Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Kerry and Obama’s strategy on Syria: Work through the Russians and thow a “Hail Mary” pass on negotiations

Sunday, September 20th, 2015


MICHAEL R. GORDON and ERIC SCHMITT, “Russian Buildup in Syria Raises Questions on Role,” New York Times, September 19, 2015.

Stefan Braun, Berlin, und Nicolas Richter, Washington, “Syrien-Konflikt: Kerry und Steinmeier hoffen auf Putin; Gibt es doch noch eine diplomatische Lösung des Syrien-Konflikts? Ein Angebot aus Moskau klingt für die USA und Europa vielversprechend. Aber welches Ziel verfolgt Russlands Präsident Wladimir Putin wirklich?” Suddeutscher Zeitung, 21. September 2015 (06:14 Uhr).

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have no strategy for dealing with the Syrian crisis, and as we pointed out a few days ago are basically clueless.

See “Russia and the U.S. flying missions in Syrian airspace — Failed U.S. Policies lead to dangerous situation as Russia makes strategic military move into Syria,” The Trenchant Observer, September 18, 2015.

Gordon and Schmitt describe this disastrous situation in Kerry’s own words

“We need to get to the negotiation,” Mr. Kerry said at a joint news conference with (British Foreign Secretary Philip) Hammond. “That’s what we’re looking for, and we hope Russia and Iran, other countries with influence, will help to bring that about, because that’s what’s preventing this crisis from ending.”

Right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion,” Mr. Kerry added, “and Russia has refused to help bring him to the table in order to do that.”

Kerry focuses on the issue of Assad’s departure, as if that would bring the hell that the conflicts in Syria have become to a resolution. His suggestion is basically similar to that which led to the U.N. Geneva II Conference on Syria in January, 2014, which produced absolutely no results, not even an agreement to keep talking.

What will be needed to resolve the Syrian crisis goes far beyond Assad’s departure. Something like a U.N. Authority for Syria will eventually have to be established under Security Council auspices in order to bring any kind of peace to that country.

The fact that Kerry entertains the idea of negotiating with Russia and al-Assad ignores the fact that any agreement with al-Assad would be utterly meaningless given his track record, and an agreement with Russia would not be worth much more, given Putin’s own record of backing al Assad’s broken promises in Syria and breaking his own in the Ukraine.

Gordon and Schmitt report,

Kerry and Hammond “emphasized that Mr. Assad could not remain in power if there was to be a durable solution to the conflict, but they said that the timing of his departure during a political transition in Syria would be a matter of negotiation.

“It doesn’t have to be on Day 1 or Month 1,” Mr. Kerry said. “There is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved.”

The policy, if you can call it that, is to “work through the Russians” and to throw a “Hail Mary pass” on negotiations, hoping that through some divine intervention negotiations might lead to a solution to the conflict, when there is virtually no evidence to suggest that might happen.

That’s where John Kerry and Barack Obama are on Syria. Out of the game, entertaining phantasies and completely ignoring the events in the country over the last four years.

The Trenchant Observer

REPRISE–Syria: Russia and Iran complicit under International Law in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Late News—-

See MICHAEL R. GORDON and ERIC SCHMITT, “U.S. Moves to Block Russian Military Buildup in Syria,” New York Times, September 8, 2015.

Vladimir Putin is now engaged in extremely dangerous brinksmanship in Syria, apparently introducing Russian troops and special operations forces to bolster the collapsing Bashar al-Assad regime—in a war theater in which U.S. and allied air forces and NATO member Turkey have become militarily active.

Vladimir Putin, the veteran chess master, has moved a big piece on the international chessboard, as European leaders are overwhelmed by the waves of refugees and immigrants now roaming through their territories, while EU sanctions against Russia for its invasions of the Ukraine must be renewed by July 15, with the formal written approval of all 28 governments, or they will lapse. Even a lapse of a few days could have huge and unforeseen consequences.

This is a wonderful playing field for Mr. Putin, but one in which miscalculation, accident or the unexpected could hurtle the nuclear superpowers into a direct and escalating conflict with the potential for nuclear war.

Putin seems convinced he can out outbluff Barack Obama in any nuclear showdown. This could lead to dangerous miscalculations in dealing with an American government whose strategic nuclear decisions could be taken not by a vacillating President Obama acting alone, but rather by a united national security team including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the country’s military leaders, acting in concert with the president.

At such a juncture, it is useful to recall that Russia is complicit under international law for the past and ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the al-Assad regime and its supporters.


REPRISE:  Syria: Russia and Iran complicit under International Law in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” The Trenchant Observer, June 16, 2013.

Sergei Lavrov argues that Russia has to supply modern weapons systems to Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria in accordance with contracts that have already been signed, and warns the West and the Arab countries that any military action such as establishing a no-fly zone in Syria (without U.N. Security Council authorization), would violate international law.

Staff and Agencies, “Syria no-fly zone would violate international law, says Russia; Comments by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov underline G8 challenge faced by US in trying to gain support for intervention,” The Guardian, June 15, 2013 (07:11 EDT).

However, as Lavrov makes this argument, one central fact must be kept foremost in mind:

Under International Law, Russia and Iran are themselves complicit in the commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria. The Russians have knowingly supplied weapons, training and personnel to assist al-Assad’s forces in the commission of such crimes. Both Russia and Iran have helped finance the continuing commission, with their own ongoing advice and participation, of these crimes.

Consequently, they themselves are guilty of the commission of these crimes.

On the relevant international law on complicity in the commission of international crimes, see

Helmut Philipp Aust, Complicity and the Law of State Responsibility, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Introductory front matter for the book, including a table of contents, is found here.

For a summary of Aust’s book, see Michael Byers, Book Review of Helmut Philipp Aust, Complicity and the Law of State Responsibility, in 23 EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW (EJIL), pp. 583–589 (2012). The full text of the book review is found here.

For an earlier (1996) treatment of the subject, see Bernard Graefrath, “Complicity in the Law of International Responsibility,” 1996 REVUE BELGE DE DROIT INTERNATIONAL, No. 2, pp. 370-381. The full text of the article can be found here.

In view of the above, when Barack Obama and the other G-8 leaders sit down with Vladimir Putin at the G-8 meeting in Belfast on Monday, June 17, they should all bear in mind that they are in the presence of a Russian president who is responsible for Russian aid and assistance to al-Assad’s regime in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that as a result Russia itself is guilty of committing these crimes.

Putin and Russia cannot cynically argue that they are allowed to assist al-Assad in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, incurring international responsibility, while under international law the West and the Arab states can do nothing to help protect their victims.

That is not where international law is, today, in 2013.

For an idea of the crimes they are supporting, see the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, articles 1, 7 & 8, which largely represent a codification of existing customary international law relating to these international crimes. The text of the Statute of the ICC is found here.

It goes without saying that the commission of all international crimes in Syria must be stopped, including those committed by the insurgents.

The Trenchant Observer

Greek debt and the stategy of Europe, NATO, and the U.S. to “contain” the militarism and aggression of Russia

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

UPDATE II July 12, 2015, 6:00 p.m. EDT)

The ghost of Versailles hangs over the Greek debt negotiations in Brussels this evening.

In 1919, with Germany defeated after World War I, the delegates to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 imposed draconian reparations requirements on a prostate Germany. This became known as the “Dolchstoss” or knife in the back which helped propel Adolf Hitler to power 14 years later, in 1933.

The hardline governments engaged in the final debt package negotiations with Greece, led by Germany, are seeking to impose humiliating conditions on Greece even after Alexis Tsipras met most of their previous demands on Thursday night.

In doing so, they are repeating the same mistake they made the week the negotiations broke down and Tsipras called a snap referendum on July 5, by imposing new and harsher conditions.

By their actions they are poisoning the future of Greek politics and Greece’s relations with the Euro Zone and even the EU itself.

There may still be time for the heads of state meeting tonight in Brussels to pull back from the edge, show magnaminity, and back off from the program of extreme humiliation which the finance ministers seem to support.

Foreign ministries should be involved in these decisions. Frank-Walter Steinmeier should be at Angela Merkel’s side, and not just Wolfgang Schäuble.

A constructive path forward must be found, putting aside any personal desires for vengeance or vindication, or to teach Tsipras a lesson.

If the EU leaders fail, Vladimir Putin and other extremists will reap the benefits of decisions that are disastrous for Europe and the West in geopolitical terms.

The Trenchant Observer

UPDATE (July 12, 2:30 p.m. EDT)

Hardliners and technocrats appear to have dominated the EU finance ministers’ discussions on whether to accept Tsipras’ Thursday night proposal as a basis for formal negotiations.

Now only the Eurozone heads of government and heads of state can save Greece from an exit from the Euro (“Grexit”).


(1) Kevin Hagen und Christina Hebel, “+++ Newsblog zur Krise +++: Euro-Minister erwägen Grexit (aber nur in Klammern); Die Eurofinanzminister schreiben in einem Dokument, es gebe die Möglichkeit einer griechischen Euro-Auszeit. Allerdings steht der Absatz nur in Klammern – denn die Gruppe ist sich nicht einig. Alle Entwicklungen im Newsblog, Der Spiegel, 12. Juli 2015.

(2) Draft(?) Statement of the EU finance ministers, July 12, 2015 (16:00 CET).

The conditions are so harsh they seem designed to cause Greece to choke, or have been designed in a matter utterly oblivious of the realities of Greek politics.

For example, to tell Greece it has to adopt a new Code of Civil Procedure within three days is utterly humiliating to Greece, and will generate the opposition of lawyers and others from all parties. No international group or organization can dictate such a measure to a sovereign country.

Unless the heads of government and heads of state intervene forcefully to reject these conditions, with a view to the geostrategic realities in Europe, they will hurl Greece — and themselves — into the abyss.

These decisions require the inputs of foreign ministers, who should be called to Brussels.

Statecraft of a high order is now required.


Original article


Bruce Ackerman, “Germany’s Failure of Vision,” New York Times, July 9, 2015 (Op-Ed).

Today the finance ministers of the Euro Zone met in Brussels to consider whether Greece’s debt proposal sumbitted Thursday evening forms a sufficient basis to permit the opening of formal negotiations for a third Greek bailout program. The meeting adjourned without any decicision, and is to reconvene on Sunday at 11:00 a,m. The leaders of the 19 Euro Zone countries are to meet in the afternoon, and then the heads of government of all 28 EU member states are to meet at 6:00 p.m. to decide on the Greek proposal, and on humanitarian assistance to Greece in the event it is rejected. Such a rejection would in all likelihood cause a de facto Greek exit (or”Grexit”) from the Euro Zone as early as Monday.

Late news reports suggest the finance ministers are split down the middle on whether to agree to the Greek proposal.

Following the European press for the last few weeks, one is struck by the absence of geopolitical and strategic considerations from the debates, which have proceeded as if the question of what to do with the Greek debt question were purely a matter for finance ministers and those involved in European economic matters.

Let us recall that EU sanctions against Russia will have to be renewed in January, 2016, that this can be achieved only with the affirmative vote or acquiescence of all 28 EU member states, and that a very large element of uncertainty as to the Greek vote will be introduced if Greece is forced to exit the Euro Zone leading to a further collapse of its economy.

Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA have embarked on a disastrous course of playing a game of “chicken” with Greece’s creditors in Europe and the IMF. They have dstroyed the trust that is sessential for Europe and Greece to work together to resolve the debt crisis.

They have acted as untrustworthy partners in the Euro Zone. If other countries acted as Greece, neither the Euro Zone nor the EU could function or even continue to exist.

The Tsipras government, even with French technical help, presented a request that was wildly short of what the IMF estimates Greece will need to survive the current crisis.

The Greek government does not appear to be technically very competent.

So, what should Europe do?

First, they must ignore the personal insults, lack of trustworthiness, and incompetence of the Greek officials.

Second, they should follow France’s example of helping the Greeks on a technical level to develop realistic plans for resolving the crisis. This they were doing before the plebiscite. Now they should resume.

Third, they should seek to build a partnership with the Greek people and help the Tsipras government (or the one that follows it) to devise and implement necessary structural reforms, while creating scenarios that give hope to the Greek people that they will return to growth and emerge from the current crisis.

If the Greeks do not cooperate in implementing such an approach, Greece must then be allowed to exit from the Euro Zone, in an orderly fashion.

Right now, above all, Europe’s leaders and the IMF should look at the map of Europe, consider that Russian troops occupy the Crimea and are in the eastern Ukraine, and act decisively to defend the southern flank of Europe.

For they are engaged not only in financial and economic decisions, but also in geopolitical decisions of the highest order.

The Trenchant Observer

Top articles on Putin, the Ukraine, and Russia

Friday, April 17th, 2015

Check back for updates

Some of the best articles by the Trenchant Observer on Putin, the Ukraine, and Russia include the following:

(1) “Russian propaganda and Western reporters who can’t think: Putin’s great rise in popularity, as revealed by polls,” March 14, 2015.

(2) “Nemtsov assassination represents a stark warning to the opposition: ‘Criticize Putin, especially on the Ukraine, and you may die,’” (Updated March 6, 2015)

(3) “Putin’s triumph over the pacifists and appeasers of the West, and the ferocious opponents he may face in the future,” (revised February 25, 2015).

(4) “Ukraine Update: Overview and signficance of the continuing Russan invasion,” March 5, 2015.

(5) “Minsk II Agreement of February 12, 2015 (with full texts in English and Russian), February 12, 2015.

(6) “Russia’s utter and continuing violation of international law in the Ukraine: U.N. General Assembly Resolution A/RES/25/2625 (1970) on Principles of International Law and Friendly Relations Among States,” February 8, 2015.

(7) “The virus of nationalism and military aggression: Adolf Hitler in Vienna, March, 1938; Vladimir Putin in Sevastopol, May 9, 2014,” June 30, 2014.

(8) “Steinmeier-Lavrov Meeting in Moscow: “Sergej Wiktorowitsch, Du, du liegst mir im Herzen, Du, Du machst mir viel Shmerzen, weisst nicht wie gut ich dir bin,” November 18, 2014.

The Trenchant Observer

U.S. strategy and leadership needed: The Middle East and other countries hurtle into the Vortex

Friday, March 27th, 2015

On some days, the news is so disturbing that you want to take a broader view of what is going on in a region, or the world.

The Middle East appears to be convulsed by civil war and situations that could lead to further civil and international conflict. At times it seems that everyone has forgotten about international law. States don’t bother to offer legal justifications for their actions, or sometimes even admit they are responsible for them.

Chaos in the Middle East

Shiite Houthis backed by Iran are taking over Yemen, provoking military responses from Sunni Arab states.

Did anyone offer a legal justification for the actions of the Sunni military coalition?

Barack Obama’s statements several years ago that we should pursue a “Yemen-like” solution to the Syrian civil war don’t look so good today.

Libya has become a failed state, ruled now by violence and near anarchy.

U.S. bombers join in Iraqi government attacks on ISIS in Tikrit, as Iranian-led Shiite militias engaged in the battle for the city stand down or adopt ambiguous postures. The United States is now participating directly in the confict with ISIS in Iraq, in what seems to be an open-ended commitment.

This may be required in order to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, but has not yet been the subject of much public debate in the United Stares.

Israeli-Palestinian relations are at their lowest point since the Second Intifada, following Banjamin Netanyahu’s scurrilous playing of the race card in the last days before the recent elections to the Knesset. After warning right-wing voters that the Israeli Arabs were turning out in droves for the elections, Netanyahu has lost all respect as a leader of Israel.

In the days before the elections, Netanyahu also promised right-wing voters that there would never be a Palestinian state so long as he remained in office. That sounded the death knell for the two-state solution, at least for now.

There are no negotiations underway, and it is hard to see how they can be restarted so long as Netanyahu remains prime minister.

Relations with the Obama administration are at an all-time low, putting the U.S. automatic veto against any U.N. Security Council resolution adverse to Israel into play.

Charlie Rose interviews Bashar al-Assad, giving a megaphone–once again–to a mass murderer guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria on a massive scale, where over 220,000 have been killed. With blood dripping from his hands, al-Assad wants to make a deal with the West to fight the Islamic State group or ISIS, leaving his regime and him in power.

In his diffidence to al-Assad, Rose refers to dropping barrel bombs and other war crimes and crimes against humanity as “actions that others look down on” or words to that effect.

Regarding Rose’s shameful interview with al-Assad in September, 2013, on the eve on an expected vote in Congress authorizing Obama to use military force against Syria–following the use of chemical weapons by Syria at Ghouta on August 21, 2013–see

See “CBS News and PBS: Network of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and PBS, give al-Assad megaphone for propaganda to oppose Obama—ON MONDAY!,” The Trenchant Observer, September 8, 2013.

The Islamic State group, the al-Nusra front, the Syrian army, Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, Western-backed so-called “moderate” rebels, and who knows who else mix it up in the meat grinder of Syria.

Threats Beyond the Middle East

An unsteady truce holds in the eastern Ukraine. Putin sits poised like a leopard, waiting for the West to be distracted and/or show disunity before he strikes at Mariupol and continues building his strategic land bridge to the Crimea.

The Greek prime minister suggests, on the eve of his trip to Moscow, that Greece may veto the renewal of EU sanctions against Russia when they come up for renewal later this year.

Putin is driven by a need to continually engage the West in conflict, in order to distract his population from their sinking economy and worsening living conditions. He also seems to be on the path of delusions of grandeur, as he would be the leader who restored the Russian Empire and its sphere of influence.

See John Simpson, “Vladimir Putin is fighting for political survival – by provoking unrest in Ukraine, New Statesman, March 30, 2015 (9:44 a.m)

Writing from Sevastapol, the BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson explains how Russia’s premiere is stalling. His Crimean coup is an attempt to distract the west.

No one refers to international law.

Endless war, including war between Sunni states and Iran, is highly possible.

Once the genie of a broad Sunni-Shiite war in the Middle East is out of the bottle, who could contain it again?

In Washington, as in Europe and the Middle East, leaders are needed to deal with these situations effectively, pursuant to a coherent strategy. Yet such leaders are hard to find.

Into the Vortex we all go.

The Trenchant Observer

Putin’s power in the Kremlin and his dangerous nuclear and other threats

Thursday, March 26th, 2015


For a particularly incisive analysis of Vladimir Putin and the threat he represents, see

Eric Morse, “The deadly chaos behind Putin’s mysterious acts,” The Globe and Mail, March 24 2015 (2:02 PM EDT).

Eric Morse is co-chair of security studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.

Vladimir Putin has become the most dangerous man in the world.

With direct control over Russia’s nuclear weapons, unchecked by the collective leadership represented by the Politburo in Soviet times, engaged in dismantling the arms control security architecture built up since the Cuban Mssile Crisis in October, 1962, brandishing nuclear threats in an increasingly open manner, Vladimir Putin appears to be subject to no internal controls within Russia.

Engaging in highly provocative military probes of NATO airspace, conducting large-scale military maneuvers on an almost continuing basis, and articulating a vision of military conquest and annexation with increasing boldness, Putin is acting in dangerous ways which could result in a incident leading to an escalating military conflict with NATO countries.

Especially significant has been his endorsement, little commented on in the Western media, of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  That agreement, concluded on August 23, 1939, included not only a non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, but also the division andoccupation of Poland by the two countries and the takeover by the Soviet Union of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as parts of Finland and Romania.  A week later, on August 23, 1939, World War II began with the German inasion of Poland.

At the same time, the Boris Nemtsov assassination on February 27, 2015 has highlighted the ties between Vladimir Putin and the Chechen leader, Ramsan Kadyrov, who has at his command some 15,000-20,000 Chechen fighters, who constitute  a kind of personal militia operating outside of the regular security structures within Russia. Among the “volunteers” and regular forces which entered the eastern Ukraine from Russia were many such Chechen fighters.

The West is left with the urgent challenge of figuring out how to deal effectively with the most dangerous man on the planet, and then resolutely implementing the actions that are required.

In the Ukraine, appeasement has not worked.

Even the adoption in September of  tough economic sanctions did not stop Putin and his puppets from conquering more territory in the Donbas and threatening to take Mariupol in violation of the Minsk Protocol and ceasefire agreed on September 5. Now, following the recognition of those gains and the weakening of other provisions in the original Minsk Protocol in the Minsk II agreement signed on February 12, the credible threat of sending “lethal” arms to the Ukraine, and of further sanctions including exclusion from the SWIFT international payments system, may be helping to restrain Putin from moving at this time on Mariupol. That port city would give separatist-controlled territories in the Donbas an outlet to the sea, and its conquest would constitute an important advance toward establishing a land bridge to the Crimea.

But Putin can bide his time, waiting for disunity within the EU, NATO, or Europe and the U.S., before making his next strategic move.

Putin manifestly has been and will continue to be engaged in an all-out campaign to challenge and weaken NATO and the EU, executed relentlessly, 24/7, on many different fronts.

What seems clear is that he is steering Russia on a path that could lead to a nuclear confrontation with the West. Were that to occur, without any internal checks on Putin’s behavior, and in the absence of the confidence-building measures and arms control restraints which have existed until the very recent past, the situation could become even more dangerous than that which existed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

NATO and the West can no longer ignore the Russian threat to their security, responding lethargically while seeking refuge in illusions that with Putin anything resembling a return to “business as usual” is possible.

Rather, a long-term strategy of containment of Russia must be adopted, and quickly implemented. Only then (whether before or after Putin has passed from the scene) might there be any chance of Russia returning to the international community of civilized nations which seek to guarantee their security within the framework of the Unied Nations Charter and respect for international law.

That strategy of containment should eschew further appeasement but include renewed efforts to shore up the arms control measures achieved in the past, and joint efforts with Russia to secure new agreements that might reduce the risk of nuclear war, whether accidental or resulting from deliberate actions.


See also the following article quoting a Canadian minister, Chris Alexander, who in addition to accurately pointing out that Putin is behaving like a terrorist, also alludes to the origins of the Ukraine crisis as lying in the responses of the U.S. and other countries to events in Syria. This is a key point, as readers who have followed Russian actions in Syria and reactions from the West are probably already aware.

David Pugliese (Postmedia News), “Putin is behaving like a terrorist’: Cabinet minister’s speech on Ukraine sparks social media battle with Russia,” National Post, March 25, 2015 (Updated 3:50 PM ET)

The Trenchant Observer

Russian propaganda and Western reporters who can’t think: Putin’s great rise in popularity, as revealed by polls

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

They say that robots or software robots can prepare news to be distributed much like a newspaper does.

Evidence is mounting that robots or robot-like reporters are already filing reports for leading newspapers, and making editorial decisions on headlines and what goes into a particular edition of a newspaper.

Now El Pais from Madrid has published a news story that states that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has soared to 88%, one year after the military invasion and purported “annexation” of the Crimea.


Agencias (Moscu), “Putin alcanza una cifra récord de popularidad del 88%. Crimea quiere nombrar al presidente ruso ciudadano de honor un año después de anexión El Zpais, 11 de marzo 2015 (19:28 CET).

El Pais is one of Europe’s leading newspapers, and it is nothing short of scandalous that it would print this story with this headline.

Is El Pais taking a direct feed from Russian newswires, giving their propaganda the impramatur of a leading international newspaper, and then publishing the “news” story? It cites the poll results as reported by the ITAR-Tass Russian news agency.

Is it the policy of El Pais to republish news stories from Russian wire services, or are its editors just asleep at the wheel?

In fact, many newspapers in many countries have been publishing these and similar poll numbers, as if they had any significance, much as the election “results” announced by the “separatists” in Donetsk and Luhansk and earlier in the Crimea that were reported, as if they meant anything.

See “The meaningless “sham” elections in “separatist”-held areas of the Ukraine on November 2, 2014, The Trenchant Observer, November 2, 2014.

Think for a minute. Russia is a dictatorship where there is no freedom of expression in the state-owned and state-related media, and opponents of Putin are harrassed, arrested, expelled from the country, or, as in the February 27, 2015 assassination of Boris Nemtsov, simply killed.

If you were a Russian and a polling company called you for your opinion, on the phone, or even if you were asked questions in a survey questionnaire administered in person, would you say you approved of President Putin and his policies? What’s the downside?

If, on the contrary, you say you disapprove of Putin and his policies, what is the upside? As for the downside, might you not be a little concerned that, in a police state, your answers could be used to hurt you, in one way or another?

See Saeed Ahmed, “Vladimir Putin’s approval rating? Now at a whopping 86%,” CNN February 26, 2015 (Updated 1256 GMT).

Ahmed reports,

So how is it that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity is at a whopping 86%?

That’s the conclusion of a poll conducted this month by the Levada Center. Last month, Putin’s approval rating was at 85%.

The Levada-Center describes itself as an independent, non-governmental polling and sociological research organization.

And it has found that Putin’s approval ratings have been holding steady in the mid-80s since around May last year, which incidentally is when the Ukraine/Crimea conflict bubbled up.

What gives?

The answer is simple, says Ben Judah, author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.”

“That figure is made up,” he told CNN last month.

“An opinion poll can only be conducted in a democracy with a free press,” he explained. “In a country with no free press, where people are arrested for expressing their opinions, where the truth is hidden from them, where the media even online is almost all controlled by the government — when a pollster phones people up and asks, ‘Hello, do you approve of Vladimir Putin,’ the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

“So what that opinion poll is, is not a poll of approval but it’s a poll of fear.”

Regarding the recent poll, The Guardian adds one significant detail: “The state-run VTsIOM pollster reported on Friday that 88% of Russian approved of Putin’s job performance – an all-time record.” So, we are talking about the results of a poll conducted by a state-run polling agency, which El Pais picked up from a Russian ITAR-Tass wire story.

The Russian poll results are meaningless. Fatally flawed. Devoid of significance. Useful only for their propaganda effect.

In a dictatorship, the polls are meaningless, as meaningless as the election results. That is the news story.

Please tell the editors of El Pais.

If citizens and officials in the West are to accurately understand what is going on in Russia and the Ukraine, and the world, Western media are going to have to do a much better job of filtering out Russian propaganda.

To do that, they need reporters and editors who can think on their feet.

Moreover, a good starting point for them would be to never rely on news sources that are well-known for their mendacity. That would include most Russian news wires and newspapers.

The Trenchant Observer

REPRISE: Kiev caves in to Russian military threats, offering far-reaching concessions in eastern Ukraine; Pacifism and appeasement grip Wasington and Europe; First signs of Russian military intervention appear, as troops on border are poised to strike

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

Originally published April 12, 2014

The Atmosphere in Washington

On Saturday, April 12, The New York Times did not have a story (or even a reference) on its front page on the Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal, however, in a superb article by Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, published a penetrating account of the extent to which top U.S. civilian and military leaders are in the grip of President Obama’s pacifism and approach of appeasement.

See Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Tries to Help Ukraine, Reassure Allies Without Riling Russia; Obama Administration, NATO Face Quandary as They Plan Response to Moscow’s Annexation of Crimea, April 12, 2014.

Entous and Barnes offer a few illustrative examples:

(1) Seeking to demonstrate strong American support for Ukraine, U.S. military planners considered using Air Force planes to ferry food rations to outnumbered and underequipped Ukrainian troops facing superior Russian forces across the border.

Pentagon leaders settled instead for a less-conspicuous operation: They sent the promised meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, in commercial trucks from storehouses in Germany.

(2) “Ukrainian forces got the MREs late last month, about two weeks after requesting aid. The White House says it is still reviewing other items on Kiev’s wish-list, including medical kits, uniforms, boots and military socks.

“‘You want to calibrate your chest-thumps,” a senior military official said of the step-by-step American response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military moves. “He does something else in Ukraine, we release the socks.'”

Yatsenyuk’s Offer on of Sweeping Concessions, and Escalating Unrest in the East

Meanwhile, in Donetsk on Friday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in a move signaling a cave-in to Russian pressures and military threats–as few signs suggested that the West would support the Ukraine in defending its territory against a second Russian invasion–offered concessions so broad that they would undermine the unity and sovereignty of the Ukrainian state, if they were ever accepted and implemented.

Protesters, however, seem to be following a different script, dictated by Moscow. An escalating wave of seizures of government buildings by armed protesters continued on Saturday, promising to make the holding of Ukrainian national elections on May 25 all but untenable in the eastern parts of the country where the protests are centered.

The Guardian has provided an overview of the latest developments in the Ukraine, including the concessions offered by Yatsenyuk in Donetsk on Friday:

Protesters in Donetsk have called on Russia to deploy peacekeepers to facilitate a referendum on independence by 11 May.

Yatsenyuk did not agree to a referendum but suggested the system of regional administrations appointed by the president should be replaced by executive committees elected by regional parliaments, which would have “all financial, economic, administrative and other powers to control the corresponding region”.

He also recommended that the parliament approve legislation that would change the constitution to allow for local referendums, a move strongly supported by the leaders of the Donetsk occupation.

Yatsenyuk said changes to the country’s constitution should be approved before a presidential election planned for 25 May that the Kiev regime has said will fully legitimise the new government.

–Alec Luhn in Donetsk, Oksana Grytsenko in Luhansk and agencies, “Ukraine fails to break stalemate with pro-Russian protesters in east; Arseniy Yatsenyuk promises devolution to local government in hope of staving off demands for their independence from Kiev,” The Guardian, Friday 11 April 2014 (15.03 EDT).

The tactics being used are from the Crimea playbook, with reported escalations today (Saturday, April 12) involving military units not wearing military insignia.

See Gregory L. White and Lukas I. Alpert, “Pro-Russian Protests Spread in Eastern Ukraine; Armed Men in Military-Style Uniforms Move to Commandeer Government Offices, Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2014 (updated 7:23 p.m. ET) .

White and Alpert report:

Witnesses said the men who took over the buildings in Slavyansk weren’t the local activists who had led protests in the region in recent weeks.

Instead, they appeared better-equipped and trained, carrying military-style gear and weapons, but with no insignia on their camouflage uniforms.

Such descriptions were similar to the thousands of troops who moved into and took over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula last month, leading quickly to Russia’s annexation. Those troops were later confirmed to be Russian, though Moscow never officially admitted that.

See also:

“Kämpfe in mehreren Städten der Ostukraine; Im Osten der Ukraine bekämpfen sich prorussische Aktivisten und Sicherheitskräfte. Präsident Alexander Turtschinow berief für den Abend den nationalen Sicherheitsrat ein,”Die Zeit, .”12. April 2014 (19:20 Uhr).

The growing protests and incipient violence appear to be setting the stage for Russian military intervention, by the 40,000-80,000 troops that have been mobilized in preparation for such action.

The Diplomatic Front

On the diplomatic front, Russia is playing the same delaying game it played in Syria, talking of diplomatic solutions and illusory “agreements”, while gaining time for other kinds of solutions produced by the use of military force on the ground.

The strategy has been successful in Syria, and it should come as no surprise that the Russians are following a similar script in their diplomacy vis-à-vis the Ukraine.

The near-constant diplomatic contacts between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry, and others, serve two important Russian purposes.

First, they allow the Kremlin to monitor with great precision the intentions and potential actions of the at times compulsively transparent Obama administration, and its Western allies.

Second, they offer excellent opportunities to divide the Western countries by planting false seeds of hope. For example, Lavrov offered earnest reassurances to Kerry that Russia had no intention of violating the territorial integrity of the Ukraine, only days before the Russian invasion of that country. Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin assured German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Russian troops on the border with Ukraine would be withdrawn (or significantly reduced). No such drawdown has occurred, and indeed the build-up has continued.

A similar hope, in all likelihood also illusory, has been offered that if the West does not anger Russian President Vladimir Putin by its responses to Russia’s actions, he will not invade the eastern Ukraine.

Under current circumstances, it is a very bad idea for the U.S. and the EU to meet with Russia on April 17 to discuss the Ukraine’s fate, even with the Ukraine also participating.

See The Trenchant Observer, “Munich II: The meeting in Geneva between the U.S., the EU, the Ukraine and Russia, April 11, 2014.

The meeting, to find a “diplomatic solution” to “the “Ukrainian Crisis” provides Russia with an excellent opportunity to continue its strategy of deception and delay, dividing the West and offering illusory hopes to defuse the momentum for the adoption of any serious responses.

John Kerry, Sergey Lavrov, Catherine Ashton of the EU, and the Ukraine will meet in a context in which only Russia can gain, either by securing “Munich II”-style concessions from the West at the expense of the Ukraine, or by sowing division and doubt among the countries of the West.

Yatsenyuk’s proffered concessions on April 11 suggest that “Munich II”-style concessions are already being crafted, probably under pressure from the U.S. and the EU.

The Costs of Further Delay in Imposing Really Significant Sanctions

Further delay by the West in taking military steps and adopting really meaningful “third-stage” sanctions (such as a ban on financial transactions with Russia and/or a freezing of Russian assets in the West) will enable Russia to proceed with its destabilization of the eastern Ukraine and what may be its plan to have local “referendums” held on May 9, Russia’s Victory Day (celebrating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II). Demands for such referendums are now being heard from pro-Russian protesters.

The Russians are following Adolf Hitler’s playbook for the Anschluss with Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland to the letter. The first took place on March 12, 1938. The second took place six months later, with the approval of France and Great Britain at Munich on September 30, 1938.

“Is Putin like Hitler?” The Trenchant Observer, April 4, 2014.

“Putin’s seizure of the Crimea and Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland: The comparison is accurate,” April 1, 2014.

Because of the complexity and time-consuming nature of EU and NATO decision processes (unanimity is required, in both cases), only the U.S. is in a position to lead and to act quickly.

The additional sanctions announced by Obama on April 11, 2014 (adding seven individuals and a major Crimean gas company seized by the Russians to those on the list of targeted sanctions) represent small steps in the right direction. But no one should imagine for an instant that they are sufficiently serious to affect Russia’s decisions, including any which may have already been made to invade the Ukraine for a second time.

The United States and the West are speaking the language of peace and reason. Russia is speaking the language of war and military action on the ground.

If only Obama and his “groupthink” coterie could come to their senses, grasp these realities, and react with forceful actions that are executed, not threatened, much might still be salvaged from the current debacle. After the invasion and annexation of the Crimea one would think they might have learned a thing or two.

But the roots of pacifism grow deep, and it is not easy for those who are committed to appeasement to discern–much less react to–realities which are dramatically changing, hour by hour, on the ground.

The Trenchant Observer

Der Scharfsinniger Beobachter
L’Observateur Incisif
El Observador Incisivo

Leftist victory in Greece threatens continuation of EU sanctions against Russia

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015



(1) Julia Smirnova und Boris Kalnóky, “Mit Tspiras hat Russland einen neuen Verbündeten; Die neue griechische Regierung verfügt über bemerkenswert enge Kontakte nach Moskau; Premier Tsipras fordert schon lange ein Ende der Sanktionen, Außenminister Kotzias ist ein Fan von Putins Guru,” Die Welt, 28. Januar 2015.

(2) Daniel Friedrich Sturm, “POLITIK LAUT GABRIEL: Bundesregierung ist gegen neue Russland-Sanktionen Die EU-Außenminister dürften bei ihrem Treffen am Donnerstag vor allem intern nach einem Konsens suchen. Die vorgeschlagene Verlängerung der Sanktionen ist laut Vizekanzler Gabriel längst nicht sicher,” Die Welt, 28. Januar 2015.

(Vizekanzler Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) sieht wenig Spielraum für neue Sanktionen gegen Russlan.)

It appears that, as a result of the election of a leftist government in Greece on Sunday, January 25, Vladimir Putin may now have secured a blocking veto within the 28 members of the EU.

EU countries at present can only adopt economic sanctions by unanimous consent.

Consequently, a Greek veto could block renewal of the sanctions against Russia, which come up for re-authorization between March and September, 2015. This would occur even as Putin continues his illegal occupation of the Crimea and his ongoing military invasion and intervention in the eastern Ukraine, with Russian troops, armor and material.

This latest development demonstrates that Merkel’s and the EU’s austerity demands on Greece were too harsh, producing unexpected and sharply counter-productive consequences.

Even if the sanctions are eventually renewed, the battle within the EU is likely to be limited to re-authorizing existing sanctions, rather than adopting new and harsher sectoral sanctions in response to Puutin’s latest military moves in the Donbas, particularly against Mariupol.

Our current political leaders don’t seem to understand a fundamental truth: Everything is connected. We need leaders of great strategic vision, but have none.

The new Tspiras government, as a party, has been a strong critic of EU santions against Russia. Its top keaders are reported to have close ties to Moscow.

The EU voting requirement urgently calls out for a constitutional change, if Europe is ever to become an effective actor in the world. Yet even if there were support for changing the voting requirements–highly dubious at present– it could take years to adopt and implement any such changes.

Mr. Putin turns out to be a much better chess player than the pacifists and appeasers who lead the West. Many of them, including Barack Obama, don’t seem to have looked at the chessboard in over a month.

Moreover, it seems never to have occurred to them that they need to develop a strategy to take a queen, and even a king.

The Trenchant Observer

Putin attacks Mariupol, may seek land corridor to Crimea

Saturday, January 24th, 2015



(1) Julia Smirnova, “Mariupol wäre für die Separatisten wertvollster Ort; Die Angriffe auf Mariupol markieren eine neue Eskalation des Kriegs in der Ostukraine. Greifen die prorussischen Milizen nach der wirtschaftlichen Schlüssel-Metropole des Südostens?,” Die Welt, 25. Januar 2015.

(2) “Raketenangriff auf Mariupol: CDU und Grüne fordern neue Sanktionen gegen Russland; Beim Raketenbeschuss auf die ukrainische Stadt Mariupol wurden mindestens 30 Menschen getötet, womöglich mit Unterstützung russischer Truppen. Erste deutsche Politiker fordern noch schärfere Sanktionen gegen den Kreml,” Der Spiegel, 25. Januar 2015 (16:10 Uhr).

(3) Pilar Bonnet, “La violencia en Ucrania se dispara al nivel previo al inicio del diálogo; Treinta civiles muertos y 97 heridos en un ataque con misiles a Mariúpol, El Pais, 24 de enero 2015 (22:47 CET).

(4) Konrad Schuller (Berlin), “Ukraine-Krise: Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Stadt anzugreifen: Nach dem Raketenangriff auf Mariupol droht eine neue Eskalation der Gewalt in der Ostukraine. Vieles spricht für einen Angriff der Separatisten. Russland könnte die Kontrolle von Mariupol sehr nutzen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25. Januar 2015.

(5) Tom Parfitt (Zhelanne), “Tank troops fight to contain rebel expansion in eastern Ukraine: War escalates as 27 civilians killed in rocket attack and Kiev accuses Moscow of sending more soldiers and hardware across the border,” The Telegraph, January 24,2015 (48PM GMT).

Vladimir Putin may now be moving decisively to take Mariupol, opening the way for seizure of a land corridor linking the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the Ukraine with the Russian-conquered and occupied Crimea and city of Sevastopol.

This would solve Russia’s huge logistical problem of supplying the Crimea with goods and materiel, which at present can be done only by sea.

Russia and the “separatists” earlier took down the border between the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Russia, permitting Putin to move armor, fighters and materiel into the Donbas at will.

The strategic logic underlying such a move on Mariupol has been laid out here, and has been clear at least since April, 2014.

With the EU, NATO, and the U.S. not considering any further sanctions or NATO actions against Russia, despite Putin’s current intensification of its aggression in the eastern Ukraine, and with some 9,000 Russian regular forces in the Region (not counting Russian irregular forces), it is hard to see any deterrent force that could stop Putin and Russia from taking such actions.

Angela Merkel even put forth the idea of a broad customs union with the EU and Russia and its friends this week, that being her response to further Russian aggression in the Ukraine, and Putin’s immediate violation of the Berlin agreement of January 21 between Russia and the Ukraine to withdraw their heavy weapons from the demarcation line established by the Minsk Memorandum of September 19, in implementation of the Minsk Protocol of September 5, 2015.

Merkel could not have given Putin a brighter green light for further military aggression.

Putin, on the other hand, may just be probing, to see if he meets any resistance to his attack on Mariupol. If he doesn’t, as occurred when he was taking over the Crimea, he may then act decisively to expand the territories under Russian control, from Mariupol to the Crimea.

Meanwhile, Europe, the EU, NATO, and the U.S. are asleep, under the leadership of the same pacifists and appeasers who to date have utterly failed to contain Russian militarism and aggression in the Ukraine, and beyond.

Stay tuned. Events of great historical importance are underway, as the system of international security established under the United Nations Charter in 1945 is beginning to buckle and collapse.

The Trenchant Observer