The Not-So-Iron Chancellor
In contrast to her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who saw himself as an advocate for Russia in Europe and was rewarded with a lucrative Gazprom job for his troubles once he left office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has never had an exactly friendly relationship with Vladimir Putin. Over the years, it’s been marked by serious disputes over human rights and foreign policy, as well as some pettiness: The Russian president has reportedly exploited the chancellor’s cynophobia by siccing his black lab on her during meetings.
This dynamic doesn’t seem to have changed. According to Peter Baker of the New York Times, Merkel told President Obama on Sunday that “after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality.”
But personal feelings aside, of all the major leaders in the current standoff over Ukraine, Merkel—the de facto leader of the EU in situations like this—has been the most cautious. Though Berlin played an important diplomatic role during the anti-Yanukovych protests, the Germans were the last to pull out of a planned G8 summit for June and its leaders have expressed skepticism about ideas like kicking Russia out of the grouping entirely or imposing punitive sanctions on Russian leaders.
Russia did agree to allow Merkel to form a fact-finding mission to defuse tensions in Crimea, but this hasn’t gone far enough for some officials in Washington. "The EU is dysfunctional, but Berlin is the real problem," said one former official quoted in Der Spiegel. Sen. John McCain described Merkel’s proposal as “milquetoast.”
So why is Merkel so hesitant? For one thing, increased tensions with Moscow could be costly for Germany, which relies on Russia for more than a third of its oil and natural gas. As Germany moves off nuclear power, that reliance may increase. The two countries are also major trading partners.
Beyond the economic facts, it’s worth keeping in mind that the stakes of this standoff likely seem a lot higher in Germany—as Der Spiegel points out, it’s just a three-hour flight from Frankfurt to Simferopol—than in the United States.
When German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says that "Europe is, without a doubt, in its most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall” and that “there's a new, real danger that Europe will split once again," he’s talking about something a bit more salient to Germans with a memory of the 20th century than when U.S. politicians make the case that American interests are at stake in Russia’s near-abroad.
With Putin sounding a bit less bellicose today, or at least less enthusiastic about the idea of expanding military operations into eastern Ukraine, it could be that the good-cop-bad-cop diplomacy combined with the financial markets is helping to de-escalate the crisis.
But even if you think Merkel’s position in this crisis has been hopelessly feckless and naïve, I don’t think the sniping from Washington is really going to do much to convince her to be more resolute.
All of the Lights
You’ve likely seen images online, including here at Slate, showing the stark visual difference between North and South Korea as seen at night. But that's hardly the only place where you can pick up interesting clues from nighttime visuals—and some economists even argue that light can be used as a proxy for measuring economic development.
In a recent NBER working paper (summary here), Maxim Pinkovskiy of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Xavier Sal-i-Martin of Columbia University used luminosity as measured by NOAA weather sattelites as an “independent measurement of true income.”
The comparison above shows a decade of change in sub-Saharan Africa. Angola (the third country from the bottom on the west coast) has many more lights in 2009 than in 2000, as you might expect from a country whose GDP per capita has nearly doubled. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, “has fewer lights, because of its economic collapse under the disastrous hyperinflationary policies of Robert Mugabe.”
The map below shows 16 years of development in India:
Pinkovskiy and Sala-i-Martin have been arguing for some time that poverty in the developing world—articularly in sub-Saharan Africa—is falling much faster than most official estimates. Not everyone is convinced by their research.The light data probably isn’t conclusive enough to put the debate to bed, which isn't to say I wouldn't want to see more of it.
Oscar Night for Palestine
From Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón to Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o to Australia’s Cate Blanchett, it was a big night—as it usually is—for non-Americans at the Oscars. But despite not taking home a statuette, one place stood out for a different reason.
For the first time in the academy’s history, a film from “Palestine” competed in the Best Foreign Language Film category last night. Whether or not the entrant—Hany Abu-Assad’s film Omar—actually took home a statuette (it didn’t), the moniker itself marks an important shift in the industry and a win for the Palestinians.
Omar, a story of violence, espionage, love, and betrayal set in the West Bank, was the only Middle Eastern film in the category this year. With an almost entirely Palestinian cast and crew, 95 percent of the funding reportedly from Palestinian sources, including the diaspora. That level is a rarity in an industry where Israeli and European sources tend to foot the bill.
Abu-Assad, an Arab-Israeli from Nazareth and with Israeli citizenship, says: “By making a Palestinian movie with crew, money, actors—it’s a step toward independence. You are saying to everybody you can be independent. You deserve to be independent.”
A record 76 countries submitted a nominee for the foreign film category this year. Palestinian participation is relatively new: The Palestinian Ministry of Culture has submitted six films for consideration in the category since 2003, and received a nomination only once, for Paradise Now, also directed by Abu-Assad, in 2006. The academy initially listed that film’s origin as “Palestine,” but changed it to “Palestinian Authority” under intense pressure from pro-Israel groups. Eventually, they compromised on “Palestinian Territories.”
The U.N. General Assembly’s 2012 recognition of Palestine as a nonmember state paved the way for new terminology at the Oscars this year. As academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian explained: “We follow United Nations protocol. This is not a political situation at all. We are just in the business of honoring filmmaking.”
The Palestinian ministry’s first submission attempt, in 2002, was rejected on the grounds that it was not from a state body. Critics pointed out that the academy had long allowed places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Puerto Rico to participate, despite their not being recognized—or not universally recognized—as independent states.
Cultural and institutional recognitions matter tremendously to all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which last year’s battle over Palestinian membership in UNESCO made clear.
A Ukraine/Crimea FAQ Roundup
Update, March 3: Here are few more questions prompted by the latest news from Ukraine:
Is Russia going to stop at Crimea?
That’s the big question right now. As shocking as Russia’s move into Crimea was, occupying a small region where Russia already had a significant military and cultural presence is a far cry from pushing into the Ukrainian mainland, but Vladimir Putin does appear to have left that option open to himself.
The Russian parliament last week authorized the use of military force in Ukraine—not just Crimea.
Russia’s justification for the Crimea operation was protecting the rights of ethnic Russians in the area, and this logic could theoretically be applied to eastern Ukraine, home to a significant population of Russian speakers.
After a conversation between Putin and Obama on Saturday, a statement from the Russian president’s office said that “In the case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea … Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas.”
Pro-Russian protests were held in several cities in eastern Ukraine over the weekend, and violent clashes broke out as rival groups occupied a government building in Kharkiv, but Russian media reports of thousands of refugees headed for the Russian border appear to be inaccurate.
The Biggest Victims of Today’s Events: The Crimean Tatars
The Guardian’s Luke Harding writes, “spare a thought, meanwhile, for Crimea's Tatars. They are the peninsula's original Turkic-speaking Muslim inhabitants. Well-educated and politically organised, they now number 300,000, 15% of Crimea's population. They want to remain part of Ukraine.”
Indeed, Crimea’s Tatar population, whcih has primarily supported the anti-Yanukovych protest movement and opposed Russian nationalists in its own region, is feeling understandably worried. After clashes between Tatar groups and pro-Russian protesters that left two people dead and dozens injured, community leaders have urged Tatars to stay at home following today’s events.
Tatars are certainly have a grim history of being scapegoated. In 1944, after Soviet forces regained control of Crimea and two and a half years of German occupation, Joseph Stalin ordered that the entire population be deported under the pretense that they had collaborated with the Nazis. (It was a false accusation: Quite a few Tatars had fought in the Soviet army.)
Officers from the NKVD, predecessor to the KGB, went from home to home ordering Tatars onto cattle trains. More than 180,000 people were deported, most of them to Uzbekistan. Many died on the trains, many more in their new homes, where they found a harsh climate, and local inhabitants unprepared and unenthusiastic about supporting the new arrivals. About 46 percent of the exiles died.
In 1953, after Stalin’s death, the charge of mass collaboration was withdrawn from the Tatars(though the accusation is still periodically made today), but they were not allowed to return home until the late 1980s. Tatars argue that the deportation should be considered genocide. Though generally pro-Ukrainian in their politics, they have pressed Kiev to do more to help them recover their land and property and called on Europe to make the recognition of Tatar rights a condition of EU membership.
Now, of course, their problems seem to have multiplied dramatically.
A Tour of the Pseudostates of the Former Soviet Union
Crimea’s new prime minister, Sergei Aksenov, has moved up the date of a planned referendum on the peninsula’s future status to March 30. Voters will be asked to vote “yes” or “no” on whether "Crimea has state sovereignty and is a part of Ukraine, in accordance with treaties and agreements."
It seems extremely unlikely that Kiev will recognize the referendum, but with Russian troops occupying the territory, there’s not a whole lot they can do about it. Crimea, therefore, seems destined to join the ranks of the former Soviet Union’s “frozen conflicts.” Here’s a quick rundown over the other four:
Also known Trans-Dniester or Pridnestrovie, the traditionally Russian speaking region was joined by Moscow to Bessarabia, formerly part of Romania, to create the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic after World War II.
Amid rising Moldovan nationalism during the break-up of the Soviet Union, Transnistria declared its independence in 1990. After a short and bloody war, a ceasefire was declared in 1992. The region became de facto independent, backed up a significant Russian military presence, but it is not recognized by Moldova or most other countries. Transnistrians have not gained any more enthusiasm for the idea of joining Moldova – Europe’s poorest country – since that time, and in a 2006 referendum, 90 percent voted for independence. There has been some quiet diplomatic progress since then, and increased trade between the two sides, but a permanent solution doesn’t appear likely any time soon.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a predominantly Armenian enclave within the territory of neighboring Azerbaijan. The two countries have fought over the region since the 19th century. It was transferred to Soviet Azerbaijan by Joseph Stalin in 1923 and remained part of it throughout the Soviet period.
In 1988, the region declared independence and demanded reunification with Soviet Armenia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a bloody war broke out between the two countries in which at least 30,000 people were killed. A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in 1994, but the region’s status has remained unresolved, and exchanges along the border are common. A long-running mediation effort by the OSCE has made little progress.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia
Just three miles from Sochi, Abkhazia has declared itself independent from Georgia since 1999. Independent from the 8th to the 11 centuries, the region was part of Georgia until both were annexed by Russia in the 19th century. Stalin, incorporated it into Georgia in 1931. Ossetia was also absorbed into Russia in the 19th century. In the 1920s, Moscow divided it into, making North Ossetia part of Russia, and South Ossetia an autonomous region within Georgia.
After the break-up, both territories found themselves as part of Georgia under the Georgian nationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Ossetia seceded in 1990, prompting an invasion by Georgian forces that resulted in a civil war resulting in tends of thousands of casualties and refugees. A ceasefire was declared in 1992.
Georgia sent troops to put down a similar separatist movement in Abkhazia in 1992, resulting in another bloody year-long war with Russian-backed Abkhazian troops. The status quo, enforced by Russian troops, held for years in both regions after that, though Georgia claims the Abkhazian government carried out the ethnic cleansing of the region’s Georgian population and accused Moscow of exacerbating tensions by granting residents of the region Russian passports.
In 2008, after a series of skirmishes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces, Gerogia sent in troops to restore control, prompting a Russian incursion into both territories as well as Georgia-proper that likely permanently separated both from Georgian control. Shortly after the war, Russia recognized the independence of both, comparing it to Western recognition of Kosovo. Today, they are recognized as independent only by the odd grouping of Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Vanuatu, Nauru, and Tuvalu.
Russia's actions in Crimea in recent days have been called "fully analogous with Abkhazia" by Ukraine's acting president.
As you can see, all of these conflicts all have their roots in heavy-handed Stalin’s redrawing of national boundaries as well as post-breakup violence during the 1990s. Crimea, assuming it joins this club, is a somewhat different animal, joined to Ukraine in the Khrushchev era and relatively peaceful until now.
An Old-School Invasion
It seems like one reason why Russia’s actions in Crimea appear so jarring and brazen is that it’s a form of warfare that was once common but rarely take place anymore. Russia may not formally annex Crimea – it seems more likely that the territory will declare independence under heavy Russian influence – but it has essentially invaded another country to lob off a piece of territory that was, despite longstanding nationalist sentiment, an undisputed part of Ukraine.
Historically speaking, conflicts in which one country sends troops into the territory to take over a disputed region are pretty common. But today, interstate war is relatively rare, and interstate wars over control of territory even rarer. For the most part, conflicts today usually take place between armed groups within states, and when one country does send troops into another – the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance – it’s generally under the assumption that sooner or later they will pull out, leaving borders as they are.
In fact, the intense emotions aroused in Japan, China, and South Korea over handfuls of small islands and reefs only highlights the degree to which countries rarely resort to armed conflict over large inhabited areas anymore.
Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was something of an exception, although – to a greater extent than Crimea – the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were already outside of Georgian control. Thailand and Cambodia have fought some inconclusive border disputes. Sudan and South Sudan have also continually fought over their still disputed border. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, of course, a fight about land, but land hasn't actually changed hands in quite some time.
Other than that, the last major wars of this type were in the early 1990s – between the new former Yugoslavian states, some of the former Soviet Republics, and of course Iraq’s short-lived annexation of Kuwait.
Given the amount of blood spilled over tracts of land in just the twentieth century, we should certainly hope Crimea is an anomaly rather than a sign that countries are returning to the old way of doing business.
Given the degree to which this weekend’s events in Crimea seem to have caught the world off guard, I was curious to see if the Wikileaks cables contained any discussions by U.S. diplomats of a scenario like this one. Indeed, there is some now ominous foreshadowing to be found.
A 2006 cable under the name of Kiev Deputy Chief of Mission Sheila Gwaltney, who as it happens is now the highest ranking diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Moscow following the departure of Amb. Michael McFaul, warns of a possible Russian threat to Crimea – Ukraine’s “soft underbelly”:
Discussions with a wide range of contacts in Crimea November 20-22 and officials in Kyiv discounted recent speculation that a return of pro-Russian separatism in Crimea, which posed a real threat to Ukrainian territorial integrity in 1994-95, could be in the cards. However, nearly all contended that pro-Russian forces in Crimea, acting with funding and direction from Moscow, have systematically attempted to increase communal tensions in Crimea in the two years since the Orange Revolution. They have done so by cynically fanning ethnic Russian chauvinism towards Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, through manipulation of issues like the status of the Russian language, NATO, and an alleged Tatar threat to "Slavs," in a deliberate effort to destabilize Crimea, weaken Ukraine, and prevent Ukraine's movement west into institutions like NATO and the EU.
The cable notes that “the most active pro-Russian actors highlighted by our contacts were the Russian Society of Crimea and its affiliates, the Russian Bloc political party and the Crimean Cossack Union.” Russian Bloc has been particularly active in the last few days. setting up roadblocks on important highways in the region.
The cable quotes a member of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, claiming that “While there has always been overwhelmingly pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea's population, the beginning of systematic, organized efforts by pro-Russian groups backed by Russian money is a relatively new phenomenon.” Other officials acknowledge the “degradation of Kyiv's ability to assert central power and authority.”
An Oct. 5, 2009 cable discusses a visit by the visiting Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow, now Deputy Secretary General of NATO. In the read-out, Ukrainian officials don’t appear very optimistic that Russia’s treaty obligations, included the now-much-discussed Budapest Memorandum, would do much to prevent a Russian military incursion (my emphasis):
On security guarantees, ASD Vershbow said that the U.S. regarded the 1994 Budapest memorandum to be still in effect, regardless of the expiration of START in December.
We expect Russia to abide by the assurances in the memorandum, as he had stated publicly that afternoon in a speech to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Diplomatic Academy. Russia is legally bound to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity through a number of agreements as well.
While such documents are important, just as important is building up Ukraine's own strength and thickening Ukraine's ties with the U.S. and other Western countries, so as to establish "facts on the ground." That is why enhancing our military and security cooperation in concrete ways is critical. In addition, the Budapest memorandum and the NATO-Ukraine Charter contained provisions for consultation in times of crisis.
Responding, Former FM Ohryzko asked, rhetorically, whether such consultations would matter if Russian forces were to take over Crimea. He noted that Russia had violated its commitments in attacking Georgia and had not been punished for this.
Four days later, the embassy in Kiev issued another cable, titled “Ukraine-Russia: Is Military Conflict No Longer Unthinkable?” It discusses the views of defense analysts Volodymyr Horbulin, Ukraine’s former National Security Advisor, who believed that “internal Russian considerations are pushing Russia toward a confrontation with Ukraine prior to the expiration of the Black Sea Fleet basing agreement in 2017.”
The cable followed a highly critical letter sent by Russia’s then president, Dmitry Medvedev, which was interpreted by many as a warning to Kiev over its pro-Western policies. The cable notes (my emphasis):
While Horbulin believed that Russia has many non-military levers with which to influence Ukraine (above all, by stirring up trouble in the Crimea), he did not rule out the use of military force, especially if Ukraine's new president proves not to be as pliable as the Kremlin may hope.
…Horbulin characterized the Medvedev letter as unprecedented in the brazenness of Moscow's attempt to interfere in Ukraine's upcoming presidential election, with the message that "whoever becomes (the next Ukrainian) president must follow in the wake of Russian policies." Since the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, Russian military action against Ukraine is no longer unthinkable.
So it certainly doesn’t appear that a scenario like what’s playing out right now in Crimea was totally unanticipated. But neither the Ukrainian government nor U.S. officials appear to have thought of a way to prevent Russia from laying the groundwork for it.
Javier Bardem Causes Diplomatic Crisis Between France and Morocco
It’s been a big week for actors and foreign policy. While Ben Affleck earned generally positive reviews for his congressional testimony on the Congo, his To the Wonder co-star Javier Bardem has ramped up tensions between the governments of France and Morocco.
Bardem was in Paris promoting Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony, a documentary he produced on the plight of refugees from Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. The semi-autonomous region, which was a Spanish colony until 1975, has been the subject of a decades-long dispute between Morocco and the nationalist Polisario Front. Morocco has been accused of widespread human rights violations in its occupation of the territory. A ceasefire between the two sides was brokered in 1991.
France is a close ally of its former colony, Morocco, and has generally supported its claim to the territory. As El Pais reports, at the event, Bardem, who has been a very vocal public advocate for Western Sahara for some time, remarked that in 2011, a French ambassador had told him that "to France, Morocco was like ‘a lover you sleep with every night, whom you're not particularly in love with but must defend. In other words, we look the other way.’ ”
After the remarks were published in the French press, Morocco’s communications minister said that France must go “beyond a simple statement by the Foreign Ministry to repair the damage done by those words, whether they were falsely attributed or real.” According to France’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, the French ambassador to the United Nations* did meet with Bardem in 2011 but “did not say what was attributed to him.”
The remark comes at a time of rare tension between the two longtime allies. Morocco halted judicial cooperation with France and the French ambassador was summed after police visited the Moroccan embassy in Paris to investigate torture allegations filed by French-Moroccan activists.
France has had Morocco’s back at the U.N. in the past on Western Sahara issues. Last year, Reuters points out, it “pushed the United States to modify a draft resolution that aimed to have U.N. peacekeepers monitor human rights in the territory.” The issue is going to come up again in April when the U.N. votes on whether to extend its peacekeeping mission in the territory.
Morocco would presumably like to keep France in its corner, but Javier Bardem isn’t helping matters.
*Correction: March 1, 2014: This post originally misstated that Bardem had met with the French ambassador to the United States. The meeting, at which the French foreign ministry denies the remarks in question were said, took place in the United States but was actually with the ambassador to the United Nations. Also, a quote from El Pais in the post misstated that the meeting was with "a French ambassador in the United States." The meeting took place in the United States, but France's ambassador to the United States was not involved.
Can Anyone Stop Russia From Doing What It Wants in Crimea?
Unidentified gunmen—almost certainly working on Russia’s behalf if not if actually Russian military personnel themselves—have seized two airports in Crimea, while separatist militia groups calling themselves the Russian Bloc have set up checkpoints on major highways in the region.
The new interior minister in Kiev has accused Russia’s Sevastopol-based Black Sea Fleet of taking part in the unrest, calling it an “armed invasion,” which a fleet spokesman has denied. Meanwhile, crowds of pro-Russian protesters have gathered outside the Crimean parliament chanting “take us back.”
Russia may not be annexing Crimea, and thus far has expressed no desire to do so, but at the very least the region is clearly falling out of Kiev’s control. So is there anything anyone can do about it?
Options seem limited. The fragile new Ukrainian government, which has other problems, not the least of which is keeping other parts of the country from splitting off, doesn’t really seem like it’s in a position to retake Crimea by force, risking a full armed intervention by the Black Sea Fleet. These moves likely violate the 1994 agreement between the U.S. and Russia under which Moscow agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty within its current borders in return for Kiev giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons. Beyond verbal warnings, the United States certainly seems extremely unlikely to intervene.
So far, no one beyond the hard-core pro-Russian street protesters is talking about full absorption of Crimea into Russia. The Crimean parliament is just talking about greater autonomy for the region. From exile in Russia, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych says Crimea “should stay within the boundaries of Ukraine,” though he appears a bit detached from reality at this point. And while there is significant separatist sentiment in Crimea, I don’t think we can say for sure that it’s the majority.
If I had to guess, the most likely scenario at this point seems to be Crimea settling into a state of frozen conflict along the lines of Transnistria in Moldova or Georgia’s breakaway regions—a de facto autonomous territory under the heavy influence of Moscow but still technically considered by Kiev and its Western allies to be part of Ukraine.
If this is the outcome that is realized, I have a feeling a lot of people will read it as evil genius Putin once again getting one over on the West. But gaining de facto control over yet another dysfunctional pseudostate, essentially ensuring long-term tension with Kiev in the process, certainly doesn’t seem as good an outcome as what Russia thought it was getting a month ago: a government of the whole of Ukraine tied economically and politically to Russia rather than Europe. This isn’t really a great outcome for anyone.