Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

Ham Handed U.S. Moves Made Its Putin Problem Worse

April 19, 2014

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U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in this June 17, 2013 file photo. REUTERS-Kevin Lamarque-Files

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in this June 17, 2013 file photo.  Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Files

By David Rohde and Arshad Mohammed

(Reuters) – In September 2001, as the U.S. reeled from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vladimir Putin supported Washington’s imminent invasion of Afghanistan in ways that would have been inconceivable during the Cold War.

He agreed that U.S. planes carrying humanitarian aid could fly through Russian air space. He said the U.S. military could use airbases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia. And he ordered his generals to brief their U.S. counterparts on their own ill-fated 1980s occupation of Afghanistan.

During Putin’s visit to President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch two months later, the U.S. leader, speaking at a local high school, declared his Russian counterpart “a new style of leader, a reformer…, a man who’s going to make a huge difference in making the world more peaceful, by working closely with the United States.”

For a moment, it seemed, the distrust and antipathy of the Cold War were fading.

Then, just weeks later, Bush announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, so that it could build a system in Eastern Europe to protect NATO allies and U.S. bases from Iranian missile attack. In a nationally televised address, Putin warned that the move would undermine arms control and nonproliferation efforts.

“This step has not come as a surprise to us,” Putin said. “But we believe this decision to be mistaken.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The sequence of events early in Washington’s relationship with Putin reflects a dynamic that has persisted through the ensuing 14 years and the current crisis in Ukraine: U.S. actions, some intentional and some not, sparking an overreaction from an aggrieved Putin.

As Russia masses tens of thousands of troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border, Putin is thwarting what the Kremlin says is an American plot to surround Russia with hostile neighbors. Experts said he is also promoting “Putinism” – a conservative, ultra-nationalist form of state capitalism – as a global alternative to Western democracy.

NOT PAYING ATTENTION?

It’s also a dynamic that some current and former U.S. officials said reflects an American failure to recognize that while the Soviet Union is gone as an ideological enemy, Russia has remained a major power that demands the same level of foreign policy attention as China and other large nations – a relationship that should not just be a means to other ends, but an end in itself.

“I just don’t think we were really paying attention,” said James F. Collins, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow in the late 1990s. The bilateral relationship “was seen as not a big deal.”

Putin was never going to be an easy partner. He is a Russian nationalist with authoritarian tendencies who, like his Russian predecessors for centuries, harbors a deep distrust of the West, according to senior U.S. officials. Much of his world view was formed as a KGB officer in the twilight years of the Cold War and as a government official in the chaotic post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s, which Putin and many other Russians view as a period when the United States repeatedly took advantage of Russian weakness.

Since becoming Russia’s president in 2000, Putin has made restoring Russia’s strength – and its traditional sphere of influence – his central goal. He has also cemented his hold on power, systematically quashed dissent and used Russia’s energy supplies as an economic billy club against its neighbors. Aided by high oil prices and Russia’s United Nations Security Council veto, Putin has perfected the art of needling American presidents, at times obstructing U.S. policies.

Officials from the administrations of Presidents Bush and Barack Obama said American officials initially overestimated their potential areas of cooperation with Putin. Then, through a combination of overconfidence, inattention and occasional clumsiness, Washington contributed to a deep spiral in relations with Moscow.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, in this June 18, 2012 file photo. REUTERS-Jason Reed-Files

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, in this June 18, 2012 file photo.   Credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files

COMMON CAUSE

Bush and Putin’s post-2001 camaraderie foundered on a core dispute: Russia’s relationship with its neighbors. In November 2002, Bush backed NATO’s invitation to seven nations – including former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – to begin talks to join the Western alliance. In 2004, with Bush as a driving force, the seven Eastern European nations joined NATO.

Putin and other Russian officials asked why NATO continued to grow when the enemy it was created to fight, the Soviet Union, had ceased to exist. And they asked what NATO expansion would do to counter new dangers, such as terrorism and proliferation.

“This purely mechanical expansion does not let us face the current threats,” Putin said, “and cannot allow us to prevent such things as the terrorist attacks in Madrid or restore stability in Afghanistan.”

Thomas E. Graham, who served as Bush’s senior director for Russia on the National Security Council, said a larger effort should have been made to create a new post-Soviet, European security structure that replaced NATO and included Russia.

“What we should have been aiming for – and what we should be aiming for at this point,” Graham said, “is a security structure that’s based on three pillars: the United States, a more or less unified Europe, and Russia.”

Graham said small, incremental attempts to test Russian intentions in the early 2000s in Afghanistan, for example, would have been low-risk ways to gauge Putin’s sincerity. “We never tested Putin,” Graham said. “Our policy never tested Putin to see whether he was really committed to a different type of relationship.”

But Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator John McCain and other conservatives, as well as hawkish Democrats, remained suspicious of Russia and eager to expand NATO. They argued that Moscow should not be given veto power over which nations could join the alliance, and that no American president should rebuff demands from Eastern European nations to escape Russian dominance.

DEMOCRACY IN OUR TIME

Another core dispute between Bush and Putin related to democracy. What Bush and other American officials saw as democracy spreading across the former Soviet bloc, Putin saw as pro-American regime change.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, without U.N. authorization and over the objections of France, Germany and Russia, was a turning point for Putin. He said the war made a mockery of American claims of promoting democracy abroad and upholding international law.

Putin was also deeply skeptical of U.S. efforts to nurture democracy in the former Soviet bloc, where the State Department and American nonprofit groups provided training and funds to local civil-society groups. In public speeches, he accused the United States of meddling.

In late 2003, street protests in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, known as the Rose Revolution, led to the election of a pro-Western leader. Four months later, street protests in Ukraine that became known as the Orange Revolution resulted in a pro-Western president taking office there.

Putin saw both developments as American-backed plots and slaps in the face, so soon after his assistance in Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. officials.

In 2006, Bush and Putin’s sparring over democracy intensified. In a press conference at the first G-8 summit hosted by Russia, the two presidents had a testy exchange. Bush said that the United States was promoting freedom in Iraq, which was engulfed in violence. Putin openly mocked him.

“We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq,” Putin said, smiling as the audience erupted into laughter, “I will tell you quite honestly.”

Bush tried to laugh off the remark. “Just wait,” he replied, referring to Iraq.

A PITSTOP IN MOSCOW?

Graham said the Bush administration telegraphed in small but telling ways that other foreign countries, particularly Iraq, took precedence over the bilateral relationship with Moscow.

In 2006, for example, the White House asked the Kremlin for permission for Bush to make a refueling stop in Moscow on his way to an Asia-Pacific summit meeting. But it made clear that Bush was not looking to meet with Putin, whom he would see on the sidelines of the summit.

After Russian diplomats complained, Graham was sent to Moscow to determine if Putin really wanted a meeting and to make clear that if there was one, it would be substance-free.

In the end, the two presidents met and agreed to ask their underlings to work on a nonproliferation package.

“When the Russian team came to Washington in December 2006, in a fairly high-level … group, we didn’t have anything to offer,” Graham said. “We hadn’t had any time to think about it. We were still focused on Iraq.”

Graham said that the Bush administration’s approach slighted Moscow. “We missed some opportunities in the Bush administration’s initial years to put this on a different track,” Graham said. “And then later on, some of our actions, intentional or not, sent a clear message to Moscow that we didn’t care.”

THREE TRAIN WRECKS

Bush’s relationship with Putin unraveled in 2008. In February, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia with the support of the United States – a step that Russia, a longtime supporter of Serbia, had been trying to block diplomatically for more than a decade. In April, Bush won support at a NATO summit in Bucharest for the construction of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

Bush called on NATO to give Ukraine and Georgia a so-called Membership Action Plan, a formal process that would put each on a path toward eventually joining the alliance. France and Germany blocked him and warned that further NATO expansion would spur an aggressive Russian stance when Moscow regained power.

In the end, the alliance simply issued a statement saying the two countries “will become members of NATO.” That compromise risked the worst of both worlds – antagonizing Moscow without giving Kiev and Tbilisi a roadmap to join NATO.

The senior U.S. official said these steps amounted to “three train wrecks” from Putin’s point of view, exacerbating the Russian leader’s sense of victimization. “Doing all three of those things in kind of close proximity – Kosovo independence, missile defense and the NATO expansion decisions – sort of fed his sense of people trying to take advantage of Russia,” he said.

In August 2008, Putin struck back. After Georgia launched an offensive to regain control of the breakaway, pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, Putin launched a military operation that expanded Russian control of South Ossetia and a second breakaway area, Abkhazia.

The Bush administration, tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, publicly protested but declined to intervene militarily in Georgia. Putin emerged as the clear winner and achieved his goal of standing up to the West.

ONLY ONE MAJOR ISSUE

After his 2008 election victory, Barack Obama carried out a sweeping review of Russia policy. Its primary architect was Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and vocal proponent of greater democracy in Russia who took the National Security Council position previously held by Thomas Graham.

In a recent interview, McFaul said that when Obama’s new national security team surveyed the administration’s primary foreign policy objectives, they found that few involved Russia. Only one directly related to bilateral relations with Moscow: a new nuclear arms reduction treaty.

The result, McFaul said, was that relations with Moscow were seen as important in terms of achieving other foreign policy goals, and not as important in terms of Russia itself.

“So that was our approach,” he said.

Obama’s new Russia strategy was called “the reset.” In July 2009, he traveled to Moscow to start implementing it.

In an interview with the Associated Press a few days before leaving Washington, Obama chided Putin, who had become Russia’s prime minister in 2008 after reaching his two-term constitutional limit as president. Obama said the United States was developing a “very good relationship” with the man Putin had anointed as his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and accused Putin of using “Cold War approaches” to relations with Washington.

“I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new,” Obama said.

In Moscow, Obama spent five hours meeting with Medvedev and only one hour meeting with Putin, who was still widely seen as the country’s real power. After their meeting, Putin said U.S.-Russian relations had gone through various stages.

“There were periods when our relations flourished quite a bit and there were also periods of, shall we say, grayish mood between our two countries and of stagnation,” he said, as Obama sat a few feet away.

At first, the reset fared well. During Obama’s visit, Moscow agreed to greatly expand Washington’s ability to ship military supplies to Afghanistan via Russia. In April 2010, the United States and Russia signed a new START treaty, further reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. Later that year, Russia supported sweeping new U.N. economic sanctions on Iran and blocked the sale of sophisticated, Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Tehran.

Experts said the two-year honeymoon was the result of the Obama administration’s engaging Russia on issues where the two countries shared interests, such as reducing nuclear arms, countering terrorism and nonproliferation. The same core issues that sparked tensions during the Bush administration – democracy and Russia’s neighbors – largely went unaddressed.

A VAPORIZED RELATIONSHIP

In 2011, Putin accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of secretly organizing street demonstrations after disputed Russian parliamentary elections. Putin said Clinton had encouraged “mercenary” Kremlin foes. And he claimed that foreign governments had provided “hundreds of millions” of dollars to Russian opposition groups.

“She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work,” Putin said.

McFaul called that a gross exaggeration. He said the U.S. government and American non-profit groups in total have provided tens of millions of dollars in support to civil society groups in Russia and former Soviet bloc countries since 1989.

In 2012, Putin was elected to a third term as president and launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent and re-centralization of power. McFaul, then the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, publicly criticized the moves in speeches and Twitter posts.

In the interview, McFaul blamed Putin for the collapse in relations. McFaul said the Russian leader rebuffed repeated invitations to visit Washington when he was prime minister and declined to attend a G-8 meeting in Washington after he again became president. Echoing Bush-era officials, McFaul said it was politically impossible for an American president to trade Russian cooperation on Iran, for example, for U.S. silence on democracy in Russia and Moscow’s pressuring of its neighbors.

“We’re not going to do it if it means trading partnerships or interests with our partners or allies in the region,” McFaul said. “And we’re not going to do it if it means trading our speaking about democracy and human rights.”

Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that clashes over democracy ended any hopes of U.S.-Russian rapprochement, as they had in the Bush administration.

“That fight basically vaporizes the relationship,” said Weiss.

In 2013, U.S.-Russian relations plummeted. In June, Putin granted asylum to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obama, in turn, canceled a planned summit meeting with Putin in Moscow that fall. It was the first time a U.S. summit with the Kremlin had been canceled in 50 years.

Last fall, demonstrators in Kiev began demanding that Ukraine move closer to the European Union. At the time, the Obama White House was deeply skeptical of Putin and paying little attention to the former Soviet bloc, according to Weiss. White House officials had come to see Russia as a foreign policy dead end, not a source of potential successes.

Deferring to European officials, the Obama administration backed a plan that would have moved Ukraine closer to the EU and away from a pro-Russian economic bloc created by Putin. Critics said it was a mistake to make Ukraine choose sides.

Jack F. Matlock, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991, said that years of escalating protests by Putin made it clear he believed the West was surrounding him with hostile neighbors. And for centuries, Russian leaders have viewed a friendly Ukraine as vital to Moscow’s defense.

“The real red line has always been Ukraine,” Matlock said. “When you begin to poke them in the most sensitive area, unnecessarily, about their security, you are going to get a reaction that makes them a lot less cooperative.”

A PLIANT RUSSIA?

American experts said it was vital for the U.S. to establish a new long-term strategy toward Russia that does not blame the current crisis solely on Putin. Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center, argued that demonizing Putin reflected the continued failure of American officials to recognize Russia’s power, interest and importance.

“Putin is a reflection of Russia,” Rojansky said. “This weird notion that Putin will go away and there will suddenly be a pliant Russia is false.”

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, called for a long-term strategy that exploits the multiple advantages the U.S. and Europe enjoy over Putin’s Russia.

“I would much rather be playing our hand than his over the longer term,” the official said. “Because he has a number of, I think, pretty serious strategic disadvantages – a one-dimensional economy, a political system and a political elite that’s pretty rotten through corruption.”

Matlock, the former U.S. ambassador, said it was vital for Washington and Moscow to end a destructive pattern of careless American action followed by Russian overreaction.

“So many of the problems in our relationship really relate, I would say, to what I’d call inconsiderate American actions,” Matlock said. “Many of them were not meant to be damaging to Russia. … But the Russian interpretation often exaggerated the degree of hostility and overreacted.”

(Edited by John Blanton)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov press a red button symbolizing the intention to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations during their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, March 6, 2009. (AP Photo)

Above: Just after President Obama took office and Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, somebody at the U.S. Department of State thought it would be just Peachy to give Russia’s foreign Minister Mr. Sergai Lavrov a button marked “reset” in order to signal a time to return to some pleasant moment in U.S. Russian relations (we guess). But where do we reset to? Stalin? The Cuban Missile Crisis? The Soviet Union? The KGB? In any event, the idea was bad and the execution worse. The button was not marked “reset” as intended but poorly translated by the State Department into the Russian word for “overcharge.” March 6, 2009. “Good diplomats don’t do these things,” our friends in Britain’s diplomatic corps said….

President of Russia, Vladimir Putin Photo: Getty

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — after Iran agreed to its initial nuclear deal. Kerry and Lavrov also made the deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has criticised Western leaders for supporting the opposition in Ukraine  

Difference of opinion: Sergei Lavrov, right, and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Munich — now the two seem to be going in opposite directions. Photo: REUTERS

Ukraine: Pro-Russian Separatists Refuse to Respect Diplomatic Deal

April 19, 2014
Occupations of public buildings across eastern Ukraine continue as separatists accuse Kiev of violating Geneva deal

The Guardian

Link to video: Pro-Russian separatists defiant in Slavyansk, east Ukraine

International attempts to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine were floundering on Friday as separatist groups in the east declared that they had no intention of leaving occupied buildings and accused Kiev of violating an agreement reached in Geneva on Thursday.

Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the United States struck a diplomatic deal in the Swiss city, following seven hours of talks, that was supposed to see illegal groups withdraw from municipal buildings and hand in their weapons.

Twenty-four hours later there were no signs that any of the anti-government groups were preparing to budge. Instead, protest leaders said they would continue their occupations until their demands were met. A rebel militia seized an administration building in Seversk, a small town outside the regional capital Donetsk.

At a press conference on Friday Denis Pushilin, the self-styled leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, said his supporters would stay put until a referendum on the region’s future status was held. He dismissed the current pro-western government in Kiev as illegitimate. “We will continue our activity,” he declared.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before a bilateral meeting to discuss the ongoing situation in Ukraine as diplomats from the U.S., Ukraine, Russia and the European Union gather for discussions in Geneva Thursday, April 17, 2014. Ukraine is hoping to placate Russia and calm hostilities with its neighbor even as the U.S. prepares a new round of sanctions to punish Moscow for what it regards as fomenting unrest. (AP Photo
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Pushilin said no meaningful de-escalation was possible while Ukraine’s interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and president Olexsandr Turchynov were still in their jobs. “We understand that everyone has to leave buildings or nobody does. Yatsenyuk and Turchynov should vacate theirs first,” he said.

Moscow’s envoy to the European Union reiterated this position, telling Russian state television that authorities in Kiev had “incorrectly interpreted” the Geneva deal. He said Ukraine’s new leadership mistakenly believed that the deal “only applies to the eastern and southern provinces” when it also applied to “the ongoing occupation of Maidan [Independence Square in Kiev]“.

Pro-Russian separatists grabbed a string of public buildings across eastern Ukraine a week ago. The militia units – some of them similar to the armed “little green men” who appeared in Crimea in February – have occupied them ever since. Nato says the separatists include professionally trained undercover Russian soldiers. Moscow denies this.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s acting foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia said the next few days would demonstrate whether Russia actually intended to implement the Geneva deal, signed by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. “I don’t know Russia’s intentions. But minister Lavrov did promise that they want to de-escalate. So we will see in a few days if it was [a] sincere promise and sincere participation.”

The separatists, however, seem in little mood to give ground. Pushilin said Kiev had already violated the Geneva accord by refusing to pull its military units from the east of Ukraine. “They have not withdrawn their forces out from Slavyansk,” he said. Beleaguered Ukrainian troops occupy a rustic aerodrome close to Slavyansk, north of Donetsk, and neighbouring Kramatorsk. On Wednesday they suffered the ultimate humiliation when armed separatists, seemingly led by Russian officers, seized six armoured vehicles from them and drove off.

Pushilin delivered his anti-Kiev message to Russian state television, which had turned up to interview him. He was speaking from the 11th-floor of Donetsk’s regional administration building, now a sprawling camp of anti-government and anti-western protest.

Pushilin describes himself as the “people’s governor”. He appeared to be reading from a carefully-drafted script. Several media advisers sat nearby. He told Russian television that Kiev was denying the local population access to insulin and withholding desperately needed medical supplies. He asked ordinary Russians to donate money to a numbered account with Russia’s Sberbank to help the cause.

A local businessman, Pushilin and other deputies from the “Donetsk People’s Republic” are entirely self-appointed. Their key demand is a referendum on federalisation by 11 May, two weeks before presidential elections. It is unclear what questions might be included.

Their goal is to create an autonomous eastern republic separate from Kiev. After that most want the new republic to join the Russian Federation, in imitation of Crimea annexed by Moscow last month. Kiev says Pushilin and other separatist leaders are under the control of Russia’s spy agencies.

Visiting Donetsk on Friday, Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko denounced Russian interference and said that Russia’s special forces had been highly active across the east of the country. She said she was in Donetsk to negotiate with pro-Russian protesters, conceding that Ukrainian and Russian speakers now had to make “compromises” if a solution to the crisis was to be found. She said this compromise could be achieved if Russia withdrew its agents from eastern Ukraine but warned of violence if it did not.

Tymoshenko – whose pro-western party dominates the new government – said that she was creating a “resistance movement” militia to fight for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This would be an armed force made up of volunteers with military experience, she said: “We will do everything to restore harmony and peace in our country and to stop aggression. But if it doesn’t happen we are ready to defend ourselves … with weapons in hand.”

Tymoshenko ruled out holding a regional referendum, saying that it didn’t match constitutional requirements, and adding that Kiev “can’t recognise it”. “We don’t want anyone to demand that Ukrainians vote in a referendum under the barrels of Russian weapons,” she said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a televised call-in show with the nation in Moscow, Thursday, April 17, 2014. President Vladimir Putin on Thursday rejected claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but recognized for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who had overtaken Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula before its annexation by Moscow were Russian soldiers. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

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Revisionist powers are rising as Obama and Europe fail to respond

April 19, 2014

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Wall Street Journal

Diplomacy is useful when it prevents bad outcomes. The problem with diplomacy as practiced by President Obama is that it too often is a mask to disguise bad outcomes. The latest example is this week’s agreement among Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the U.S. that claims to prevent war but largely advances Vladimir Putin‘s strategic objectives.

The government in Kiev is supposed to make political concessions to allow more autonomy in its eastern provinces in return for a military “de-escalation.” But on the very day of the accord, Mr. Putin publicly reserved the right to invade Ukraine and refused to withdraw his troops massed at the border. On Friday the militants holding police stations and public offices in eastern Ukraine refused to stand down.

Even President Obama curbed his enthusiasm for the deal negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, saying at a Thursday press conference that Russia still had to follow through on its commitments. But what did Mr. Putin really commit to?

The Russian President denies that the militants have anything to do with Russia and says he’s helpless to stop them. The accord says nothing about Ukraine’s May 25 election, which Russia opposes and wants to subvert. His troops are still ready to invade if he pleases, and Mr. Putin made promises to the republic of Georgia before he invaded that country in 2008. For the first time on Thursday, Mr. Putin referred to Ukraine as part of “New Russia,” a revanchist echo of the czarist era.

NATO Supreme Commander Philip Breedlove cut through the diplomatic haze with a public memo on Friday stating that, “What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well planned and organized” and “is being carried out at the direction of Russia.”

The pro-Russian activists show all the earmarks of having had military training, the general wrote. Their weapons and equipment are mainly Russian army issue, which they carry with military discipline. Their use of tear gas and stun grenades in taking buildings showed training inconsistent with a spontaneously generated local militia.

Too bad Mr. Obama showed none of the same candor about these military facts. In his press conference the President never blamed Russia for the unrest in Ukraine or said Russian troops were on the ground. He never mentioned Crimea, which seems to have been banished from U.S. talking points now that Mr. Putin has annexed the peninsula. Instead Mr. Obama sounded like a pundit analyzing the possibilities of diplomacy, with more threats of further sanctions if Mr. Putin escalates.

All of this continues the pattern of Mr. Obama and Europe underestimating the Russian strongman. They pretend he is amenable to diplomacy or afraid of threats, but neither has deterred Mr. Putin from marching west. Even when Mr. Putin openly declares his goal by declaring eastern Ukraine to be part of historic Russia, Mr. Obama prefers to ignore it.

The Russian President denies that the militants have anything to do with Russia and says he’s helpless to stop them. The accord says nothing about Ukraine’s May 25 election, which Russia opposes and wants to subvert. His troops are still ready to invade if he pleases, and Mr. Putin made promises to the republic of Georgia before he invaded that country in 2008. For the first time on Thursday, Mr. Putin referred to Ukraine as part of “New Russia,” a revanchist echo of the czarist era.

NATO Supreme Commander Philip Breedlove cut through the diplomatic haze with a public memo on Friday stating that, “What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well planned and organized” and “is being carried out at the direction of Russia.”

The pro-Russian activists show all the earmarks of having had military training, the general wrote. Their weapons and equipment are mainly Russian army issue, which they carry with military discipline. Their use of tear gas and stun grenades in taking buildings showed training inconsistent with a spontaneously generated local militia.

Too bad Mr. Obama showed none of the same candor about these military facts. In his press conference the President never blamed Russia for the unrest in Ukraine or said Russian troops were on the ground. He never mentioned Crimea, which seems to have been banished from U.S. talking points now that Mr. Putin has annexed the peninsula. Instead Mr. Obama sounded like a pundit analyzing the possibilities of diplomacy, with more threats of further sanctions if Mr. Putin escalates.

All of this continues the pattern of Mr. Obama and Europe underestimating the Russian strongman. They pretend he is amenable to diplomacy or afraid of threats, but neither has deterred Mr. Putin from marching west. Even when Mr. Putin openly declares his goal by declaring eastern Ukraine to be part of historic Russia, Mr. Obama prefers to ignore it.

The larger problem is that Mr. Obama can’t seem to admit that his assumptions about the world are being repudiated by the week. He came to office believing his own campaign rhetoric that the U.S. was unpopular mainly because of President George W. Bush. He would end these misunderstandings through diplomatic engagement, especially with our adversaries, who would respond in kind to our good will and moral example. Nowhere in the world has that happened.

To the contrary, Mr. Obama’s second term has been marked by the advance of revisionist powers seeking to rewrite the post-Cold War global order. Iran is attempting to do this on nuclear weapons, retaining a capability just short of exploding a weapon with a goal of dominating the Middle East. China is pressing its territorial claims in the East and South China seas. And now Russia is marching west with a goal of reclaiming the influence and perhaps the territory it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

Pro-Russia Separatist Leader Vows to Ignore Deal Reached on Ukraine By World Leders, Saying “We don’t answer to any of them.”

April 18, 2014

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By Andrew Cramer
The New York Times

The leader of a group of pro-Russia separatists, Denis Pushilin, said he would ignore the diplomatic pact between Russia and Ukraine to de-escalate the crisis. Credit Sergei Grits/Associated Press

DONETSK, Ukraine — The leader of a group of pro-Russian separatists said Friday that he would ignore an international agreement to de-escalate the political crisis in eastern Ukraine, saying his group would remain in the government buildings in the regional capital of Donetsk that it commandeered last weekend.

The agreement, announced on Thursday by the United States, Russia, the European Union and Ukraine, called for all protesters to vacate the buildings they have occupied and lay down their arms.

But Denis Pushilin, the leader of the separatist group in Donetsk, which has declared an independent People’s Republic of Donetsk that no nation has recognized, told reporters that his followers would not comply until the interim government in Kiev resigned. He repeated his group’s demand for a referendum on the region’s future, similar to the one that preceded the annexation of Crimea by Russia last month.

Mr. Pushilin’s group is only one of many groups of pro-Russian militants that have seized buldings and arms in the east, and it was not immediately clear whether others would follow his line. But his rejection highlighted a critical omission in the Geneva agreement.

Russia “did not sign anything for us,” Mr. Pushilin said at a news conference in Donetsk.

There was no immediate official reaction from the Kremlin.

In an apparent attempt to help calm the crisis, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the politician and Ukrainian presidential candidate formerly imprisoned by the country’s ousted pro-Russian government, made a surprise visit to Donetsk on Friday. She told reporters at a news conference that she had come to “listen to the complaints of the demonstrators.”

It was unclear whether Mr. Pushilin would be receptive to Ms. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who has opposed closer ties to Russia, an underlying tension in the crisis that has convulsed Ukraine for months.

Mr. Pushilin said he did not consider the new government in Kiev to be legitimate, and that if illegally occupied buildings are to be relinquished, then its officials, including the president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, should vacate the presidential administration building in the capital.

The central government has not pulled military forces back from a town north of here, Slovyansk, that was seized by pro-Russian separatists a week ago. Mr. Pushilin said Kiev would use the Geneva agreement to stall on promised constitutional changes to grant eastern Ukrainian regions greater autonomy.

The Ukrainian authorities signaled on Friday that they were moving ahead with one provision of the Geneva agreement. Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk told the Parliament on Friday morning that the government had drafted a law offering amnesty to protesters who leave occupied government buildings and lay down arms, The Associated Press reported.

The diplomatic accord reached on Thursday, while limited in scope, represented the first time Russia and Ukraine had found common ground since protests toppled a pro-Moscow government in Kiev, leading the Kremlin to annex the Crimean Peninsula and threaten other parts of Ukraine with 40,000 troops on its border. The deal came hours after Ukrainian security forces killed three pro-Russian activists in a firefight.

But neither President Obama in Washington nor President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow signaled that the crisis over Ukraine was over. During a long, televised question-and-answer session before the agreement was announced, Mr. Putin asserted historic claims over Ukrainian territory and the right to send in Russian troops.

Speaking after the agreement was announced, Mr. Obama sounded a skeptical note, saying it offered “a glimmer of hope,” but “we’re not going to count on it,” and adding that the United States would take more punitive action if Russia did not abide by its terms.

“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House, “but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.”

Mr. Obama did not outline what those measures might be, but aides said that the White House had assembled a list of more Russian figures and institutions to sanction if Russia did not pull back and the situation in Ukraine continued to worsen. The president does not plan to impose more stringent measures against whole sectors of the Russian economy unless Moscow sends in troops or otherwise takes more drastic steps, aides said, a recognition of resistance in Europe, which is more tied economically to Russia.

Hoping to coordinate a future response with European leaders, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain on Thursday. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. called Slovakia’s prime minister for the second time in recent days to press him to help reverse the flow of a natural gas pipeline to reduce Ukraine’s reliance on Russian energy.

Tension on the ground continued to mount in the hours before the Geneva agreement was announced. Pro-Russian protesters tried to storm a Ukrainian base in the eastern city of Mariupol, prompting a firefight that left three of the activists dead, 13 wounded and 63 captured, according to Ukraine’s interim interior minister. In Donetsk, fliers appeared ordering Jews to register with the authorities.

The Geneva agreement — hammered out during six hours of talks by Secretary of State John Kerry; Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia; Andrii Deshchytsia, the interim Ukrainian foreign minister; and Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief for the European Union — called on all sides in Ukraine to refrain from violence or provocative behavior and rejected all forms of intolerance, including anti-Semitism.

“All illegal armed groups must be disarmed,” the joint statement said. “All illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”

In exchange, the interim Ukrainian government agreed to grant amnesty to protesters who leave the government buildings they have occupied and give up their arms, unless they are suspected of murder or other capital crimes. The Kiev government would also ensure that constitutional revisions involve “outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies,” a reference to Russian speakers in the eastern part of the country.

But the agreement was as notable for what it did not address as for what it did. It did not require Russia to remove its troops from the border, nor did it commit Moscow to hold direct talks with Ukrainian officials, two of Mr. Obama’s demands. Moreover, the agreement made no mention of Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea, an action deemed unacceptable by the United States and Europe and yet unlikely to be reversed, at least in the foreseeable future, Western officials have acknowledged privately.

“None of us leave here with the sense that the job is done,” Mr. Kerry said afterward. “We do not envision this as the full measure of de-escalation.”

But he called the measures an important first step to avert “a complete and total implosion” in eastern Ukraine and said they could lead to more far-reaching moves to resolve the conflict.

In response to a question, Mr. Kerry insisted that the United States had not dropped objections to Russia’s annexation of Crimea but acknowledged that it had not been the focus of the meeting.  “We didn’t come here to talk about Crimea,” he said.

Mr. Obama said Ukraine’s government presented a “detailed and thorough presentation” of overhauls it would make and went “out of its way to address a range of the concerns” expressed by Russians. Now it was time for Russia to “use the influence that they’ve exerted in a disruptive way” to give Ukraine a chance to hold elections and stabilize its economy.

But Mr. Lavrov put the onus on the authorities in Kiev, saying that the deal was “largely based on compromise” and that a broader settlement of the crisis was primarily Ukraine’s responsibility.

The talks were held at the same luxury hotel where five years ago Mr. Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, presented Mr. Lavrov with a red “reset” button intended to signal a fresh start in Russian-American relations, a gesture marred at the time by a mistranslation and mocked since as a symbol of a failed foreign policy.

In Germany, the European country with the closest ties to Russia, the agreement was received with palpable relief. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, said the agreement was “a first step, and many more must now follow,” but he seemed clearly content that “diplomacy now has a chance.”

The firefight in Mariupol on Thursday was the deadliest in eastern Ukraine since the crisis began. According to Ukrainian authorities, attackers threw firebombs and opened fire on perimeter guards at a base used by the newly formed National Guard, which has drawn volunteers who took part in last winter’s protest movement against the old pro-Moscow government. About 300 people were in the crowd.

“After warnings, in accordance with our rules, and after repeat attacks, we opened lethal fire,” Arsen Avakov, the interim interior minister, said in a statement.

Ukraine: separatists refuse to end occupation despite Geneva agreement — “We Are The Donetsk People’s Republic, We Don’t Answer To Moscow”

April 18, 2014
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No sign of pro-Russian groups pulling out of city halls and town squares in eastern Ukraine despite deal to defuse crisis
Donetsk city hall barricaded by pro-Russian groups. The sign in Cyrillic reads: ‘Ukraine and Russia are sisters forever’. Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP

Pro-Russian groups occupying a string of public buildings across eastern Ukraine have insisted that they would not end their occupation until a referendum to decide the status of the region had taken place.

There was no sign of separatist groups pulling out from their positions at city halls and in town squares, although several said they would hold meetings on Friday to discuss the implications of the Geneva agreement between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States to de-escalate the crisis.

In Khartsyzsk, an industrial city 30 miles from Donetsk where separatists have been in control of the city hall since Sunday, local activists said they had no plans to leave public buildings. Barricades of tyres have been built around the city hall, which flies the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Banners draped outside proclaim “No to Fascism” and “No to the EU”. Another banner reads “Russia+Donbass=heart”.

At the barricade, Vladimir Pakhomovich, a former miner, said: “We are not Moscow or Kiev. They do not command us. We are just here to defend our people. Until we get a referendum, we do not intend to leave.”

Pakhomovich said he was aware of the agreement made in Geneva but said he did not feel beholden to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, or president, Vladimir Putin. “We are prepared to ignore Lavrov. Why should we listen to him?” he said.

The occupation continued in other eastern cities. In Makiivka, closer to Donetsk, public buildings flew the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic although a flag of the Russian Federation that had flown earlier in the week had been taken down.

On Thursday, the US, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union agreed on a series of immediate steps aimed at pulling eastern Ukraine back from the brink of war.

The deal, clinched after a dramatic extended meeting in Geneva, called for the disarming of all illegal groups. In the next few days they would have to vacate all the government buildings and public spaces they have occupied over the course of the crisis.

In return, the protesters in eastern Ukraine would be offered amnesty for all but capital crimes, and the government in Kiev would immediately start a process of public consultation aimed at devolving constitutional powers to the provinces.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will be given the job not only of making sure the agreement will be put into practice but also of helping to implement it. The US, Russia and European countries would provide monitors to increase the OSCE’s manpower, which would be given access across Ukraine.

Barack Obama cautiously welcomed the talks, describing the agreement endorsed by the four parties as a “glimmer of hope”. But he insisted Russia still needed to see through its commitment to calming tensions in Ukraine, adding: “We’re not going to count on it until we see it.”

He said it would be “several days” before the agreement forged between the US, EU, Ukraine and Russia could be judged. “I don’t think we can be sure of anything at this point,” he said. “There is the possibility, the prospect, that diplomacy may de-escalate the situation and we may be able to move toward what has always been our goal, which is let the Ukrainians make their own decision about their own lives.”

Speaking after the deal was agreed, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, made it clear that the US would hold Russia accountable for the compliance of the pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine.

“Responsibility will lie with those who have organised their presence, provided them with the weapons, put the uniforms on them, supported them, and have been engaged in the process of guiding them over the course of this operation,” Kerry said, adding that the US had “made very clear that Russia has a huge impact on all those forces. And we have made clear what the evidence is.”

A planned escalation of US sanctions on Russia would be suspended pending Russian compliance “over the weekend”.

Foreign secretary William Hague also welcomed the commitments: “The steps contained in the joint agreement offer a route for de-escalation. But rapid implementation of the agreement is critical, particularly the commitments by Russia that all illegally armed groups must be disarmed, all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners, and all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”

The Geneva meeting, which brought together Kerry, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Ukrainian counterpart Andrii Deshchytsia and the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, began with low expectations as clashes across eastern Ukraine between government forces and armed protesters intensified. At least one demonstrator was killed when pro-Russian protesters tried to storm a military base in the town of Mariupol. It was expected that the talks would only last a couple of hours, and a room was prepared for Lavrov to talk to the press at midday, raising concerns he might walk out of the negotiations.

In the end, however, intense talks went on for seven hours, leading to the agreement, intended “to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens”.

The deal has five main points:

• All sides refrain from violence, and reject expressions “of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including antisemitism”.

• All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned; all illegally occupied streets and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

• Amnesty will be granted to protesters and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.

• The OSCE would play a leading role in helping the authorities implement the agreement.

• Constitutional reform would be inclusive, transparent and accountable.

The agreement does not address the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, nor the beefing up of the Nato presence on Russia’s western border, announced on Wednesday by the alliance’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Kerry said Russia had withdrawn one battalion from the border region and had said it would make further, bigger withdrawals as the Geneva agreement was implemented.

Kerry drew special attention to reports that antisemitic leaflets had been handed out to Jews in Donetsk, calling on them to register with the separatist authorities. The separatists denied responsibility.

Without specifically assigning blame, Kerry said: “In the year 2014, after all the violence and the journey of history, this is not just intolerable, it’s grotesque. It’s beyond unacceptable. Whoever is involved in these activities, wherever they crawled out of, there is no place for that.”

Affordable Care Act: President Obama Celebrates Eight Million People Who Have “Signed Up” for Obamacare

April 18, 2014
  • Today’s numbers projections by 1 million people.
  • During his remarks today, the President took a victory lap and called on Republicans to stop their ‘endless, fruitless repeal efforts.’
  •  Republicans responded in kind, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said Democrats need to ‘remedy the mess they created.’

By Associated Press and Francesca Chambers

17 April 2014

Eight million people have signed up for health care through new government controlled insurance exchanges, President Barack Obama announced Thursday.

Obama held a last-minute press conference in the White House briefing room to celebrate the new Obamacare figures, which beat initial projections by 1 million people.

‘This thing is working,’ Obama said of the Affordable Care Act.

Obama and Democrats have been anxiously awaiting the age figures, especially those regarding young people — the most coveted demographic. Younger enrollees tend to be a healthier group overall, so their premiums can help offset higher cost of care for older enrollees. Too few young people in the mix, and healthcare premiums could surge. Obama announced Thursday that about 35 percent of those who signed up for the exchanges are under the age of 35.

The new figures gave the President an opportunity to rag on Republicans, some of whom have accused the White House of ‘cooking the books’ by announcing large overall enrollment numbers before releasing more detailed figures that provide a fuller picture.

‘They still can’t bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working,’ Obama said during Thursday’s presser before attacking Republicans’ ‘endless, fruitless repeal efforts’ and claiming that the Obamacare ‘repeal debate is, and should be over.’

‘It’s long past time for Washington Democrats to work with us to remedy the mess they created—and that means repealing this law and replacing it with real reforms that actually lower costs,’ Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, fired back after Obama’s speech.

‘The President may want to silence any further debate about Obamacare, but in doing so he betrays a lack of confidence in his own policies and scant regard for those most affected by the law.’

 

More…

The President spent nearly as much time during his remarks criticizing Republicans’ opposition to his signature law as he did touting its success, meanwhile arguing that Republicans’ time would be better spent passing legislation that would positively affect Americans’ lives.

Polling shows the law remains unpopular in much of the country, but Democrats plan to use the high enrollment figures to argue that by trying to repeal the law, Republicans are actively working to take health care away from millions of Americans who now rely on the exchanges.

Other critical details for evaluating how well the law is working remain unknown. Officials haven’t released a tally of how many enrollees were previously uninsured — the key to determining how many people gained coverage that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Another unknown is how many enrollees sealed the deal by paying their first month’s premium to the insurance companies.

Gallup estimates that slightly more than half of those getting coverage through the federal and state markets were previously uninsured, drawing that conclusion from the polling company’s large survey tracking the health care overhaul.

In a statement sent to reporters after Obama’s remarks, Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office once again accused the White House continuing ‘to obscure the full impact of Obamacare.’

‘Beyond refusing to disclose the number of people who’ve actually enrolled by paying premiums, the president ignores the havoc that this law has wreaked on private plans that people already had and liked. Surveys have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of those who signed up already had insurance,’ Boehner’s press secretary Brendan Buck said in an email.

‘Had this law not led to millions of Americans receiving cancelation notices, many would not have had to sign up for this government-run program.’

Following the disastrous rollout of the exchanges in October, when HealthCare.gov was virtually unusable, Democrats have been hoping that higher-than-expected results could help their candidates reclaim the political high ground ahead of the midterm elections.

Seven months out from Election Day, Democrats are seeking to turn the page on the law’s flawed debut — a strategy underscored last week when Obama announced that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who became the face of the rollout failure, was stepping down.

Today’s press conference reiterated the White House’s hopes that the country would ‘move on’ from the Obamacare debate before November, even if the Republican Party does not.

President Barack Obama (center) sits between Vice President Joe Biden (left) and outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (right) during a meeting with health insurance executives on Thursday. Seven months out from Election Day, Democrats are seeking to turn the page on the law's flawed debut ¿ a strategy underscored Sebelius' departure

President Barack Obama (center) sits between Vice President Joe Biden (left) and outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (right) during a meeting with health insurance executives on Thursday. Seven months out from Election Day, Democrats are seeking to turn the page on the law’s flawed debut ¿ a strategy underscored Sebelius’ departure

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Obama: “Joe Biden is a great Vice President” but no endorsement

April 17, 2014
  • Obama said that he ‘suspect(s) that there may be other potential candidates who have been great friends and allies’
  • Goes on to specifically mention his ‘extraordinary’ former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who has a wide lead in the 2016 race already
  • Biden has said that he hasn’t formally decided if he is going to run but will make that decision later in the year after the midterm elections

By Meghan Keneally

 

President Obama has refrained from picking favorites in the race to succeed him and paid Vice President Biden a strong compliment without issuing anything close to an endorsement.

‘I’ve got somebody who I think will go down as one of the finest vice presidents in history, and he has been, as I said earlier, a great partner in everything that I do,’ Obama said in an interview with CBS released Thursday.

The President will continue to walk a proverbial tightrope for the near future as all eyes are cast on Hillary Clinton, waiting to see if the former Secretary of State decides to formally announce her second presidential bid.

‘I suspect that there may be other potential candidates for 2016 who have been great friends and allies. I know that we’ve got an extraordinary Secretary of State who did great service for us and worked with me and Joe to help make the country safer,’ Obama said.

‘Whoever the Democratic standard bearer is going to be continuing to focus on jobs, making sure that our kids our getting a great education, making sure that we’re rebuilding prosperity from the middle class out in country, and I am very much interested in making sure that some of the stuff we’ve gotten started continues.’

 

More…

Clinton is widely seen as the Democratic frontrunner in 2016 and has been trouncing Biden in both the early polls and early fundraising efforts.

In spite of Clinton’s hefty lead- the latest Fox News poll completed Tuesday has Clinton beating Biden by 53 per cent in the race for the Democratic nomination- has not deterred Biden from keeping the door open for his third presidential run.

He has repeatedly said that he has not decided on his 2016 prospects, rotating his answers between saying that he will decide after the midterms, he hasn’t been focusing on it, or leaving the final decision to his wife Jill.

Looking for the handoff: Vice President Joe Biden has not decided whether or not he will run for President in 2016 but Obama has refused to take the normal move of endorsing his number two (pictured together on Wednesday)

Looking for the handoff: Vice President Joe Biden has not decided whether or not he will run for President in 2016 but Obama has refused to take the normal move of endorsing his number two (pictured together on Wednesday)

 

Close: Biden put up a selfie of himself and Obama from inside 'the Beast' on Wednesday

Close: Biden put up a selfie of himself and Obama from inside ‘the Beast’ on Wednesday

Eye on the prize: Hillary Clinton has a massive lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2016 and she has been doing little to tamper expectations that she is running (pictured at a Las Vegas event last week)

Eye on the prize: Hillary Clinton has a massive lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2016 and she has been doing little to tamper expectations that she is running (pictured at a Las Vegas event last week)

Related:

President Barack Obama and  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton return to their seats after speaking during the transfer of remains of the four Americans killed in an attack this week in Benghazi, Libya.

Above: President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton return to their seats after speaking during the transfer of remains of the four Americans killed in an attack this week in Benghazi, Libya. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
.U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton past the flag-draped transfer case of one of four Americans who died this week in Libya, during a transfer of remains ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, September 14, 2012. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans killed this week in Benghazi were honored at the ceremony.     REUTERS/Jason Reed  (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton past the flag-draped transfer case of one of four Americans who died this week in Libya, during a transfer of remains ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, September 14, 2012. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans killed this week in Benghazi were honored at the ceremony. REUTERS/Jason Reed

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Kerry, Lavrov Apparently Broker a Deal To Start De-Escalating the Crisis in Ukraine

April 17, 2014

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Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, in Geneva on Thursday at the start of a meeting on the ongoing situation in Ukraine. Credit Jim Bourg/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By
The New York Times

GENEVA — Leaders of a high-level diplomatic effort reached an agreement on Thursday over ways to start de-escalating the crisis in Ukraine.

The agreement, which grants amnesty to members of armed groups who agree to leave the public buildings they have been occupying, was reached by Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union after more than five hours of talks here.

“The Geneva meeting on the situation in Ukraine agreed on initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens,” the officials said in a joint statement.

“All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions,” the joint statement said. “The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism.”

Whether the agreement would de-escalate the crisis, and how quickly, remained unclear. It was reached the same day that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia used aggressive new language in asserting Russia’s historical claims to eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia insurgents have taken control in several cities, rejecting the authority of the Ukrainian government in Kiev.

“All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated,” the agreement stated.

The negotiators reached the agreement in talks held at the same luxury hotel where five years ago Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was then serving as the secretary of state, presented the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, with a red “reset” button that was intended to signal a fresh start in the White House’s relations with the Kremlin.

As the talks began, all sides had an incentive to avoid a diplomatic confrontation.

Russia wanted to avoid the perception that it was being uncooperative in the search for a diplomatic solution and, thus, discourage Western nations from imposing new economic sanctions.

American officials have also sought to give Ukraine time to hold its May 25 presidential election without more extensive Russian interference.

European nations, for their part, would prefer not to impose wide-ranging sanctions.

Mr. Kerry with Andrii Deshchytsia, Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, in Geneva. Credit Pool photo by Jim Bourg

 

Putin Leaves Force as Option in Ukraine — Obama Does Not

April 17, 2014

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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin gives his annual televised question-and-answer session with the nation in Moscow on Thursday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

By Lukas I. Alpert and Andrey Ostroukh
The Wall Street Journal

MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he hoped not to send Russian troops into Ukraine but didn’t rule it out, accusing the Kiev government of committing “a serious crime” by using the military to quell unrest.

Speaking during an annual televised event in which he takes questions from the public, Mr. Putin said the situation in the east—where pro-Russian militants have seized control of 10 cities—could only be resolved through dialogue. He said he held out hope a compromise could be reached in four-way talks being held later Thursday in Geneva.

Mr. Putin’s comment came following a clash overnight that left three pro-Russian protesters dead and 13 wounded, the bloodiest conflict yet in a military operation launched by Kiev.

He noted he had been authorized by Russia’s parliament in early March to use force in Ukraine if necessary, “but I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right, and that through political and diplomatic means we will be able to solve the most acute problems in Ukraine today.”

Mr. Putin’s comments served to explain the Kremlin’s position to a more receptive domestic audience. They came a day after his spokesman complained that Western media had failed to give proper credence to Russia’s version of events, saying the country faced a “concrete wall of censorship.”

Kiev is engaging in its first direct talks with Moscow at a meeting with envoys from the U.S. and European Union in Geneva on Thursday.

Moscow has deployed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine, and has repeatedly said it could send them into Ukraine to protect the local ethnic population.

Mr. Putin said Ukraine’s military effort showed the new government in Kiev was making no effort to respond to the demands of those in the heavily ethnic-Russian region.

“Instead of realizing that something has gone wrong in Ukraine and making attempts to start dialogue, they have intensified their threats to use force and have even decided to send tanks and aircraft against the civilian population,” Mr. Putin said. “It is another very serious crime on the part of the current Kiev authorities.”

Ukraine has accused Russia of sending agents into the region to foment unrest in an effort to slice off another piece of Ukrainian territory after annexing Crimea last month. But Mr. Putin insisted that Russia has no forces present in the country.

“Such claims are nonsense,” he said.

He did, however, acknowledge for the first time that Russian troops had moved into Crimea ahead of a secession vote in order to protect “the expression of free will” in the region.

Ukraine’s military operation in the east has gotten off to a stuttering start, with armored columns stopped in their tracks by angry mobs of civilians, and militants hijacking military vehicles. Until the overnight deaths, the Ukrainian forces had avoided bloody clashes.

The three pro-Russian protesters were killed early Thursday in the southeastern Ukraine city of Mariupol. The attack began late Wednesday, when around 300 people tried to storm a national guard base in the coastal city after the guards there refused the crowd’s demand to lay down their weapons and switch sides. The protesters then opened fired on the guards and began hurling Molotov cocktails, Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.

Interior Ministry police, special forces commandos and the state security service joined in the response and “after a short battle, the gang of attackers was dispersed and disarmed,” Mr. Avakov said.

No one among the Ukrainian forces was hurt, he said. Police arrested 63 protesters and seized a large cache of weapons, and were patrolling the streets in the city Thursday morning in an effort to restore order, Mr. Avakov added.

 

Pro-Russian partisans took control of the Mariupol city council over the weekend as part of a wave of government building seizures in eastern cities where armed militants demanded a referendum on granting the region greater independence.

Mr. Putin said that people in eastern Ukraine should be allowed to choose their own leaders and urged the Kiev authorities to release protest leaders who have been arrested. Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said this week that a referendum could be held alongside a May 25 presidential election vote that could pave the way for greater regional autonomy.

“People in the east are talking about federalization. Kiev is talking, thank God, about decentralization. What’s behind these words? It’s necessary to sit at the negotiating table, try to understand what’s being implied and find a solution,” Mr. Putin said. “Order in the country can be established only through a dialogue, in the course of democratic procedures, rather than through the use of the armed forces.”

Write to Lukas I. Alpert at lukas.alpert@wsj.com and Andrey Ostroukh at andrey.ostroukh@wsj.com

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304626304579506741617026658?mod=WSJ_hp_LEFTTopStories&mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424052702304626304579506741617026658.html%3Fmod%3DWSJ_hp_LEFTTopStories

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Obama Rules Out Military Force Over Ukraine

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/21/world/europe/obama-ukraine.html?_r=0

As White House Makes Assurances That Sanctions Are Hurting Russia; The Truth Is the Russian Economy Was Already Headed in the Wrong Direction

April 17, 2014

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Photo: Bank of Russia

The Russian economy is teetering on the edge of recession.

By 
The New York Times

MOSCOW — Margarita R. Zobnina, a professor of marketing here, has been watching the Russian economy’s gathering woes with mounting alarm: friends who have moved abroad with no plans to return; others who put off new business ventures because of rising uncertainty. Meanwhile, Ms. Zobnina and her husband, Alexander, also a professor, have rented a safe deposit box to hold foreign cash as a hedge against the declining ruble.

Most shocking, she says, is that her local grocery is now selling anchovies packed in sunflower oil rather than olive oil, an obvious response to the soaring cost of imports. “That really freaks me out,” she said.

While the annexation of Crimea has rocketed President Vladimir V. Putin’s approval rating to more than 80 percent, it has also contributed to a sobering downturn in Russia’s economy, which was in trouble even before the West imposed sanctions. With inflation rising, growth stagnating, the ruble and stock market plunging, and billions in capital fleeing the country for safety, the economy is teetering on the edge of recession, as the country’s minister of economic development acknowledged on Wednesday.

Mr. Putin, who just lavished $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics, also must now absorb the costs of integrating Crimea, which economists and other experts say has its own sickly economy and expensive infrastructure needs. The economic costs have been masked by recent patriotic fervor but could soon haunt the Kremlin, as prices rise, wages stall and consumer confidence erodes.

Even before the Crimean episode, and the resulting imposition of sanctions by the West, Russia’s $2 trillion economy was suffering from stagflation, that toxic mix of stagnant growth and high inflation typically accompanied by a spike in unemployment. In Russia, joblessness remains low, but only because years of population decline have produced a shrunken, inadequate labor force.

In recent weeks, international and Russian banks have slashed their growth projections for 2014, with the World Bank saying the economy could shrink by 1.8 percent if the West imposes more sanctions over Ukraine. By some accounts, more than $70 billion in capital has fled the country so far this year and the main stock market index fell by 10 percent in March — and a dizzying 3 percent just on Tuesday over fears of greater Russian involvement in Ukraine.

“This is our fee of sorts for conducting an independent foreign policy,” Aleksei L. Kudrin, a former Russian finance minister, said at a recent investor conference in Moscow. He added that the sanctions and the fallout from Mr. Putin’s foreign policy moves would drain hundreds of billions of dollars from the national economy and strangle growth for the remainder of the year.

But Mr. Kudrin, who quit his post in a dispute over the Kremlin’s economic policies, said the population had yet to confront the full bill, which he predicted would grow as a result of the steep costs of absorbing Crimea, a geographically isolated peninsula. “Society has not yet seen the final result, and that will be when this puts the brakes on real incomes,” he said. “For now, society accepts this fee.”

From a textbook perspective, the deep-rooted ills in Russia’s economy have been clear for years: The decade-long skyrocketing in energy prices that buoyed Mr. Putin’s popularity has flatlined, exposing the country’s dangerous over-reliance on revenues from oil and natural gas. Efforts to diversify into manufacturing, high technology and other sectors have failed, and officials have been unable, or unwilling, to stop the rampant, corrosive corruption that scares off foreign investors.

Consumer demand, which had been a primary driver of the Russian economy in recent years, stalled hard in 2013. Surveys by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling institute, show that consumer sentiment has been on a slow, steady decline since 2010, while fears of inflation — especially rising prices for basic necessities, which have persisted since the 1990s — have grown along with new anxiety about a potential drop in wages or rising unemployment.

“If you want to open your eyes, you would admit that it is a slow, downward trend of social optimism and consumer optimism,” said Marina Krasilnikova, who leads income and consumer research for the Levada Center.

“The situation with Ukraine and Crimea has resulted in patriotic and imperialistic optimism,” Ms. Krasilnikova said. But, she added, “this optimism will not last long.”

Some analysts said that Russia’s annexation of Crimea had proved that Mr. Putin puts politics ahead of reasonable economic decisions, and that there was little reason for economic optimism, particularly given his inward, xenophobic turn, including his vow to create Russia’s own cashless pay systems and even its own credit rating agency so it would not have to rely on the global financial system.

Miljenko Horvat, a private equity investor who ran Citibank’s office in Russia in the 1990s, said that Russia had simply failed to make itself economically relevant beyond its energy supplies.

Mr. Horvat, who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, said that he often challenged his Russian friends by making the following point: “I wake up in the morning and drink coffee from a machine made by a Swiss company, Nescafé. I wear something that was designed in France or Italy but probably made in Turkey. I get into a German car, look at a Korean phone, use a computer that was designed in California but made in Japan or Korea. Russia just doesn’t touch me in my daily life. It just doesn’t matter. It’s just not relevant. So where is the economic engine going to come from?”

Mr. Horvat said that he had lived in Russia through defaults in 1991, 1993 and 1998 and that he expected another one. “I am not long in Russia,” he said, invoking the financial term for betting on a rising stock, “neither in my portfolio, nor in life.”

Given the recent turmoil, a catastrophe has been averted so far largely because the price of oil has remained stubbornly high, at nearly $110 per barrel of Brent crude on Wednesday, even as production steadily rises in the United States. For now, that has kept the federal budget in decent shape with still no deficit projected for the year.

But even without a shock, it is not clear how Russia will manage to climb out of the current quagmire. Stagflation is among the most confounding economic problems that policy makers can face, and officials here seem flummoxed, with the Central Bank, Finance Ministry and Economics Ministry urging contradictory steps.

Last month, the bank raised its key interest rate to 7 percent from 5.5 percent to combat inflation and support the ruble, a step that could slow growth. Meanwhile, the Economics Ministry, worried about growth, favors borrowing and government spending as a stimulus and to reduce capital flight, a possibly inflationary strategy that is opposed by the Finance Ministry, which wants to keep debt low and reserve funds available to weather any unexpected drop in oil prices.

“All of them have their clear priorities, and they stick to their priorities,” said Alexei Deviatov, the chief economist for Uralsib Capital, an investment bank here, “and there is very little coordination between these authorities.”

 

While Russian and global investors and businesses have been moving billions of dollars out of Russia to places perceived as less risky, it is not just money that is fleeing. Ms. Zobnina, who teaches at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said that one of her classmates had left for the United States after college 10 years ago, and that another friend followed three years ago to pursue a Ph.D., with no plans to return. Still another friend, a journalist, moved to London last summer with her husband and three children.

Ms. Zobnina, 32, said that she and her husband, 30, were thinking about finding posts in Europe or the United States, and for now were keeping their savings in dollars and euros. In an interview, she conceded that putting cash in a safe deposit box hardly amounted to sophisticated financial planning, particularly for two economics professors.

“It’s absolutely not rational to prefer safe box than deposit because you lose interest,” she said. “But in this unpredictable situation, when the ruble is falling and banks are unstable — and who knows when we’ll be cut off from the global financial system or which bank will be next to be closed — it’s better to have this small bird in hand.”


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