bierstadt54

Celebrating the Occasional Posts of Mr. Cook!

Category: Uncategorized

Trump First Week Delights and Worries

There are a lot of pleased voters in the US right now. Many commentators and anyone who has lived through an American Presidential term knows that politicians promise a lot while campaigning and then walk back those promises once in office. Those who voted for Donald Trump were promised he would not only get tough on immigration, but include a southern border wall and large-scale deportations. Those who were skeptical thought he would be more hesitant once in office, and focus on expanding background checks, increasing the size of the border patrol, and cracking down on illegal immigrants who commit crimes (other than being here). Well, it seems Trump is determined to do what he said he would.

He has already issued an order for a physical wall to be built and ordered “sanctuary cities” stripped of federal funding. He also insists he will make Mexico pay for the wall. This was an act of pandering idioticy during the election; now, I do not even know what to call it. No self-respecting nation would pay for a wall in another country to keep its own people out of that country. Mexico will never agree to do such a thing. No one would. I suspect we as citizens are supposed to accept this inflammatory declaration as part of Trump negotiating with Mexico???

I am not even certain what part of this makes me angrier. I am a conservative, and though I did not support Trump I was prepared to be surprised and pleased once he was in office. There are plenty of things Trump and I would agree on. Trump could be focusing on the US economy, cutting US corporate taxes from their far-too-high 35% to a much more sensible 15%. He could be endorsing legislation for a tax amnesty to bring US corporate profits back to invest in this country. He could be rewriting the tax code with sensible rules reducing loopholes, eliminating the “double-dipping” tax rules that see US corporation’s overseas profits taxed twice if brought into this country, or adjusting the simply foolish bracket system that means that workers can lose money by earning more money based on an arbitrary income level. He could be cutting red tape. He could be investing his energy into getting his cabinet confirmed. He could be creating a successor to the Affordable Care Act before some over-enthusiastic fool in Congress repeals it without anything to replace it for the 30 million Americans who use it. He could be figuring out how he is possibly going to grow the military, border protection, a $15-25 billion dollar wall, massive infrastructure spending, and a big tax cut, without leaving America’s future generations in debt up to their eyeballs. These are the big issues. These are what he needs to solve. So why oh why is he spending his time influencing Mexico without making friends and insisting that three to five million votes in the Presidential election were fraudulent?

There are some people who think the border issue is critical, and those people will be very happy he is making it a priority. I also imagine there are a few people who believe, in spite of every bit of evidence being to the contrary, that there is massive voter fraud taking place, and those people will also be very happy. The rest of the country is going to fall into the “worried” category. Even if one believes that Trump had the right of it on every issue, the question of “priorities” must spring to mind.

I also cannot help but notice that the federal scientific community is being muzzled. It seems that the man who brought “alternative facts” into the mainstream is taking action to keep opposition to his policies from being able to use government-funding science and facts against him. It seems likely that Trump’s actions are either preparatory to either muzzling inconvenient scientific evidence or to a massive cut in US non-defense spending, including the gutting or elimination of multiple US federal agencies.

Well, it is just the first week. For everyone who is worried, I encourage you to internalize your concerns. That is probably the opposite of what modern sensibilities would espouse, but we all need to remember that what is happening is our responsibility as a people. It is not okay to dismiss it, or just try to forget about it, or to move away for four years until the country is “comfortable” or a “safe space.” Responsibility for the direction of this country belongs to every citizen. The same goes for picking a chief executive who can lead effectively. I am not ready to give up on supporting Trump as a President after less than a week, but I will be watching very closely. There are so many things that need to be done, and he could be the man to do it if he has his head on straight.

Here’s hoping.

Trump Wins

November 9, 2016. I doubt it will rise to the significance of the same day in 1799, which saw Napoleon Bonaparte declare himself the ruler of France, but the next four years have the potential to be significant for America and the world. Today we learned Donald Trump has won the Presidency of the United States and he is not inclined to have a quiet term in office.

There is going to be a great deal written in the next few weeks about what the election of Trump means about where Americans want to go as a nation. Obviously Hilary Clinton was not an inspiring candidate. That certainly did not help. However, I don’t think this election was about Clinton losing. Trump’s use of the media to remain in constant public sight was probably more significant. However, the real story of this election, to my mind, is about Trump holding the same beliefs about what is wrong with the direction of this country as the average American, or at least the average working-class white American.

There are clear social and economic dimensions to the election of Trump. Americans (or a large subset of Americans) are tired of liberals making anyone opposed to their ideas out to be a bad person. Social Justice Warriors are annoying to many Americans. The transgender push has concerned and alienated many people who would probably be fine with tolerating transgender people, but will and have pushed back against the notion that anything less than a full embrace of transgender principles makes a person an evil bigot. No one is going to put up with that attitude forever, and November 8th was the day Americans said enough.

The economic issue is equally simple. Most people don’t have degrees in economics or history. It is well known that many American manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas. Those jobs formed the basis of the industrial economy that many American working-class people relied upon for good, relatively high-paying jobs. If global trade takes those jobs away, then it is bad. People want an industrial economy again.

There could be some good things that come from an effort to rebuild the industrial base. America should be a better place to do business than it is. Lowering the corporate tax rate is essential, and cutting red tape is very good. The plan overall sounds very good. The biggest problem with his economic plan is still how to pay for it. Tax cuts are great, more spending is great, but balancing the books via magic? That never works out.

Regarding foreign policy, it is never important to an election. Trump could do well in reconciling with Russia, and beyond that I hesitate to guess. Economic power drives military power, so I consider growing the economy a priority. American soft power will survive Trump. America will manage.

It is time for Americans across the political spectrum to join together and try to make the next four years a success. That has been my biggest knock on Trump: his limitations as an executive. That means that other people will need to take up the slack. More citizens should get involved in politics and make their own contributions. People who are skilled in policy and the economy should be looking to see if they can get involved with the Trump economic plan in some way. Regardless of whether or not you supported or opposed Trump, Hilary Clinton had it right when she said his success is our success. The next four years will be a high-risk, high-reward historic opportunity. Don’t waste it.

Update: Coup in Turkey Fizzling

Reports coming out of Turkey suggest the army units behind the coup are being defeated. It now appears the coup was more of a mini-coup, a couplette as it were, and doomed to failure. Soldiers surrendering to police is not exactly a positive sign for these would-be rebels. One must wonder what they were thinking, given that many of them will undoubtedly pay for this mini-coup with their lives. I can only imagine they thought that their insurrection would inspire many others to join them. However, there is still a lot more information we don’t have and always the possibility that there could be more to the coup plot than we have seen.

Coup in Turkey

At the time of this post, the situation is Turkey is very unclear. We know that elements of the Turkish military have launched coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP Islamist conservative party. President Erdogan has been, as the coup correctly claims, undermining Turkey’s democratic and secular foundations since he came to power in 2002. He has most recently made headlines for his crackdowns of freedom of the press in Turkey, suspected support of ISIS through illegal oil purchases, and his opening of a war on Kurdish nationalists. All this has not made him a popular figure in the West, nor with Russia following his shoot-down of a Russian strike fighter via Turkish F-16.

However, his crackdowns have not been limited to the press. He also attacked the military in 2011 and 2013. The military has traditionally seen itself as the protector of Turkey’s democratic and secular republic as founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. It has led four coups since 1960. Thus as the AKP began to increasingly Islamisize Turkey some have looked to the military to counter it. However, the crackdowns in 2011 and 2013 seemed intended to forestall such a move. The Turkish military did not revolt in response. Most observers have since considered the military to have neutralized as a pro-secular and pro-democratic political force. This coup shows that this assessment was incorrect.

The question now is simply to find out which side wins. Erdogan can be trusted to be ruthless in his response if he wins, so the coup members are not going to just give up. Nor is Erdogan going to back down. A lot is going to depend on just how much of the military is behind to coup. Reports indicate that at least many army units in the vicinity of Ankara are part of the coup. However, the only report involving the Turkish air force suggests a pro-government F-16 taking out a rebel Blackhawk army helicopter over Ankara. The rebels will find themselves in a difficult position if the government can secure the loyalty of units outside of Ankara. Reports of the head of the Turkish army being held by the rebels suggests the coup is not being led from the top of the military, but I think it is safe to say that the rebels and the government are both going to be stretching the truth in their reports in an effort to win support. Daylight will bring more clarity as well as ordinary citizens seeking to make their opinions felt. Neither side is going to control a city the size of Ankara without some level of popular support.

If the coup is not over one way or the other within a few days I fear this will become another protected conflict. If the military is solidly behind the coup it will succeed. If this is an act of desperation by a group of local army units without air force or wider army backing it will fail. The worst outcome will be if the sides are balanced, in which case the outcome could be so bad that I could really see an international intervention occurring. Currently it looks like a part of the military is doing the wrong thing (coup) for the right reasons (protecting secularism and democracy). The role of Fethullah Gulen, former ally-turned-exiled-opponent of Erdogan with many supporters in Turkey is also open to speculation.

The outcome will become much easier to predict in another 24 hours, by which time the balance of forces and popular support for both sides becomes known. The Middle East has been keeping things interesting for the world. That is not a good thing.

Struggling With Trump vs Clinton

Don’t blame me for Donald Trump getting the Republican Presidential nomination. I said the man was a idiot. But he did win and now American voters have a choice: Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton. Joy.

Many (conservative) Americans are convinced that another Democratic Presidency would be a disaster for America. I believe that both liberals and conservatives bring important ideas and convictions to the political table. Thus my own feeling has been that after Obama a Republican President would be best for correcting the mistakes, excesses, and missteps of Obama, just as Obama in his first term did a good job doing the same vis a vis his predecessor in international affairs. I had hoped this person would be John Kasich. However, the Republican voters of this country have deemed that Donald Trump is the best man to represent them and their interests. So is Trump the right man for the job? Would Clinton really be a disaster if he is not?

Clinton first. The last thing this country needs is a Clinton agenda on gun control. Or Clinton stacking the Supreme Court with liberal judges. Or another dysfunctional relationship between the White House and Congress. She of course holds liberal views on abortion, LGBT issues, discrimination, and associated issues that can be broadly lumped together as the American Culture Wars. That is fine to some extent, but will be at best unhelpful in trying to protect freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. Liberal victory in the current iteration of the Culture Wars has meant that those freedoms are under attack by a portion of the victors, and Clinton is not going to defend those freedoms. She will not help business much, but is also unlikely to harm it significantly. She is overly harsh on fossil fuels without having good alternatives yet.

More seriously, she is fit to be a reasonable but not brilliant leader of US foreign policy. She is experienced in this regard. However, she is opposed to free trade, which means that she would undermine the TPP, which is the new cornerstone of US free trade and Pacific economic policy. This opposition is a populist pander, though her liberal inclinations almost certainly weigh in and will in the future. It will harm the economy and American foreign policy.

Clinton will almost certainly raise taxes and increase money for education, equality initiatives, Social Security, healthcare, and other domestic spending targets. I would characterize her as a reasonable candidate who will fail to implement needed reforms to healthcare, Social Security, and other domestic expenses in favor of throwing money at them at the expense of businesses and the military. Her gun control position is most problematic, but her likelihood to preside over stifling of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and economic growth are also troubling.

Donald Trump is harder to nail down on the issues. As a naked populist, he appeals to the fears of the lowest common denominator of the electorate in order to accrue power. In my opinion, he is the closest thing to the opposite of George Washington to ever have a good shot at the White House. When considering Trump, it is most useful to examine his worldview and inclinations in order to understand his responses to issues and potential situations. He is very much a zero-sum believer and a practitioner of identity politics. His group is pro-choice so he is pro-choice and everyone who disagrees is an outside and an idiot and will see themselves subjected to identity politics and the sort of loathsome ideology of dehumanization that drives genocide. In Trump’s case the result is less dehumanization than a devaluing of the Other as meaningful contributor to the discussion or political debate, but the thought process is not dissimilar. Trump would be better placed in a therapist’s office than an oval one.

His foreign policy approach is execrable. He would do just fine playing the “Great Game” in Europe over a century ago, or as a king having his servants fawn over him, his domestic enemies beheaded, and his soldiers used as gambling chips to expand the territory under his personal rule. And by “fine,” I mean he would be comfortable with the situation. I do not claim he would do it with any skill or success. In the modern era, he has promised to destroy the international liberal order America has fought for over the course of over a century and replace it with some sort of mercantilist system. He has alienated every nation south of Texas with his attacks on Hispanics and Mexicans. He is about as subtle as a 9-year old throwing a temper tantrum, and his policies might as well have came from the same place. He promises everything to his insiders while being able to deliver nothing, save by claiming Mexico will pay to build a big, big wall – essentially, it is a magic wall, paid for by magic. Because if I was Mexico there is one thing I would never do, and that is pay for Trump’s wall. And Mexico, or at least its president, agrees.

Businesses would presumably benefit from a Republican business-background president, but Trump’s populist stance, anti-free trade positions, alienation of Muslims and Hispanics, and predatory intent towards America’s allies combine to convince me that a Trump victory would harm the American economy far more than it could help. Nor was he a particularly good businessman, though he is a skilled showman. His tribal and micromanaging approach to business would also prevent him from using good management practice to run the country. He can also be relied upon to utilize every tool at his disposal to punish his enemies and reward his insiders. At times it seems as if a crackpot would-be dictator has parachuted in from some Central European reality television show and Americans are too mesmerized by his total lack of self-conscience and commitment to saying whatever his first thought is to realize what an appallingly poor leader he would be.

However, he is the conservative candidate and there is no way around it. So Americans are given two mediocre choices to be President. Most Republicans have been falling into line. I have been considering it. Trump would be a horrible President in my opinion, but I have to acknowledge I could be wrong. Maybe the millions of Republicans who voted for him know something I don’t. Maybe he will be a savior for the party and put America back on the right path where individual rights and responsibility are maintained as core American values. Or decades of learning and observation are correct and he would be everything I fear him to be. Hilary Clinton will mean four years of pain for conservative values, to be sure. But I think there is a reason Trump is popular in Russia and North Korea. It is not because they think he is someone they can talk with, though – it is because he could wreck the global order of trade and rules and law. Maybe they could talk to him, but I doubt it.

So I am going to follow my conscience and reject Donald Trump. He is a populist, racist, egotistical blowhard who does not belong in the White House. I don’t want Clinton in there (again) either. I will vote for a third-party candidate. Yes, it will be “throwing my vote away.” Or will it? If it sends a message of rejection of Trumpism, then it will be worth it. If I had a 35-year old turtle and got it registered as a national candidate it would probably beat either Trump or Clinton. Over the next four years, I want to work on electoral reform. People deserve the government they get, and I very much hope the party of Lincoln is better than Trump.

A Plea To Republicans

Please stop voting for Donald Trump. The man is an idiot. He is hot-tempered, abrasive, vindictive, and a mediocre businessman. He is running well based on his ability as a showman. That is pretty useless once in office. His only real asset, in my opinion, is his ability to negotiate. That skill is of limited value to a President. Negotiations at this level last years, typically. No President is going to have much of anything to do with direct negotiations unless he cloned himself. In other words, he would be a bad chief executive.

Fortunately there is one man still running on the Republican side who combines praiseworthy leadership experience with sensibility worthy of an American President: John Kasich. Marco Rubio does not have the leadership experience; Ted Cruz is little better. Hillary Clinton would easily lead a government better than either. Where she would lead it is another question, but at least she would do so with reasonable success.

In my opinion, every primary vote for Trump and Cruz is a vote for Clinton in the general election. Rubio may be electable. But Kasich definitely is, and he is the best standing candidate with the skills to govern America. He is certainly the only one with a chance at reducing the partisanship that currently plagues the country, long shot that that may be.

However, just because John Kasich is the best person to govern the country in my opinion does not mean you ought to vote for him. I have not laid out a full analysis to support that.

But please, please stop voting for Trump.

The Promise of the Iran Deal

Having been asked about the deal between Iran and the P5+1, I will note there are both positive aspects and areas for concern. First, the good.

I am rather impressed that a deal was reached at all. If Iran was dead-set on building a nuclear weapon, nothing short of military attack would have stopped such development. Only Israel would have been willing to do so, and quite frankly the window on such an attack being effective closed several years ago. The US will not invade Iran. There is nothing sufficiently compelling for us to incur the costs of such an attack and occupation. Even an Iranian nuclear weapon and the prospect of a nuclear exchange between Iran and Saudi Arabia would not justify invasion to the American public. There is simply no appetite for it. Nor is there any among America’s allies. Iran is aware of this, regardless of the rhetoric Iranian hardliners like to spout out. That probably helped with the deal, though I speculate. Iran has proven time and again it is skilled at being an aggravating and non-constructive negotiating partner when that suits its interests. Previous negotiations have served more to protect Iran’s nuclear military potential than to remove it. This deal is far more reflective of a shift of Iranian interest perception than anything the P5+1 could say.

Next, please note that sanctions are the first hard step taken in the modern world for modifying an international state actor’s behavior. In this case, the pain helped drive negotiations. However, sanctions are nothing more than a tool. Only the behavior modification matters. In this case, Iran remaining a non-nuclear military power.

Having established this point, let us consider the deal. First, the only thing that is certain at this time is the Joint Statement by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. It looks good. It commits to create a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by June 30th based on relegating Fordow to research status, enrichment only at Natanz and at a level to be agreed-upon but limited, and the modification of the Arak reactor to not produce weapons-grade plutonium, with the spent fuel to be exported in any event. All this is to be overseen by IAEA inspectors, and in exchange Iran will receive technical assistance, access to the global nuclear power market, and an end to sanctions imposed due to the nuclear issue. It is a commitment in principle to regularize Iran as a non-nuclear military power within the civilian nuclear power community. That would fair and an excellent outcome.

However, the White House has also put out a fact sheet that has been criticized by Mr. Zarif. There seems little need to comment on it at this time. It must be remembered that the deal process is a negotiation, with many constituencies. Furthermore, President Obama has displayed an impressively tin ear in the past in dealing with the sensitivities of many people and groups across both the United States and around the world. It may be that this “fact sheet” is indeed misleading, perhaps for domestic political purposes. The right wing on Congress is certainly reserved to a deal and seemingly following the lead of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is staunchly opposed. However, it is difficult to see how being caught lying to the public would help a deal gain Republican support. I can more readily suspect that the “fact sheet” reflects an optimistic understanding-in-principle from the negotiations that should have been kept confidential until the final agreement is reached. Iran has its own right wing opposed to the deal, and Mr. Zarif is well aware of it.

Ultimately, this deal should be considered a promising work in progress. When June 30th rolls around we will know if this is a good deal or a foolish one. Expecting the sanctions to be lifted all at once and immediately, for example, would be foolish and unrealistic. They cannot be easily reapplied. However, there is broad will in all concerned nations for this deal to go ahead. I believe it will, and it shall be a good deal. Just hope that the right wing on both sides does not sink it, and that such efforts receive no further aid from anyone, or any White House. The sensibility of the deal will be seen on the 30th.

Stabilizing Iraq Via Airstrike

It is depressing how often pessimism proves itself the most accurate forecast in the Middle East. Prime Minister al-Maliki should be gone now, in the best interests of Iraq. He is not. The temptation that power represents is a consistent challenge to humans; history and philosophy leave us in no doubt of that. It is a shame that al-Malaki could not overcome it for the good of his people. Now that Shia Iraq has rallied itself to stop ISIS (now just the Islamic State, or IS), it is Iraq’s minorities that shall suffer next.

IS has taken over the primary towns of Iraq’s remaining Christian population, as well as the Yazidi religious minority. Both face some combination of rape, torture, slavery, and death if caught. (Can I again mention that IS is a truly vile organization?) An uncertain number (probably around 40,000-50,000) of Yazidi refugees are trapped on Mount Sinjar and face genocide without immediate aid. Even President Obama, hardly a man known for boldness or taking action or making a decision, has authorized limited assistance and airstrikes to hinder IS. But to what end?

The Islamic State is not going away do to a major international ground invasion. Al-Maliki needs to go for mainstream Sunni Iraq to see its future as being with Shia Iraq. That has not happened, so it probably won’t happen any time soon. Therefore, the best that can be expected is containing IS. So now that Obama has actually made a decision, we should see limited humanitarian assistance and airstrikes sufficient to stiffen Kurdish defenses against further IS advances. Many Yazidi people will never make it off their mountain without more assistance that it currently appears they will receive. That assistance should be increased immediately. Hopefully this will happen, but trying to save 50,000 people trapped on a mountain, isolated save for the merciless army trying to slaughter them, at the eleventh hour… it is a very tall order. Even with full political support it is very hard. This may end very badly. I dearly hope it will not. But it could.

The other refugees are in a better situation. That really isn’t saying much, but at least they aren’t trapped on a mountain of death. With Obama, though, you really don’t know if US airstrikes will last. The Iraqi Kurds and Christians and Yazidi and other minorities need them to last. Airstrikes mark a new chapter in the Iraqi Civil War. Whether this new chapter includes Kurdish forces pushing IS forces back under cover of US airstrikes and genocide averted or it merely sees a temporary setback to IS and the death of thousands or tens of thousands of Iraqi minorities remains to be seen.

Saving Iraq Needs to Happen Soon, But Probably Won’t

Iraq is in bad shape right now. ISIS is the closest thing to pure evil you can find right now in a large organization, and it has taken nominal control of large swaths of Iraq. Its Syria breeding ground offers it strategic depth, confirming some of the worst fears voiced as Syria fell into civil war. Now there is little the world can do but watch the civil war spread to Iraq.

First, start by reading this piece about the different groups involved. Then come back. Any sensible person can see there is a grand total of one group mentioned worth having hope about: the Sunni tribes. They are looking for peace and prosperity in the face of oppression from the man who would be the Shia Saddam Hussein over Iraq. Unfortunately, they have allowed some very unsavory groups to join this fight, with “ISIS” being the most prominent and thus becoming the catch-all term in the media for the various Sunni extremist groups involved. However, ISIS the group is also the most brutal and it is worth keeping separate from other Sunni extremist groups. Which in itself is a good indicator of how bad things are.

Here is what should happen. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki should immediately resign. His regime has been a cancer eating Iraq from the inside. A new government in Baghdad should embrace the Sunni tribes, offering greater autonomy and representation – also oil revenue – in exchange for ending their rebellion against the corrupt Maliki regime and turning on ISIS and other extremists. The new Iraqi government should also take measures against Shia extremists, reducing the influence of Iran that Maliki fostered and keeping Shia groups away from Sunni tribal regions before massacres occur. The Kurdish government should get involved in removing ISIS and foreign extremists, and should probably be allowed to keep Kirkuk if they promise to protect the rights of all the groups of people living there. In Syria Assad should stop allowing ISIS to set up its own draconian Fundamentalist Islamic state. Also Assad should leave Syria and a new government should be appointed comprising representatives from all non-extremist groups and given a mandate to restore and rebuild the country after jointly kicking out all the extremists from ISIS and Iran/Hezbollah. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Here is what will probably happen. Maliki will double down on all the things that led Iraq to this tragic situation. The coming Iraqi civil war will spill rivers of blood and the treasure of Iran and groups in the Gulf states. The Kurds will stand aside unless opportunity presents itself to secure something it wants for itself. The rest of the world will not intervene because there are no easy options to do anything useful militarily. However, the US will be active behind the scene, talking with Sunni tribal leaders, the Kurds, and the Iraqi government, as has been happening. However, that is only useful if someone is willing to listen. The Kurds know what they are doing, the Sunnis have been driven to desperation by Maliki, and Maliki has the backing of Iran and Shiites terrified by the prospect of ISIS. Change needs to happen in Baghdad, and is anyone going to bet on Maliki being the one to start it? So, civil war.

There is a chance, though. Other leaders in Iraq could replace Maliki themselves, joining together to form a new government. This has been suggested and discussed for months, and has gained traction with US calls for a new Iraqi government being a pre-condition to US involvement in Iraq’s current crisis. Will leaders emerge in Iraq able to replace Maliki? If so, it needs to happen quickly. Maliki will not go willingly unless he sees refusal to go as certain destruction. With Shia militia pouring towards the front lines by the tens of thousands, it is extremely unlikely the Sunni rebellion will even make it to Baghdad, much less take it over. Once the advance crests, most of America’s ability to influence political change in Baghdad will dissipate along with the fear of an imminent advance into the city by brutal Sunni extremists. Will Iraq’s leaders act quickly enough? One must hope so, for it is Iraq’s best hope for avoiding a fate nearly as grim as Syria’s.

 

Problems In Ukraine Get A Lot Bigger… Maybe

I have not been especially worried about the events in Ukraine over the past three years. Although the pro-Russian/authoritarian government of Viktor Yanukovych was doing Ukrainian democracy no favors, I was confident that the pro-Western/European citizens of Ukraine would eventually swing the direction of their country back towards Europe and democracy. I was correct in this broad evaluation, and in a surprisingly innovative campaign the Euromaidan movement succeeded in forcing the ouster of President Yanukovych and the return of the pro-Western groups to power… where they will have a long, hard grind to reforming Ukraine to the level of a modern European democracy, but that is generally the way it works. It is just a whole lot of work, coupled with solid integrity and a good dose of luck. No great nation was ever built in a day. Also, Ukraine is in desperate need of – to borrow from sporting terms – elite-level leaders to helm the nation through its tough reforms. But that is all on hold now, because of Russia – and I am worried.

Ukraine is in big trouble. A quick glance – see this, this, and especially this – shows that Ukraine has an ethnic problem, and one that Russia is in superb position to exploit. Russian President Vladimir Putin has no illusions about allying with Yanukovych, whom is understood to be held in low regard by the Russian President, but he is strongly interested in maintaining a pro-Russian political position in Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s Near Abroad. Having failed to maintain a pro-Russian government in Kiev, what are his options to uphold Russian interests in Ukraine?

So many options are available – Russia may not have a generally desirable hand, if one had to play the game, he or she would quickly see Russia’s hand as a strong one. Putin could support the new Kiev government; he has not. Putin could adopt a “wait and see” attitude and make new policy decisions once emotions have settled and the new government goes to elections or after, during the tensions and struggles of implementing reform. Putin could try to prop up the pro-Russian movement with economic carrots and sticks towards Kiev; that has happened already. Finally, Russia could intervene with a variable measure of military force, from special operations teams supporting pro-Russian militias all the way up to overt invasion. And according the the word coming out of Ukraine, that is where Russia is headed.

The Crimea is historically Russian. It is the home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and thousands of Russian troops. It is also a popular place for Black Sea sailors to retire. It is more Russian than Ukrainian (60% ethnic Russian), and if one looks out from Putin’s Kremlin there are not too many serious downsides to taking it back. Will a Europe reliant on Russian gas take on the Russian military to restore the mostly Russian Crimea to Ukraine? Will the US under Obama engage Russian ships and warplanes? President Obama has been noted to be cautious; it would take something extraordinary to induce him to take a firm stand militarily. It doesn’t help that Russia is needed for support in dealing with Iran and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is also no base of popular support in the US for intervention at this time, though that could change. Putin could almost certainly rely on a broad base of support for a Crimea intervention, even though other Russians in government have come out to say that Russia will not intervene. He invaded Georgia six years ago, so we know he is willing to pull the trigger. Once he punches through the Ukrainian military – which the chaos of the Ukrainian political system at the moment will greatly aid – what does he have to fear? A G8 boycott has been mentioned. That’s a joke. In exchange for the Crimea, and perhaps a catalyst for a Russian-majority state arising from a fractured Ukraine, a boycott is very small potatoes indeed. Economic sanctions would also be very unlikely to dissuade him. The prospect of resistance from the minority Ukrainians and Tartars would be more persuasive, but Putin is, if nothing else, a bold man. It would be unwise to put an invasion past him.

Of course, Putin could still wish to maintain Ukraine intact, in which case this could simply be an autonomy push for the Crimea, threatening Kiev with deniable actions to buttress Russia’s position in the region. Or it could be nothing more than brash, angry posturing from a frustrated Russian President. There are a lot of things Putin could do, but one thing is for certain: none of them are going to help build a modern Ukraine. Some of them could destroy the country as it currently exists. That is a big worry.

Worry may be the name of the game tonight – tomorrow Crimea could belong to Russia, formally or functionally. The substantiated reports of Russian army movements related to the Black Sea fleet are provocative under the circumstances, but not cause for real concern. However, there have been unsubstantiated reports of Russian troop reinforcements to support Russian units that have taken over airports in the Crimea. If – and given the excitement and sensationalism involved in some of this reporting that is a big if – if those are true, it is probably too late to change the course of events, considering the players involved. For those thinking that an invasion would provoke war between Russia and NATO in the region, here is something else to consider: would historically Russian Crimea be worth a war to save ethnic Russians from political Russians for a divided and struggling Ukraine? When the opponents are both nuclear-armed and the territory has a Russian majority, bold, aggressive actions by Putin may reap him rewards. Or set the world ablaze. As mentioned, this is a good time to be a bit worried.