Vladimir Putin

Brexit, Border Wall Throttle Leading Democracies, Delighting Putin

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Maybe it is coincidence or a case of bad karma extending across the pond as the United States and United Kingdom find themselves in shutdown mode – with seemingly no clue how to escape, despite enormous economic consequences.

The partial federal government shutdown is simple to understand. President Trump wants $5.7 billion for a border barrier and Democrats refuse, calling it wasteful spending on an ineffective deterrent to illegal immigration.

Trump has said the budget stalemate could be resolved in 15 minutes, which is true. The Democrat-led House has passed a nearly identical spending bill to what the Senate approved unanimously last year after Trump signaled his support. Then Trump changed his mind and demanded border wall money. He has refused to budge, other than to acquiesce to a steel instead of concrete barrier.

Federal employees and contractors caught in the cross-hairs of the border wall fight have been furloughed, forced to work without pay, not paid or encouraged to find new jobs. National parks have closed, airport security lines have lengthened and farmers haven’t gotten their subsidies to compensate for losses they incurred from the Trump trade war. Pre-season forest thinning and hurricane forecasting has been disrupted. A workplace training session for Oregon lawmakers was postponed. Federal income tax refunds could be delayed. 

As bad as all that is, it may pale in comparison to Britain’s predicament. The British Parliament on Tuesday rejected the Brexit deal that took Prime Minister Theresa May two years to negotiate with her reticent European Union counterparts. The 432-202 parliamentary defeat of the May Brexit plan is the most lopsided loss for a sitting government in British history.

Britain faces a March 29 deadline to withdraw from the EU. May, who survived a no-confidence vote by her own Conservative Party last year and faces another one by an opposition party, was given until next Monday to come up with a plan.

Unlike the US government shutdown that is stuck on a single issue, the UK is trying to disengage from an alliance. It is similar to a state like California trying to secede from the United States.

May faces a Rubix Cube of options, none of which is very promising. EU leaders have shown little inclination to grant further concessions to Britain. Asking the British people to vote a second time on Brexit risks having a second vote in favor of the pullout, with no more clarity on how to achieve it. Extending the deadline for the EU exit without a consensus game plan would be like a prisoner asking for more torture.  

That leaves Britain with the somber prospect of slipping out of the EU without a deal and without substitute bilateral trade deals with key trading partners such as the United States. The plan-less exit also would pose serious internal problems, such as how to manage the border between Ireland, which would still be in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which wouldn’t. This is a border that has a troubled history as a true humanitarian crisis. Many worry it could return to that troubled history.

From a wider angle, this is an awkward time for the world’s two leading democracies to indulge in self-inflicted combat. As one veteran traveler told a news reporter, this is bad time to visit either the United States or Britain because both appear to be in the middle of civil wars. Add to that the yellow vest protests that have rocked France and what you see is not a pretty picture of economic, social or political stability.

British unrest stems from a nationalist drive to maintain Britain’s sovereignty. French discontent pivots on restive attitudes about persistent income inequality. The US stand-off centers on an unmet campaign promise.

The US political stalemate would seem the easiest to resolve, but has been elevated to a larger political battlefield. Supporters have warned Trump, who brags about his deal-making prowess, that his presidency could effectively end if he fails to get money for the border wall. The newly elected Democratic majority in the House is disinclined to toll over to Trump demands. Trump’s threat of a presidential declaration of emergency that would go around Congress to find the money to build the border wall could trigger a constitutional crisis.

What seems missing in the United States and Britain is a sense of the bigger picture – a more aggressive Russia, China’s ascendancy as a world power and the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments. Any one of these could be the tinder box that sparks a major conflict engulfing the bickering and compromised democratic powers. It has happened before when there have been voids in international leadership.

Commentators are beginning to point to Russia as a culprit in both seasons of discontent. Sowing division among the major world democracies is a much cheaper foreign policy than a military build-up, and perhaps a defter strategy to undermine NATO, a major objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shadow of Russia will grow longer as Special Counsel Robert Mueller moves to wrap up his investigation into Russian election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign in 2016.

Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt Brexit and the border wall stalemates are causing economic pain, with little relief in sight.


From Diplomacy to Gas

U.S. and European leaders are looking for ways to prevent further incursions into Ukraine by Russia and ideas have shifted from diplomatic efforts to exporting natural gas.

Europe is highly dependent on Russian natural gas. The United States and Canada have an abundant supply and could replace Russian sources, leaving a big hole in the pockets of Russian business oligarchs and creating a big headache for President Vladimir Putin.

A worried world sees Russian troops amassed at the border of the newly annexed Crimean region, setting up the prospect for a new cold war — or even a very hot war. U.S. officials believe Putin "is not done in the Ukraine."

Sanctions targeting Putin aides and business backers may have some effect as a diplomatic lever, but U.S. and European geo-political strategists think the biggest impact on Putin would come if he saw his natural gas customers walk away.

Converting from Russian to North American natural gas couldn't be done by simply hitting a switch. The capacity to ship natural gas in liquefied form across an ocean doesn't fully exist. It would represent a gigantic economic opportunity for the North American gas industry by opening up what would largely be a captive market in Europe. But it also would ignite home country controversy over the welter of pipelines and LNG export terminals needed to do the job, not to mention the upward pressure on domestic prices that would result.

State TV Versus Social Media

Russian state-owned media is pushing a narrative of a neo-fascist takeover in Ukraine that has led to spiraling violence in the former Soviet client state. 

Supporters of a western-looking Ukraine are fighting back through social media, using posts on YouTube and Instagram to describe a different reality on the ground.

A perfect example is an image on Instagram that gained widespread viewership on Russian TV showing a man taking down the Ukranian flag and raising a Russian flag over a building in the Crimean city of Simferopol. He was portrayed as a Ukranian loyal to Russia.

Ukranians tracked down the man through his social media site, found out he actually lives in Moscow and circulated the information as proof of a Russian invasion.

Not long ago, state-owned media was an effective tool to control the narrative of historical events and economic progress within a country's boundaries. But the digital age and social media have punctured a huge hole in that balloon.

Efforts to portray Ukrainians as sudden converts to fascism, which still kindles dark, agonizing memories for Russians who faced the advancing armies of Hitler, may not be completely convincing. After all, President Vladimir Putin's government offered $15 billion in financial aid to Ukraine just a few months ago. State TV may talk as if Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in an "unconstitutional coup," but social media is ablaze with pictures of Yanukovych's extravagant mansion and charges of large-scale national theft.

Dueling propaganda has always been a dimension of conflict. The advent of social media, however, has changed the balance of power in the war of words.  All you need is a smartphone and Internet access and you can compete with a regime-backed network of TV stations and newspapers.

The Arab spring was ignited by social media chatter and wound up toppling tyrants with a firm grip on official news.

Russia under Putin doesn't have the same lock on information, but is trying to advance a storyline that mashes together fear of a former loathsome enemy and the dream of a grander future.