Photo by CNN

Crisis in Ukraine

03.16.14

Meet Stephen F. Cohen, Vladimir Putin's Best Friend in the American Media

He is a great historian of Stalinism who has been celebrated by colleagues on the left and right. So why is Stephen F. Cohen so eager to act as a propagandist for Putin?

Stephen F. Cohen, a veteran Russian scholar at New York University and Princeton, has lately gained some dubious notoriety as Vladimir Putin’s number one apologist in the ranks of American punditry. After a piece in The Nation slamming the American media for “toxic” anti-Putin reporting and a CNN appearance defending Putin’s incursion into Crimea as an attempt to protect “Russia's traditional zones of national security,” Cohen was excoriated not just by the conservative media but by The New Republic and New York magazine. More recently, a critical but respectful feature in Newsweek dubbed him “the man who dared make Putin’s case.”

But what drives Cohen’s ongoing battle against “the demonization of Putin”? Some of his detractors sound baffled by the paradox of a longtime leftist defending an essentially right-wing authoritarian regime; New York’s Jonathan Chait blames it on “the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism” transferred onto a no-longer-communist Kremlin. In The Daily Beast, James Kirchick treats Cohen as one of the “realists” advocating a pragmatic rather than morality-based foreign policy.  And Cohen himself, in the Newsweek interview, avers that he is the true American patriot seeking to keep the United States out of a reckless confrontation.

Yet none of these explanations quite captures the motives or the history behind Cohen’s passion, which is ultimately less about realism than frustrated idealism. Regrettably, this idealism has led Cohen—a man of unquestionable erudition, sometimes insightful analysis, and by all appearances genuine sympathy for Russia’s tribulations—into some strange places at odds with both reality and morality.

As he writes in the foreword to his  2009 book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, Cohen’s interest in Russia dates back to his days as a college student in the late 1950s, when he became keenly concerned with social justice after growing up in segregated small-town Kentucky. He developed a particular interest in Soviet alternatives to Stalinism and Nikolai Bukharin, the revolutionary and theorist killed in Stalin’s purges whom Cohen saw as the embodiment of such an alternative—a champion of a mixed economy and more humane politics. (Other historians argue that Bukharin, earlier a full supporter of revolutionary mass terror and state-controlled production, saw liberalization in the 1920s as merely a strategic retreat to rebuild the Soviet economy and pacify the populace.)  Cohen’s first book was an acclaimed 1975 biography of Bukharin, an expanded edition of which is to be published this year.

Cohen had a strong personal investment in his subject. In the mid-1970s, he began spending a lot of time in Moscow in academic exchange programs, an experience he describes in his 2010 book, The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin; he grew close to Bukharin’s widow Anna Larina, herself a gulag survivor, and developed friendships with a few Soviet dissidents. He was a devout foe of Stalinism—at the time, he was already doing research on gulag survivors—and no fan of the Brezhnev-era Soviet regime, which for unspecified reasons barred him from travel to the Soviet Union from 1982 to 1985. However, a running theme in Cohen’s writings was the possibility of “socialism with a human face.” He argued that Communism was not monolithic; that Stalinism was not an organic continuation of Leninist Bolshevism (a “richly diverse movement,” as Cohen, then a junior fellow at Columbia University’s Research Institute on Communist Affairs, wrote in a 1967 letter to the New York Review of Books) but a radical break from it; and that the Soviet system had real potential for peaceful reformism. It is telling that his closest dissident friend was Roy Medvedev, probably the only notable dissident in the 1970s who still considered himself a Marxist-Leninist.

In his 1985 book, Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917, Cohen noted with regret that, as reformist hopes withered and died in the 1970s, most liberal dissidents “concluded that the entire Soviet system was hopelessly ill-conceived and corrupt—that reform from within the Communist party-state was impossible,” and their protests “grew increasingly anti-Soviet.”  This, he argued, only led to more repression, drawing dissenters into a “political cul-de-sac” since change in the Soviet Union could only happen through “reform from above.” Around the same time, he claimed in The Nation that the Reagan administration’s quest to pressure the Soviets into change would inevitably fail since it was “predicated on wildly exaggerated conceptions of Soviet domestic problems. In reality, the Soviet Union is not in economic crisis; nor is it politically unstable.”

Not long after, Cohen’s cherished “reform from above” suddenly became reality as the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, embarked on a course of liberalization and reform. Still more excitingly for Cohen, glasnost included a Bukharin revival, with major support from Gorbachev himself. Bukharin was formally exonerated in 1988 and became, as Cohen recounts in Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, “virtually canonized as Lenin’s rightful heir, anti-Stalinist prophet and hero, and forerunner of Gorbachev’s perestroika reformation.”

Cohen threw himself enthusiastically into this reformation. He traveled regularly to the Soviet Union with his wife Katrina Vanden Heuvel, an editor at The Nation and currently its editor-in-chief and they co-authored the 1989 book, Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev’s Reformers, a collection of interviews with fourteen officials, journalists, and intellectuals, all of them proponents of a kinder, gentler (and more efficient) Soviet socialism.

Then, in late 1991, the dreams of reformist socialism crashed with the end of the Soviet Union. The new Russian leadership was far more interested in embracing Western-style democratic capitalism than in reforming socialism. Lenin was tossed on the dustbin of history—even if his mummified body remained in the Mausoleum on Red Square—and Bukharin’s ghost faded into irrelevance. As Cohen notes with tangible bitterness in Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, “Of what political use or historical interest was a founding father whose country no longer existed?”

For many observers, the Soviet Union’s downfall leads to the logical conclusion that Soviet communism was not reformable after all: virtually the moment its coercive mechanisms weakened, the entire edifice began to crack and promptly collapsed. Not surprisingly, Cohen strongly disagrees. His view is most succinctly summed up in a 2011 talk at a conference sponsored by the Gorbachev Foundation: the Soviet Union, he believes, did not “collapse” but was dismantled by the power-hungry Boris Yeltsin—aided by “the radical intelligentsia” which “hijacked Gorbachev’s gradualist reformation” and helped bring Yeltsin to power, and by greedy bureaucratic elites eager to plunder the Soviet Union’s wealth. To make this case, he drastically downplays both the economic crisis of 1990-1991 (when, as Russian satirist Viktor Shenderovich once quipped, “Soviet power still existed but the food had already run out”) and the separatist tensions in the Soviet republics.

Meanwhile, Cohen blames Yeltsin’s reforms in the early 1990s for causing “the worst economic and social catastrophe ever suffered by a major nation in peacetime.” That’s a rather startling assertion from someone familiar with Stalin’s brutal collectivization of agriculture and the ensuing “terror-famine” of the early 1930s.

Of course, few would disagree that Russia’s “Wild West capitalism” of the nineties was not a pretty picture, with the rise of oligarchs who gave robber barons a bad name and millions of people cast adrift and struggling. One can argue about the causes and the specifics of this crisis—for instance, whether Yeltsin-era policies were really free market-oriented (the private sector remained crippled by byzantine taxes and regulations, official corruption, and lack of effective legal protection for property rights) and whether some of the decade’s social ills were caused by the transition to the market or by the disastrous Soviet legacy. (Thus, the decline in Russians’ life expectancy began in the Soviet era, with male life expectancy at birth dropping from 64 years in 1965 to 61.4 years in 1980.) Still, Cohen has an indisputable point when he says that the hardship and chaos of the 1990s explain widespread Russian support for Putin’s neo-authoritarian rule—as well as the resurgence of Stalinist nostalgia, with both Putin and Stalin seen as symbols of the “strong hand” bringing order and security.

“It’s rather sad to see Cohen, who has written with sensitivity and compassion about gulag survivors, sink to the level of a pro-Kremlin Internet troll”

This, however, should hardly preclude a critical view of Putin and Putinism: if anything, an authoritarian strongman is all the more dangerous when he rides a wave of legitimate popular discontent with economic and social chaos. The fact remains that after his rise to power, Putin systematically strangled Russia’s free press (the remnants of which are now under attack in the warmongering over Ukraine), crushed political opposition, turned elections into a farce and the parliament into an obedient rubber stamp, and moved toward making anti-Western nationalism an official ideology. And these are facts that Cohen either glosses over or downplays—for instance, by asserting that “de-democratization began under Yeltsin, not Putin” (which is true only in the sense that power was increasingly concentrated in the presidency rather than elected representatives).

All this autocratic thuggery seems a more than adequate explanation for why the Western media would take an uncharitable view of Putin, the ex-KGB officer who has always taken conspicuous pride in his Soviet-era career. Yet Cohen professes to be utterly baffled by why Putin is so “villainized.” His explanation in The Nation article is that the U.S. press “adopted Washington’s narrative” of Yeltsin as the man steering Russia to democracy, still treating him as “an ideal Russian leader.” By contrast, in the 2000s, the media—again taking their cue from Washington—began to treat the Kremlin as the enemy. (This account completely ignores, among other things, the complexities of U.S.-Russian relations in both the 1990s and the 2000s: the chill between Moscow and Washington at the end of the Yeltsin years, the initially cordial relationship between George W. Bush and Putin—the War on Terror ally in whose eyes Bush famously got “a sense of his soul”—and the “reset” at the start of Obama’s presidency.)

In essence, Cohen is arguing that the American media dislikes Putin because he is seen as the anti-Yeltsin. But this seems like classic projection: the far more likely explanation is that Cohen sympathizes with Putin because he sees Putin as the anti-Yeltsin, and Yeltsin as the anti-Gorbachev who destroyed the bright and shining hopes of Soviet reformism. The irony, of course, is that Putin’s rule hasn’t seen a restoration of socialism, Soviet-style or otherwise (except for the fact that, while Yeltsin repudiated the Soviet period, Putin treats it as a source of real achievements and legitimate pride). Putin’s Russia is a country of corrupt crony capitalism, conspicuous consumption by the rich and the affluent, and a repressive state that increasingly leans on a subservient church as its source of moral authority. It stands, in short, for everything a leftist should detest.

Many of Cohen’s arguments about post-Communist Russia are legitimate subjects of debate, and his scholarship has been serious enough to draw praise from the likes of Robert Conquest, the British historian and author of The Great Terror.  And yet his Putin cheerleading increasingly crosses the line into denial or outright recycling of Kremlin propaganda. Last October, at a New York University symposium, Cohen asserted with a straight face that the game of musical chairs between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev (who was handpicked to succeed Putin in 2007, then stepped aside for his mentor four years later) was not a carefully orchestrated ploy to circumvent the Russian constitution’s ban on two consecutive presidential terms but a genuine, though unsuccessful, “tryout” for Medvedev. “I don’t believe that Putin’s return was agreed upon in advance,” said Cohen—flatly contradicting Medvedev’s own statement to the media in 2011 that he and Putin had “long ago” agreed on the power arrangement.

In a 2012 Reuters column, Cohen complained that Putin is often blamed for the 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, even though “the editors of Politkovskaya’s newspaper, the devoutly anti-Putin Novaya Gazeta, believe her killing was ordered by Chechen leaders, whose human-rights abuses were one of her special subjects.”  He forgets to mention that the Chechen leader in question, Ramzan Kadyrov, is Putin’s best buddy—or that Novaya Gazeta has also asserted that the actual killers are connected to Russian special services and protected by the government.

But the disconnect from reality is most glaringly evident in Cohen’s Newsweek interview.  Take this gem: “We don’t know that Putin went into Crimea. We literally don’t know. We’re talking about ‘facts’ that are coming out of Kiev, which is a mass of disinformation.” Cohen must be the only person in the world who thinks there’s any doubt that the armed men who are all over Crimea wearing Russian army uniforms without insignia and wielding Russian weaponry—“little green men,” as irreverent Russians call them—are actually Russian soldiers.

And he hits an all-time low when asked about Pussy Riot, the activist punk rockers given a two-year prison sentence in 2012 for an anti-Putin protest performance in a Moscow cathedral. After noting that “in 82 countries they would have been executed” (a statement later amended to say that the women “would have faced criminal charges in many countries and the death penalty in several of them”), Cohen tells the interviewer, “You know what they were doing before they went to prison? They would go into supermarkets, strip, lay on their back, spread their legs apart and stuff frozen chickens in their vagina. There were people in there with their kids shopping and Russian authorities did nothing. They didn’t arrest them.”

The very slight factual basis for this outlandish claim is that two members of Pussy Riot once belonged to an activist performance art group called Voina (War). In one of its “performances,” a woman discreetly stuffed a supermarket chicken inside her panties and into her vagina (an act not witnessed by anyone except other group members who took photos), then left the store and “birthed” the chicken in an empty lot outside.  However tacky, this was hardly the flagrant public obscenity Cohen alleges. What’s more, the chicken stunt did not actually involve any of the Pussy Riot defendants—though Russian television falsely implied that it did.

It’s rather sad to see Cohen, who has written with sensitivity and compassion about gulag survivors, sink to the level of a pro-Kremlin Internet troll, perpetuating a crude slander against courageous young women who are currently braving harassment and physical assaults as they advocate for prisoner rights.

Cohen is doubtless sincere in his conviction that he stands against a propaganda war that incites dangerous hostility to Russia. Yet his sincerity leads him to channel Kremlin propaganda as effectively as any paid shill. A verse composed by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko for Cohen’s seventieth birthday in 2008 included the lines, “I love you, my unique friend, Steve / And envy you that you're naïve.”  Alas, this brings to mind an old Russian proverb: “There’s a kind of simplicity that’s worse than thievery."

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (Ticknor & Fields, 1989). You can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63

Photo by Sasha Mordovets

Washington Bureau

03.17.14

Exclusive: Russia Will Sanction U.S. Senators

Putin is set to respond to Obama's sanctions of Russian officials with his own list. Several U.S. Senators and officials will be banned from visiting Russia, including Sen. Dick Durbin.

U.S. senators, congressmen and top Obama administration officials are sure to be on Vladimir Putin’s sanctions list; a response to the Obama Administration’s announcement on Monday that 7 Russian officials and 4 Ukrainian officials would be barred from holding assets or traveling to the United States.

Putin is expected to release his retaliation list as early as Tuesday and while the final list is still being crafted, it will include top Obama administration officials and high profile U.S. senators, in an effort to roughly mirror the U.S. sanctions against Russian officials and lawmakers, according to diplomatic sources. At the top of the list in Congress is Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who recently co-authored a resolution criticizing Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Durbin’s inclusion on Putin’s list would mirror Obama’s naming of Valentina Matvienko, the head of the upper chamber of the Russian Duma. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are not expected to be on the Russian sanctions list.

UPDATE: Durbin told The Daily Beast in a statement Monday: "My Lithuanian-born mother would be proud her son made Vladimir Putin’s American enemies list."

Sen. John McCain, who traveled to Kiev last weekend to meet with Ukrainian leaders, told The Daily Beast that he expects to be on the list and is happy about it.

“You think I’m not going to be on it?” McCain said. “I would be honored to be on that list.”

McCain said he would not be impacted financially by being subject to a visa ban and asset freeze in the Russian Federation.

“I guess I’m going to have to try to withdraw my money from my secret account in St. Petersburg,” he joked.

Video screenshot

On CNN today, Josh Rogin broke news that the Kremlin is preparing a list of U.S. politicians to sanction.

Other names that could be on the Russian sanctions list, although not confirmed, include Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN), the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who are leading the sanctions drive in the Senate, and Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, who has been heavily involved in working with the Ukrainian opposition that ousted the Yanokovich government.

One U.S. official who can rest easy is White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who will not be on Putin’s sanctions list. It's been an ongoing rumor in administration circles that Carney is quietly lobbying to replace former Ambassador Mike McFaul as the next U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, who will also not be on the list. (Today, Carney denied he is seeking the job)

The tit for tat sanctions are not likely to convince either side to back down from their position over the Russian invasion of Crimea, McCain said.“If we acquiesced to that, that would be a green light for him to go for Moldova, where there are also Russian troops,” said McCain. “That’s the problem with this appeasement policy.”

McCain is advocating for a series of more serious steps, which include the immediate arming of the Ukrainian military, which the administration has rejected for now, promising to help the Ukrainian military develop over the long term, rethinking U.S. approaches to Putin, and restarting U.S. missile defense projects in Eastern Europe.

There are signs that Putin is preparing a scenario ahead of a possible invasion of Eastern Ukraine, including sending Russian intelligence agents inside Ukraine to stir up unrest as a pretext for a possible expansion of the invasion.

“I’m not sure about Eastern Ukraine, but Putin has put everything in place for a de facto partition of Eastern Ukraine,” he said. “Will he do it? I don’t know. But I don’t think he can be discouraged from that by these limited actions by the United States… We must commit to the ultimate return of Crimea to Ukraine, just as we promised to the so-called captive nations that they would eventually be free of Soviet domination.”

Administration officials said that today’s actions were just initial steps, meant to increase pressure on Putin but also allowing him the opportunity to deescalate before the U.S. moves forward with further sanctions designations. The U.S. could increase sanctions to include Russian business leaders and institutions that are determined to be aiding officials implicated in the Crimea invasion.

“Our actions today demonstrate our firm commitment to holding those responsible accountable for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement. “We are thoroughly prepared to take increasing and responsive steps that would impose further political and economic costs.  At the same time, we want to be clear that a path of de-escalation remains available to the Russians, should they choose to use it."

Photo by Pool Photo by Andrii Skakodu

World News

03.17.14

Ukraine Expects U.S. Military Help If War With Russia Starts

Leaders in Kiev don’t want to call openly for military assistance from the United States and Europe, but they know they need it desperately.

Former World-boxing-champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, a leading contender to become Ukraine’s next president, is none too happy with the West’s response to Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, at least so far. But if Ukraine has to fight to stop more Russian land grabs, he told a press conference, he expects American backing.

Asked afterward what sort of United States support is needed, he tried not to get too specific. The matter of military aid, he told The Daily Beast, is “a very sensitive question.” But Klitschko said Ukraine will have no other choice but to defend itself “if Russia continues aggression” and at that point “support from all democratic forces, from all democratic countries” will be needed.

“I hope that we don’t go over the line where we use weapons,” said Klitschko. “The Russians have much more weapons, much more tanks, planes, but Ukrainians will be the home defenders.” (The Russians also have nuclear weapons, and one of their most prominent TV anchormen reminded his viewers on Sunday that theirs is still “the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive dust.”)

In the United States, Sen. John McCain, appearing on CNN, said Crimea’s break-up referendum vote with a supposed 97 percent majority was reminiscent of “the old Soviet days”, and he urged President Barack Obama to focus on provide enough military assistance to Ukrainians “at least so they can defend themselves.”

McCain said he was not calling for American boots on the ground, but short of that other kinds of military help are vital “because God knows what Vladimir Putin will do next.”

What the Ukrainians fear, of course, is that Putin will try to grab other parts of eastern Ukraine with large ethnic Russian populations. Over the weekend about 5,000 pro-Russian protesters roamed central Donetsk in eastern Ukraine smashing doors and windows and forcing entry to government buildings. 

Ukraine’s new leaders claim Moscow has been infiltrating Russian provocateurs to foment much of the agitation. The Kremlin denies this but has warned that it is ready to send in regular military forces massed on the border to protect ethnic Russians—the initial reason given for seizing Crimea.

Western governments today started to make good on their promises to sanction Russia in the event the predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea broke away from Ukraine. European Union foreign ministers slapped travel bans and asset freezes on 21 people from Russia and Crimea linked to the push for secession by the strategic peninsula in the Black Sea.  

In a part of Europe where memories of World War II endure with ferocious intensity, she looks at the possibility of talks with Yanukovych or Putin as worse than a waste of time.

Obama, meanwhile, signed an executive order imposing sanctions against seven Russian officials for their involvement with Crimea’s vote to join the Russian Federation and four Ukrainian officials, including deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. The Russians named include top Putin aides Vladislav Surkov and Sergey Glazyev. The White House order targets the officials’ assets and bars them from entering the United States.

“We have fashioned these sanctions to impose costs on named individuals who wield influence in the Russian government and those responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement. “We stand ready to use these authorities in a direct and targeted fashion as events warrant.” 

But the sanctions as announced don’t satisfy Klitschko or most other top Ukrainian leaders, who don’t think they will be enough to deter Putin from continuing with efforts to destabilize their country.  

Klitschko told the crowded press conference he was “still waiting for adequate steps from the guarantors” of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that was supposed to assure independence and territorial integrity in return for giving up nuclear weapons. It was signed eventually by all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, China and, yes, Russia. But its now obvious the ironclad security guarantees they claimed to provide are perfectly hollow.

The European and American sanctions came hours after Crimea’s parliament declared the region an independent state, following the overwhelming vote on Sunday. The snap referendum was held two weeks after Russian forces seized the peninsula and blockaded Ukrainian soldiers in their bases. Now Crimea’s parliament also has asked formally to be annexed by Russia.

Ukraine lawmaker Lesya Orobets, one of the leaders of the Maidan uprising that toppled Yanukovych last month, says she is frustrated with the West’s too-little and too-late responses throughout the crisis. “Is the world’s ‘support’ enough? “ she asks. ”We can only answer that question when Russia leaves our territory.” During the Maidan uprising in Kiev, even as protesters were being killed, the West was reluctant to move. “We still heard the response that ‘we don’t want to ruin the relationship with Yanukovych and you have to negotiate.’”

In a part of Europe where memories of World War II endure with ferocious intensity, she looks at the possibility of talks with Yanukovych or Putin as worse than a waste of time. “Do you have success negotiating with a killer?” she says. “Do you negotiate with Hitler?”

But if negotiations fail, the consequences of military confrontation are almost too horrible to contemplate.

Photo by Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Crisis in Ukraine

03.17.14

Obama Has 4 Days to Stop Putin in Crimea

Russia has agreed to a ceasefire in Crimea until March 21, which gives the Obama administration little time to prevent a war. Can anyone change Putin's calculation in time?

Now that Crimea has “voted,” the Obama administration is ready to start unveiling sanctions against Russian and Crimean leaders who are linked to what the West is calling Russia’s invasion and subversion in Crimea. But with a fragile ceasefire set to expire by Friday, the sanctions are unlikely to work in time to head off a conflict.

There are signs that the short-term measures being contemplated, which include asset freezes and visa bans for Russian government officials and business leaders, will not be biting enough to really put pressure on Putin and his friends.

According to one independent analysis being studied by the Kremlin and reviewed by The Daily Beast, such measures could be a drag on the Russian economy over time and an embarrassment for the Russian government, but would only be an “inconvenience” for the Russian economy in the near term. More drastic measures would include going after Russia’s ability to interact in global financial markets, which the analysis calls “disruptive,” and restrictions on Russian energy exports or trade sanctions, which the analysis says would be “catastrophic.”

The analysis by Macro-Advisory, an investment firm operating in Russia, predicts that the West, especially European countries, will not move to impose “disruptive” or “catastrophic” sanctions on Russia until Putin crosses another red line, such as the outright invasion of Ukraine.

“The key risk [for Russia] is Stage 3, i.e. a ban or restrictions on Russia’s interaction in global financial markets and/or any selected restrictions on trade or investment with Russia,” the report stated. “Investors assume that Stage 4 [catastrophic] sanctions are not yet on the agenda simply because these would also have a negative contagion to several EU countries, and many high-profile companies, as well as indirectly on the global economy.”

Video screenshot

On CNN today, Josh Rogin broke news that the Kremlin is preparing a list of U.S. politicians to sanction.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Crimea continued to unfold Sunday, when a reported 95.5 percent of voters opted in a near-choiceless referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia. President Obama called Vladimir Putin shortly after the results were announced to reiterate that vote would never be recognized by the United States and the international community. It was a violation of the Ukrainian constitution, Obama added, made under duress of military intervention.

“He emphasized that Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that, in coordination with our European partners, we are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions,” a White House read-out of the call said.

The Obama administration's plan to impose those additional costs was set last week. Secretary of State John Kerry revealed, perhaps accidentally, that the U.S. had no intention of waiting for the results of the Crimean referendum and was planning a “very series of serious steps on Monday” against Russia.

You want to isolate them, you want to make it more difficult for the people who have been getting a free ride on the Western economic system.”

Also on Sunday, the Ukrainian government announced that it had struck a truce with the Crimean government and the Russian foreign ministry (which still doesn’t acknowledge that Russian troops have taken over Crimea) that will avoid attacks on Ukrainian bases inside Crimea until March 21. A leaked document reported to spell out the Russian position on Ukraine sets terms the West is not likely to accept as an offer to stave off war.

A senior State Department official said this weekend that the administration is not predicting that the coming sanctions will be enough to change Putin’s calculus on Crimea and reverse course there.

“I would simply say that there have already been significant costs.  Just take a look at what’s happening to the Russian stock market.  Look at what’s happening to the Russian ruble,” the official said. “So as both – as the United States, Canada, the European Union, others exact further costs, we’ll just have to see what cost-benefit analysis President Putin makes.”

The administration is also bracing for Russian retaliation to the limited sanctions being rolled out Monday. Michael McFaul, who served until last month as U.S. ambassador to Russia, said he expected the Obama administration to announce sanctions against Russian officials in the coming days and that the Kremlin would respond--as they have done in the past--with a sanctions and travel ban list of their own. "They will have their own list and their own people they will sanction in terms of travel and assets in Russia," the former ambassador said "I fear someone like me could be on that list." 

McFaul as ambassador was demonized by Russian controlled media and harassed by the country's intelligence service. His private schedule as ambassador in the past would be shared with Russian media, who would ambush him at public events. In more ominous moves, anonymous videos appeared on the internet accusing McFaul of being a child molester. Because of his work on civil society, Russian hardliners have portrayed him as an agent of influence seeking regime change in Moscow. 

Last year, in response to the U.S. creation of the Magnistky list, a list of Russian human rights violators subject to sanctions, Russia created its own list of Americans banned from traveling to Russia. The list included Bush administration officials including John Yoo, a former US Justice Department official, David Addington, the chief of staff for former vice-president Dick Cheney, and two former commanders of Guantanamo Bay.

Toby Gati, the White House senior director for Russia during the Bush administration, said that broad attacks on the Russian economy are not practical but well crafted, targeted sanctions against Russian elites can  have the effecting of placing pressure on Putin if implemented smartly.

“Remember this, unless we are coordinated with the Europeans, the Russians are going to get missed signals,” she said. “The question is how do we want to hurt them. You want to isolate them, you want to make it more difficult for the people who have been getting a free ride on the Western economic system.”

Photo by Edgar Su/Reuters

World News

03.17.14

The Tripwire on Flight 370

The moment the transponder turned off means everything to the investigation—and it happened after the pilots said things were OK.

The fate of Flight MH370 could have been decided in three minutes.

The Malaysians changed more than the clock when they backtracked Monday from their original statement that the last voice contact from the airplane (“All right, good night”) was received at 1:30 a.m., putting it instead at 1:19 a.m.

The need for an absolutely accurate timeline of the Boeing 777’s flight path has always been essential to investigators. It’s the first thing that they request and normally would be instantly retrievable from air traffic control radars and transmissions between the airplane and the ground. It has been severely lacking in this case.

The timeline has big implications for those trying to understand not just the correct sequence of events but what may lay behind them. Critically, it would mean that with the transponder turned off at 1:22 a.m.—three minutes after the final words from the cockpit, the number of suspects grows suddenly larger.

The transponder is really the tripwire for whatever began to unfold on that jet. It identifies the airplane to traffic controllers and confirms its position. As long as it appeared that the transponder was de-activated before the final voice report, it left open the possibility that the pilots lied to air traffic control and were themselves already embarked upon a pre-planned series of actions that would allow the flight to vanish (however bizarre that scenario seemed).

So if the pilots were not covering up a plot, what happened? Was Act One of a skyjacking, and if so, what was Act Two?

The interrogation of the skyjacking theory would start with the choice of airport, and the choice of the flight. Investigators would consider the political context, whether there was any known motivation for taking captive a particular group of passengers and then making political demands in return for their release.

The classic case of this was, of course, in 1976 when four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a French Airbus flying from Israel to France and demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The airplane landed at Entebbe, Uganda, and 105 Jewish and Israeli hostages were taken. The episode ended with a dramatic Israeli raid at the airport to free the hostages.

There is just no clue to what the motivation for seizing this airplane could have been.

The largest national group aboard Flight 370 was 154 Chinese. In spite of the recent attack at a Beijing railroad station by Muslim Uighur separatists who killed 33 people, there has been no connection made to them, who would anyway appear to lack both the sophistication and resources to carry out a skyjacking.

The silence from any known terrorist group is as complete as is the absence of any other claims for a skyjacking, including the simply venal. There is just no clue to what the motivation for seizing this airplane could have been.

And so I circle back to the tripwire, the disappearance of signals from the transponder as well as the end of transmissions from the 777’s ACARS system—the automatic monitoring and reporting of the performance of its Rolls Royce engines and other functions. The Malaysians are insistent that the cessations of these communications systems demonstrate deliberate intervention by human agents and so far there is nothing to refute that.

Were it not for these stubborn assertions by Malaysia, I would have looked for a mechanical failure to explain the extremely strange trajectory of the 777. One such failure would have been consistent with everything that is known of that trajectory: A pressurization problem leading to the loss of oxygen and consciousness by the aircrew and passengers.

I have cited before the case of Helios Airways Flight 522 in 2005, where a Boeing 737 suffered an uncontrolled decompression of its cabin and cockpit. The pilots were incapacitated and the airplane continued its flight from Cyprus to Greece on automatic pilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a mountain, killing the 121 people aboard.

The left turn made by Flight 370 could signify the captain attempting to reach one of the nearby airports, either in Malaysia or Vietnam. But by the time the turn was executed the flight crew could have succumbed to hypoxia. The flight is now thought to have continued for at least another six hours, given the fuel supply, which could have taken it for 3,000 miles into the great void of the Indian Ocean with the autopilot in control.

It’s all very possible—but for the absence of any distress call from the cockpit and because the transponder was turned off.

All of this really illustrates that there are actually three searches going on for the answers. The first is the massive search over water. The second is whatever the investigators on the scene in Kuala Lumpur can find as they attempt to reconstruct the timeline, a job made harder than it need be by the lack of precision in what the Malaysians are reporting. And the third is where I am: the search by what you might call the college of experts, all of us seriously handicapped by there being so much noise and so few facts.

Here’s a final thought: Like many others, I usually approach the study of an air crash by empirical means. I look for precursors, either a pattern of problems leading to an accident or a pattern of accidents of which this seems to be another, as in the woeful record of clapped-out airplanes and zero safety enforcement in Africa.

But Flight MH 370 is different. It might actually be that there are no precursors; that nothing like this has happened before.