Thursday, March 27, 2014

Christie's Self-Vindication

"Vindicated" is the headline.  It is exactly what Governor Chris Christie had hoped for when he decided to use $1 million New Jersey taxpayer dollars to hire a friendly law firm to investigate his own governor's office.  The investigation focused on last September's lane closures at the Fort Lee, New Jersey, entrance of the George Washington Bridge.

The investigation was headed by New York attorney Randy Mastro, who is close to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, himself a big Christie defender.  Mastro announced the findings of the lengthy report, which he described as "comprehensive and exhaustive," to reporters on Thursday.  The report states that Governor Christie, "did not know of the lane realignment beforehand and had no involvement in the decision to realign lanes."  It laid the blame for the incident on former Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly, and former New Jersey/New York Port Authority official, and Christie childhood friend, David Wildstein.  While Mastro said that the idea originated with Wildstein, his investigation did not uncover any motive for the shutdown. 

Mastro, and a team of about twelve lawyers, reviewed e-mails, text messages and interviewed about seventy officials, including Governor Christie.  The internal investigation was not limited to just the bridge lane closures.  Mastro described as "demonstrably false" accusations by Hoboken New Jersey Mayor Dawn Zimmer of a pay to play scandal.  Mayor Zimmer alleged that her city's access to Hurricane Sandy relief funds was contingent upon approval of a real estate project that some Christie supporters strongly supported.  The multi-million dollar project had been stalled, and close Christie friend, and port authority appointee, David Samson had an interest in the outcome. 

Mastro defended the impartiality of  his Christie investigation, saying, “This is a search for the truth, and we believe we have gotten the truth.”  But Mastro did not interview the key players in the bridge closure, Bridget Anne Kelly, David Wildstein and Bill Stepien, Christie's former campaign manager.  All of them were cut loose by Christie, and all of them are angling for immunity from federal and state legislative investigators.

And many questions remain--perhaps for federal investigators to answer.  Why would David Wildstein concoct a plan to close bridge lanes, as Mastro stated?  Why would Bridget Anne Kelly send Wildstein an email calling for traffic problems in Ft. Lee?  What is the relationship between Stepien and Kelly?  At a minimum, Governor Christie has been exposed as a poor judge of character when it comes to staff, and a very poor manager. 

Even worse for Christie, the ongoing coverage of both scandals has revealed Christie as highly political and a big bully.  So even if federal and state legislative investigators are unable to prove that Christie gave the order for the bridge closures, or had advanced knowledge,  he has no chance of becoming the Republican Party's nominee for president in 2016.  That would be a bridge too far.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Russia and the West

Crimea is gone.  Increased sanctions and criticism from the West will not stop Russia's annexation of this largely ethnic Russian peninsula.  As Ukraine now withdraws its troops from Crimea, America and its allies should instead focus their diplomacy on the preservation of Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin carries deep bitterness over the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991.   He had risen through the ranks of the Soviet system to become a colonel in the KGB, the Soviet secret police.  His birthplace of Leningrad withstood a brutal 900-day siege by the Nazi's during World War Two.  After the Soviet Union dissolved, Leningrad was given its original name of St. Petersburg.  It was built on the Neva River in 1703 by Russia's most legendary tsar, Peter the Great, as a gateway to the Baltic Sea.  Tsar Peter not only built that city, he also built a powerful Russian fleet, and he led a cultural revolution that transformed Russia into a more modern society. 

Because of his upbringing, President Putin has a tough, energetic and nationalistic mien.  He learned how to work within the complex Soviet system, and shrewdly rose to the top.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia underwent severe economic stress.  By 1998, Russia, then led by President Boris Yeltsin, suffered huge government deficits that caused a financial crisis and a steep decline in its gross domestic product.  Yelstin suddenly resigned in 1999, and handed the government over to his recently appointed prime minister, Vladimir Putin.  

Putin was elected to his first term as president in 2000, and he brought stability to the country while ushering in a long period of economic growth.  His accomplishments won him wide acclaim among a discouraged Russian populace.  But his critics denounced his suppression of democracy, cronyism and the country's growing corruption.   

In 2005, Putin said, "We should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century." He continued, "Ten of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside of Russian territory.  Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself."  

Putin ruthlessly suppressed unrest in the Russian border province of Chechnya, which resulted in as many as 50,000 dead or missing over a ten-year conflict.  In 2008, Putin sent troops into the Georgian states of Abkhazia and Ossetia.  Despite outrage from the West, both remain under Russian occupation today.   

Putin controlled the corrupt president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych; a man who became wealthy while leading his country into financial ruin.  Putin's intentions were to keep Ukraine in Russia's orbit while keeping it out of the European Union, a move that was favored by a majority of Ukraine's people.  When President Yanukovych fled to Russia in February, Putin grabbed the heavily ethnic Russian Crimean peninsula, which is the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.  Crimea was part of Russia until former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954.

Following an illegal referendum in which the largely ethnic Russian population of Crimea voted to undo Khrushchev's deed, Putin reclaimed the peninsula.  "After a long, hard and exhaustive journey at sea, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their homeland, to the native shores, to the home port, to Russia!" Putin said Tuesday.  

But what lies ahead for Ukraine, which has a large Russian population in its eastern regions along the 1,200-mile border with Russia?  In his remarks Tuesday, Putin said, "Don't believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream other regions will follow after Crimea."  He continued, "We do not want a partition of Ukraine.  We do not need this." 

Of late, Russia's economy, now eighth globally in GDP, has been in crisis.  No doubt Putin's actions in Crimea will play well in the short term with his supporters.  But increased sanctions from the West will weigh heavily on the Russian economy.   Putin will be forced to ratchet up his anti-West rhetoric.  

On Tuesday, Putin denounced the West, saying, "They cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back."  He said, "That's the way it was with the expansion of NATO in the East, with the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders."   He continued, "Some Western politicians already threaten us not only with sanctions, but also with the potential for domestic problems."  

The fact is that Putin will try to use any response from the West to his political advantage.  Nonetheless, the United States and its allies must impose additional tough economic sanctions on the economically strained Russia with the goal of preserving a free democracy for the Ukrainian people.    

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Zoe is 18!

This has been a particularly special time in our household.  Our daughter, Zoe, turned 18 years-old on Monday, St. Patrick's Day.  Though she is not Irish, in fact, she is Chinese, there is no doubt she was born on a very special day for us.

Zoe was 10 months old when Susan and I traveled to Hefei, China, to adopt her.  We journeyed with four other families, all from New York state.  The families have kept close, and we hold a reunion every year at our home to celebrate the day.  We have watched our toddlers become little girls, then teens.  Each has pursued their own interests and passions, including ice skating, singing and swimming.  They are now a group of fine young ladies.

Zoe has grown to be a bit taller than 5 feet tall.  She is fashion oriented, and also is a terrific writer.   But Zoe has faced some challenges that are not uncommon among adopted children.  Being a young girl in the age of social media, competitive private schools and life in a big city, life can be a bit confusing.  Adolescence is a time of personal discovery, and the search for identity can be daunting.  

Parents don't have answers to all the questions that arise in a blooming young lady.  We provide Zoe guidance, maybe too much at times, and total support.  We love her and are extraordinarily devoted to her.  We are grateful for every minute of our life with her, and we are exceedingly proud of her. 

So here's to a very special girl, now 18, and on the way to adulthood.  Happy birthday. 

                                                                  We Love You!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Crimea: The End Game

The Crimean Parliament has announced that it will hold a referendum March 16 on whether Crimea should join the Russian Federation.  If Crimeans vote to support such a move, it will give Russian President Vladimir Putin just the pretext he is looking for to annex Crimea and, therefore, to create an even bigger crisis for the West.

Of course, President Putin did not orchestrate the Ukrainian crisis as part of a scheme to retake Crimea.  He felt threatened by Ukraine's growing desire to become closer to the West, and he reacted when his puppet, former Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych, fled to Russia.  Furthermore, he defended his actions with lies.  For instance, his claim that ethnic Russians living in Ukraine were in danger.

Crimea, which had historically been part of Russia, was gifted in 1954 to Ukraine by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Sixty percent of the Crimean population is ethnic Russian.  Russia maintains a strategically important naval base on the Crimean peninsula, its gateway to the Black Sea.   The Crimean economy is heavily dependent on the Russians.

Given this context, it is hard to understand why some Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for this crisis.  Could it be politics?  Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has been bitter since he lost to then Senator Obama in the 2008 Presidential Election.  He has since been harshly critical of Obama, who he calls "feckless."  "(Obama) does not understand that Vladimir Putin is an old KGB colonel bent on restoration of the Soviet empire. ...This president has never understood it," McCain said. 

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a close friend of McCain's, has lambasted the president as weak and indecisive.  For Graham everything ties back to a favorite Republican meme. "It started with Benghazi," Graham said. "When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression. I think Putin believes Obama is really all talk and no action. And unless we push back soon, the worse is yet to come." 

Former Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani seemed truly praiseworthy of the Russian president -- as if America would be better off if Putin in charge. "He makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. Then everybody reacts. That's what you call a leader," he told Fox News.  "President Obama, he's got to think about it. He's got to go over it again. He's got to talk to more people about it."  

But this crisis is not President Obama's fault.  Nor was it President George W. Bush's fault when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.  Nor was it President Lyndon Johnson's fault when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.  Nor was it President Eisenhower's fault when the Soviets invaded Hungary.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are working with Western allies to create a diplomatic solution for Ukraine and an "off ramp" for Russia.  Ukraine has been surprisingly restrained given the circumstances.  And, while a few shots have been fired by Russian soldiers, no one has been killed since the protests last month.

The Ukrainian crisis has nothing to do with Benghazi, nor is it the result of a weak American president.  Now the question is will Putin really want to take the off ramp or deescalate tensions?  Or might he be inclined to play this chess match out in a different way? 

Crimea votes to join Russia, and invites Putin to take over.  Putin sends in additional troops to "protect" the Crimean (nee Russian) people from the Ukrainians.  After much heated diplomatic negotiations and military threats, Crimea rejoins Russia, and Crimean Tartars and other minorities are suppressed.  Meanwhile, Ukraine elects a new "independent" government and receives billions of dollars in aid from the West.

Putin is an opportunist who wants to rebuild the former Russian empire.  He believes that the "...demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century."  Of course, Crimea is where legendary Russian Grigory Potemkin constructed his famous "Potemkin Villages" in 1787 to impress Russian Empress Catherine II.   They are now a symbol of deceit, something that the Russian leader has mastered.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ukraine's Protest at Russian Consulate

Hundreds of Ukrainian protestors demonstrated in front of the Russian Consulate on New York's Upper East Side Sunday.  Demonstrators poured in from all directions, and police were force to close of the East 91st Street block, between Madison and Fifth Avenues.

The protestors chanted anti-Russian slogans.  Several times the crowd yelled, "USA, USA!"  Numerous Ukrainian flags waved over the crowd, the flag's yellow and light blue colors brightened the panorama on an otherwise cloudy late afternoon.

Some demonstrators carried signs in support of Ukraine, others signs denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin as Hitler.  The crowd was orderly, as young and old joined in solidarity. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Tsar Putin and Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating the stakes by intervening in the Ukraine, and effectively taking control of the Crimean peninsula.   On Saturday, the Russian Parliament gave Putin authority to use military force in Ukraine, citing the growing threat to Russian citizens and military.  The move comes one day after President Barack Obama warned the Russians that "there will be costs" if Russia violates Ukraine's sovereignty.  But America's options to deter the Russians are limited. 

Ukraine's relationship with Russia, to be sure, became complicated by its desire to move closer to the European Union and the West.  For its part, the EU sought gradual economic integration and political cooperation with Ukraine in negotiations late last year. The EU demanded reforms from Ukraine, and it appeared that country was on track to adopt them as part of an agreement.   But last November the Ukrainian government postponed signing the agreement, which led to massive, ongoing protests.

Meanwhile, last December, Ukraine's President, Viktor Yanukovich, agreed to a $15 bailout from Russia, for which protestors accused him of selling their country out to Russia.  Putin had thrown Yanukovich a lifeline to help Ukraine avoid defaulting on its debts.  But opponents, enraged that he had turned away from the West and embraced the Russians, called for his resignation.  More than 80 protestors have been killed so far in the unrest, and last week President Yanukovich fled the country for Russia. 

A new Ukrainian government suspended the Russian bailout and has turned to the International Monetary Fund for help.  Crimea, which operates autonomously from Ukraine, did not recognize the new government.  Meanwhile, Yanukovich declared from Russia that he is still Ukraine's president.  

The name Ukraine means borderland, and it shares a 1,500-mile border with Russia.  About 17% of the 45 million people who live in Ukraine are Russian.   Crimea is a peninsula in the southern portion of Ukraine on the Black Sea.  Crimea became part of Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and that lead to tensions with Russia.  Nearly 60% of the Crimean population, about 2 million people, is Russian.  The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula, and the base is leased from Ukraine through 2042.   

Putin rules his country with an iron fist.  Many Russians favor his strong, Tsar-like leadership.  But Putin's Russia has struggled to regain is superpower footing since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Corruption, onerous restrictions on free speech, and human rights abuses in that country have embolden Putin's opposition.  Moreover, many of the former Soviet states are pulling away from Russia's orbit; moves that will further weaken that country's influence and economic stability. 

In August 2008, Russia sent its troops into Georgia to "protect" its citizens in separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  A ceasefire was negotiated after four days of fighting, and many Russian troops were withdrawn.  But Russian troops are still stationed in Ossetia and Abkhazia as a result of bilateral agreements with each government. 

In 2005, President Putin said, in an interview, “First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He added, “As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory."  And speaking about separatist movements in Georgia, he said, “The epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself.” 

Now Putin has decided to take on the immense challenge of trying to control the outcome of Ukraine's future.  But instead of giving the former Soviet state the right to democratically decide its own future, he may, instead, divide the country in two, and perpetuate an ongoing war.  And his preoccupation with Ukraine is certain to spill over into negotiations involving the future of Syria and Iran's nuclear weapons program. 

The Sochi Olympics are already a distant memory, and any goodwill Russia received from them has been erased by Putin's blatant and outrageous actions against Ukraine.  

It is time for the free world to rise up in support of Ukraine and to denounce Tsar Putin.