New York Times Gets a Lot Right, and Some Wrong This Morning

The New York Times front page article and editorial on the Ukrainian crisis this morning ( http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/03/opinion/crimea-the-tinderbox.html?hp&rref=opinion ) are surprisingly sophisticated in some ways, and more typically clueless in others.  The thrust of the editorial – that the first goal has to be prevention of mass violence and direct Russian incursions into east Ukraine and SE Ukraine (minus the Crimea, already occupied) — is eminently sane and fits with what many Russian political commentators are saying.  Moreover, the editorial in particular presents a complex picture of the history both of Crimea and the recent overthrow of the Yanukovych government in Kiev.

There are, however, problems.  Perhaps foremost is the article’s (not the editorial’s) description of Angela Merkel’s comments to Obama after a phone call she had with Putin.  According to the NYT, Merkel told Obama that Putin was out of touch with reality.  This is not just silly (fitting as it does into the usual American trope that “any dictator we don’t like is ‘crazy'”), it is a dangerous misjudgment, suggesting that the Russian government cannot be negotiated with and that at the same time its position is relatively weak.  I disagree.  Regardless of the implications for morality and national sovereignty (and the United States has been one of the major forces undermining the latter principle since the end of the Cold War), Putin is in a very strong position and he has gotten there by some very rational calculation.

His main gamble is that the EU and United States will not implement effective economic sanctions.  The EU as a whole and China are Russia’s most important trading partners, and there is large-scale EU investment in Russia.  If the EU were to take truly rigorous steps, such as embargoing oil and natural gas imports from Russia, then the West could have some leverage.  However, it is hard to see that happening, given the importance of Russian fossil fuels for Europe to the west.

Putin’s gamble *is* a gamble — witness the drop in Russian stock markets today.  However, to repeat, it seems doubtful that the west is willing to impose sufficiently rigorous economic sanctions to hurt Russia.  The United States is not a significant enough trading partner to make an impact on Russia alone.  All depends on the EU.

Kicking Russia out of the G-8 might have some impact but Germany already opposes doing so, and the Obama administration is not taking that option seriously.

There is absolutely nothing militarily that Ukraine itself or “the West” can do about the occupation of Crimea, or more generally a Russian military incursion into east Ukraine.

In the meantime, Putin has now put himself in a position where the new Ukrainian government and the West have no choice but to negotiate the future of Crimea and other majority Russian regions of Ukraine, and to do so from a position of weakness.

So, no, Putin’s steps are not out of touch with reality … they amount in fact to a carefully calculated work of realpolitik.

Other more minor beefs I have with the NYT editorial in particular.

1. The piece states that the Russian media is in a “parallel universe”.  Not really.  They articulate Russian points of view, yes, but they are reporting real news, and there are Russian points of view that are not irrational.  For example, it is true that a part of the Maidan revolutionary movement that overthrew Yanukovych is far right nationalist. Generally speaking it is shameful and a huge problem that the American reading/viewing public is not exposed at all to Russian viewpoints on this as well as other issues (which is not to say that I support Russia’s aggression here – I do not).

2. The authors write as if United States policy *is* driven primarily by moral considerations, whereas Putin relies on cold-blooded realpolitik.  They seem to imply that Putin does not understand the United States because he projects his own realpolitik views onto the less cynical US government.  I don’t know what to say here other than “what a bunch of horsesh*t”.

3. The editorial points to the supposed site of Grand Prince Vladimir/Volodymyr’s conversion to Christianity in 988 as the mythical origin point of the Ukrainian nation.  Well, yes, that is a claim Ukrainians make.  The NYT fails to note that Russians claim 988 as the original point of the *Russian* nation.  Both claims are pure myth but the NYT completely fails to note the Russian claim or the fact of competing claims.  Doing so would be nice not just as a question of “fair media coverage”,  but because it would reveal what nonsense such origin tales are.  A teachable moment missed.

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