Yesterday, Barack Obama shrugged off the suggestion that Vladimir Putin had become an antagonist to US and Western interests. Insisting that the move on Crimea came out of “weakness,” Obama dismissed Russia as only a “regional power,” and that he’s more worried about terrorist attacks than a relaunch of the Cold War. But that dismisses what Putin’s thinking, or more to the point, doing. Eli Lake reports today that Russian intelligence has begun a campaign to undermine Western leaders by tapping their phone conversations and leaking them to the public:
It started in the first week of February. As Ukraine’s political elites were scrambling to form a new government, a recording of a cellphone call emerged between Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The intercept featured Nuland privately saying, “Fuck the EU,” and disclosed the preferences of two senior U.S. diplomats for who should serve in Ukraine’s interim government.
A month later, a phone call between European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Estonia’s foreign minister Urmas Paet appeared on the Internet. In the conversation, Paet discussed a theory that the snipers who fired on demonstrators in Ukraine may have been anti-Russian provocateurs.
This Monday, a third private phone call suddenly appeared on the Web. This time it was Yulia Tymeshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister, saying, “It’s about time we grabbed our guns and killed those damned Russians together with their leader.”
All three intercepted phone calls were invaluable to reinforcing Russia’s desired narrative: depicting the West as meddling in Ukrainian affairs and Ukraine’s new leadership as implacably hostile to Moscow. Not coincidentally, all three calls received major play on the Kremlin-funded Russian propaganda station known as RT. And all three are almost certainly the handiwork of Russia’s intelligence services.
At least this is the assessment of current and former U.S. intelligence officials interviewed by The Daily Beast.
“We see them engaged in counter-information campaigns,” said Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “They are very aggressive, they are using old style thuggery, cut-your-ear-off KGB tactics and they are using this leaking of collected information to their advantage.”
As one of Eli’s sources notes, it’s a little difficult for the US to complain about tapped phones in the post-Snowden era. It does, however, highlight just how basic wiretapping is to the spy trade. The difference here is that the US wasn’t publicizing the contents for PR purposes, certainly not as blatantly as Russia appears to have done so. The lack of subtlety demonstrates the kind of aggression that has NATO concerned about the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border.
Obama’s former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, disagrees that Russia’s aggression is just a regional issue, and takes the West to task for its “anemic” response in today’s Wall Street Journal:
The only way to counter Mr. Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the West also to play a strategic long game. That means to take actions that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that his worldview and goals—and his means of achieving them—over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia. …
So far, however, the Western response has been anemic. Mr. Putin is little influenced by seizure of personal assets of his cronies or the oligarchs, or restrictions on their travel. Unilateral U.S. sanctions, save on Russian banks, will not be effective absent European cooperation. The gap between Western rhetoric and Western actions in response to out-and-out aggression is a yawning chasm. The message seems to be that if Mr. Putin doesn’t move troops into eastern Ukraine, the West will impose no further sanctions or costs. De facto, Russia’s seizure of Crimea will stand and, except for a handful of Russian officials, business will go on as usual.
No one wants a new Cold War, much less a military confrontation. We want Russia to be a partner, but that is now self-evidently not possible under Mr. Putin’s leadership. He has thrown down a gauntlet that is not limited to Crimea or even Ukraine. His actions challenge the entire post-Cold War order including, above all, the right of independent states to align themselves and do business with whomever they choose.
Tacit acceptance of settling old revanchist scores by force is a formula for ongoing crises and potential armed conflict, whether in Europe, Asia or elsewhere. A China behaving with increasing aggressiveness in the East and South China seas, an Iran with nuclear aspirations and interventionist policies in the Middle East, and a volatile and unpredictableNorth Korea are all watching events in Europe. They have witnessed the fecklessness of the West in Syria. Similar division and weakness in responding to Russia’s most recent aggression will, I fear, have dangerous consequences down the road.
Peter Wehner thinks the worst-case scenario at the moment is that Obama might actually believe what he’s saying:
Russia has increased its influence in Syria, Egypt, and Iran. Indeed, Russia’s position in the Middle East hasn’t been this strong since Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviet Union from Egypt in the 1970s. Yet the president continues to make his preposterous claims. In public. Repeatedly.
I’m starting to be convinced this isn’t simply a talking point by a president on the defensive. I think he actually believes what he’s saying. Which means he is losing touch with reality. Which may be the most worrisome thing of all.
Hey, Michael won two Pulitzers for his editorial cartoons. Maybe I can get one for puns? Er … naah.
Also, be sure to check out Ramirez’ terrific collection of his works: Everyone Has the Right to My Opinion, which covers the entire breadth of Ramirez’ career, and it gives fascinating look at political history. Read my review here, and watch my interviews with Ramirez here and here. And don’t forget to check out the entire Investors.com site, which has now incorporated all of the former IBD Editorials, while individual investors still exist.
Update: Ukrainian women are doing their best to promote solidarity by going on strike … against Russian lovers.