Europe on the Brink

Robin Lustig   |   March 21, 2014   11:00 PM ET

Western leaders who'll be meeting for emergency talks in Europe next week have an unusually important judgement call to make: do they believe president Putin when he says he intends to go no further in Ukraine?

It may well be the most important decision facing Western policy-makers since they gave the green light to the reunification of Germany in 1990. Europe's future hangs in the balance.

If they decide that president Putin is likely to be satisfied with having reabsorbed Crimea back into the bosom of mother Russia, well, that's something the West can live with. Crimea is not a strategic Western interest, even if the principle of territorial integrity (one state does not gobble up bits of another state) has been flagrantly breached.

If, on the other hand, they suspect that the Russian president does intend to bite off another bit of Ukraine - the eastern part where most people are Russian-speakers and where many feel a closer affinity to Moscow than to Brussels - that will be a step too far.

And it's at that point that we would enter uncharted waters. No one envisages going to war with Russia, although it's worth reminding ourselves that if Mr Putin were to move against any of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), all of which are members of both the EU and Nato, then there'd be no alternative to war. An attack on one Nato member state is regarded as an attack on them all, and a military response would be all but inevitable.

That's how serious this is. So far, there has been no sign that Russia does intend to up the ante, although the annexation of Crimea and Moscow's justification that it was defending its Russian compatriots does create a dangerous precedent.

(By the way, if you can't find the Moldovan region of Trans-Dniestr on a map, now may be the time to look for it. Some analysts are already highlighting it as a potential next flash-point.)

As for the Baltic states, what would Mr Putin do if ethnic Russians in Riga or Vilnius were suddenly to "ask" for protection? Could he blithely ignore them, having gone to the aid of ethnic Russians in Crimea? Has he perhaps embarked on a course without fully having considered where it might take him?

It's easy to assume that he's having things all his own way and that the annexation of Crimea was part of a carefully calibrated strategy. Maybe it was, but it may also have been a tactical response to a crisis in Kiev that from Moscow looked like being seriously damaging to Russian interests.

Imagine what the world looks like as you stare out of a Kremlin window. The US is worn down by wars of attrition in Afghanistan and Iraq - and the EU has barely emerged from a financial and economic crisis that threatened to tear it apart. This, surely, is the moment to reassert your right to defend your own backyard: no more Nato encroachment up to your borders, no more EU blandishments to tempt your neighbours.

Since 1989, Moscow has watched helplessly as the Baltic states, plus Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the former east Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia have all moved out of the Soviet/Russian orbit and into the EU/Nato camp. It has been, in the eyes of Mr Putin, a massive humiliation -- and the West's forays into military adventurism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya) have simply rubbed salt in the wounds.

Now, president Putin has decided that enough is enough. He's under growing political pressure at home as the Russian economy splutters, so what better time to wrap the Kremlin in the nationalist flag and unite Russian voters in support of their compatriots in neighbouring states? In the words of the former British ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer: "Putin and his cabal of close advisers are moved by a poisonous combination of grievance and ultra-nationalism."

That's why, he says, "there is no possibility that any combination of economic sanctions and visa restrictions currently under consideration in the West will check the Kremlin. Crimea is gone for good."

On the other hand, Russia's economic weakness may turn out to be the West's strongest card. That, at least, is the thinking that underlies the current taste for imposing sanctions. It was, after all, economic weakness that played a significant role in the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire - and it may turn out to be an equally significant factor again. Two credit rating agencies have already downgraded Russia post-Crimea, and that does mean a real added cost to Russian borrowing on international markets.

The response so far from Western leaders to president Putin's Crimea-grab has been, in effect, to shout loudly while wielding a stick so small as to be almost invisible. They must do better next week. By all means keeping turning the sanctions screw, but more importantly, lay out unambiguously the nature of the Nato mutual defence commitment as it applies to the Baltic states.

Mr Putin may well be thinking that just as the US could get away with doing pretty much whatever it liked in the first 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, now it's Russia's turn again. He must be disabused of that notion as quickly as possible - for our sakes as well as for Ukraine's. A world in which one superpower can operate overseas unchecked is a highly dangerous one. Surely that's one lesson we should have learned by now.

UN Week: What Was Trending on Social Media?

Nikita Malik   |   March 21, 2014    2:27 PM ET

I was live on AlHurra TV-MBN on the 25th of September 2013 discussing the role of the Middle East in UN week. Alhurra is a United States-based Arabic-language satellite TV channel funded by the U.S. Congress.

Click here to watch the interview

These were the main points of my argument.

UN week: What was trending in social media?


Important trends on twitter and social media, in my opinion, were the following:

(i) John Kerry signing a global arms trade treaty, with the Senate threatening to block it,
(ii) Climate change,
(iii) The correlation between strong health systems and econic growth, such as in Japan,
(iv) Universal health coverage,
(v) Obama's speech,
(vi) America's discourse with Hassan Rouhani,
(vii) Obama's foreign policy doctrine, and
(viii) Syrian refugees.

UN week: What were the reactions?

The reactions on social media were divided into two camps: the positive and the negative. There were those who viewed UN week as a success, and these tweets emphasied that current endeavors reitirated mutual respect among members states, highlighted policy interests and needs of different countries, and, on a larger scale, focused on the creation of an ambitious agenda. On the other end, tweets of critics stressed that the issues discussed by world leaders were covered awkwardly and inconsistent,ly, with the logic of dialogue between the parties being strained and contradictory.

Will the UN team visit to Syria be any different from previous endeavors to unearth nuclear weapons?

In the interview, I argue that the upcoming UN visit will be a complete game changer because we are now facing a different playing field.

Why?

The UN team visit earlier this year dealt with the Syrian regime denying the existence of chemical weapons. The use of chemical weapons, at that moment, was conjecture. As such, the UN team's mandate focused on three things - finding whether chemical weapons were used, discovering the scope of weapons and usage, and while doing that, figureing out whether weapons were used at all. Subsequent to this, however, the Syrian regime signed the treaty and agreed to remove chemical weapons over time - here, we have a specific time frame, and milestones under UN supervision - something which Syria never accepted in past. Now, the UN team has different tasks and roles - not tactical or related to one specific incident (chemical weapons have been used 14 times over 30 month period!) but, rather, working with the Syrian regime's chemical stockpile. It is hoped that there will be a proper timetable to be implemented with demands, what weapons should be removed from Syria, where should they be taken to, and who should supervise it. Perhaps a binding UN resolution is needed on the issue.

Which topics were discussed in social media regarding UN week?

The topics discussed were many - almost 200 countries have stepped on the global stage to express to the world what they want. Economic development, equality, education, trade, growth, are all popular hashtags on Twittter. Certain topical interests focus on the geopolitical stability of Middle East: users were tweeting about Iran, Syria, Israel, and Palestine: indicating a Middle East orientated approach. Other countries of interest were China, though Japan, India, and Korea (both South and North) were less popular tweeting.

In my opinion, the popularity of tweets focusing on the Middle East region signals a need for long-term public engagement in the Middle East. Three main schemes follow:

Iran: Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is a major source of instability in the United States. It is encoruaging that President Hassan Rohani received a mandate to pursue more a moderate course from the Iranian people, and this is positive. But diplomates have been walking out of the room as Hassan Rohani takes to the microphone. On the ground, Iran's halting of nuclear enrichment will ease tough economic sanctions. In Iran, Obama's speech has been met with a positive response in the media.

Syria: It is almost certain that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on August 21st in Damascus. Therefore, there is a lot of attention on enforcement: if the Security Council can't agree on a resolution including conditions for Syria to comply with commitment to destroy chemical weapons, the would imply that the UN cannot enforce basic international law. These concerns have been paralleled on social media - where people have been stating that military action won't achieve peace. Assad is delegitimised in a fractured country, and Syria has been a hot topic for two years, but really, not much has been accomplished.

Jordan: Aid to refugees is particularly important.


Israel/Palestine:
On twitter, the focus has been on Palestine becoming a recognised member state, here members of both sides are expressing frustration over prose and action.

Watch the interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tRvlw--xZM

Nikita Malik is a researcher from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. You can follow her on www.nikitamalik.com or @nixmalik on Twitter.

Obama's on His Way to Brussels to Negotiate a 'Polluters Pact'

Keith Taylor   |   March 21, 2014   10:56 AM ET

Across Europe, anti-fracking campaigns have been picking up momentum. Yet this movement could soon be spectacularly crushed.

From Romania to Poland to the UK, local uprisings amongst affected communities have quickly escalated into wider protests.

In the European Parliament, attempts by the Greens and other groups to bring in proper regulations on fracking have been blocked largely by the pro-industry lobby. We came close to ensuring a minimum level of protection through environmental impact assessments, but this was squashed at the last moment by countries (such as the UK) desperate to exploit another fossil fuel. And so the push by Green MEPS for adequate laws continues.

It appears that in some countries, the fight against fracking is being won, at least for now. 9 European countries have implemented either regional bans or national moratoriums (Luxembourg, France, Bulgaria, Czech Rep, Austria, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Denmark). In a world where people increasingly feel powerless, we have seen the peoples of these countries gain local, regional and sometimes Governmental support in their fight against major fossil fuel companies. However these moratoriums are temporary, and we see at international level that these same countries do not always defend their national bans.

These triumphs, and the successes we're hoping to achieve in the future are fragile, and could soon be abruptly reversed. Barack Obama's arrival in Brussels on Wednesday for a EU-US summit will see further negotiations of an EU US trade deal that's being labelled as the 'polluters pact'.

The deal aims to ramp up trade relations by removing protections such as tariffs and regulations, and by 'harmonizing' EU and US laws. It could well impinge on our food, environmental and social standards, in order to enhance trade between the countries.

For citizens calling for an end to fracking in Europe, this deal could destroy all progress made so far. This is because if the deal goes ahead, the harmonization of EU and US laws could force the EU to reduce protections which regulate energy extraction including shale gas.

Companies have been able to drill all over the US because of a lack of regulation, basically doing as they please with little regard for human health and environmental protection.

A new EU US trade deal could make Europe compromise on safety and regulation even further, at the expense of its citizens. Such an agreement could sabotage the important steps made so far by so many campaigners, activists, Greens and other environmental groups.

The deal could also force countries such as France to lift their bans on fracking. This is due to a particular part of the current deal which would enable countries to sue national governments when they believe their investment opportunities are restricted by a given law. It's possible that fracking companies wanting to frack in a country with a ban could then take that country to court for restricting its investment opportunities.

In the UK, the Government is, all too often, a servant to the profiteers. So unsurprisingly, it backs the companies who are determined to frack our countryside. To provide a glimpse of this support: the UK Government are offering financial incentives to the companies themselves, and to local Councils who allow fracking in their areas.

Test drilling has already taken place in three British Counties, and the Government's paving the way for more. It's now eyeing up more than 60% of the country to licensing for the shale gas industry, mistakenly assured of the economic benefits it could have. So it's no surprise then that the UK government is backing the new EU US trade deal which could make things even easier for fracking firms.

This trade deal, which is being negotiated by top officials behind closed doors, is a genuine threat to our environment, and our democracy. It's time to stop this polluters' pact in its tracks, before it's too late.

  |   March 21, 2014    6:25 AM ET

EU leaders have added 12 more individuals to its sanction list, following talks in Brussels last night.

Senior figures from Moscow have been slapped with sanctions designed to discourage escalation of political tension in Crimea, since Russia's annexation of the region from Ukraine.

At a summit of European Union leaders, which included David Cameron, it was agreed to add 12 names to the list of senior figures from the Moscow regime to face travel bans and asset freezes in response to what the Prime Minister described as "unacceptable" actions by Russia.

crimea

Russian armed forces stand guard around military base in Ukraine's Autonomous Republic of Crimea on March 20, 2014

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said any further steps by Russia to destabilise Ukraine would have "far-reaching consequences".

A trade deal designed to give economic support to the beleaguered state will also be signed today.

US President Barack Obama stepped up action against Moscow by putting billionaire oligarch businessmen - including Vladimir Putin's banker Yury Kovalchuk - on a blacklist of regime figures who will face sanctions from America.

But opposition leader Alexey Navalny - a former candidate for Moscow mayor - said there should also be sanctions against oligarchs who have made a home in the West, like Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich.

"Real sanctions, such as blocking access to their plush London apartments, will show that Mr Putin's folly comes with serious costs," wrote Mr Navalny in the New York Times.

Crimea Referendum Rejected By UK As 97% Back Move To Russia, And Secession From Ukraine

After talks which continued into the early hours in Brussels, European Council president Herman van Rompuy announced the decision to extend sanctions against Russian officials, and said that a planned EU-Russia summit in June had been cancelled.

"Russia's annexation of Crimea and of Sevastopol is a clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and of international law," said Mr Van Rompuy.

"We strongly condemn the unconstitutional referendum in Crimea. We will not recognise the annexation, nor will we recognise it in the future. There is no place for the use of force and coercion to change borders on the European continent in the 21st Century.

"In the absence of de-escalation from Russia, the European Council has decided to expand the list of individuals subject to visa bans and asset freezes. We put forward a list of 12 names to add to the 21 agreed earlier this week."

Mr Van Rompuy added: "Any steps by Russia to destabliise Ukraine will have far-reaching consequences. By that we mean consequences on relations in a broad range of economic areas. We ask the Commission and the member states to prepare possible targeted measures."

crimea

Russia's armed forces have surrounded Ukraine's troops in the Perevalnoye neighborhood in Crimea

Mr Obama's announcement of travel bans and asset freezes was met with a Cold War-style tit-for-tat retaliation by Moscow, which announced its own blacklist of US politicians, including House Speaker John Boehner and former presidential candidate John McCain.

Mr McCain tweeted a defiant response: "I'm proud to be sanctioned by Putin - I'll never cease my efforts & dedication to freedom & independence of Ukraine, which includes Crimea."

Mr Obama signed a presidential order paving the way for measures targeting key sectors of the Russian economy if the situation in Ukraine worsens.

Officials at the Brussels talks stressed that the EU is offering a "carrot" of strengthened economic links with heavily-indebted Ukraine, as well as the "stick" of sanctions.

Elements of an association agreement with Kiev are set to be signed today, four months after former president Viktor Yanukovych stepped away from the deal in a move which eventually led to his overthrow.

Ukraine Officer Killed In Crimea As Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev Supports Referendum

As well as the extension of sanctions to more individuals deemed responsible for violations of Ukrainian sovereignty, talks last night focused on preparations for the wider trade and economic measures threatened by the EU if Russia continues to escalate the situation.

One measure under discussion for possible immediate application was a requirement for imports from Crimea to carry a Ukrainian customs stamp, while other countries could agree their own suspension of arms export licences and military co-operation with Russia of the kind announced by Britain earlier this week.

Tensions remained high in Crimea itself, where pro-Russian forces seized three Ukrainian warships and Kiev said its troops were being threatened.

The lower house of Russia's parliament, the Duma, endorsed the absorption of the peninsula into their country by a near-unanimous vote of 445-1.

The blacklist of 20 individuals unveiled by Mr Obama in Washington also included prominent businessman Gennady Timchenko and billionaire brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, who were judo sparring partners of the Russian president, as well as Mr Putin's chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin and Russian Railways chairman Vladimir Yakunin.

crimea

Members of the Russian armed forces stand guard around the Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalne

Mr Kovalchuk's Rossiya bank, which counts many senior officials among its clients, was the first institution to face sanctions.

Justifying the move to sanction private businessmen, Mr Obama said he was targeting "individuals with substantial resources and influence who provide material support to the Russian leadership as well as a bank which provides material support to these individuals".

He added: "The world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine.

"For this reason we have been working closely with our European partners to develop more severe actions that could be taken if Russia continues to escalate the situation.

"As part of that process, I signed a new executive order today that gives us the authority to impose sanctions not just on individuals but on key sectors of the Russian economy.

"This is not our preferred outcome. These sanctions will not only have a significant effect on the world economy, but can also be disruptive to the global economy.

"However, Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community."

Mr Obama is due to meet other G7 states - the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan - to discuss Ukraine on the margins of a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands next week, when proposals to eject Russia from the wider G8 group of world powers will be discussed.

  |   March 20, 2014    2:15 PM ET

Twitter has built a nifty tool to enable users to quickly find their first ever tweet. The results are a mixture of the weird, unintentionally funny and mundane. And that is no less true for our political leaders.

The prime minister, a relative newcomer to the site, began with a joke at his own expense.

Ed Miliband, as Labour energy secretary, told us about his exciting life as a minister.

Nick Clegg didn't even pretend to send this worthy tweet himself.

Ed Balls joined Twitter at the height of the expenses scandal. Sadly his first tweet was not "Ed Balls".

Alex Salmond wasted no time in harnessing Twitter as an election tool - and also apparently speaks in the third person.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles impressively managed to squeeze his favourite word, "chum", into 140 characters twice.

Lib Dem president Tim Farron is modern.

Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps couldn't find anything he fancied in the shops...

... while Barack Obama ended the war in Iraq.

  |   March 20, 2014    1:25 PM ET

Barack Obama has clearly not taken having his Twitter record broken by Ellen DeGeneres very well, joking that her infamous Oscars selfie was a "cheap stunt" during an appearance on her talk show.

President Obama previously held the record for the most retweets on Twitter following his re-election in 2012, but had the title taken from him earlier this month when Ellen hosted the Oscars and tweeted a selfie along with a number of famous faces.

oscars selfie

Ellen's selfie, which broke the record for the most retweets

Celebrities including Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper all posed alongside the talk-show host for the selfie, which quickly became the most retweeted post in Twitter history.

While speaking on the 'Ellen' show via a live video link, Obama addressed having his record broken, saying: "I heard about that. I thought it was a pretty cheap stunt myself. Getting a bunch of celebrities in the background."

Obama also joked that Ellen had to bribe the celebrities to pose with her by "giving them pizza", which she was seen doing during the ceremony.

Her famous selfie spawned a number of parodies, including a version featuring the characters from The Simpsons, and another that just featured actor Kevin Spacey.

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Ukraine Crisis Shows Obama Does Not Believe in American Exceptionalism

Simon Phillips-Hughes   |   March 19, 2014    1:28 AM ET

On his first overseas trip as president in 2009, Barack Obama was asked by a foreign journalist whether he subscribed to American exceptionalism, the idea that America has a unique role to champion freedom and democracy. He responded, 'I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism'.

This is the same as saying he does not believe in American exceptionalism at all, as Dinesh D'Souza has pointed out. The Greek and British empires may have been the cradle and castle of democracy, but America made expansion of liberty a goal in its own right. And grandiose as a foreign policy version of 'Only in America' may sound, American exceptionalism as a theory explains the current Crimean conundrum exceptionally well.

Secretary of State John Kerry also gave the game of an 'unexceptional' approach to world affairs away recently when he said of Putin's actions in Ukraine, 'You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text'. Well, you do if you are Russia or any number of other countries outside the NATO umbrella whose interests trump concern for international law. Sorry.

If anyone, it is Kerry et al who have returned the world to the foreign affairs of centuries past. When Assad crossed Obama's red line in Syria, the US didn't take action but instead asked that Parliament take the lead, like it was the 18th century. France and Britain were left in a game of one-upmanship over the direction of world politics, as they were in Libya in 2011. Shades of Waterloo.

Now Putin's adventurism recalls 20th century brinkmanship. But in many ways Russia has gone beyond the norms set during the cold war and its conclusion. Annexing any part of Ukraine is a breach of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, solemnly signed by the US, UK, Ukraine and Russia. Technically, Britain and America are obliged to uphold Ukraine's borders by any means necessary, whatever the outcome of a Crimean referendum. It's a transgression unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago.

So what changed? All signs point to a belief in Washington that the US should no longer consider itself the exception to traditionally self interested power. Let's assume, for instance, the United States is not alone in believing rights and reason should guide its policy. It is simply one important country among the family of nations. We can expect other countries to reasonably behave in a way the US would under similar circumstances, right? Like peers.

This is why former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton symbolically pressed a red 'reset' button to clear the air with her Russian counterpart on taking office, and cancelled missile defence in central Europe with no quid pro quo. After all, when Gorbachev offered an olive branch to the West, Reagan and Thatcher took it. But instead, the result of the back-slapping has been Russia slapping the red button of an ICBM test.

The tragedy of this new-left, internationalist approach to foreign policy is that it produces the exact opposite of the peace and security it promises. That international relations are still an anarchic society, and power abhors a vacuum are clichés of politics because they are true. In former UN Ambassador John Bolton's phrase, it means American weakness, not strength, is provocative. Because as soon as one power signals it is no longer willing to exert pressure, others fill the void as completely as liquid adapting to the contours of a container.

That's how Russia saw an opportunity in Syria when it so kindly offered to broker the surrender of Assad's WMDs to the UN. Meanwhile, the civil war is out of control, the chemical weapons are nowhere to be seen and it looks like Putin's most heavily armed Middle East autocrat is going to be in there forever. Ukraine is just round two.

So how can the Crimean crisis reflect on this administration when Russia invaded Georgia with impunity on George W Bush's watch? Well, Georgia is not the bellwether for the expansion of democracy and the European trading bloc Ukraine is. And 2008 was no time to rattle the Russian cage; the West needed flyover rights to Afghanistan and was hopelessly mired in Iraq.

But that too can be explained by an overstatement of American exceptionalism. The pipe-puffing Profs over at the American Enterprise Institute finessed it to mean even countries without democratic tradition or yearning would greet allied troops as liberators. The Bush administration put the idea into action in Iraq and got surprised, like Kerry and Clinton have been since.

To be fair, Obama tried to strike a middle path by following up his remarks to the foreign journalist, 'America has an extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone'. Putin has shown he is not interested in partnership. The best partners the US has are in NATO and cutting troop strength sends the wrong message to friend and foe alike.

It is apt to return to the source of the term 'American exceptionalism'. Alexis de Tocqueville first described America as exceptional for its widespread democracy and education in the 19th Century. But Joseph Stalin coined the term itself to sneer at the idea the US alone could be counted on to thwart Russian ambitions. As he orders troops into Crimea, Putin must be smirking that the American president he now faces agrees with him.

Elliot Wagland   |   March 17, 2014    9:35 AM ET

Selfie, a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website, states the Oxford English Dictionary.

In recent times, everyone from Barack Obama, Ellen Degeneres, a jet pilot, a plane crash survivor and even Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, was taking pictures of himself in the mirror over 60 years ago.

The story continues after the slideshow

Ellen recently tweeted a selfie staring Hollywood's A-list royalty at the 2014 Oscars, which to this day, has had over 3 million retweets.

The selfie craze is now sweeping the world


Putin's Dangerous Folly

Jon-Christopher Bua   |   March 14, 2014   11:00 PM ET

It is said that those who do not learn from history are often doomed to repeat its tragic mistakes.

Judging from the recent heated volleys between Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and the West over Crimea and Ukraine, it seems that history is regrettably repeating itself once again.

As with the un-heeded lessons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, Israel and Palestine, the First and Second World Wars, the Crimea and what it has represented in history, has many lessons to teach us.

For those who are indeed students of history and its lessons learned several things should be universally clear:

Most wars have been fought to secure the means of wealth production - access to seaports, oil, silk, water and other natural resources - there is almost always an economic element.

Wars are often an expression of an inherent right of both a nation and its leader to dominate those who are weaker and less cultured and who may pose obstacles to their course in history.

If former KGB Colonel Putin wishes to prove that his Mother Russia should carry the same clout as the Soviet Union because of its potential contributions to global well-being and not because it just happens to have an enormous supply of nuclear weapons, so far he has failed to do so.

With Sochi Putin tried to show off Russia as a real player on the world stage that could put on a glorious Olympics.

Unfortunately, without skipping a beat, he sent his troops in to occupy his neighbor prompting threats of reprisals and condemnation from the West.

The parallels of this latest situation in Crimea and the 1936 Berlin Olympics are not lost on those who have studied that period and those who remember it first hand.

The 1916 Olympics which was also scheduled to take place in Berlin was cancelled due to the Great War.

Two decades later, the 1936 Olympics was awarded to Germany by the International Olympic Committee in 1931 before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor.

Hitler, not by any account athletic, was prompted by Joseph Goebbels, his minister for public enlightenment and propaganda to put on a stunning 1936 Olympics which could be used to showcase the "New Germany".

Hitler spent 42million Reichmarks building an impressive 325-acre Olympic Sports Complex at a time when the German economy was more than just struggling.

Only two years later in an effort to unify the German speaking people Hitler annexed Austria.

Clearly his lust for conquest did not end there.

History warns of the pitfalls to avoid and if we care to heed its lessons, can also provide solutions to our most difficult challenges.

There is another lesson to be learned: Beware of the unappreciated and insecure despot.

According to Barbara W. Tuchman, in The Guns of August - which analyzes the climate and causes for World War I - it was Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II who expressed his regret that he was never invited by the French to visit the 'City of Light' and complained to Theodore Roosevelt that English nobility never visited Berlin but always Paris.

"Le Gran Diss" provoked more than words from the Kaiser who according to Tuchman used the threat that his "Great Navy" would gain him the respect he deserved.

This kind of rhetoric which is prevalent in our world today intensified the climate allowing for the Great War.

Tuchman in attempting to explain the causes of this war quotes General von Bernhardi a German cavalry officer and well know writer of the later 19th Century as saying "She [Germany] cannot attain her 'great moral ends' without increased political power, an enlarged sphere of influence, and new territory. This increase in power, 'befitting our importance', and 'which we are entitled to claim' is a political necessity' and 'the first and foremost duty of the State.'"

Perhaps Putin may be sympathetic to the von Bernhardi concept of manifest destiny.

After all, Putin is quoted as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

Although in fairness, what nation does not consider itself great?

Putin's desire to be front and center on the world stage has put him in a vicarious position.

As we play it forward, what is not so clear today is what his actual plans or intentions are...but we are taking him very seriously.

It is true, that Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych put Putin in an embarrassing and difficult position by allowing the violent street protests to get out of hand in Kiev - for all the 24 hour news and social media to observe worldwide.

It was an embarrassing moment for Putin while he basked in the glory of Sochi.

Putin reacted forcefully when the street protesters chased the democratically elected Yanukovych from office and Parliament voted to free Yulia Tymoshenko, former opposition leader, from jail by sending Russian forces in to invade Crimea.

Although some believe Putin may have planned this all along, it is also equally plausible that he found himself in a difficult position with his domestic audience when a democratically elected president, who was friendly to Russia, was ousted by street protests.

Putin clearly did not want to suffer the economic consequences of a trade deal between the Ukraine and the EU.

In one of his latest moves, Putin working with the leadership in Crimea, is trying to put a democratic gloss on his on his move to make Crimea part of Russia with the Referendum.

The fast moving changes in Ukraine and Putin's aggressive moves to seize Crimea have also put President Obama and the West in a precarious situation with both their domestic and international audiences.

Obama needs to be seen as supporting democracy.

This is tricky since the US has taken almost no action when virtually the same thing happened in Egypt - and now here we go again!

The American public are becoming more and more skeptical of an aggressive US foreign policy which comes at a great cost of blood and treasure but yields little in terms of concrete positive outcomes for the US.

Obama has these domestic pressures to deal with on the eve of a mid-term election along with the responsibility of being a super power.

Now with Russia integrated into the borderless world economy, all sides have a great deal to lose.

Unless the West is willing to engage militarily, the only obvious way to get Putin's attention is by imposing real economic sanctions that have a real effect.

However the New Russia - which is integrated into the world economy - cannot be isolated by sanctions without severely damaging Russia's trade partners and investors in the West.

Although Russia can be "uninvited" to what was the G-8 and is now the G-7, billions of dollars worth of transactions and joint ventures cannot be unwound without significant damage to all parties.

Perhaps it is time to borrow an historic solution from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

During those now famous thirteen days Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy went head to head escalating the stakes with each move and bringing the world perilously close to nuclear destruction.

In the end clever, behind the scenes diplomacy prevailed giving Khrushchev a promise he desired - US missiles out of Turkey - in exchange for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Let's hope that there is some clever behind the scenes diplomacy going on now that will allow both sides to back down and save face before it is too late.

Obama: Funny, Clever, Neither or Both?

Preetam Kaushik   |   March 14, 2014    6:56 PM ET

When was the last time US President Barack Obama made us laugh? Was it when they gave him the Nobel Peace Prize even though he's known to be the man behind drone warfare? Or was it recently when he, the commander-in-chief of an army who's still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost imposed trade bans on Russia for attempting to invade another country?

While the aforementioned incidents might invoke cynical laughs, we cannot forget that Obama is still the man who called Kanye West a "jackass" when the RnB artist interrupted Taylor Swift's speech at the MTV awards. Barring his "Yes We Can" motto during the 2008 elections, his rebuke of Kanye West is the one other time the internet nodded in agreement.

But recently, Obama made headlines (that's something US Presidents do quite often) again for appearing in Funny or Die's web-series Between Two Ferns which is hosted by comedian Zack Galifianakis. So, the next time someone asks "what's common between Justin Bieber, Bruce Willis, Bradley Cooper and Barack Obama?" we'll know what to say.

While people such as Bill O'Reilly think that it's very unprofessional of the POTUS to appear on a comedy show, (that's okay; the internet doesn't really care about what O'Reilly thinks) Obama's main agenda for being on the show was to connect with young Americans and sell the Obamacare idea. After all, if only baby boomers and other old people subscribed to the healthcare then there would be nobody to actually fund the plan without much need for the government to pay for their health.

So, when the right wingers are trying to tell the world that the appearance was "un-president-like", the joke's on them, because from a monetary point of view, this appearance of his is perhaps the best push Obamacare needed. Tara McGuinness, the White House communications advisor tweeted "FunnyOrDie.com is the #1 source of referrals to HealthCare.gov right now." If that's true, then funny or not, Obama's presence was definitely a success.

But then, if we strictly approach it from a comedic perspective, his appearance was, for lack of a better word, awkward. The obviously scripted (read - examined by the White House) lines could have used some better comic timing. Zack Galifianakis is known to be a funny person. He has a successful stand-up comedy life and he's also hit it big time in Hollywood, thanks to his portrayal of Alan in the Hangover series of comedy films. Speaking of which, one of the mildly high points of humor in the talk show was when Obama landed a jab by saying a third term as President wouldn't be as bad as the third Hangover movie.

Now, coming back to the core question - Is Obama a funny guy? Well it depends, doesn't it? On whether we're laughing with him or at him. Because if it's the latter, his predecessor Bush takes the cake. The Arab footwear industry probably started a whole new aerodynamic range just because one of them decided to fling a shoe at him. And Bush indulged the thrower too with a "bring it on" gesture.

Obama's definitely funnier than his Russian counterpart Putin, who has the same expression whether he's in diplomatic meet, counter Chechen rebels, reacting to Pussy Riot songs or posing topless on a horse. And surely Obama's funnier than the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, but then so is anybody who's ever spoken. The Indian leader is an icon of silence in his country's pop culture scene.

The point is, while Between Two Ferns is supposed to be a funny show, Obama's appearance was more of a "plug" for Obamacare, and he was successful at getting that part of the job done.

Cosmos - A Spacetime Odyssey and the Ironies it's Working Around

Preetam Kaushik   |   March 11, 2014    7:47 PM ET

"The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be." - Carl Sagan.

"A generation ago, the astronomer Carl Sagan stood here and launched hundreds of millions of us on a great adventure - the exploration of the universe revealed by science. It's time to get going again." - Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

The first line up there includes the iconic words that Carl Sagan uttered when the original Cosmos - A Personal Voyage opened in the eighties. The second line opened the follow-up series titled Cosmos - A Spacetime Odyssey which aired last Sunday with Tyson as the host, who pays tribute to Sagan through these words.

The first episode in A Spacetime Odyssey is titled "Standing Up in the Milky Way", and the core intention of the almost hour long content here was to make the viewers understand where Earth stands with respect to the other celestial objects that make up the "observable" universe. Let's pause for a moment here and try to fully comprehend the use of the word 'observable'. Tyson, in his deep and highly comforting voice tells us "the observable universe is roughly 13.8 billion years old. There are stars out there in the unexplored universe that are so far away that there light will take more than 13.8 billion years to reach us."

The first episode was aired simultaneously across 10 networks in America and many other channels all over the world. There is a sense of nostalgia in watching Cosmos on TV with your family, where the background music is scored by Alan Silvestri (the man behind the iconic music in the Back to the Future sci-fi trilogy among other accomplishments) but with the evolution of VFX over the last 34 years (the gap between the two shows), having a screening on the large screen was quite inevitable. The theatre in this story happened to be Austin's Paramount Theatre which also saw Tyson and Ann Druyan, the widow of Sagan and the co-writer of the eighties' show, personally field questions among a live audience.

Tyson did not fail to see the irony of airing the heavily scientifically leaning program on FOX network, which is home to FOX news - the go-to news network for right wing Christians who believe in creationism, have doubts about Darwin's theory of Evolution and think global warming is a myth propagated by the liberal media. But he was also quick to counter that argument saying it was necessary to choose FOX as the network for such a show because that way the writers could reach out to the people who needed the most amount of convincing. This response is not surprising considering how one of Tyson's most famous quotes is - "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe it". When Druyan was asked how she'd describe the show, she kept it concise saying "equal parts rigorous scepticism and wonder".

Speaking of irony, this is also a very important time to talk about NASA. Without NASA a show like Cosmos would have never been possible - not now and not in the eighties either. The pictures of the surface of the moon, of Earth from the moon, of the other planets, of the Milky Way, of Andromeda - one of our neighbouring galaxies, etc. - all of these have been physically captured by NASA. But for NASA, this current administration has not been the most favorable one. There have been major budget cuts which have resulted in lesser amount of research and development work in NASA.

Considering all of this, having President Obama introducing the show was probably taken with a pinch of salt by many a science-supporting people. The suits in the Congress in US are not the most loved people by the brains working in NASA and so having their boss welcome one the most awaited shows was probably the most ironic thing on TV you've ever seen.

Another interesting aspect about the show is that the main producer behind the scenes is none other than Seth Macfarlane, who's probably most famous as the creator of animated comedy sitcom, Family Guy. From that to Cosmos is obviously a huge leap and a lot of people who do not know much about the person might consider this quite ironic. But Macfarlane has been quite vocal about this support for the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive at the Library of Congress and his openly critical views about American television. He has gone on record stating "The continuance of our journey outward into space should always occupy some part of our collective attention, regardless of whatever Snooki did last week", a clear jab at mind-numbing shows like Jersey Shore.

Lastly, and this is perhaps the most important and amazing part of the new show, we also have to understand the timing of this release. Americans and the world in general are at a crossroad where religion plays a huge role in world affairs even though there have been many examples of how that is a hugely problematic thing in this modern world. By getting a famous and popular astrophysicist like Neil DeGrasse Tyson to host the show, the scientific lobby has managed to hit a homerun. While in the 80's, Sagan was just a "science-guy" talking about space exploration, today Tyson is the agnostic host of Cosmos who's clearly a champion for the scientific way of thinking.

  |   March 11, 2014    1:24 PM ET

It's not many people who would have the nerve call Barack Obama a "nerd', "Kenyan", and accuse his affordable care act of not working to his face.

And to suggest he would be "the last black president? Wow.

Zach Galifianakis is one of those people.

In a rather erm... quirky interview with the President of the United States, Galifianakis covers all none of the important topics.

Obama didn't take it lying down though - he got a few quality digs about the host's weight as well as his role in the 'Hangover' films.

It is very funny. And the program is called 'Between Two Ferns' which is the best concept for a chat show we've ever seen.

Apparently a British version with Mademoiselles Britton and Cotton is in the pipeline...

  |   March 7, 2014   12:23 PM ET

A young British beautician has been torn to shreds by the internet after her attempt to spell the US President's name went horrifically wrong.

Gemma Worrall, 20, spelt Barack Obama as… wait for it... "Barraco Barner."

obama

Additionally, Ms Worrall thought Obama was the British president and scolded him for "getting involved with Russia."

But instead of sparking an intellectual debate about the Ukraine crisis, she found herself at the centre of global attention with social media users branding the message a new low for "dumb Britain."

Within 12 hours Ms Worrall's comment had been retweeted almost 7,000 times.

barack obama

The beautician, who admits politics isn't her strong point, has now been left too fearful to tweet.

Revealing the abuse she has received she said: "Some of the comments I was getting were funny and I could have a good laugh at myself but others were just brutal and extreme and they were coming from all over the world.

"I might have had a bit of a ditzy moment but I don't deserve to be called such horrible names. I am harmless and didn't mean to offend anyone with my tweet," she told the Cavendish Press.

"I'm just amazed at how quickly things can get out of hand from one comment. I will definitely think before I tweet in future."

Mehdi Hasan   |   March 7, 2014    7:58 AM ET

Here are the five things you need to know on Friday 7 March 2014...

1) 'NAZI' UKIP HAS DONE US A FAVOUR, SAYS TORY MP

Forget the infamous 'fruitcakes, loonies and racists' attack on Ukip by David Cameron from several years ago; yesterday, Tory backbencher Robert Halfon let rip against Nigel Farage's anti-EU party, comparing some of its members to Nazis in an interview with House magazine. My HuffPost colleague Ned Simons reports:

"Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow, said in many ways he was pleased Nigel Farage's party was doing so well as it had helped draw "sinister" people away from the Conservatives. 'To me there are two kinds of Ukip – the Godfrey Bloom guy who’s like a cross between Sid James and Bernard Manning,' he said. 'And then there's a much more sinister element, like the MEP who said every Muslim has got to sign a declaration of non-violence, which to me is literally akin to the Nazis saying Jews should wear a yellow star. I genuinely find it abhorrent and frightening. I'm amazed that man is still an MEP. How someone could say such a thing and then not apologise for it.' In an interview with The House magazine, Halfon, who is Jewish, said that Nigel Farage's party had actually done the Conservatives a 'huge favour' by 'cleansing people from the Tory party that had these kinds of views'."

Let's be clear: plenty of Tory MPs privately sympathise with Ukip; but plenty of others privately agree with Halfon.

In response, Farage tweeted that Halfon's "hysterical slurs" were due to "Tory terror of Ukip's rising popularity" and said his party planned a national day of action against the Tory backbencher in his Harlow constituency. The Ukip leader didn't however deal with Halfon's specific criticism of Ukip MEP Gerard Batten who did indeed outrageously demand all British Muslims sign a "declaration of non-violence".

2) OBAMA MAKES ANOTHER PLEA

From the BBC:

"US President Barack Obama has urged President Vladimir Putin to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine, in a lengthy telephone call... President Obama stressed to Russia's president that his country's actions in Crimea were a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the White House said in a statement. He said there was a solution available that suited all parties, involving talks between Kiev and Moscow, international monitors in Ukraine and Russian forces returning to their bases. For his part, President Putin said US-Russian 'relations should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems,' the Kremlin said. It was the two leaders' second telephone call concerning Ukraine in less than a week."

Unlike David Cameron, Obama wisely decided not to tweet a picture of himself on the phone with Putin. The Guardian reports: 'European leaders went much further than expected in warning Russia that it will face "severe and far reaching consequences' if it fails to change course on Ukraine, David Cameron said at the end of Thursday's emergency EU summit in Brussels. The prime minister, who had feared German nerves about confronting Vladimir Putin would weaken the EU's resolve, returned home satisfied that Europe and the US are sending powerful signals to Moscow."

Meanwhile, the FT reports: "Crimea's parliament accelerated plans to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, bringing forward a planned referendum on the peninsula's future by two weeks and inflaming already heightened tensions between Moscow and the west. Crimean voters will be asked on March 16 whether the region, which is now in effect controlled by Russian troops, should become part of the Russian Federation or remain in Ukraine, though with much greater autonomy."

3) 'ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN' OF POLICE CREDIBILITY

From the Mirror:

"Doreen Lawrence held back tears in the Lords last night as she welcomed a damning report detailing police corruption in the probe into her son's murder. The report by top lawyer Mark Ellison said there were reasonable grounds for thinking a detective had a 'corrupt connection' with a dad of one of Stephen's killers and that police planted 'a spy in the family camp'. Baroness Lawrence said: 'I believed that there was corruption at the start of Stephen's case. It's taken over a year for that [review] but it's taken nearly 21 years since Stephen's been killed, and the fact we as a family had to go through all this and still there's more to come out.' She earlier said of the Metropolitan police force: 'This is going to put another nail in their coffin, you just can't trust them.'"

Yesterday, Home Secretary Theresa May ordered a judge-led public inquiry into the alleged undercover infiltration of political groups by the Met. Speaking to Newsnight last night, however, Neville Lawrence, Stephen's father, said he was "very wary" about the inquiry and said he felt he would "never be able to trust these people".

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Check out how Twitter, including Twitter celebs, took the p*ss of the photo that David Cameron posted of himself on the phone with Barack Obama.

4) GIDEON'S BLACK HOLE

From the FT:

"George Osborne faces a black hole of more than £20bn in the public finances, according to official government economic models, suggesting that Britain might have to endure an extra year of austerity before the books are balanced. The models by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which the Financial Times has replicated, indicate that the government should no longer rely on an economic recovery to eliminate part of the budget deficit. While Britain has staged a remarkable recovery, indicators of the economy's capacity for future growth have deteriorated... The estimates come less than two weeks before Budget day and pose a difficult challenge to whichever party wins the election. If the models are correct, the next government would have to announce new spending cuts or tax rises to eliminate the structural deficit and ultimately to run a surplus."

Meanwhile, the Guardian reveals: "Deep austerity cuts are crippling local councils and have put Britain in breach of its international obligations, the Council of Europe has said. Official rapporteurs found local authorities do 'not have adequate financial resources' and this is likely to 'get worse in years to come', meaning the UK is not compliant with the European charter of local self-government."

5) FOURTH TIME UNLUCKY

From the Huffington Post UK:

"Iain Duncan Smith has been caught up in a new row over his department's dodgy use of official figures, the fourth in a year. The controversy erupted after top Department for Work and Pensions official Neil Couling tried to defend the government's Work Programme during a grilling by members of Parliament's work and pensions committee using unpublished data, which angered MPs as they did not have a chance to properly scrutinize the figures. Labour member Sheila Gilmore complained to Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, who confirmed that 'published official statistics should be referred to in public statements' and that alternative information should be used only in 'exceptional circumstances'. Sir Andrew added: 'It is a matter of regret that DWP’s usual practice, which would have ensured compliance with the National Statistician’s guidance, was not followed.'"

Oh dear.

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 40
Conservatives 31
Ukip 13
Lib Dems 9

That would give Labour a majority of 96.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Isabel Hardman, writing in the Telegraph, asks: "Will voters swallow Nick Clegg’s sausage strategy?"

Henry Porter, writing in the Independent, says: "What secret Home Office court says about British openness."

Me, writing in the Huffington Post UK: "While the Tories Claim That Growth Is Back, Ed Miliband Will Seize the Inequality Moment."


Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com) or Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol