as the Ukrainian people certainly do, what’s the incentive for Ukraine ending its opposition to persuasion from Moscow? They can get the carrots somewhere else.

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Getting gas to heat the Ukrainian home may be another matter entirely. That’s the other, non-military leverage that Putin commands. “Ukraine highly depends on Russian energy,” reports Grégory Raymond of HuffPost France. “Rising gas prices decided by Moscow could lead, at any moment, to the country’s collapse.”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Movie history by accident

Every year we observe the Academy Awards, it’s a reach into our cultural history, but some occasions the event digs into history more than others, by accident. Actors and actresses can tap into their antecedents without even realizing it (or maybe they do).

It happened on March 2, Oscar Sunday. In one of her wild dashes into the coiffed, nipped and tucked audience at the Dolby Theater, Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres brought out a smartphone and started snapping selfies. It got out of hand when she gathered with people in the audience — Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Lupita Nyong’o, Kevin Spacey, et freakin al. — for what turned out to be the most retweeted photo on Twitter ever. Ellen’s arm was too short to do the honors herself, so Bradley Cooper took the image that temporarily brought down Twitter.

If the composition looks vaguely familiar, that’s because it is. Sorta.

Somewhere, Gregg Toland is smiling. Hey Cooper, if this acting thing doesn’t quite work out, you’ve got a future as a cinematographer.

Backstage, after Nyong’o’s big win, the newly-minted Oscar winner got to horsing around with Jennifer Lawrence, who won her own Golden Dude last year. We’ve always known actors and actresses were competitive in Hollywood. Lupita and J-Law put a comedic spin on that fact:

Wonder if they knew about what happened between Marlon Brando and Bob Hope at the 1955 Oscars:

What can you say? Hoo ... ray ... for .... history.

Image credits: Oscars selfie: Bradley Cooper. Still from Citizen Kane: © 1941 RKO Radio Pictures. Lawrence and Nyong’o: via Brando and Hope:

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Black History Nation

ON SUNDAY night, after “12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for Best Picture — the first time in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards that a film by a black director ever won the top honor — comedian Michael Ian Black, a master of snark, tweeted this: “Between ‘Django’ last year and ’12 Years’ this year, slavery has never been hotter!!!”

Inartful as hell, of course, but that piquant tweet drove home a deeper social and cultural point about the impact of African American culture on the most popular art form in the world, and what it’s apparently taken to achieve that level of attention. Slavery remains the indelible American metaphor-scar, its legacy an equally indelible component of modern American life.

But what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and its other movers and shakers and proxies, decided for the second year in a row was to recognize the power of stories that are nothing less than American history. The fact that it’s African American history has become something embraced by Hollywood, which seems to be reaching a comfort zone with film productions reflecting more of the diversity of America.

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The Oscars’ clean break with the past requires a look into what that past has been. The demographic inertia that’s characterized the Academy’s membership (and its voting patterns) was smartly distilled recently by a Lee & Low Books infographic. It’s surprising to see the monochromatic aspects of the Academy’s identity (according to the 2012 data) laid out so plain to see.

As of 2012, in all branches of the Academy, 98 percent of producers were white; 98 percent of writers were white; 88 percent of actors were white; 94 percent of all voting Academy members were white; 77 percent of all voting Academy members were male.

The Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave” forces the most painful part of black American history into the forefront of the culture in permanently inescapable ways. What’s just as inescapable is the fact that those white male Academy voters broke, however briefly, with the hegemony of their identity and recognized the power of Solomon Northup’s saga — not as a black story, but as an American story. The triumph of “12 Years a Slave” was, among other things, and at least for now, a triumph of equality over our more cynical cultural expectations.

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THE MULTIPLE--Oscar triumphs of “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave” are only part of the story of a cultural evolution on race and the national history. The films “42” (recounting Jackie Robinson’s battle in the major leagues) and “The Butler” (Lee Daniels’ fictionalization of the life of a White House servant) also furthered it on the pop-cultural front. But the nation is also experiencing black history as current events.

President Obama’s recent confessional moment, in an event announcing a White House initiative for young black males, taps into the increasingly tragic trajectory of young African Americans and the history that spawned it. The murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have direct parallels with too much of the national past. And politically, as challenges to voting rights increase between now and November, in statehouses across the country, the nation will find out how past is prologue all over again.

History’s what you can’t get away from. The legacy of the peculiar institution persists right up to now; disparities of employment, income, health and wealth show how the past informs the present. Just like voting rights — the phrase itself calls out history — are top of mind for state legislators sworn to suppress those rights between now and November. Just like their antecedent cousins in the Jim Crow South did, years ago.

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History’s what you can’t get away from. And it’s not like we try to get away from history, given our numerological fascinations — since we’re so big on even-numbered anniversaries. Last year the nation used the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington as a way into tenuous but welcome conversations about race and progress, and how far African Americans have moved the needle since August 1963.

This year we’ll observe the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Next year we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which institutionalized the universality of the voting franchise ... and which today is under siege like never before.

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A LOT’S BEEN made — too much, frankly — about various incendiary debates about the value and importance of Black History Month, which takes place every February. But whether you agree with the idea of that observance or not, its purpose as another, parallel window into America is being advanced during months that have nothing to do with February. In important ways, as a common American experience, the observance of black history has long since slipped the surly bonds of the shortest month of the year. Emancipated. Unchained.

By way of our popular culture; our political culture, for which black history has been as much a problem as an opportunity (look at how Reagan resisted the King holiday); and our calendar culture (the one we depend on to remember anything), black history is steadily gaining wider exposure and recognition (if not always acceptance) in the wider cross-section of the American population.

Black history is also, always, current events. It was the pursuit of recognition of that fact that made Black History Month possible, and necessary, in the first place.

Also published at Image credits: Lupita Nyong’o: John Shearer/Invision/Associated Press. Academy diversity infographic: Lee & Low Books. Trayvon Martin: The Trayvon Martin Family.
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