Groundhog Day and Putin the Predator

We know Vladimir Putin's playbook for destabilizing Ukraine. Which is why only a decisive military victory against Moscow's forces will work.

Presidents Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin met in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 26 -- a date of ominous significance. It is six years to the day that Russia recognized two Georgian regions it seized and occupied as independent states, creating the precedent of changing European borders through military force for the first time since the end of World War II.

Putin's actions in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine today are so similar that I can't help but think of the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray's character relives the same day over and over again, until he gets it right. The pattern is easy to discern: stir separatist sentiment through a relentless propaganda campaign; form, train, and arm local separatist militias; create a permanent bleeding wound of conflict; and step up direct involvement depending on the level of success of government troops pushing back against the separatists.

How could the West not have been prepared by now for a proper response? We've seen this game before. Putin's play has always been to raise the stakes, hoping that the West will blink every time tension increases. Although recent sanctions announced by the United States, the European Union, and other allies seem to indicate that this time Putin's gamble might not be uncontested (Russia escaped economic punishment in 2008), there are still contradictory and confusing signals coming from the big Western capitals that give space for Putin's maneuvers.

During her recent visit to Kiev, meant to show Berlin's support for Poroshenko's government, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "the Ukraine situation" should be solved without inflicting any damage on Moscow. Some high-ranking officials in her government were far more explicit, however, speaking to the press about the need for the federalization of Ukraine and declaring that Kiev shouldn't rush to defeat the separatists as it could humiliate Moscow. At the same time, European leaders still refuse to use the word "invasion" -- even though tanks and armored convoys have rolled across the border and more than half of the combat-ready troops on the ground in Ukraine, based on multiple credible accounts, are regular Russian soldiers. Not for nothing have Ukrainian officials openly started to speak about the "Ukrainian-Russian War."

Indeed, Putin's preparation for the Minsk talks has been military in nature. During the last several days he has poured new forces into Ukraine, where his proxies had been on the defensive in recent months as Kiev's soldiers advanced on the separatist strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk. These new troops revitalized the front and managed to reverse gains made by the Ukrainian army and special operations forces. In Minsk, Putin will now be in a stronger bargaining position to demand a cease-fire, upgrade the status of his local proxies to stakeholders in the conflict, and make Russia a mediator, enabling it to bring in Russian "peacekeepers." (In Georgia, we used to call them "piece-keepers," as their mission was to keep pieces of the former Soviet empire under Moscow's control.)

Once the conflict is thus "frozen," Putin can continue to destabilize the rest of Ukraine, infiltrating separatist forces from the controlled territory, turning off energy supplies, and strangling the fragile economy. It's the same playbook he has used in Georgia and Moldova.

Putin knows that Poroshenko is likely not in a position to yield to this pressure and accept his "peace plan" in Minsk. So the Kremlin has its own follow-up scheme on standby -- blame everything on the unconstructive stance of the Ukrainians and attack them with the full extent of Russian force. Once again, this was what happened in Georgia after we rejected the unacceptable conditions put forward by Moscow.

The only way forward -- even if it is complicated and costly -- is to stand firm at Ukraine's side and help pursue a decisive victory. For that, the Europeans need to stop trying to tie Poroshenko's hands and undermining Ukrainian morale. They also need to be ready to impose additional sanctions against the Russians and provide more economic assistance to Kiev.

Vladimir Putin sees his fight as part of a wider zero-sum game against the West, and any attempt to assure him of the opposite will only be interpreted as a sign of weakness and an opening for more adventurism. We know the pattern well by now. And hesitation will not stop this predator.

Photo by Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images


What Would the Soviets Say About Michael Brown?

From Birmingham to Ferguson, a brief history of how racial tensions at home have undermined America abroad.

Americans are not the only ones who have been riveted by the news out of Ferguson, Missouri, over the past two weeks. The images of tear gas-filled streets and camouflaged police pointing semiautomatic guns at unarmed demonstrators in the U.S. heartland have attracted laughable hypocrisy from around the world. Iran's grand ayatollah decried the "brutal treatment" of African-Americans in the United States. The major news organ in China pointed to Ferguson, where a police officer killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, as indicative of America's "human rights flaw." News broadcasts in Russia noted dryly, "Cases of racism are still not rare in the nation of exemplary democracy." And Egypt, which has come under heavy U.S. diplomatic fire for massacring protesters during the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood a year ago, threw right back at President Barack Obama his words urging "restraint and respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion."

But for all of the recent schadenfreude on display, this diplomatic game isn't new. In fact, it has been around at least since the Cold War. The worst part of this posturing isn't its speciousness. It is the willingness to use the harassment and persecution of America's most vulnerable citizens as foreign-policy fodder, cynically casting human rights as just another diplomatic battleground rather than as a framework to bring about real equality, justice, and peace.

During the Cold War, the Soviets eagerly depicted every lynching or Klan-beaten Freedom Rider in Birmingham, Alabama, as a warning to the world that the United States was fundamentally unable to deal with non-whites on the basis of equality. The implications were clear: If the U.S. government could treat its own citizens with such disdain and viciousness, peoples in the Third World were in mortal danger if they aligned with the West. In 1951, Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk acknowledged that, "The greatest burden we Americans have to bear in working out satisfactory relations with the peoples of Asia is our minority problems in the United States."

The Soviets were determined to make relations with Africa a problem as well. When Watts, Detroit, and Newark exploded in riots in the mid- to late 1960s, the KGB seized the opportunity to turn the anger, frustration, and rage of black Americans into a foreign-policy coup. As America's inner cities burned, Soviet agents sent, to African diplomats at the United Nations, forged letters full of "racially insulting" incitement from supposed U.S. white supremacists. That successfully fueled distrust of the United States in Africa. One Soviet agent later remarked, "I lost no sleep over such dirty tricks, figuring they were just another weapon in the Cold War."

From Truman through Nixon, Washington was keenly aware of how the United States' racial tensions played out abroad. It became especially hard to ignore when diplomats from India, the Caribbean, and Africa became ensnared in the discriminatory net of Jim Crow and were tossed out of a theater or denied hotel accommodations. But, despite the cost to its international objectives, the U.S. government was unwilling to attack the problem of racism at its roots. Instead, successive administrations used several strategies to counter Jim Crow's deleterious effects on U.S. foreign policy. One was to place token blacks, such as journalist Carl Rowan and singer Marian Anderson, on international delegations to give the illusion of equality. Another was to point to the riots, court cases, and demonstrations happening around the country during the civil rights movement as proof that the American system could tackle the "unfinished business of democracy." The primary strategy, however, was to go on the attack by highlighting widespread human rights violations in the Soviet bloc.

But just as the dismantling of the Jim Crow laws over the course of the 1960s failed to put an end to racial discrimination in the United States, neither did the end of the Cold War in the 1980s put an end to how racial discrimination at home affects America's image abroad.

In 2005, just two years into the war in Iraq that was cast as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast, inundating New Orleans. Thousands of Americans, the overwhelming majority of them poor and black, were trapped in a drowning city. The soaring rhetoric about democracy that had cloaked the war in Iraq quickly fell to earth -- in part due to the spectacle at the Superdome in New Orleans. Even the conservative-leaning Daily Mail in Britain, recognized that: "Here is a country that is able to overthrow a dictator if it chooses, but is so immersed in the outcome of a war that it is incapable of reacting accordingly to the problems of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens effected [sic] by a natural disaster." El Mundo, Spain's leading newspaper, emphasized that the disaster in New Orleans "highlights the weaknesses of a country so preoccupied by its imperialist adventures that it is neglecting its most valuable asset -- the well-being of its people." France's Libération further explained, "Katrina has revealed America's weaknesses: its racial divisions, the poverty of those left behind by its society, and especially its president's lack of leadership." Hamburg-based Die Welt was even more succinct: "America is ashamed."

Fast-forward three years and Obama's election seemed to signal to the world that the United States had overcome its sordid past. It marked a chance, as one Iranian reporter said, for America to "fix its image in the world."

But since that electrifying November night in 2008, a strange paradox has occurred. While a black man has occupied the White House, conditions for African-Americans have at best stagnated and in many cases worsened. A 2013 report by researchers at Brandeis University calculated that "half the collective wealth of African-American families was stripped away during the Great Recession." A rash of voter-suppression laws targeted -- much like the old grandfather clauses -- at African-Americans and supported by the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, threatens to disfranchise millions of black voters. The economic and political onslaught is punctuated by the number of unarmed black Americans shot and killed by "stand your ground" vigilantes or increasingly militarized police forces, with no assurances whatsoever that justice will occur. These grievances converged in Ferguson, Missouri, and came to light for the world to see.

The United States has been grappling with its relatively diminishing economic global power since the 1970s by turning instead to what was supposed to be the nation's strength. A favorite trope for presidents and secretaries of state attempting to project power abroad has been to talk of America as the land of opportunity, a bastion of human rights. But murdered teenagers and tear gas in Ferguson don't reflect the image of the "shining city on the hill" that politicians in Washington want the world to see. The ongoing inability to make the promises of democracy real for 44.5 million African-Americans will continue to vex U.S. foreign policy now, just as it has in the past. And, fair or not, America's enemies will continue to use this discomfiting reality to poke, embarrass, and shame the superpower.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images