Hard News by Russell Brown


Softly, softly

I haven't covered foreign affairs much in the blog in recent times, but this story from Vox seems to say some important things about the US government's approach to Russia's troubling annexation of parts of Ukraine. The TL:DR of it is that the approach, widely decried as weak and ineffectual, seems to be working:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has over-reached in Ukraine, creating problems for himself so bad that they may force him down as or more effectively than plausible American actions alone might have (although they helped). Putin is hanging himself by his own rope.

This has been so effective, and has apparently taken Putin by such surprise, that after weeks of looking like he could roll into eastern Ukraine unchallenged, he's backing down all on his own. Official Russian rhetoric, after weeks of not-so-subtle threats of invading eastern Ukraine, is backing down. Putin suddenly looks like he will support Ukraine's upcoming presidential election, rather than oppose it, although it will likely install a pro-European president. European and American negotiators say the tone in meetings has eased from slinging accusations to working toward a peaceful resolution.

Most of this is economic. Russia's self-imposed economic problems started pretty quickly after its annexation of Crimea in March and have kept up. Whether or not American or European governments sanction Russia's broader economy, the global investment community has a mind of its own, and they seem to have decided that Russia's behavior has made it a risky place to put money. So risky that they're pulling more money out.

If the counterfactual was some form of military action by the US, with god knows what consequence, then it seems fair to say that "weakness" has been a pretty good policy.

I'll leave you to work through John Pilger's bizarre Guardian column arguing that In Ukraine, the US is dragging us towards war with Russia.

But this might also provide a useful context in which to think about the Boko Haram hostage crisis and what Lew Stoddart ably summed up on Twitter as "the expectation that any time something shitty happens anywhere in Africa the 101st Airborne is going to be able to fix0r it."

Yes, one on level, #BringBackOurGirls is sheer slacktivism; an easy way for people feel they're doing something material by retweeting a hashtag. And there's a great and obvious moral conflict in Americans lamenting the fate of the kidnapped girls but not the innocents killed in US drone strikes. On the other, when Michelle Obama and Malala and even Rita Marley front, there's a an important soft-power element that, it appears, may even be helping give pause to lunatic extremists.

Perceptions of the US administration (ie: The President) in Nigeria have collapsed in the past three years (from 84% positive to 53% positive). There's a limited market for US hard power there. But Africans consistently admire the elements of US soft power: its culture rather than its weapons. In this instance, being prepared to help but standing softly in solidarity would seem to be the wiser course.

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