How Putin might react to sanctions on Russia

In the week since Malaysia Airline Flight 17 was downed in eastern Ukraine, many have asked, “What can we do?” Politicians around the globe are struggling to figure out how to react to Vladimir Putin. His seemingly absent approach to the horrific disaster of the shoot down of MH17, his continued insistence that Ukraine is at fault, and his ongoing militarization of the conflict with Ukraine are reprehensible. Nevertheless, the question remains: What can we do?

Multiple rounds of sanctions have had little impact on Putin’s actions in Ukraine, exacerbated by the fact that the U. S. and Europe cannot agree on the depth and strength of sanctions. Military options are unrealistic. Diplomatic attempts to work with Putin have led nowhere. The result? A collaboration of nations united by their anger and mistrust of Russia, but unable to make any meaningful difference. The vitriol and rhetoric being directed at Putin is not shocking, but is counterproductive. Consider Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. Last week , Coats issued a list of demands of Russia that was as audacious as it was absurd. His rhetorical attempt to “demand full and complete cooperation with the ongoing investigation” and “demand an immediate stand down in Ukraine” will accomplish nothing. While I certainly agree with the sentiment behind the demands, I disagree with his approach.

The black and white, them vs. us standoff that characterized the Cold War should not be the path forward. Now is not a time for demanding, but a time for understanding the other side and working together. We need to recognize whom we are talking to. Vladimir Putin is a proud product of the Soviet Union as evidenced by his assertion that “breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century”. Putin served as a KGB agent and grew up under the regimes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, leaders who were not shy about using military force to ensure political gain. We’ve seen how he reacted defiantly in Crimea, ignoring the international community and in so doing, gaining popularity in Russia. His approval ratings have soared to 83 percent. For many Russians, Putin evokes the Cold War, superpower days of the U. S. S. R., and they like that.

We certainly cannot ignore the downing of flight MH17 – in fact this action could be deemed a war crime, but the world’s condemnations of Putin, the world’s focus on punishing and isolating him, is backfiring. I fully subscribe to the notion of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, and this is just the time for that. If we continue on this path of the world vs. Russia, I predict Putin’s internal approval ratings will continue to soar. His inclination to lash out at the West by strengthening relationships with bad actor allies will work against U. S. negotiations with Iran and Syria. Russia will strengthen ties with former Soviet republics. We’ll see increased cooperation between Russia and Cuba. And, if sanctions are strengthened, the impact they will have on Russia could grow, but the likelihood that they also boomerang and impact Europe, increase as well.

As untenable as it might seem, the world needs a cooperative Russia and an approach that fosters that cooperation. Our diplomats should be pushing harder at the highest levels to engage, better understand, and improve communication with Putin. World leaders need to stop pushing Putin into a corner from which he feels the need to prove himself, as this will perpetuate his need to establish a strong sphere of influence, as his predecessors of the former USSR illustrated.

Now is the time to bring him to the table, face to face, to encourage discussion and negotiation. This does not mean we sweep aside his transgressions, but that we acknowledge them sternly, while also acknowledging his and Russia’s role in the world, thereby giving him the confidence and security he and his country needs. As difficult as it will be to put aside feelings of anger and mistrust of Putin, it is necessary. Remember, Putin has illustrated a willingness to work with the West on Iran and on arms reductions. The recognition that Putin is a proud man who needs a bit of coddling is a critical component of a strategy that aims to work smartly with Russia. While it’s easy to publicly loathe and condemn Putin, shouldn’t we instead be thinking of ideas that could lead to a more collaborative world environment?

So, what can we do about Russia? Perhaps, a different approach should be considered.

David A. Kalis is the Author of Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser: A True Story of Risk, Corruption, and Self-Discovery Amid the Collapse of the Soviet Union. He can be reached via www.davidakalis.com or on twitter @thedavidkalis.

Facing “Goliath” at the Jewish Book Council Conference

Last month, I participating in the JBC Network program at their annual conference to pitch my book to the representatives of over a hundred Jewish institutions, in hopes of being invited to speak at book fairs and community programs throughout North America over the following months. It is an event that delights member sites and terrifies authors. Delia Ephron dubbed it “the Jewish Hunger Games”; others have likened their experience to competing on American Idol. As a 2014-2015 JBC Network author I saw it as my personal Goliath. Here was how I summed up my experience. 

Jews have a special place in their hearts for the underdog. The story of David and Goliath immediately comes to mind. Who would ever root for Goliath?

Last week, I had my own David and Goliath experience. I was at the 2014 Jewish Book Council Network Conference, promoting my new memoir on Jewish identity and heritage, Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser. If you don’t know the details of the JBC Network Meet the Authors event, let me explain. Over 250 authors submit their  work and attend the conference in New York. Each is given a 2-minute opportunity to present their book and themselves to Jewish organizations from around the country, hoping to be invited for a speaking engagement at some point in the upcoming year. It’s stressful, and to top it off, the two minutes are just that: no more, no less. Well, less is acceptable, but more is not.

So, there I was with my heart racing, palms sweating, and thoughts swirling. About an hour into the program, the JBC coordinator called my name. I was on deck. I got up from my chair located in the corner of the synagogue and walked toward the 300 pairs of eyes feasting on the upcoming speaker, knowing I was to follow. Sitting in the on deck chair, I sat motionless, trying to run through my comments one last time. I had spent endless hours preparing my speech and then memorizing it, only to find out an hour prior that using notes was actually acceptable. Holding my marked-up rough draft as my security blanket, I glanced at it knowing there was nothing more I could do.

I tried to review my speech, but instead, I thought about how I got here and questioned whether I belonged. Yes, I wrote a book and it had strong Jewish content, it received a strong review from Kirkus Reviews, and thus far, people who read it, loved it. But, the quality of the writers and their experience here at the JBC Network was unmatched. The evening started with a university president, who was followed by a writer from a nationally renowned magazine, and then progressed with bestselling authors, professors, and acclaimed activists. Their presentations were polished, their stories were compelling, and their qualifications were impeccable. To top it off, most were published by large publishing houses.

Thirty more seconds and it was my turn. I kept thinking: David vs. Goliath. This was my first book, I was self-published, and I had never even been a contributing writer to my local newspaper. But here I was, which meant I had a chance.

When my two minutes arrived, I took a deep breath, gazed out at the audience, and spoke from the heart. My notes lay still, unused, allowing the passion for my creation to come through.

Following the speaking portion of the event, I attended a wine reception where a middle-aged man representing a JCC from Pennsylvania approached me. “I liked your message, well done. Tell me more about your story and if you’ve already been in front of audiences…”

A new underdog was on his way.

 

Obama, Putin; Not on the same page

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a protracted standoff is in the cards in Crimea. With Russia’s interests in Ukraine, top of which is assuring Ukraine does not tilt West, Putin is unlikely to cave to U.S./E.U demands. And, with the U.S. strategy of trying to demonize Putin and impose weak sanctions, little will change in the short run.

It is also clear that all parties involved understand the stakes: The U.S. has imposed toothless “sanctions” to appear strong at home, understanding that real sanctions targeted at banks or harming the economy of Russia would draw unacceptable retaliation – higher gas prices for Ukraine (as we are now seeing), an impediment to trade with the EU, and worldwide economic pain. The Russians continue to hang on to Crimea, using this chip to illustrate its resonance in the world, and underscore that further encroachment on its buffer zone interests are unacceptable.  And, with Putin’s approval rate at home at 70%, he has no reason to flinch. Will he continue further into Ukraine? Logic would say yes, as an encroachment into Crimea at the expense of Ukraine, does not make sense for Russia. And, with the West not unified on how to respond, Putin sees blood in the water. 

The sad thing is that with the isolationist rhetoric, it’s clear that the west is not understanding, not even trying to understand, the why behind Putin’s actions. Putin embodies the collapse of the Soviet Union and represents all that was good (to the Russians) about the USSR – a former KGB officer with an unflinching approach to leadership. This is where his power stems from and is the sentiment he is tapping into to build his base.  The trauma of losing its world status as a superpower was significant to Russia and continues to reverberate today. The fear that the Russia situation is similar to the post-WWI Weimar Republic is real, yet the West continues to demonize, further enhancing Putin’s status at home. Sound familiar?

Be careful what you wish for, Obama administration. If Putin is isolated, he is no longer a partner in negotiating with Syria, Iran, and on nuclear disarmament. If he is not included in the G8, he has more motivation to prove his importance to the world. How this manifests itself is unclear, but could very well mean more troops on the march.    

The dialogue that Kerry and Lavrov have initiated is a good first step. But, it is important to understand that Russia feels that their sphere of influence is at risk, and the West must allay Putin’s fears and illustrate a willingness to work toward a solution. They need to recognize the why behind Putin’s actions – that he feels threatened by the potential loss of Ukraine and that he sees the West meddling in his perceived sphere of influence. Like it or not, this is how he views the conflict.

David A. Kalis is the Author of Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser: A True Story of Risk, Corruption, and Self-Discovery Amid the Collapse of the Soviet Union. He can be reached at www.davidakalis.com or kalis44@yahoo.com.

Putin In the Corner

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. Now is when we better understand the ramifications for demonizing, not engaging, with Putin.

Not that Putin is right, he certainly isn’t, but the approach to dealing with him should not be to isolate. Because he is an insecure person, he will revert to what makes him feel secure, approval ratings at home and the support of Parliament. Never mind that the Duma would never rule against him – that’s a mere detail. He will use this false bravado to further alienate himself, to further propagate a resurrection of the Cold War, to further build upon his success in Crimea. Backed into a corner by the West, he will become stronger than we ever imagined.

The West lost Crimea. Anyone who didn’t see this coming was simply not paying attention. But, this could have been averted. And, future Crimea’s can be averted. The West must drop the sanctions game they are playing because everyone knows the results – Putin’s response will lead to higher energy costs to Europe and a renewed recession. Nobody wants that.

It’s time for diplomacy. It’s time for level-headedness. You can’t expect either of these approaches from Putin now. The demonization is complete. He’s so far in the corner, it’s up to the West to initiate.

Russia, Ukraine, West in critical spot

Let me start by letting you know that I ama Democrat who supports most of Obama’s policies. But his approach to Russia, and that of the E.U., leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s been clear for some time that the referendum in Crimea would pass today. It’s been clear that this would result in further posturing by both Putin and the West, and that nothing good could come of the referendum results.

So, why is the West, led by Obama, not negotiating furiously to try and solve the crisis ahead of the referendum? What is going on?

When the referendum passes, here’s the scenario I see:

-          West does not acknowledge the results; Russia does

-          West implements deeper economic sanctions

-           Russia retaliates with higher gas prices to Ukraine and EU

-          Stock markets around the world slump and another recession ensues

I admit, it’s quite negative and very simplistic. But, more or less, accurate.  Thus far, all I’ve seen from the West is demonization of Putin that will further embolden his actions. Yes, he is at fault, absolutely. But, the West must look at him for who he is: A product of the Soviet Union with mentors such as Brezchnev and other hard-liners, he is trying to restore relevancy for his country.

Recognizing this, the West needs to respond accordingly. Use diplomatic means to negotiate a settlement, partner with him to allay his security concerns in Ukraine and beyond, and bring him into the world conversation on how to solve broader issues.

Isolating will do nothing good. The West knows this already and is why they have been so slow to  adopt real sanctions. Soon, it will be too late.

David Kalis is author of Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser: A True Story of Risk, Corruption, and Self-Discovery Amid the Collapse of the Soviet Union

Russia, Ukraine & The Crisis Solution

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a protracted standoff is in the cards in Crimea. With Russia’s interests in Ukraine, top of which is assuring Ukraine does not tilt West, Putin is unlikely to cave to U.S./E.U demands. And, with the U.S. strategy of trying to demonize Putin and impose weak sanctions, nothing will change in the short run.

It is also clear that all parties involved understand the stakes: The U.S. has imposed toothless “sanctions” to appear strong at home, understanding that real sanctions targeted at banks or harming the economy of Russia would draw unacceptable retaliation – higher gas prices for Ukraine, an impediment to trade with the EU, and worldwide economic pain. The Russians continue to hang on to Crimea, using this chip to illustrate its resonance in the world, and underscore that further encroachment on its buffer zone interests are not acceptable.  And, with Putin’s approval rate at home at 70%, he has no reason to flinch.

The sad thing is that despite the rhetoric, a solution is visible. Initiating dialogue is a must to progress and the first step must come from the U.S. Understanding that Russia feels that their sphere of influence is at stake, the U.S. or E.U. must allay Putin’s fears and illustrate a willingness to work toward a solution. They need to recognize the why behind Putin’s actions – that he feels threatened by the potential loss of Ukraine and that he sees the West meddling in his perceived sphere of influence. Like it or not, this is how he views the conflict.

Given that, what does a potential solution look like? A neutral Ukraine.

A Ukraine that makes it clear they neither tilt West nor East, and that invites pro-Moscow politicians to work within the government. A requirement to such an agreement would be the peaceful retreat of Russian forces from Crimea, with an understanding from Ukraine that Crimea has some autonomy in its affairs.

It’s a messy solution but one that must be considered. It’s important not only for the current crisis, but to avoid a collapse of diplomatic work being done with Syria, Iran, and on Nuclear weaponry. It also truly can “restart” the relationship between Putin and Obama, something Obama claimed to initiate in 2008, but failed to actually accomplish.

 

The Russian Pride Complex

Standing on a tank in the center of Moscow in 1991, I watched as the Soviet Union collapsed around me. As a recent college graduate who had majored in Soviet, East European Studies, this was an amazing turn of events. As peaceful as it was back then, 20+ years later we are still feeling the impact of those days.

The resulting political, economic, and social instability that permeated Russia and the former Soviet Republics continues today. Without established legal, economic, and political institutions, the countries of the FSU are prone to corruption, inflation, and opportunistic leaders, among other economic and political pitfalls. Ukraine is a great example.

Equally as destabilizing to Eastern Europe was the hit that the Russian psyche absorbed as the loss of the Cold War sunk in. Living in Russia from 1991-1994, I saw firsthand the aid provided by the West, and vividly remember the disdain, embarrassment, and shame that ordinary Russians carried. For years they had been considered the ”other” superpower. Yet, when food lines stretched around the block, hyper-inflation was rampant, and corruption took root, the pride dissipated. Reality set in.

In 1991, Putin himself was working for the progressive Mayor of Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak. When the Coup of 1991 occurred, he resigned from the state security forces, but his training and affinity to the idea of a strong and powerful Soviet Union, never ceased. Putin has said “The dissolution of the Soviet Union was a national tragedy on a massive scale.”

He, along with many Russians, remained proud of their mother country. In fact, with the economic Union Treaty established with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2010, it is not surprising that Putin continues to focus on expanding his influence in the hope of creating a type of Eurasian Union.

So, should the West be surprised at his continued push for expanded power. I would argue not. History provides a guide that the idea of pride and nationalism play a critical role in leaders’ ambitions and behaviors.

Parallels to the end of WWI and the German response to the Treaty of Versaille resonate. Distraught and offended by the terms of the treaty, and made worse by the government’s propaganda that they were winning the war, the people of Germany, and ensuing leaders carried around a downtrodden feeling of dismay that energized the country in later years.

This is not to say that Putin is comparable to Hitler, but similarities exist, and the West, in dealing with Putin need to recognize that isolation, repudiation, and incendiary comments can open up powerful wounds.

Putin has broken international law. He has intimidated the people of Ukraine and continues to be unresponsive to the world’s distaste for his actions. While sanctions and being absent from the G8 are options we are now threatening, why not learn from history? Instead of alienating and fist pumping, meet with the man. I understand that this defies diplomatic protocol. Typically the Secretary of State would meet with the Russian Foreign Minister, as is happening. But, does Lavrov even sit in the room when Putin is making decisions? And, if there is one thing I learned while living in Russia is that Russians appreciate hearing from the person in charge. This might be one case where Obama needs to do something unexpected.

Building a relationship with Putin will allow the world to develop a framework to maintain peace. It is critical to find a way to lead together, allow him to maintain some level of pride, and underscore his importance in the world community. After all, we do need his voice when discussing issues of Syria, Iran, and nuclear warhead reductions. Take an approach that leverages historical learnings within the context of his experience, and move forward.

Engage Putin – Don’t Alienate

As the EU and US collaborate to decide on sanctions and other responses to Putin’s incursion of Crimea, Putin continues to strengthen control over this Southeastern area of Ukraine. This is not surprising by any means. As a former KGB agent, now leader of the masses, Putin understands both the control and legitimacy concerns required to achieve his ultimate short term goal of annexing Crimea.

Recent developments illustrate his savvy. Armed guards, aggressive militia, and unidentified enforcers have been seen bullying diplomats and ensuring control, all under the guise of not being associated with Putin himself. The idea here is that he has plausible deniability. At the same time, it would be naïve to think that he did not have any influence on the announcement of a referendum on Crimea joining Russia. This is exactly what he wants, and has been masterfully planned.

All the while, the US and EU are fixated on their own myopic view of the world. Sanctions, not attending the G8, and criticizing Russia’s actions which further alienate Putin. I’m not saying these aren’t appropriate responses. They are, and Putin needs to know he’s stepped over the line. But what is required today is what has been needed since Putin took power: Constructive conversation, building trust, and listening.  As a former KGB agent, he has no trust for the West. Let’s engage him, build a relationship, and leverage these bonds to make the world a safer place.

David Kalis is the author of Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser: A True Story of Risk, Corruption, and Self-Discovery Amid the Collapse pf the Soviet Union and can be reached at www.davidakalis.com.

 

Options in Ukraine

Listening to the news reports, you’d think the West has no real options when it comes to working with Putin. I think this is an empty assertion and that the West is talking about everything EXCEPT the one thing that could help; talk.

I agree with the pundits who report that sanctions, isolation, and holding back attendance at the G8 Summit are options. But to mention these without stating the obvious – that Putin is more concerned with his wallet (which is full) than the wallets of his people, that isolationism only emboldens him to flaunt his muscle and allows him to activate his people against the West, and that the G8 consequence means very little knowing he is the lynchpin for negotiations with Iran and Syria – is irresponsible.

The saying “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” rings true for me these days. Kerry and Obama need to seduce the incendiary volume of their rhetoric and build a relationship with Putin that works. Is he tough to get along with, stubborn, and eccentric? Maybe. But there is no excuse for not reaching out regularly, building connections, and finding common ground to promote world peace. Get on it

Crisis in Ukraine: How did we get here?

The situation in Ukraine is not wholly unexpected when one looks at the context of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting instability. When the USSR crumbled in 1991, so too did the institutions that made many of the former Soviet Republics  stable. Aid from Moscow – both economic and political went interrupted if not eliminated, and these newly formed independent governments were tasked with the overwhelming job of leading.

In Ukraine, the institutions required to instill confidence in the people and to effectively enforce the rule of law were not fully developed. Similar to the experience of Russia in the 1990’s, corruption, bribery, and inconsistent enforcement became the norm. The difference between Russia and Ukraine?

Strong leadership.

Nobody can say that Putin is a sensitive and collaborative leader, but he is nothing if not strong, demanding, and confident. These are traits that Russians and Ukrainians alike traditionally respect and respond to in a leader.

While the end result of the situation in Crimea is uncertain, one thing is clear: Ukraine needs a combination of both strong internal leadership and direct outside help and advice to get back on its feet. Aid alone will not benefit the country unless they know how to use the aid effectively. Rule of law must replace corruption as the norm, and trust must be rebuilt throughout political, legal, and economic institutions. This will be a long process, and I hope partnering countries will continue to offer the necessary support this country needs.