What Will The Neighbors Think?

As Russia threatens Ukraine and intervenes in Kazakhstan, its other neighbors are looking on. Russia’s words toward NATO have been accompanied by warnings to Sweden and Finland not to join NATO.

Russia is presented with a conundrum of its own making. It would like to have friendly or neutral neighbors, but, when they don’t toe that line, as particularly in the case of Ukraine, Russia argues it has no choice but to attack them. This does not encourage a friendly attitude in the neighbors.

Russia’s grab of Crimea and its attack on the Donbas alerted other neighbors to prepare for the worst, now amplified by the Russian military buildup around Ukraine and Russia’s demands on NATO and the United States. The neighbors must respond to Russia’s renewed demand for an explicit sphere of influence.

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Will Putin Start A War?

Nobody knows. End of blogpost.

Or I could go on.

I follow a great many Russia experts on Twitter, and they don’t know. Some tilt one way or the other, but all emphasize that there are great uncertainties. That is how Vladimir Putin likes to play his hand – keep people guessing.

In mid-December, Putin presented two agreements, between Russia and NATO and between Russia and the United States. Basically, the agreements would make it safe for Russia to do what it wants in Europe and, particularly, Ukraine. To develop leverage for those proposals, he has massed something like 100,000 troops around eastern Ukraine with equipment in a way that looks like readying for war.

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Will Russia Invade Ukraine?

Nobody knows. But Russia has been deploying troops around its border with Ukraine, particularly around the Donbas, the area where Russia has been carrying on a small war since late 2014. Earlier that year, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, part of Ukraine.

The latest buildup, according to military experts, looks like it could be in preparation for a major invasion of Ukraine. But why? A great deal of speculation is possible on the basis of official Russian statements and history. It’s hard not to be snarky about some of this – Vladimir Putin seems to live in a land all his own, part pre-1905, part World War II, part nuclear age. Living in a land of his own, however, doesn’t mean that he can’t precipitate a war, so I’ll avoid snark.

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How To Respond To The Russian Buildup?

Over the weekend, Samuel Charap, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, published his thoughts on the situation in Ukraine. Russia has been building up troops along the Ukraine border and making threatening noises. Dan Nexon outlined the situation.

Part of Charap’s argument is that the United States should pressure Ukraine to fulfill its commitments to the Minsk Accord, which slowed down military action in the eastern part of Ukraine but is unfavorable to Ukraine. That provoked heated argument from analysts of Russia.

I’ll post some of the better arguments here and leave my analysis for a later post. They are mostly Twitter threads, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see them expanded into articles. Sadly, some of the discussion has degenerated to “You’re being paid by Putin” and similar accusations. I won’t include that.

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Long Read: The 84-Day Hold On Aid To Ukraine

This is an important article. The broad story it tells isn’t new: Donald Trump held back Congressionally appropriated funds for Ukraine, in contravention of law and recommdations by the Departments of Defense and State. What is new is the detail of how that was done, an attempted legal justification, and who was eager to help him.

News reports about the administration now usually give information about the sources the reports are based on. In this case, it was

Interviews with dozens of current and former administration officials, congressional aides and others, previously undisclosed emails and documents, and a close reading of thousands of pages of impeachment testimony[.]

Here’s a short summary. Lots more details in the article. Basically, Trump decided to withhold the money; White House lawyers tried to construct a justification; civil servants and even some of Trump’s appointees tried to talk him out of it; his messenger boys went to the departments to work it out; and, when the whistle was blown, Trump gave it up. All this time, Rudy Giuliani was meeting with Ukrainian officials and others; this was not known to all participants at the time.

Robert Blair, Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, was a key player along with Mulvaney. Mulvaney brought him along when he moved to the White House. On December 23, he was named Special Representative for International Telecommunications Policy, although he will also continue to serve in his previous role.

On June 19, Blair called Russell T. Vought, the acting head of the Office of Management and Budget, and told him to hold up the aid. Trying to understand the reason for the holdup, Vought’s staff searched the internet and found an article in the Washington Examiner that might have set off the President. In a normal White House, a decision like this would have been made in consultation with experts from the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury. In fact, State and Defense had already certified sending the funds to Ukraine as appropriate.

The career official in the budget office in charge of the funds was Mark Sandy. He phoned other officials in the budget office and Defense Department to try to understand what was happening. It was not a normal request. He was concerned that it might violate the Impoundment Control Act, which prohibits the President from holding up money Congress has appropriated.

A month later, on July 18, William Taylor, acting Ambassador to Ukraine, and other officials learned about the hold in a meeting. Taylor testified to Congress that he was astonished. On the same day, administration sources called four Congressional staffers and urged that they look into the hold.

A week later, Trump famously telephoned Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelinsky and asked for a favor. Ninety minutes after the call, the budget office sent an email to the Pentagon saying not to spend the money. Ukrainian officials were beginning to get word that something was up.

In late July, Sandy’s authority over the funds was removed and given to his boss, a political appointee. Defense Department officials were becoming impatient. Deadlines were approaching by which portions of the money had to be spent, or it would be lost.

Backed by a memo saying the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department all wanted the aid released, Mr. Bolton made a personal appeal to Mr. Trump on Aug. 16, but was rebuffed.

On Aug. 28, Politico published a story reporting that the assistance to Ukraine had been frozen. After more than two months, the issue, the topic of fiery internal debate, was finally public.

Mr. Bolton’s relationship with the president had been deteriorating for months, and he would leave the White House weeks later, but on this front he had powerful internal allies.

On a sunny, late-August day, Mr. Bolton, Mr. Esper and Mr. Pompeo arrayed themselves around the Resolute desk in the Oval Office to present a united front, the leaders of the president’s national security team seeking to convince him face to face that freeing up the money for Ukraine was the right thing to do.

Through this time, White House lawyers were trying to develop a legal justification for the hold. Then came the whistleblower’s report, at the end of August. Shortly after, the hold was lifted.

Many questions remain unanswered, like who knew about Giuliani’s activities and when they knew; how long the shakedown was in progress before the hold; and how Trump came to his ideas about Ukraine. Once again, it was civil servants who tried to hold firm against inappropriate actions.

In addition to Trump’s corrupt use of government funds to force Zelensky into helping his election campaign, holding up those funds and causing uncertainty in the Ukrainian government benefits Russia.

The specifics in this article will be helpful in making a case that Mulvaney and other officials must be called as witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial.

Cross-Posted to Balloon Juice

Questions For Gordon Sondland

I expect that Jennifer Williams’s and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony this morning will confirm other witnesses’ testimony, with few if any surprises.

The most interesting testimony is likely to come from Kurt Volker (this afternoon) and Gordon Sondland (Wednesday). It is hard to predict what they will say. A report last night said that Sondland is changing his deposition once again. Read More

Why Ukraine?

As the corruption of the Trump administration is exposed, I keep two questions in mind: Why Ukraine? and Why energy? The simple answer is that they are where the money is. The more extended answers will be more interesting.

Natural gas seems to be the current focus in energy, but Michael Flynn had a bizarre plan to partner with the Russians to sell nuclear reactors in the Middle East and continues today in Rick Perry’s dealings with Saudi Arabia.

Information on Ukraine seems to be coming together now, although we almost certainly don’t have the final word. And energy plays a part. Read More

The Impeachment Shapes Up

Every day brings new evidence of Donald Trump’s crimes, or his commiting a new one in front of the television cameras. The scene changes rapidly, but the House Democrats are starting to focus on how to impeach Trump.

Although it is not official, the strategy that has been mentioned is to concentrate on Trump’s abuses of power in his attempts to force the President of Ukraine to comply with his desires to absolve Russia of interference in the 2016 election and to manufacture a scandal against the Bidens that would serve the same purpose as Hillary’s emails. The investigation and current depositions are consistent with this strategy. Read More

Links – April 27, 2018

Photo from Al Jazeera’s timeline of the Korean Summit. Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in shaking hands across the border.

Trump needs to pare back his goals for his meeting with Kim Jong UnSuspicious factory underscores challenge of verifying North Korea’s nuclear promises. Nothing that Trump has said indicates that he has any concept of verification. What to do if the talks with North Korea succeed: Develop a program like the Nunn-Lugar program for Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since Siegfried Hecker was instrumental in the program with Russia, I’ve always thought that North Korea’s invitation to him to visit in 2004 was an attempt at building such a program. From 2017, on how to deter North Korea. Read More