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Pope Francis meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a private audience at the Vatican, on Nov. 25, 2013. © AFP PHOTO POOL / CLAUDIO PERI
Thomas L. Friedman, OP-ED COLUMNIST
Reading the papers these days I find that the two world leaders who stir the most passion in me are Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia.
One is everything you’d want in a leader, the other everything you wouldn’t want. One holds sway over 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the other over nine time zones. One keeps surprising us with his capacity for empathy, the other by how much he has become a first-class jerk and thug. But neither can be ignored and both have an outsized influence on the world today.
First, the pope. At a time when so many leaders around the world are looking to promote their political fortunes by exploiting grievances and fault lines, we have a pope asking his flock to do something hard, something outside their comfort zone, pushing them to be more inclusive of gays and divorced people.
Yes, Francis was rebuffed by conservative bishops at a recent Vatican synod when he asked them to embrace the notion that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” adding, “are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”
But, as an editorial in this paper noted: “The very fact that Francis ordered church leaders to address these challenges seems a landmark in Vatican history.” The pope asked that rejected language be published for all to see, while also cautioning against “hostile inflexibility — that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God.”
“Hostile inflexibility?” Whose leadership does that describe? Look at Putin’s recent behavior: His military was indirectly involved in downing a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine and his K.G.B. has not only been trying to take a bite out of Ukraine but is nibbling on Estonia, Georgia and Moldova, all under the guise of protecting “Russian speakers.”
I opposed NATO expansion because I believed that there are few global problems that we can solve without the help of Russia. By expanding NATO at the end of the Cold War, when Russia was weak, we helped to cultivate a politics there that would one day be very receptive to Putin’s message that the West is ganging up on Russia. But, that said, the message is a lie. The West has no intention of bringing Ukraine into NATO. And please raise your hand if you think the European Union plans to invade Russia.
Yet Putin just exploits these fears for two reasons. First, he has a huge chip on his shoulder — no, excuse me; he has a whole lumberyard there — of resentment that Russia is no longer the global power it once was. But rather than make Russia great again by tapping its creative people — empowering them with education, the rule of law and consensual politics to realize their full potential — he has opted for the shortcut of tapping his oil and gas wells and seizing power from his people.
And instead of creating a Russia that is an example to its neighbors, he relies on the brute force that his oil and gas can still buy him. While he rails against NATO, he is really afraid of European Union expansion — that Ukrainians would rather embrace the E.U. market and democracy rules than their historical ties to Russia because they know that through the E.U. they can realize potentials that would never be possible with Russia.
By seizing Crimea and stoking up nationalism, Putin was not protecting Russia from NATO. He was protecting himself from the viruses of E.U. accountability and transparency, which, if they took hold in Ukraine, could spread to Moscow, undermining his kleptocracy.
Normally, I wouldn’t care, but when the world is dividing between zones of order and disorder, and the world of order needs to be collaborating to stem and reverse disorder, the fact that Putin is stoking disorder on Russia’s borders, and not collaborating to promote order in the Middle East, is a real problem. What’s more worrying is that the country he threatens most is Russia. If things go bad there — and its economy is already sagging under Western sanctions — the world of disorder will get a lot bigger.
That is why Putin’s leadership matters, and so does the pope’s. I’m focused on Putin because I think he is making the world a worse place for bad reasons, when he could make a difference in Europe and the Middle East with just an ounce more decency and collaboration. America, too, has plenty to learn from the pope’s humility, but say what you will, we’re still focused on trying to strengthen the global commons, whether by protecting people from jihadists in Iraq or fighting Ebola in Africa. We could do more. Putin needs to do a lot more.
“The best leaders don’t set timid and selfish goals that are easy to meet but instead set bold and inclusive goals that are hard to achieve,” remarked Timothy Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, who has just written a book on leadership, “Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most.” “We’re all looking for ways to make sense of a world without a center, but we’ll only find that in people who lead with authentic humility and reckless generosity.”
Ex-Soviet state leaders pose on the sidelines of the CIS leaders summit in Minsk on Oct. 10. © AFP PHOTO / POOL/ALEKSEY NIKOLSKY
Darya Korsunskaya and Andrei Makhovsky reporting,
- Soccer fans detained after chants against Putin.
- Putin tries to build Eurasian Economic Union.
- Recriminations mar meeting of ex-Soviet states.
MINSK, (Reuters) – Vulgar chants about Vladimir Putin before he arrived for a regional summit in Belarus did not augur well for the Russian president’s hopes of bringing the leaders of former Soviet republics closer together.
Matters got even worse when bickering broke out at the start of the meeting, revealing fault lines over the Ukraine crisis and deepening doubts about the future of the loose grouping known as the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Jibes between Putin and the leader of Moldova, and barbs aimed at the absent Ukrainian leader, raised new questions about his ability to woo countries to the Eurasian Economic Union he is creating to try to rival the European Union’s economic might.
“Unfortunately disintegration tendencies are growing in the Commonwealth, especially considering attempts by individual well-wishers to bury the CIS,” Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko told the leaders, seated at a vast, ornate round table in the huge Independence Palace in the capital Minsk.
Underlining the need to end the bloodshed in Ukraine, he said: “The fighting directly affects the security and undermines the economic development of both Ukraine and the entire post-Soviet region as a whole.”
Lukashenko is a supporter of the CIS but his warning showed the extent of the problems Putin faces trying to rebuild ties between countries that were once part of the Soviet Union but are wary of letting Moscow come to dominate them again.
As Russia seeks to avoid international isolation because of Western sanctions over the Ukraine conflict, tension is growing rather than falling among the former Soviet states. Strains among some, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, go deep.
This ensures that though the Eurasian Economic Union groups countries with a shared population of 170 million, a combined annual GDP of $2.7 trillion and vast energy riches, Putin is a long way from achieving his dream of building a bloc to match the EU, the United States and China as an economic power.
The chants of fans at the soccer match between Ukraine and Belarus on Thursday night highlighted the resentment felt towards Moscow in some ex-Soviet states.
Scores of Ukrainians and Belarussians were detained after shouting patriotic Ukrainian slogans such as “Glory to the Heroes!” and “Glory to Ukraine!” – rallying cries in Kiev’s conflict against Russian-backed separatists – as well as chanting abuse about Putin, a rights group and local media said.
The CIS groups 11 of the 15 former Soviet republics including Ukraine. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have all joined the EU. Georgia pulled out if the CIS after waging a brief war with Russia in 2008.
Putin has looked to Asia, and particularly China, to avoid isolation over the sanctions initially imposed on Russia for reclaiming Crimea and tightened over its backing for the separatists in east Ukraine.
He has also stepped up efforts to rebuild ties within the CIS since the Ukraine crisis began, but with mixed success.
Ukraine upset Moscow by deciding not to join the customs union and to deepen ties with the EU instead. Georgia and Moldova have also signed trade deals with the EU and Russia has banned imports of some Moldovan products such as wine.
“We still haven’t received any convincing arguments to explain such an embargo,” Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti told the summit in comments broadcast live on Russian television. “Unfortunately such actions undermine trust and agreements in the CIS.”
Putin hit back, saying agreements with the EU should be signed in a “timely” manner as otherwise they could damage “our own market”.
“This goes for Moldova and Ukraine,” he said.
Noting that Russia had managed to come to an agreement with the EU to delay Ukraine’s moves to deepen ties with the EU, he asked: “And where was Moldova?”
The Russian and Moldovan leaders then leant towards each other and exchanged words that were not picked up by the microphone, briefly ignoring the summit proceedings.
Recriminations worsened when Uzbek President Islam Karimov then spoke out against Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for not attending the meeting, accusing him of preferring to go to Brussels to talk to Western leaders rather than meet his CIS colleagues. Kiev was represented by its envoy to Minsk.
Karimov challenged Poroshenko to decide once and for all whether CIS membership was in his country’s interests.
Commander al-Shishani is one of many Islamist Chechen fighters in Isis.
Isis’ Chechen military commander has threatened that Russia will be the group’s next target.
Omar al-Shishani phoned his father back in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge saying that he would have “revenge” on Vladimir Putin, Bloomberg reported.
“He said ‘don’t worry dad, I’ll come home and show the Russians,’” his father Temur Batirashvili said.
“I have many thousands following me now and I’ll get more. We’ll have our revenge against Russia.”
Estimates for the number of Chechens fighting in Syria range between 200 and 1,000 and there is growing concern that Isis fighters are being trained to commit terrorist attacks on their return.
Many of the fighters are reportedly from the Pankisi Gorge on the border of Georgia and Chechnya, like al-Shishani, in the Caucasus region wedged between Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Some Isis militants are believed to be veterans of the separatist Chechen wars or relatives of exiles, disaffected by a lack of jobs and angered by Russia’s perceived dominance in the Caucasus.
Conflict between Russia and Chechnya dates back centuries, including two wars in the past 25 years after the former Soviet republic declared independence, and numerous bombings and terrorist attacks.
A video of a Chechen Isis fighter threatening Russia.
In August, a video emerged of other Isis fighters vowing to attack Russia and “liberate” Chechnya and the Caucasus.
The footage was taken at Tabqa air base in Syria, which had been captured by Isis days before.
A fighter, sitting in a hangar of stolen Syrian Air Force fighter jets, says: “Vladimir Putin, these are the Russian planes that you sent to Bashar.
“Allah willing, we will take them and liberate Chechnya and the Caucasus…your throne is being threatened by us.
“Allah will grant us success. We are coming.”
Claims that the planes had been sent from Russia were not verified but following the threats, Ramzan Kadyrov, President of the Chechen Republic, strongly condemned the video.
“Those b******s have nothing to do with Islam. They are enemies of Muslims everywhere,” he wrote on his Facebook page according to a translation by Russia Today.
Ramzan Kadyrov said Isis would ‘burn in hell’
“Whoever dares to threaten Russia and say out loud the name of our President Vladimir Putin will be destroyed right where he is…these people will end their days under the hot sun of Syria and Iraq and moments after death they will be greeted by the flames of eternal hell.”
Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is believed to be 28 and was radicalised in prison after being dismissed from the Georgian army and arrested for illegal weapons possession.
After being released from prison because of bad health, he was reportedly freed in 2012 and travelled to Syria where he rapidly rose up the Isis ranks.
He was promoted to be the commander of units in Syria but recently his title on videos has appeared just as “commander” suggesting he may be heading the entire Isis army.
Georgia, like Britain and other countries with citizens known to be fighting with Isis are taking rapid measure to track the militants and ensure they cannot return to their home country.
Irakli Sesiashvili, chairman of the Georgia’s Defence and Security Committee, told Bloomberg: “Our aim is to prevent others from following the path so they won’t think that if they do the same it will go unpunished.”
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — As world leaders gather at the U.N. this week, the U.S. and its European allies are consumed by efforts to blunt the savage advance of the Islamic State group, to end the raging Ebola epidemic and to make progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran. That’s likely just fine with Vladimir Putin, since these issues distract from Russia’s presence in neighboring Ukraine.
While attention focuses elsewhere, the Russians are consolidating their annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. They are also deeply involved in turmoil in Ukraine’s east and south, hoping to prevent the country from moving out of the Kremlin’s orbit. Europe and the United States insist the independent nation must be free to choose its own course.
Russia is already enraged over NATO’s having brought former Soviet satellite nations in Eastern Europe and some Baltic nations, once Soviet republics, into the alliance over the past two decades. The Kremlin insists it was promised, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that that would not happen. It’s doing its best to prevent Ukraine from making the same move.
What’s more, says American University professor Keith Darden: “Their strategy all along has been to argue that what they did in Crimea is not abnormal. Intervention in Ukraine is not unusual for great powers. The U.S. has intervened in Latin America consistently. Ukraine, they say, is their sphere of interest.”
And given the chaos in other areas of the world, says Andrew Weiss, of the Carnegie Endowment, “I can’t say I see the Russian challenges and issues as being front and center. Ukraine, to a degree, already has been pushed out of the public eye by the Middle East crisis and the Ebola epidemic. I don’t think Ukraine will have the same centrality.”
The Russians will likely raise objections to U.S. threats to bomb Syria to take out Islamic State group fighters and facilities. But, since the focus in Syria has shifted from the counter-revolutionary brutality of President Bashar Assad, Russia’s obstinate backing for him likely will not come to the fore.
Putin, the Russian president, won’t be in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. The Kremlin will be represented by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who, Weiss says, will be on the defensive and unpersuasive as he argues that “Russia is behaving in a normal way in Ukraine.” But Russia’s actions in Ukraine aren’t likely to take center stage at the world gathering.
While the United States has delivered aid to Ukraine, the White House has so far refused to send lethal military equipment that would beef up Kiev’s forces in the battle against eastern rebels who are fighting to break away and join Russia.
Moscow, no doubt, is happy about Washington’s military restraint in Ukraine, but is feeling the effects of heavy sanctions levied against Russia by the United States and the European Union. And it’s no doubt heard the rumblings in Washington of serious divisions in the White House over increased lethal aid to Kiev.
So far, Putin has voiced determination not to be diverted from his course in Ukraine regardless of Western actions. He has also been able to use the punitive measures in a propaganda drive to build support at home — creating anger against the U.S. and Europe as a distraction from the pain his citizens absorb from the economic sanctions.
Beyond that, key Putin advisers are promoting his desires to protect and perhaps reabsorb regions with predominantly Russian speakers. They are not only in Ukraine’s east but in former republics like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — the Baltic nations on Russia’s northwest border. U.S. President Barack Obama recently visited the region and promised that NATO would indeed fight to protect those new alliance members if attacked by Russia.
“It is a miscalculation because Russia is far stronger, and the West far weaker, than many imagine,” writes Putin foreign policy adviser Sergey Karaganov. “The West that Russia now faces is not the self-confident alliance that proclaimed itself victor of the cold war. It is a directionless gaggle, beset with economic insecurities and losing sight of its moral convictions. America and its allies once held the future in their hands, but at the beginning of this Asian century they have let it slip through their fingers. Their crowning accomplishment was globalization – and they are destroying it with economic sanctions they incoherently describe as instruments of self-defense.”
That is a message that plays well with Putin and the Russian people. There is a latent xenophobia and fundamental distrust of the West abroad in the sprawling country, where Putin grows more and more popular as he stands up to Washington and its European allies.
Steven R. Hurst, an AP international political writer based in Washington, reported from Moscow for 12 years and has covered international relations for 33 years.