Russia-Ukraine Conflict in One Fast Hour

Foreign Affairs 101:

Ukraine_Majority_Language_Map_2001

Ukraine Majority Language Map

If it’s possible to condense the incomprehensibly complex Russia/Ukraine conflict into one coherent hour, Matthew Rojansky can do it. Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on the region, proved that in a recent presentation at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. A listener who blinked could miss a paragraph, but Rojansky’s fast-paced illustrated lecture had most of his audience too engaged to blink. What follows is an abbreviated summary of the presentation.

Yanukovich estate

Yanukovych Estate

For openers, Rojansky explained that Ukraine, under now-deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych, was “a society absolutely primed for revolt. A few years ago,” Rojansky said, “I moved to Kiev with my family, (finding) Yanukovych one of the most corrupt politicians in history – and that’s saying something.” Illustrating his point, Rojansky showed slides taken during his time in Kiev including views of some of Yanukovych’s perks: a heli-pad; a palace with gold, jewel-encrusted design, 3-lane bowling alley, billiard room, private floating pirate-themed restaurant reported to have cost a few billion dollars – a rather definitive picture of excess. Rojansky also mentioned the stuffed lion guarding a corridor leading to the nail salon and spa, and a collection of exotic cars and animals. It was not just personal excess, he said, “there was government corruption on a grand scale.”

By the fall of 2013, Ukranian citizens were tiring of this. A peaceful protest known as the Euromaidan began in the square Rojansky and his family could see from their apartment window. “It was surreal.” Public sentiment favored closer connections to Europe, Rojansky said, but Yanukovych instead signed an agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Thus began the increasing protests fueled largely by social media, with help for the needs of Euromaidan solicited via constant Facebook postings.

Matthew Rojansky

Matthew Rojansky at the Commonwealth Club 3.6.15

Initially, Rojansky explained, the movement was not political. But also thanks to social media – Twitter users began receiving messages letting them know they were registered as protesters – things quickly changed. And on January 16, 2014, the dictatorship laws were passed: No protests, no groups, no gatherings. The movement against abstract corruption became ‘Yanukovych Must Go.’ Things came to a crisis when someone gave the order to fire and all-out shooting began. Despite the European Union intervening to broker a deal in late February, Yanukovych escaped – with boxcars of treasure – though leaving behind the exotic animals still being cared for on his former palatial estate outside Kiev.

Soon came the time of “the little green men” in Crimea, a significant chunk of Ukraine on the Black Sea. Rojanksy explained that there have always been Russians in Crimea; the little green men wore Russian military garb minus the insignia, carried Russian weaponry, but Putin at the time denied they were sent by Russia.

Donetsk airport

Donetsk Airport

By May of 2014, Rojansky said, regions of Ukraine that are heavily Russian-speaking began to hold referenda to break away – not to become independent, but to become part of Russia. Things accelerated significantly with the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane in July, 2014, and the ground war began. “This was not World War II,” Rojanksy explained, but guerilla warfare with terror tactics, firing on civilian buildings, the destruction of the once-beautiful Donetsk airport. “This is insane stuff.”

As to what Mr. Putin wants out of all this? Rojansky listed three main points;

1 – Domestic politics are life-or-death. If the idea that when regular people take to the streets life gets better catches on, Russians might say “What about us?”

2 – Putin has a major image issue. He’s the tsar. He is never wrong. There’s God, and then there’s the Tsar.

3 – Geopolitics are important. If Russia and Crimea get together, Putin’s bargaining power is greater.

Rojanksky characterizes Ukraine as being between a rock and a Russian hard place. The hard place is boosted by the fact that half the people in Ukraine speak Russian, and many more watch Russian TV with its decidedly nationalist fervor.

For now, Rojansky says the wise course is “Don’t show up giving out cookies. Get observers on the ground as fast as possible, and eyes on the ground on the borders. Watch to see if sanctions are working.

And in the very long term: “Ukraine matters. We have to help Ukraine defeat corruption. Things we can do include letting Ukrainians come here, and knowing about the region.” In the end:

“There are no easy answers.”

Disclaimer: This writer knows as little about Russia and Ukraine as a few long-ago college courses and one unforgettable trip from Moscow to St. Petersberg might suggest. But listening to Matthew Rojansky’s take on the current situation is enough to convince one to pay attention.

 

 

 

Crime on the political stage: It’s funny… until it turns sad

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

You can’t make this up. Prominent longtime politician, a state senator now running for Secretary of State, gets caught in a years-long FBI operation allegedly involving enough nefarious big-money schemes to fill a library of pulp fiction. One associate indicted for gun-running, drug trafficking and purportedly arranging a murder for hire. Political pals already in trouble for things like holding legislative seats for districts in which they unfortunately do not reside. Throw in an ex-con accomplice by the name of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow

A recent “Week to Week” political roundtable at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club led off with what panelist Josh Richman termed “a journalist’s dream.” Richman, who is a State and National Politics Reporter for Bay Area News Group, remarked on the thorough and extensive media coverage of what is a local scandal playing out on a national stage.

California State Senator Leland Yee is the centerpiece of this improbable media bonanza. Yee has been charged with seven federal felonies described by San Jose Mercury News writer Howard Mintz as resulting from:

… dozens of… clandestine meetings with undercover FBI agents, many involving promises of political favors, influence peddling with fellow legislators and a Hollywood-style scheme to arrange a multimillion-dollar illegal weapons deal through the Philippines for an undercover operative claiming to be a New Jersey mobster.

“At the heart of the government’s case against Yee,” Mintz writes, “are his own words — replete with expletive-laced demands for money in exchange for political favors, even if it meant dealing with gun runners and organized crime figures.”

The roundtable, regularly hosted by Commonwealth Club vice president of media and editorial John Zipperer, also included Hoover Institution Research Fellow and Stanford University Lecturer Tammy Frisby, and Melissa Griffin Caen, an attorney and contributor to KPIX-TV and San Francisco Magazine. All four — along with audience members — tried hard to deal seriously with the issue; there were a lot of “allegedly” air quotes in use. But it is preposterous beyond all limits of credulity. “Insane,” was the term Frisby used; “like Grand Theft Auto come to life.” Caen brought along a copy of the entire 137-page criminal complaint.

Lee has posted a $500,000 bail — hardly a problem, as he has more than that already raised for his Secretary of State race and is legally entitled to use it for bail money or lawyers or whatever else lies ahead. He continues to draw a $95,291 salary for the state senate job despite having been suspended from that body.

Eventually the roundtable moved on to national and global affairs, but it was the Yee scandal that held the entire room in thrall. How could it not?

Most of those following this outsized drama — and it’s impossible not to be following it unless you’re (already) in solitary confinement — are simply shaking their heads. Some are saying “Oh, all politicians are crooks.”

And it’s that last reaction that turns the comedy into tragedy. Caen said she found, reading through the 137 pages, it was almost funny. But she came to two parts where it turned terribly sad. Those were when Yee “demeaned the office” by suggesting that financial contributions could be beneficial (to the contributor) in future actions of the Secretary of State relating to, say, supervision of elections; and when he “allegedly” accepted cash with the remark that his children “could write the check” to launder the money.

There are more than a few good books waiting to be written on it all, and probably a TV show or two. But in the interim, the goings-on of one alleged political bad apple in San Francisco are making it difficult to shake one’s head over corruption in Ukraine.

Russian orphan Artyom, & another orphan story

Artyom and Vasya came from the same part of the globe as adoptive Americans — but the similarities end right about there. This is a personal perspective on another, happier-ending orphan story.

Seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev found himself at the center of an international incident recently, after being put on a plane by himself, with a one-way ticket back to Moscow and a note from his adoptive mother, 33-year-old Torry Hansen. “I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself,” the letter said, “I no longer wish to parent this child. As he is a Russian national, I am returning him to your guardianship.”

She also said, “He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues”

Russian authorities were outraged, and suspended adoptions of Russian children. Some of the mom-for-a-year’s neighbors in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and many others who knew nothing more than what was reported in sound bites, were quick to condemn Torry Hansen and, in at least one instance, to say she deserved to go to jail. Investigations are ongoing.

Seventeen-year-old Vasya is the grandson of my friend Sally, who sent an e-mail today reminding everyone that there are not only two sides to every adoptive story, but some stories with hard-won happy endings. I’ve been following Vasya’s saga, via Sally’s e-mails, for over four years. There were two years (or perhaps a little more) of agonizing struggles with the red tape of the Ukranian government before Vasya finally arrived in the U.S. in 2007 at the age of 14, speaking no English and having an education at 5th grade level.

As reported today by his grandmother, Vasya is now fluent in English, finishing 9th grade in a private school, playing outstanding soccer, “an outgoing kid so proud of his newly-acquired driver’s license, a nice looking young man with a great personality. He is also an American citizen.”

All this, Vasya’s family emphasizes, “did not come about quickly, easily or smoothly.” They want others to know that adoptive families, as well as adopted children from abroad, can use a lot of support.

What about the future of adoptions of Russian children, currently on hold for U.S. citizens? The Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a membership-based advocacy organization, reported today,

The Department of State has received no information to confirm a suspension of adoptions from Russia to the United States.  Our Embassy in Moscow and other Department of State officials are talking with Russian officials to clarify this issue.

The Department of State is sending a high-level inter-agency team to Russia this weekend to meet with senior Russian officials, including officials from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Justice.  The U.S. delegation will emphasize the importance of this issue to the United States, and will discuss our mutual concerns about how to better protect the welfare and rights of children and all parties involved in intercountry adoptions.

Many thousands of Russian children have found loving, safe and permanent homes in the United States through intercountry adoption.   Families in the United States have adopted more than 50,000 children from Russia.

The good news is, despite governmental red tape and countless hurdles, there are far more Vasyas than Artyoms. Maybe Russia will remember that.