What happens next as Ukraine, Russia, NATO spar?

While a cease-fire agreement was announced between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels on Friday, tensions clearly remain in Eastern Europe, and commentators are looking hard at the region, the involvement of the United States there, and the future of NATO. Today, we offer a sampling and closer look from observers in the national media. — Ron Rollins

Would we go to war over Estonia?

From Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week: If it were challenged by Russia, how important is Estonia’s sovereignty to you? Would you kill and die for it? Send your children to do so? Would you risk the nuclear annihilation of your civilization? Is your gratitude for use of Estonia’s airspace during the war on terror that great?

It better be, because this week President Obama reaffirmed our national commitment to just that. In a speech in Tallinn, Estonia, he celebrated the inviolability of the treaty that binds NATO:

“I say to the people of Estonia and the people of the Baltics, today we are bound by our treaty alliance. We have a solemn duty to each other. Article V is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, ‘who will come to help,’ you’ll know the answer — the NATO alliance, including the Armed Forces of the United States of America, right here, (at) present, now!” (Applause.) “We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”

Make no mistake about it. Russia’s imperial policy in Eastern Europe is dishonest, provocative, immoral, and deadly. And the price of our own freedom does demand that we draw some line that we can point to and say to an aggressor: no further.

But is that line around Estonia? How about Latvia? Is it really worth the U.S.’s full security pledge to say that in the conflict between Ukraine’s Europe-facing west and its Russia-adoring eastern rump, that the Europhiles must not only win, but dominate the losers?

As bad and desperate as Russia is, at least its policy is legible. For a decade, Ukraine’s internal politics has been a kind of chess match between Russia and the Western Europe. Earlier this year, the European Union and the U.S. took the unrest in Ukraine as an opportunity to help that country’s Western-oriented peoples finally put an end to the “progress-impeding” power of Russian speakers in the nation’s east. If the West had succeeded in this endeavor, Russia would have been humiliated, and could have lost access to warm water ports. Russia responded by annexing Crimea. …

The sad truth is that smaller states will have a difficult time when they are caught up in major-power politics. Singapore is already looking at Ukraine and telling itself that it cannot rely on security treaties. And of course it shouldn’t, because Great Powers freely violate them. In truth, if the United States were facing a land invasion, I wouldn’t begrudge a small state like Estonia if it conveniently forgot its NATO obligation to commit national suicide in our defense.

It’s time to stop looking at our security promises as moral press releases, and instead count the cost. It’s time to stop playing pretend with Eastern Europe’s security.

President still playing it smart.

From Andy Borowitz, in The New Yorker: Arguing that his motto “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not a coherent foreign policy, critics of President Obama are pressuring him to do something stupid without further delay.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) led the attack on Thursday, blasting Obama for failing to craft a stupid response to crises in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.

“Instead of reacting to these events with the haste and recklessness they deserve, the President has chosen to waste valuable time thinking,” McCain said. “This goes against the most fundamental principles of American foreign policy.”

Graham also expressed frustration with the President, telling reporters, “The American people are waiting for President Obama to do something stupid, but their patience is wearing thin.”

In his most withering criticism, McCain called Obama’s “stubborn refusal to do stupid stuff” a failure of leadership. “If I were President, you can bet your bottom dollar I would have done plenty of stupid stuff by now,” he said.

Don’t let Putin control the world conversation.

From Chrystia Freeland, in The New York Times: Last week, Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, said he could take Kiev in two weeks. This week, he disavowed a cease-fire, then proposed a peace plan. These zigzags did their job, leaving the West confused about his intentions, just as the European Union and NATO were meeting to figure out how to counter them.

Now, in the information war, Ukrainians are striking back. When Russian soldiers openly engaged Ukrainian forces at the end of August, a new hashtag began to trend on Twitter. Invented by a Belorussian and enthusiastically promoted by Ukrainians, #RussiaInvadedUkraine was used nearly a half a million times in the first few days. A week later, it was still being posted hundreds of times an hour.

In this conflict, technologically driven activism has become characteristic. Ukraine’s Maidan revolution began with a post on Facebook, and a “nerd unit,” staffed by volunteers who are crowdsourcing the funding for their drones, is operating in the contested east. What’s new and important about #RussiaInvadedUkraine is its clear language.

One of the features of Russia’s war against Ukraine has been the reintroduction of Newspeak into public discourse. The Kremlin has used misinformation, propaganda and outright deceit to frame the debate. Ukraine’s cyberactivists insisted on #RussiaInvadedUkraine to remind Western leaders and journalists who are loath to use such plain terms that our weak words are an unnecessary concession to Mr. Putin.

It may seem precious, when the war has already claimed at least 3,000 lives, to fuss over the proper use of language. It isn’t. George Orwell, in his famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” argued that the battle against poor English wasn’t frivolous because “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Mr. Putin has already muzzled Russia’s once boisterous free press, exiled and imprisoned opposition leaders and assumed direct control of the mass media. If he opts for a compromise over Ukraine — and the best scenario on offer right now seems to be an ugly and destabilizing “frozen conflict” in the Donbass — he won’t need the West to help him justify himself at home. He has a powerful domestic propaganda machine to do that. …

Mr. Putin is challenging us with a double bluff, one military and one rhetorical. Reasonable people can differ on how much we should be supporting Ukraine and on how strongly we should be sanctioning Russia. But it is no longer possible to disagree about what is happening.

What makes the Ukrainian conflict consequential is that it is not a civil war. It is an annexation of territory, the invasion of one European country by another.

Putin is taking advantage of our reluctance to fight.

From Andrew Stuttaford, in The National Review: Prisoners of geology, Icelanders make it their business to understand volcanoes. Prisoners of geography, the peoples of the Baltic States do the best they can to understand the unruly, dangerous, and enigmatic superpower next door.

So, when Janis Berzins of Latvia’s National Defense Academy published a report in April titled “Russia’s New-Generation Warfare in Ukraine,” it was worth paying attention. Since then, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have evolved beyond the deployment of “little green men” and other irregulars of nominally uncertain provenance into an old-fashioned invasion, plain, simple, and bloody, but the West still needs to focus on what Berzins had to say. His subtitle — “Implications for Latvian Defense Policy” — suggests why.

With Putin seemingly set, so far as opportunity will allow, on reconstituting the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) that fell apart with the Soviet Union, it’s easy to imagine that Latvia and Estonia might be somewhere on the target list. They are both former Soviet republics. For two centuries, they were part of the Russian Empire. Both have large, imperfectly assimilated Russian minorities, who, Putin reckons, belong within that Russian World, a status that entitles them — lucky “compatriots” — to his “protection.” Each has a major, almost 100 percent Russian-speaking city (Daugavpils, Latvia, and Narva, Estonia) temptingly close to the Russian border.

Both countries are in NATO, and thus theoretically covered by Article V of the NATO Treaty, which provides that all the alliance’s member states “agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” But in an age in which war can proceed by half-denied incursions and bogus popular uprisings (“non-traditional combat,” in Berzins’s phrase), who is to say what an “armed attack” really is? Berzins asks what would happen if a “Crimea-like situation” were to erupt in Narva. After all, Russia would undoubtedly insist that this too was the exercise of a “democratic right of self-determination.” And that, Berzins clearly fears, would cloud the picture enough for some Western politicians to claim that Article V should not apply. If that sounds too cynical, recall the lengths that some of them went last month to avoid calling the Russian assault on Ukraine (a country without the benefit of an Article V guarantee) by its right name: invasion.

According to the (anti-Putin) Russian commentator Andrey Piontkovsky, Putin is well aware that many NATO countries would be reluctant to be drawn into conflict by Article V. And even if they did come to Estonia’s aid, “Putin (could) respond with a very limited nuclear strike and destroy for example two European capitals. Not London and not Paris, of course.” Were that to happen, Piontkovsky believes, Putin would calculate that “all progressive and even all reactionary American society” would shout “‘We do not want to die for Narva, Mr. President!’”

NATO isn’t helping, it’s hurting the situation.

From Seumas Milne, in The Guardian: It was precisely the threat that Ukraine would be drawn into NATO, a military alliance hostile to Russia, despite the opposition of most Ukrainians and its then elected government, that triggered this crisis in the first place. Instead of keeping the peace, NATO has been the cause of escalating tension and war.

Which is how it’s been since NATO was founded in 1949, at the height of the cold war, six years before the Warsaw pact, supposedly as a defensive treaty against a Soviet threat. It’s often claimed the alliance maintained peace in Europe for 40 years, when in fact there is not the slightest evidence the Soviet Union ever intended to attack.

After the USSR collapsed, the Warsaw Pact was duly dissolved. But NATO was not, despite having lost the ostensible reason for its existence. If peace had been the aim, it could have usefully been turned into a collective security arrangement including Russia, under the auspices of the United Nations.

Instead, it gave itself a new “out of area” mandate to wage unilateral war, from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan and Libya, as the advance guard of a US-dominated new world order. In Europe it laid the ground for war in Ukraine by breaking a U.S. pledge to Moscow and relentlessly expanding eastwards: first into ex-Warsaw Pact states, then into the former Soviet Union itself. …

NATO, whose members have often included fascist governments in the past, has never been too fussy about democracy. Evidence for its claims that Russian troops have invaded eastern Ukraine is also thin on the ground. Arms supplies and covert intervention in support of the Donbass rebels — including special forces and state-backed irregulars – are another matter.

But that’s exactly what NATO powers such as the US, Britain and France have been busy doing all over the world for years, from Nicaragua to Syria and Somalia. The idea that Russia has invented a new form of “hybrid warfare” in Ukraine is bizarre.

NATO likes to see itself as the international community. In reality it’s an interventionist and expansionist military club of rich-world states and their satellites used to enforce western strategic and economic interests. As Ukraine shows, far from keeping the peace, NATO is a threat to it.

What’s Obama’s plan in Europe? Hard to tell.

From Fred Kaplan, at Slate: I’ve often defended President Obama from critics who condemn his foreign policy as vacillating and weak. But I don’t understand what he’s saying and doing about the fate of Ukraine. Or, rather, I’m baffled, even troubled, by the contradiction between what he’s saying and what he’s doing.

At his speech in Estonia on Wednesday, Obama denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “brazen assault” on the most basic international principles, vowed to “stand with the people of Ukraine,” and even opened the door to possible membership in NATO. Yet, just last week, at an Aug. 28 press conference (which he called to condemn Putin’s incursions), Obama firmly stated that the crisis did not justify sending American troops or weapons, nor has he since taken steps to alter this calculation.

One could make a case for this week’s lofty rhetoric or last week’s realpolitik-infused restraint—but not for both, simultaneously. And to speak of noble principles, while acting on narrower interests, only raises false hopes—and sows deeper disillusionment once they’re dashed.

Is the United States going to war for Donetsk? No, and everyone knows that. …

For now, we may have no choice but to let Putin have the eastern districts of Ukraine. Sending weapons to Kiev would help the Ukraine army resist, but for how long? As for Crimea, honest officials admit that Crimea is gone, probably forever,

But the West could still help the rest of Ukraine stave off economic pressures from Moscow and perhaps even turn it into a beacon—the “halfway-functioning state,” with a modicum of prosperity, that Garton Ash hoped for.

The question is whether the Western leaders feel they have an interest in doing this — and the will to put up the cash. This at least is a sort-of-plausible course of action. If we don’t want to go that far to “stand with the Ukrainian people,” as Obama put it, then the notion of going to war for them, or inviting them to join NATO, should be put off the table. No sense making the neglected feel betrayed.

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