Smart takes

4 smart takes for understanding the Ukraine crisis

March 3, 2014
SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images

Russia's invasion of Crimea in the Ukraine caught much of the world by surprise. Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown down a gauntlet to the West, whether that was his intention or not. Here are four columns that help explain what Russia is thinking, and how this invasion could shape the world. --Peter Weber

With the Crimea invasion, "Putin is striking back and playing for keeps in Ukraine," says Damon Wilson at the New Atlanticist. We shouldn't be surprised:

The classic Putin playbook is now on display: fuel separatist sentiments, justify military action by asserting the need to protect ethnic Russians (or at least passport holders), and then "maintain the peace" by stationing Russian forces permanently. In effect, dismember your weak neighbors. [New Atlanticist]

America, and President Obama, will lose in any just about any resolution of the Ukraine crisis, says Aaron David Miller at CNN. In the U.S., "we have a very risk-averse president who's focused more on domestic affairs than foreign policy":

That president is facing a crisis in Ukraine, where geography, history, and proximity favor Putin and leave Washington with a weaker hand. Perhaps some face-saving win-win can be devised. But if not — and perhaps unfairly, because Obama's options are bad ones — America will again be judged a weak and feckless power. [CNN]

"In the parallel universe of the Russian media, the preemptive and humanitarian nature of the operation gets pride of place," says Charles King at The New York Times. In this telling, by Putin and his various mouthpieces, Russia is stepping in not just to protect ethnic Russians, but restore a democratically elected president ousted by what Russia calls "fascists" and thugs. "This interpretive frame may be hard to understand, but some things are not wrong just because Russians happen to believe them":

The Crimean affair is a grand experiment in Mr. Putin's strategy of equivalence: countering every criticism of his government's behavior with a page from the West's own playbook. If his government has a guiding ideology, it is not the concept of restoring the old Soviet Union. It is rather his commitment to exposing what Russian politicians routinely call the "double standards" of American and European foreign policy and revealing the hidden workings of raison d'état — the hardnosed and pragmatic calculation of interests that average citizens from Moscow to Beijing to New Delhi actually believe drives the policies of all great powers. [New York Times]

Putin doesn't care about what the West thinks or, even, does: "After the Olympics, the next 'event' is the Crimea, as cynical as that may sound," says KermlinRussia, a satirical Twitter duo who also writes serious columns on politics and the economy, in The New Republic. "For foreign observers this was a surprise, but not for Russians":

The West has already begun to threaten Russia with political and economic isolation, but this stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of Putin's power. For example, Western analysts say that "Russia will not invade Crimea because Russia's economy is in bad shape and this would only weaken it further." They are mistaken. Putin no longer needs economic growth. He has grasped the contradiction between economic growth and the consolidation of his own power, and he has made his choice. [New Republic]

This just in

Masked gunmen kill 3 guards, take hostages at Libyan luxury hotel

6:51am ET

Masked gunmen stormed Tripoli's luxury Corinthia Hotel on Tuesday, killing at least three security guards and taking hostages, Libyan security officials tell The Associated Press. The hotel is popular with foreigners, and Libya's prime minister, Omar al-Hassi, sometimes lives there (though he wasn't there at the time of the attack). A hotel employee tells AP that Italian, Turkish, and British guests are staying at the hotel, but most guests were gone when the five masked gunmen arrived and started open-firing. They also set off a car bomb in the hotel parking lot, sending black smoke into the air.

The gunmen and security forces are currently engaged in a standoff. There's no word yet on who the hostages are.

the bent curve

CBO projects that ObamaCare will cost 20 percent less than expected

5:52am ET
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Monday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its latest update on the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare. The report is mostly good news for supporters of the law. Over the next 10 years, the law will cost the federal government 20 percent less than the last projections, the CBO said, and by the end of President Obama's second term, 24 million fewer Americans will lack health insurance, adding to the 12 million drop in the uninsured so far. That would leave only 8 percent of eligible Americans without insurance by the end of 2016.

Those projection assume that the law will remain essentially the same over the next decade, an expectation that could be upset by the Supreme Court, for instance. The CBO attributed the lower-than-expected costs to "many factors," but primarily "the slowdown in the growth of health care costs" and — to the chagrin of ObamaCare supporters — the Supreme Court–enabled decision by about half the states to forego a federally financed expansion of Medicaid. The projected costs could fall even lower this year, the report said, if premiums drop again, as seems probable.

Watch this

Watch a moving, drone's-eye tour of Auschwitz, 70 years after liberation

4:50am ET

Steven Spielberg will be among the boldface names attending Tuesday's memorial service marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp. In a speech in Krakow on Monday night to some of the 300 Holocaust survivors also in Poland for the commemoration, Spielberg said that one important way to fight resurgent anti-Semitism is by "preserving places like Auschwitz so people can always see for themselves how hateful ideologies can become tangible acts of murder."

Assuming you didn't make it to Auschwitz for the service yourself, the BBC has a cinematic visual tour of the concentration camp and its pure-death-camp cousin, Birkenau (or Auschwitz II), that wouldn't look out of place in a Spielberg film, complete with aerial shots (from a drone) and soaring, melancholy soundtrack. The tour shows the railroad tracks that brought a million people to their deaths between 1940 and 1945, the converted Polish army barracks of Auschwitz and ruins of Birkenau's wooden bunkhouses, a courtyard where the Nazis frequently executed prisoners, and the cruel, mocking inscription above the death camp's welcome gate: "Work sets you free." —Peter Weber

The Daily Showdown

Jon Stewart mirthfully critiques the GOP hopefuls who spoke in Iowa last weekend

4:03am ET

"A lot of Republicans who will never be president met in Iowa this weekend," Jon Stewart said on Monday night's Daily Show, and luckily for him, they gave some entertaining speeches. In his arch look at what he called the "Fox News correspondent auditions," Stewart critiqued the addresses by Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and finally — or so it seemed — Donald Trump.

"That's it," said Stewart. "It can't get more entertaining, and less electable, that Trump." So of course he spent the next few minutes focusing on Sarah Palin's speech, which, thanks to a TelePrompTer malfunction, bordered on incoherent. If you stick through to the end, Stewart has one not-unkind idea for how Palin can use her talents. —Peter Weber

ISIS

Kurds declare victory over ISIS in Kobani

3:13am ET

The Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters drove Islamic State to the edge of Kobani over the weekend, and late Monday they declared victory in the 131-day battle for the strategically and symbolically important Syrian town. "The city of Kobani is fully liberated," Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union said on Twitter, and Kurds in Kobani and across the border in Turkey celebrated.

Fully liberated may be a bit of an overstatement, though. The entire town is under YPG and peshmerga control, Kobani Kurdish leader Anwar Muslim tells the BBC, but YPG fighters are conducting a "final clean-up" on the eastern edge of town, and the situation is "a little tense."

The Kurds' apparent victory in Kobani is being seen as evidence that the U.S.-led airstrikes can help defeat ISIS, at least if there is a ground force that can capitalize on the strikes. U.S. Central Command said in a statement that it "congratulates these courageous fighters and thanks them for their efforts." The fight against ISIS "is far from over," CENTCOM noted, but ISIS's "failure in Kobani has denied them one of their strategic objectives."

That ISIS lost this round is important, but the Islamist would-be caliphate is doing well in other parts of Syria and Iraq, and has even started to expand into Afghanistan. As CNN notes below, ISIS reacted to its loss by calling for attacks against the West. —Peter Weber

snow joke

Yeti braves blizzard to lurk around Boston

1:50am ET

Boston residents, this news is bigger than the snowstorm: There's a yeti on the loose, and it has internet access.

Yes, someone wearing an abominable snowman outfit is wandering the cold streets and tweeting about it, using the handle @BostonYeti2015. So far, he's posted rather creepy pictures on deserted highways, sidewalks, and roads around town, and who knows where he's headed next. Your move, @NYCBigfoot212.

Surveillance States

Report: The DEA is spying on millions of U.S. cars

1:21am ET
iStock

Since 2008, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been secretly compiling a Justice Department database of millions of U.S. license plates and tracking the associated cars through a network of license plate readers, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday night, citing "current and former officials and government documents." The program started as a means to seize drugs and other contraband near the U.S.-Mexico border — a part of the program the DEA had previously acknowledged — but it has expanded nationwide. How does it work? The Journal explains:

The DEA program collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction, and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways. Many devices also record visual images of drivers and passengers, which are sometimes clear enough for investigators to confirm identities, according to DEA documents and people familiar with the program. [Wall Street Journal]

As of 2011, the DEA had 100 such cameras around the country, but the agency also uses state-operated license-plate readers — and lets some state and local law enforcement agencies tap the database, run from the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center in Texas. The formerly secret program "raises significant privacy concerns," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "The fact that this intrusive technology is potentially being used to expand the reach of the government's asset-forfeiture efforts is of even greater concern." Read more about the surveillance program at The Wall Street Journal.

Quotables

Lance Armstrong says he would 'probably' cheat again

1:15am ET
Handout/Getty Images

Lance Armstrong admitted that although it was a "bad decision" for him to start doping, he would likely do it all over again.

"My answer is not a popular one," he told the BBC. "If I was racing in 2015, no, I wouldn't do it again, because I don't think you have to. If you take me back to 1995, when it was completely and totally pervasive, I'd probably do it again." Armstrong continued to reiterate that everyone else was doing it, saying, "When I made the decision, when my team made that decision, when the whole peloton made that decision, it was a bad decision and an imperfect time. But it happened." He also added that his high profile allowed his charity to go from "raising no money to raising $500 million, serving three million people. Do we want to take it away? I don't think anybody says 'yes.'"

In August 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and banned him from the sport of cycling. Since then, he said his life has "slowed from 100 mph to 10," and he would like it to go up to "50, 55." Armstrong also said he thinks the world is ready for his comeback, and he's ready to start the next chapter in his life. "Of course I want to be out of timeout," he said. "What kid doesn’t?"

Quotables

Fidel Castro: 'I don't trust the politics of the United States'

12:04am ET
Handout/Getty Images

In a statement sent to a student federation at the University of Havana, Fidel Castro spoke out for the first time since the U.S. and Cuba announced plans to restore full diplomatic relations. "I don't trust the politics of the United Sates, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts," wrote the 88-year-old former president of Cuba. He continued:

Any peaceful or negotiated solution to the problems between the United States and the peoples or any people of Latina America that doesn't imply force or the use of force should be treated in accordance with international norms and principles. We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all the peoples of the world, among them our political adversaries. [Castro]

Castro's remarks also appeared in the Communist Party newspaper, Granma.

Deflategate

Deflategate: Louis CK is sure the Patriots cheated, and he thinks that's great

January 26, 2015

Louis CK is from Boston, so naturally he's a Patriots fan. And like a lot of Patriots fans, he isn't too worked up about NFL allegations that the team illicitly deflated its footballs. In fact, he's positive that quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick cheated, "because they want to win real bad," and "I have no problem with it — I think it's hilarious," he told David Letterman on Monday night's Late Show. "And why not? It's a stupid football game. I mean, just deflate the balls, poke a guy in the eye, or whatever — it's football!" He has a point. And there's more in the video below. —Peter Weber

See More Speed Reads