Thursday, March 27, 2014


The American president finally made it to Brussels, or better to the EU and NATO.  This visit was long overdue. Trade, geopolitics, the Atlantic Community require urgent attendance.  Obama's speech in the Palais des Beaux Arts was remarkable, at times moving. It reminded me more of "Remembrance of Things Past" than of some FDR or Churchill bold visions of a future to be "regained."

Probably this was to be expected.  Putin's grab meets more indifference than indignation, as if Europeans are blase' or resigned.  The Americans show little empathy for the EU's internal cat fights and have larger fish to fry too.  The American president looked exhausted, understandably so, at at a time when too much is at stake, be it in Syria, Iran, the Middle East, the Sunni bloc or Egypt (which might consider a U-turn away from the US).  The most tangible result of Obama's European "blitz" was the meeting a trois (US/Japan/ South Korea.)  He must look forward to his forthcoming "pivot" trip!

Putin's shadow looms larger than Crimea (in reality few lose sleep over the unlawful appropriation of territory, which few care about.)  Anyway, this was only an appetizer.  He knows very well that he can take East Ukraine almost without impunity.  Under a Tymoshenko presidency, West Ukraine might follow because the laws of gravity do not make exceptions for political expediency. Putin is able to play on the asymmetry which exists between the United States and its allies. Sanctions are difficult to bring about, the more so when they obey to different speeds.

The Europeans are more vulnerable to Russian blackmail and it will take time before they become more energy independent.  Besides, they are militarily negligible. They are not doing that well politically either and the upcoming European elections might make that the gap between sollen and sein even clearer, risking de-legitimizing the European grand plan.

As I wrote earlier, I think that "isolating" Putin is a move which will backfire. Maintaining the G-7 would have been a way to oblige the president of the Russian Federation to have to listen to his peers.  Now he will be too happy to be "respected" by the BRICS & Co.  President Obama looks sometimes like a lonely man. There is little or no alternative for most actions he suggests or paths he follows (other than the Putin "penalty").  Critics in the US and outside do not come up with tangible alternatives. The problem Obama has seems to be one of distance, a lack of ability to meet interlocutors half-way. There is a hint of intellectual superiority almost, which comes over as aloofness.

The Brussels address was lofty and at times emotional but I fear that the European audience, cushioned by welfare, wanted more while at the same time reluctant to contribute in kind.  The Belgian hosts, meanwhile, had better get an accelerated "body language" course!  "De Morgen" should also mandate its journalists to read Conrad's "Heart of Darkness".

Saturday, March 22, 2014


The front page of the Economist (22 March) announces "The New World Order".  I tend to argue that the "new world order" was stillborn, almost. The short-lived Francis Fukuyama projection died as soon as the ink was dry. The uni-polar world had a short lifespan and the "dominos" got a free ride.  We find ourselves for years in a multi-polar world wherein tectonic plates collide. The turmoil is general in the absence of some lead or compass. The uncertainties dwarf the Economist's suggested appearance of the "new," not to mention "order".

The world was, albeit reluctantly, used to American leadership, considered as unavoidable. The rise of "others" has dented the influence of the United States. More important is the trauma endured after the hopeless American entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those inroads into unfamiliar "theatres" left the Americans with a bitter aftertaste and a reluctance to intervene in what was felt as alien situations. "Leading from behind" started there.  Today we re-enter the times of Neue Sachlichkheit in the use of power. There is nothing new but the accents have been reshuffled. The dots in the circle have ended up being separated and follow their own practical path.

The current Crimea/Ukraine crisis is also a perfect example of the price which might have to be paid for the disregard of historical precedent.  History and collective memory have long shadows.
I wonder why so little has been said regarding the Crimean "fault line" which runs deep in the Russian psyche.  The fall of Sevastopol after more than a year of Franco-British siege in 1856 is the stuff novels are made of (Tolstoy).  Peter the Great created the first Russian naval base in Taganrog in 1698.  Nikita Khruschev returned Crimea to Ukraine, for "good behaviour". Engels wrote in 1865 about Panslavism and the Crimean question.
It should therefore not be surprising that President Putin, who seems to have an unbinding focus regarding Russia's identity, turned the turmoil in Kiev into a smokescreen for making his move. This was facilitated by the Crimeans who felt mostly that they were Ukrainians "by accident."
The West reacted as could have been expected, playing "duped" while just being "sloppy" or not to the point. President Obama's soliloquys have become a "red flag" in the Kremlin.   If the likes of Victoria Nuland define American policy in Europe, we are in for a bumpy ride. The EU, which is still looking for the Grail of a common foreign and defense policy, is its usual dysfunctional self. Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's assessment regarding old versus new Europe was a self- fulfilling prophecy.

Some cynics will say "so what?"  This is not a Czechoslovakia or a Poland coup from Soviet times (yet).  It is a mere transition from de facto to de jure.   Public opinion looks for the missing plane rather than for answers and only vaguely associates Crimea with Florence Nightingale or with the "thin red line" of Highlanders resisting the Russian attack at Balaclava.  Putin's clean surgery will not lend itself to such romantic interpretation.  We lived through Cold War, detente, the short uni- polar American reign and have entered the multi-polar world once and forever. Alliances are outdated and need to adapt. Ententes based on short-term interests abound and vary.  The latter are not based on ideology but on praxis, hence the Neue Sachlichkeit.

Russia will pay a price. Already the weakening ruble and plunging markets are indicators that sanctions have some effect. Thus is not enough to oblige Putin to make a totally unthinkable U-turn. He already has shown his cool virtuosity by launching a policy of "de-off shoring", so that Russian companies must be registered in Russia. Putin's neo-imperialism will be difficult to reign in.  His next moves in the region are shrouded in the unknown. Meanwhile the "global partnership" with Russia is suspended while the West is trapped in its own contradictions. Huntington has already observed that the US government supported the subjection of Muslims to Orthodox rule after all.  He added that "those who do not recognize fundamental divides are doomed to be frustrated by them".

What the West still can do :
--Foremost, Putin's "magnum" address cannot remain unanswered. The American president should deliver a Chrchillian speech while in Brussels, outlining a policy which is not aggressive but  rooted in principles that appeal to all and reach out.
--the EU must support an elected, pluralistic, democratic government in Kiev. Some dubious agitators from the Maidan had better be marginalized.
--It is too early to provide for answers regarding Ukraine's longer term future.
--The so-called Russian "concern" for minorities in third countries must be monitored in close UN consultation (or authorization). The "hard" dislodging of Ukrainian forces in Crimea (see Belbek) and the sequester of Ukrainian warships need compensation by Moscow.
--NATO better do some homework regarding the application of Article 5 of the Treaty, which has to be strictly managed. Miscalculation or accident could trigger unwelcome responses.
--France should freeze or cancel the delivery of two high tech Mistral warships to Russia.
--President Putin should not be shunned. On the contrary, his visibility and input could create a larger more willing coalition around shared ideas of non-interference and respect for existing consolidated, recognized borders.  A snub will only reinforce his natural anti-Western attitude. Concourse will weaken him.
--A return to former Reagan "Star Wars," or the more recent military anti-ballistic buildup in Poland and the Czech Republic are unhelpful.  Russia is the core state of Orthodoxy and has legitimate interests in securing its borders.

If we were ever to arrive at a new world order, it could only be the result of an agreement of many, rather than of the transgression of one. Can anyone believe that China (not to mention others) would be content to play "dummy" in this global Bridge game?  I bet Syria and Iran are enjoying the show. Others look on from the sidelines. The numerous "G" members remain silent. It is really starting to look as if self-interest is becoming the new norm. The Magna Cartas inherited from both world wars look more and more like bygones.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


These last days we can take front seats to witness "live" the cynical corruption of information.
The media are running amokexploiting a tragedy which is a godsend for feeding the masses and boosting their ratings.  Every twist is considered ad nauseam as to prolong the story, which accordingly is reduced to some caper, with total disregard for sorrow or empathy.  The spin rules, the "usual suspects" have their Warholian minutes of notoriety and CNN, Fox, i.a. make sure that the story remains alive by maintaining the artificial respirator working full-time.  Some Asian "tigers," by the way, have their former glamour seriously undermined by their own incompetent doings. Tragedies should not fall victim to serial false or incomplete narratives.

Monday, March 17, 2014


The Crimea referendum was a "slam dunk" ab initio. The presumed irregularities of the ballots do not infringe on an outcome ("independence" - sic-) which was foreseeable. Russia pocketed a willing prey while the West and others were confined to the onlookers category in a geopolitical farce.  Unfortunately, this latest development is also a bitter pill for all to swallow, a blatant violation of international law and a precedent for other "piracy" incursions in Central Europe and the Stans, not to mention China and India. 

As a result Ukraine might as well risk becoming what Samuel P. Huntington called a "praetorian state," in which "participation in politics has outrun the institutionalization of politics".  The United States and the European Union have decided on first range of timid sanctions such as a few freezes and travel restrictions.  If those will impress Putin is another question.  All this did not interfere with the finale of the Paralympic Games in Sochi presided over by a poker face President Putin.

Meanwhile the US media, even the New York Times, question the credibility of President Obama's foreign policy, at a time when uncertainty prevails over expectancy (Syria, Middle East, Egypt, Iran ).  The President sees his approval rate nosediving and the similitude with President Carter's melancholic exit comes up in all corners of the political spectrum.  It has nevertheless also to be recognized that there is little one can do in terms of equal retaliation. Sanctions are needed but they had better be calibrated, directed at Putin's "best" and NOT at the rest. The Russian oligarchs in Cyprus, London, Manhattan or the Cote d'Azur should be in the firing line. The same goes for their spoiled kin in US and British schools. In the short term however Europe has a weak hand in all matters related to energy supply.

Ukraine needs to be supported, not as an anti-Russian buffer but as a "composite" of multiples, democratic, non-aggressive and non-revanchist. One has to bare in mind possible unpleasant things to come in Belarus, Moldova, Poland, the Baltic States and the Stans in Asia. No need to repeat a "light" version of the 1938 Sudeten crisis. Putin needs to remain engaged rather than being shunned. He has created a new Russian/conservative/orthodox model which is closer to the Romanov dynasty than to the ideology of the Soviet Union. He wants the oyster and doesn't care for the former shell. His calculus is clear.

It is high time for the West and NATO to regroup. A first step should be a rapid conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Congress must grant the White House the TPA bill which gives the President a fast-track authority. Senior Democrats, under pressure from the trade unions, oppose such a grant!  They had better think twice.  A coalition around the so often heralded "non interference" principle could also be activated with a majority of like-minded countries in these uncertain times.  NATO should wake up and give tangible logistic support for its members close to Russia's borders, in first place the Baltic States.

The dialogue with Russia should not remain frozen. Empty gestures such as uninviting Russia in the G8 are counter-productive. A bad mood leads in general to a bad policy decision. Better let Moscow "pay" until it feels the "pain in the purse."   Putin's popularity will follow the path of the ruble. The West had better play its trump card before Putin & Co. make their next move!

Thursday, March 13, 2014


The Ukraine hostage taking by President Putin will have consequences which may loom larger than what observers foresee now.  The principle of international conduct (Pacta sunt servanda) which Grotius set in stone no longer applies in Moscow's strategy. A precedent has been created which reminds us of the former Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty, not to mention the perverse logic of Nazi Germany's ways in the 1930s.  Diplomacy is testing all the possible means to limit the collateral damage which might follow the Crimea referendum, whose result is already settled.

I am of the opinion that the Russian Federation should be isolated, to a point.  I am not a believer in sanctions per se with regard to Russia, as the West does not have a strong hand there. There are other ways to make Putin accountable :

-- The West should stop demonizing him, a strategy which might backfire. The facts should speak for themselves. Vladimir Putin gets off on others' frustrations.  Deprived of his ego trip he is taken out of his province. More important for Ukraine is to avoid at all cost provocations which could lead to further Russian military action, as was the case in Georgia.

-- The West should highlight principle over spite.  The proclaimed aim which could easily lead to other "incursions" in countries with Russian minorities will certainly be considered as dangerous by countries who share trans-border minorities.  It should not be so difficult to build, even by stealth, a coalition which intends to defend the rule of law, rather than be taken hostage by the avenging pathology of a leader who refuses to accept the facts as they developed after the demise of the Soviet Union.

-- Ukraine has to be supported both in terms of legitimacy (the Budapest 1994 memorandum) and financial, political and economical aid.  Kiev, for its part, needs to to project an inclusive image and refrain from hasty, impulsive moves.

--The EU should also remain cautious not to look eager to score. Neither should NATO, which had better accelerate its homework regarding the developing situation in the European theatre.

--The "new Europe" needs confidence-building measures.  A return to the former US plan of strategic defense, which was supposed to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic, looks difficult to materialize. Washington presented the plan as directed against Iran (Moscow always argued that the system was directed against Russia) and would now look unconvincing, replaying the same scenario with an opposite outcome.

In reality Putin is alienating most, antagonizing some, and risks being perceived as a repeater of historical events all prefer to forget. The Russia which we rediscover looks more like a relic than a model. The West will score if it pursues a sophisticated, firm policy, totally contrary to the bullish manners en vogue in the Kremlin. China must be following all this with the utmost attention.

The future of Crimea is a matter of gradual annexation, whatever this "eye sore" will be named. Sevastopol yesterday will in reality not be that different from what it will be tomorrow. Ukraine, on the contrary, will be very different indeed if the elections are truly democratic and transparent and on condition that all prospects (EU, NATO, neutrality...) remain open. Putin might end up suffering from a huge hangover if the West sticks to its precise goals and tools. The worldwide "silent majority" will become less Kremlin-tolerant as a result.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Le deces de Gerard Mortier enleve a jamais a l'Opera une valeur ajoutee composite : enthousiasme, creativite absolue, une certaine arrogance et une notion de plaisir.
Il est a remarquer qu'en quelques jours la Belgique a perdu deux de ses extraordinaires enchanteurs/perturbeurs :Jan Hoet et Gerard Mortier.
Ce dernier a cree un veritable engouement et une onde de choc qui ont traverse l'Europe de Bruxelles a Madrid.
Son cycle Mozartien a Bruxelles et ses creations a Salzbourg ont  marginalise tout ce que l'on croyait connaitre ainsi que toutes les idees recues, cheres au public "bourgeois". Entre lui et les profanateurs du beau le courant ne passait pas.
Je l'ai accompagne en Italie et j'ai decouvert alors combien cet homme etait proche de la musique, de l'emotion et aussi conscient de certaines certitudes qu'il dedaignait d'ailleurs defendre. L'evidence n'a pas besoin d'avocats ni de circonstances attenuantes. 
Il etait de ceux qui redecouvrent l'etonnement que les vieilles habitudes cherchent a etrangler.
Il deviendra plus difficile de vivre "etonne", sans Gerard. 
Mozart  doit se sentir bien seul.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


The events in Ukraine are simultaneously misinterpreted and misunderstood.
-The proponents of the "soft power" alternative to the "hard power" antics of the past century look suddenly out of place in the current situation.
- Observers failed to take stock of Russia's pattern of behaviour, which historically was more marked be heavy handiness than by pragmatism.
Under Putin, a Russian conservative model became institutionalised, with the support of the orthodox church and the more conservative, nationalistic majority strands in the Russian society. Putin does not take his cue from Peter the Great. He is closer to the claustrophobic worldview of the last Romanov's.
The takeover of Crimea was to be expected, when the Maidan Square became the rallying place for the well intentioned ( and also for some less desirable elements) protestors who demanded for closer ties with the EU. 

Putin represents the frustrations which exist in the Russian Federation since the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Paradoxically may be Moscow's actions in its " close abroad " betray also a structural weakness. The Russian federation is in many ways a colossal disaster. The recourse to massive retaliation or arsenals cannot hide the fact that there is a lack of sophistication and" savoir faire ".
Voices in the West which announce the restarting of the cold war or a step towards "Finladisation" of Western Europe are nevertheless misguided. The Crimean move should be condemned, but at the same time, it should not lead to overreaction which will only play in Putin's favour. There is little that the West can do. What is under consideration - energy aid, training, technical advice, loan guarantee -amounts to little.

Rusia does not need an other alibi to advance beyond Crimea.
The EU and the US better be creative in finding ways and modalities to streamline their relationship on all fronts: trade, military, political. A united West will be more attractive than a domineering Russia. Obviously Moscow must be made accountable for its reckless action(s) but the price it must pay must be appropriately balanced. Crimea was Ukranian by accident (almost) and by name, but remained Russian by heart. If Putin stops there and keeps his distance from Yanukovych , proper sanctions can be considered.

Kerry's walk in Kiev will not impress the Russians. Neither will it placate the voices in the US Congress who ask for retaliation.
The EU looks pathetic. I am in Europe and can see the result of the heralded free movement of persons which only ended up opening the floodgates for an undesirable, costly immigration, running amok. The Common market was a success because the constituents were homogeneous. The EU is becoming some last resort option for opportunists and profiteers.
The United States better consider some Nixon move towards China, which must look at the Russian moves in disbelieve. The border between China and Russia is still in some type of limbo and Beijing might reconsider its options.

Russia is supposedly indispensable in Syria , Iran, Afghanistan. I fail to see any real qualitative added value in Minister Lavrov's moves, other than safeguarding Russia's own traditional interests, which is the rule of the game after all. Better leave the "reset" button in the attic.

The crisis began in Ukraine and it might not finish just here and now. CNN walks and talks will not suffice to guess what Putin"s intentions are.
Ukraine is not worth a Summit. It deserves also better than a photo op. Surgery might be needed fast, so that the willing might find an answer to their claim to be "European". There are so few genuine EU takers left that we should feel ashamed not to take in the believers, rather than to continue knitting the ugly quilt of an obese EU.
Meanwhile the talks of the willing look like political Marivaudage as long as the principal culprit doesn't participate or , for that matter, keeps his next intentions undercover. Let's remember the "Sudeten"prologue of very bad things to come in the 40's and be careful not to feed the "beast". Unfortunately individual states in the EU have also their specific parochial interests ( trade, energy inter alia) which marginalize moral standards. QUID NUEVO ?