Description: Tom Cruise stars as Bill Cage, a military officer who must team up with special forces soldier Rita Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt, to fight an invading race of hostile aliens. Sent on a suicide mission, Cage is killed almost instantl…
Only Gwyneth Paltrow could gather such an A-list group of friends! Gwyneth posted this pic of her with gal pals Nicole Richie, Chelsea Handler, Naomi Watts, Stella McCartney, Gwen Stefani, Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Wood and Gwen Stefan…
Corbin Bleu hit up Coachella weekend two, and the High School Musical star is taking ET inside the star-studded music festival! Check out all the best moments from his weekend in the desert.First up is his run-in with Victorious star Victoria Justic…
An operation targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is under way in Abyan and Shabwa, Yemen, a high-level Yemeni government official who is being briefed on the strikes said on Monday. The official said that the scale of the strikes against AQAP is “massive and unprecedented” and that at least 40 militants have been killed. The operation involved Yemeni commandos who are now “going after high-level AQAP targets,” the official said. A day earlier, suspected drone strikes targeted al Qaeda fighters inYemen for the second time in two days, killing “at least a dozen,” the government official said. The predawn strikes targeted a mountain ridge in the southern province of Abyan, the official said.It’s the same area where scores of followers of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had gathered recently to hear from Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the terrorist network’s Yemeni branch and the global organization’s “crown prince,” the official said. “It’s too early to tell how many militants were killed, but the number is at least a dozen,” the official said. The targets included “foreign nationals,” the official said, but he provided no details of what their nationalities were. Nor was it clear whether any high-value targets were among the dead and wounded, he said.
Yemen’s state news agency SABA said three strikes targeted an al Qaeda training camp in the village of Wadi al Khila, about 450 kilometers (280 miles) south of the capital Sanaa. The fighters were “preparing to launch attacks against Yemeni and foreign interests in the area,” according to a statement from the country’s Supreme Security Committee. “These strikes destroyed the training facility completely and killed both Yemeni and foreign members,” it said. The official said Sunday’s raid was a joint U.S.-Yemeni operation. He would not confirm whether drones were used in the attack, but the United States is the only country known to have conducted drone strikes in Yemen. As a rule, U.S. officials don’t comment on those strikes. But the official said the area is so rugged and mountainous that Yemeni troops would have faced heavy losses in any ground assault. Al Qaeda operatives had fled to the area after a 2012 push by government troops, backed by the United States, he said.
The high-level official said it would take time to fully clarify the details of the weekend’s strikes — whether the raids targeted camps, vehicles on the move or both, the full death toll among the militants, and whether there were any civilian casualties. A Saturday drone strike in a neighboring province killed at least 10 suspected al Qaeda militants, but also killed three civilian day laborers. But other Yemeni officials, who asked to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak to the media, said there was growing frustration within the government about the lack of clarity and expressed concern that some of the information being reported by the military may be propaganda. “I’m worried this is an attempt to convince Yemenis that the U.S. and Yemen have turned a corner and are in the process of destroying AQAP,” one of those other officials said. “At this hour, the numbers of militants being reported as being killed keeps changing, and we still aren’t sure if any civilians have been killed or wounded in these strikes.”
“Yemenis are smart enough to doubt initial reports of this type,” he added. “If this does turn out to be exaggeration, it will make the people here trust their government even less than they do and fuel growing anger over the drone program.” The United States first used armed drones to pick off an al Qaeda operative in Yemen in 2002. Strikes on suspected al Qaeda figures resumed in 2009, with more than 100 reported since then, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank that tracks the raids. Those strikes have killed somewhere between 700 and 1,000 people, including at least 81 civilians, the foundation says.
Can you imagine James Franco playing Mean Girls heartthrob Aaron Samuels?! Daniel Franzese, who plays Lindsay Lohan’s pal Damian in the 2004 flick, talked about the casting of the teen movie to Cosmopolitan magazine. “Lindsay recently told me th…
JERUSALEM, Israel | DMN – Thousands of Orthodox Christians flooded Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday for the annual lighting of the holy fire — a massive Easter event that mostly unfolded smoothly, although there were reports that Israeli police officers created barriers for some Palestinian Christians who were seeking to attend together with a group of high-ranking diplomats. Robert Serry, the United Nations’ special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he and several other senior diplomats had joined with Palestinian Christians in a special procession to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is built on the hill where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried before rising from the dead. But despite earlier assurances of unhindered access to the church for the Saturday of Light ceremonies, Serry said in a statement, Israeli police refused to allow the group entry, saying they had orders to that effect. “A precarious standoff ensued ending in an angry crowd pushing their way through,” Serry said.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that if such an incident did occur, police would look into it. “During the day, many delegations were escorted into the Old City, and the police coordinated and prepared ahead of time with no incidents occurring,” he said. “Considering the thousands of people that visited today, the event passed quietly and respectfully,” he added. The special coordinator expressed dismay at the incident and called on “all parties to respect the right of religious freedom, granting access to holy sites for worshipers of all faiths and refraining from provocations not least during religious holidays.” Restrictions of the kind Serry described are not unusual this time of year. For the past eight or nine years, one of the annual rites of spring for Palestinian Christians is to complain about their access to the holy places during Easter Week — and for Israeli officials to deny they are doing anything wrong.
This year, it seems, is no different. But the Palestinian cause is gathering more support, and the issue is drawing more attention in anticipation of the pope’s visit here in May. This month, the Israeli High Court of Justice agreed that Palestinians’ rights were being violated by police checkpoints and other restrictions that annually create obstacles to worship. According to the newspaper Haaretz, an internal European Union report noted that the situation last year was especially disturbing. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and head of the Catholic Church in Israel, Cyprus, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, Fouad Twal, said that the number of Palestinians attending Palm Sunday processionals earlier this week was “very low,” and he blamed Israelis for the sparse turnout. “I saw very few of our local people” coming into the Old City, Twal said.
About 50,000 Catholic and Orthodox Christians live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and many need a permit to travel to Jerusalem in the days before Easter. “I spoke with authorities,” Twal said. “Maybe there were less permits, maybe they came late, or they gave one to the father but not to the mother.” Restricting Palestinians’ access to Jerusalem during Holy Week, Twal said, is “not fair, not just, not religious.” Thousands of Israeli police and soldiers were deployed this week in and around Jerusalem’s Old City, central to the world’s three monotheistic religions, as huge crowds came to pray and celebrate Passover and Easter. “There is no dignity in this,” said Firas Aridah, a parish priest at St. Joseph’s Church outside the West Bank city of Ramallah. “I need a permit to enter into Israel, why? . . .This is my mother church, my state?” “I do not believe this is security,” Aridah added. “The Israelis do not want to show how many Christians are living here and that they are powerful in the Old City.”
Maj. Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Israeli military-run authority that oversees the West Bank, said it was not true that fewer permits had been given out this year to Palestinian Christians wanting to visit Jerusalem. “So far this week, we have issued more than 17,000 permits. That is basically more or less the number of people who applied for them,” Inbar said. “Only a handful of people were denied permits, and those were due to security concerns.” Hind Khoury, a former minister of Jerusalem affairs for the Palestinian Authority, said she has seen priests roughed up and insulted by Israeli security personnel and that security forces enter the Holy Sepulcher Church. “People are not coming to Jerusalem anymore” from the West Bank, Khoury said. “Who wants confrontations and tear gas? Easter is supposed to be a time of joy.”
Pope Francis has presided over an Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica in which he will baptize 10 people. The vigil is among the most solemn and dramatic on the church calendar, with Francis entering the darkened basilica with a lone candle, which he then shares with others to slowly illuminate the church. The heavily symbolic service commemorates the darkness over the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday and the joy and light at his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Francis urged the priests, bishops, cardinals and ordinary Catholics gathered for the late night service Saturday to remember when they first found their faith. He said: “Do I remember it? Have I forgotten it? Look for it. You’ll find it. The Lord is waiting.”
The story garnered international attention. Now, newly released police files in the case of Rebecca Sedwick’s suicide raise questions about whether she was bullied in the months before her death. FULL STORY
A slew of starlets flaunt their curves on the red carpet and beyond. In fact, supermodel Kate Upton makes a living off her lady lumps, as will be evident in her upcoming movie The Other Woman, out April 25, 2014! Click the pics to see 10 of the sexie…
In your April 17 Daily First, President Obama and Vice President Biden snap a “First Selfie,” a California rapper severs his penis and jumps off a building, the ‘X-Men’ director is accused of sexual abuse with a teen boy and Bravo star Pors…
The little hotel district in perpetually up-and-coming Long Island City, Queens, continues to grow with the addition of the Paper Factory Hotel, built inside, you guessed it, a 100-year-old paper factory.
The 2104 Readers’ Choice Survey opened for voting earlier this week, and to inspire you to share your opinions about who should win this year, we’re taking quick look at your favorite hotels from 2013.
Wall Street deregulation, blamed for deepening the banking crisis, was aggressively pushed by advisers to Bill Clinton who have also been at the heart of current White House policy-making, according to newly disclosed documents from his presidential library. The previously restricted papers reveal two separate attempts, in 1995 and 1997, to hurry Clinton into supporting a repeal of the Depression-era Glass Steagall Act and allow investment banks, insurers and retail banks to merge. A Financial Services Modernization Act was passed by Congress in 1999, giving retrospective clearance to the 1998 merger of Citigroup and Travelers Group and unleashing a wave of Wall Street consolidation that was later blamed for forcing taxpayers to spend billions bailing out the enlarged banks after the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
The White House papers show only limited discussion of the risks of such deregulation, but include a private note which reveals that details of a deal with Citigroup to clear its merger in advance of the legislation were deleted from official documents, for fear of it leaking out. “Please eat this paper after you have read this,” jokes the hand-written 1998 note addressed to Gene Sperling, then director of Clinton’s National Economic Council. Earlier, in February 1995, newly-appointed Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, his deputy Bo Cutter and senior advisers including John Podesta gave the president three days to decide whether to back a repeal of Glass-Steagall. In what Cutter described as “an action forcing event”, he wrote to Clinton on 21 February, telling him Rubin wanted to announce the policy before it was raised by the House banking committee on 1 March. “In order to position Secretary Rubin – rather than any of the regulators – as the Administration’s chief spokesman on this issue, the Secretary intends to discuss the Administration’s position at a speech which will be covered by the press in New York on 27 February,” wrote Cutter on 21 February. “It is therefore necessary to have an agreed-upon Administration position by the end of the day on Friday, 24 February.”
Podesta, who was then staff secretary but went on to become Clinton’s chief of staff, wrote a covering note telling the president that all his senior advisers backed the plan, although he noted the danger that “allowing banks to engage in riskier activities like securities or insurance could subject the deposit insurance fund to added risk”. But Clinton’s advisers repeatedly reassured him that the decision to let Wall Street dismantle regulatory barriers designed to protect the public after the Great Depression simply represented inevitable modernisation. “The argument for reform is that the separation between banking and other financial services mandated by Glass-Steagall is out of date in a world where banks, securities firms and insurance companies offer similar products and where firms outside the US do not face such restrictions,” wrote Podesta.
Podesta currently works at the White House as special adviser to President Barack Obama. Sperling stood down as director of Obama’s National Economic Council last month. Along with Cutter, who worked on Obama’s transition committee, all three men were close allies of Rubin, who spearheaded the deregulation of Wall Street before joining the board of Citigroup in 1999. In 2007, he briefly became its chairman. The closeness of Obama’s team to the deregulation policies of the late 1990s is well known and has been criticised by campaigners as a reason for the current administration’s reluctance to institute more aggressive Wall Street reforms after the banking crash. But the new documents cast fresh light on the way the White House was first ushered toward deregulation by the tight group of Rubin allies. A similar apparent attempt to rush president Clinton’s decision-making occurred later in the process, in 1997.
In a letter received by the president on 19 May, Clinton is again given just three days to decide whether to proceed with the deregulation agenda. “The attached memorandum asks you to authorize Treasury to proceed to announce and submit their financial services modernization proposal,” writes Sperling. “Secretary Rubin intends to introduce the proposal in a 21 May speech, and to testify before the House Banking Committee the first week of June.” In his letter, Rubin reassures Clinton that the issue need not take up much of his attention. “Should you approve our recommendation to move forward, the proposal would be a Treasury initiative, and would not require a significant time commitment from the White House,” writes the Treasury secretary. “I and my staff will manage the process of advancing the proposal,” he adds.
The sense that the president need not concern himself with the detail is amplified by his own staff, who appear happy for him to be pushed along by the Treasury timetable. In a covering note from staff secretary Todd Stern, Clinton is warned: “The attached memo is long, detailed and technical, but you can get the essentials by looking at the first four pages.” Stern adds: “If you agree. Treasury will, tomorrow, put out some advance word on the Rubin speech.” Throughout the documents, which are among 7,000 pages released by the Clinton library on Friday, there is little discussion of internal opposition to repealing Glass-Steagall, although some memos inadvertently touch on the risks that ultimately proved so expensive to the US taxpayer. “Notwithstanding the pounding Treasury took today, there’s still much to their position on the regulatory structure (which really depends on the proposition that we’re not good at regulating complex financial (let alone non-financial) companies, but we’re pretty good at walling off the bank to protect the taxpayers),” concludes Clinton adviser Ellen Seidman in one 1997 memo.
Vladimir Putin is a dangerous foe. Bolstered by broad public support at home, it’s hard to determine just where he will stop. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in a pre-recorded interview on “Meet the Press” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to restore the Soviet Union, “and God knows where is the final destination.” Speaking with NBC’s David Gregory for a segment that will air Sunday, Yatsenyuk addressed concerns that Putin has started calling Ukraine “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia.” “President Putin has a dream to restore the Soviet Union,” he said, according to a partial transcript provided by NBC News. “And every day he goes further and further. And God knows where is the final destination.”
Yatsenyuk cited Putin’s 2005 address to the Russian Federal Assembly, when Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union “a major geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century. Part of the tragedy, Putin said, was that millions of Russian “co-citizens and compatriots” found themselves suddenly living in another country. Putin has used similar language as his justification for annexing Crimea and possibly moving further into eastern Ukraine. “I consider that the biggest disaster of this century would be restoring the Soviet Union under the auspices of President Putin,” Yatsenyuk said. Yatsenyuk also addressed news this week that Jews in eastern Ukraine were being told to register with local authorities. “Today… I made a clear statement urged Ukrainian military and security forces and Ukrainian Department of Homeland Security urgently to find these bastards and to bring them to justice,” he said.
Putin is a crafty devil. He is still winning most of what he wants in Ukraine, and he’s winning it more cheaply and more elegantly than he would by launching a full-scale military invasion. Last week’s agreement, which called on pro-Russia militias to end their occupation of government buildings, was probably only a speed bump on the way toward bringing all of Ukraine under Moscow’s influence. That’s not only the view of seasoned Russia watchers; it’s also the fear of many officials inside the Obama administration. President Obama could use a diplomatic win, but there wasn’t a shred of triumphalism — or even optimism — in his description of last week’s accord. “I don’t think we can be sure of anything,” Obama told reporters. “There is the possibility, the prospect, that diplomacy may de-escalate the situation…. But I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that.”
Doyle McManus writes for THE WASHINGTON POST: Or even given present performance. While Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Geneva drafting the joint agreement on Ukraine, Putin was speaking at a news conference in Moscow, and he wasn’t sounding like a man in the mood for concessions. “It’s New Russia,” he trumpeted. “Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times; they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows.” Actually, every Russian historian knows: Lenin drew those borders to make sure Ukraine’s population included plenty of reliable Russians. Putin said reports that Russian troops were among the insurgents in those cities were “rubbish.” He called the Ukrainian government illegitimate. And he said he had a duty to protect the people of what he called “the Russian southeast.”
He added that the upper house of Russia’s parliament had already authorized him to use military force — although, he added generously, he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. “He’s not compromising,” warned Fiona Hill, the Brookings Institution‘s ace Putinologist. “He’s looking for what the market will bear. He’s trying to see how much of Ukraine he can take, and he’ll settle for what he can get.” Does that mean additional military action? Not if Putin can get what he wants without it. In the short run, Hill and others say, Russia will continue to press for Ukrainian constitutional reforms that would give pro-Russia areas more autonomy and, if Moscow has its way, the right to secede. And Russia wants a delay in Ukraine’s presidential election scheduled for May 25, because the vote would make Kiev’s current provisional government much more legitimate in the eyes of the world. “He may not need to invade to get what he wants,” Hill told me. “He knows that if he doesn’t take military action, we’ll all say, ‘Thank God.’”
In that sense, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was mistaken a few weeks ago when he denounced Putin for behaving like a 19th century autocrat. Instead, the Russian president is a product of the 20th century KGB, where his career began. He knows that subversion is much cheaper than invasion. That may also be why Putin took a cautious step back from military action last week: The cost-benefit analysis was pretty clear. In Russia, the 2-month-old crisis has already taken an economic toll: a 12% drop in the Moscow stock index since February and an estimated $51 billon in capital flight in the first quarter. Last week, Russia’s finance minister announced that he had trimmed his projection for this year’s economic growth from 2.5% to 0.5%. The United States and the European Union have agreed that direct Russian military action would force them to respond with new economic sanctions, but without military action, that consensus fell apart. Putin “thinks the EU will back off, and he’s probably right,” Hill said. And one more factor, Hill noted: “The prospect of Ukrainians and Russians fighting each other didn’t make Russians very happy. A war could have played very badly at home.”
The best form of victory for Putin would be to have his cake and eat it too: to have a Ukraine that gives Moscow a veto over its foreign policy and keeps its economy tied to the east, without all the costs of a full-scale invasion. He’s on track toward that goal. The United States and its European allies can still push back through long and patient support for the government in Kiev and a costly effort to rescue Ukraine’s staggering economy. But it’s an asymmetrical contest. Putin’s interest in Ukraine is immediate and visceral; the outcome is central to his agenda as president. For Obama and other Western leaders, Ukraine is important but peripheral. “There is a battle for Ukraine, but it’s not going to be on a military battlefield,” Hill told me. “It’s going to be a game of wits. The question is: Can we outsmart Putin?” And, even more difficult, outsmart him on his own turf?
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser from 1977 to 1981. He suggests that regarding the Russian aggression against Ukraine, much depends on what Vladimir Putin does next. But what Putin does depends on not only his calculation of the likely NATO (and especially the U.S.) response but also his estimate of how fiercely the Ukrainian people would respond to any further escalation by Russia. And, to complete the circle, the Ukrainian response would be influenced by citizens’ reaction to any repetition of Putin’s Crimean aggression and by whether the nation believes that the United States and NATO are truly supportive. Putin’s thuggish tactics in seizing Crimea offer some hints regarding his planning. He knew in advance that his thinly camouflaged invasion would meet with popular support from the Russian majority in Crimea. He was not sure how the thin and light Ukrainian military units stationed there would react, so he went in masked like a Mafia gangster. In the event of serious Ukrainian resistance, he could disown the initiative and pull back.
His initial success may tempt him to repeat that performance more directly in the far eastern provinces of Ukraine. If successful, the conclusive third phase could then be directed, through a combination of political unrest and increasingly overt use of Russian forces, to overthrow the government in Kiev. The result would thus be similar to the two phases of Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland after Munich in 1938 and the final occupation of Prague and Czechoslovakia in early 1939. Much depends on how clearly the West conveys to the dictator in the Kremlin — a partially comical imitation of Mussolini and a more menacing reminder of Hitler — that NATO cannot be passive if war erupts in Europe. If Ukraine is crushed while the West is simply watching, the new freedom and security in bordering Romania, Poland and the three Baltic republics would also be threatened.
This does not mean that the West, or the United States, should threaten war. But Russia’s unilateral and menacing acts mean the West should promptly recognize the current government of Ukraine as legitimate. Uncertainty regarding its legal status could tempt Putin to repeat his Crimean charade. The West also should convey — privately at this stage, so as not to humiliate Russia — that the Ukrainian army can count on immediate and direct Western aid so as to enhance its defensive capabilities. There should be no doubt left in Putin’s mind that an attack on Ukraine would precipitate a prolonged and costly engagement, and Ukrainians should not fear that they would be left in the lurch. Meanwhile, NATO forces, consistent with the organization’s contingency planning, should be put on alert. High readiness for some immediate airlift to Europe of U.S. airborne units would be politically and militarily meaningful. If the West wants to avoid a conflict, there should be no ambiguity in the Kremlin as to what might be precipitated by further adventurist use of force in the middle of Europe.
In addition, such efforts to avert miscalculations that could lead to a war should be matched by a reaffirmation of the West’s desire for a peaceful accommodation with Russia regarding a joint effort to help Ukraine recover economically and stabilize politically. The West should reassure Russia that it is not seeking to draw Ukraine into NATO or to turn it against Russia. Ukrainians themselves can define the depth of their closeness to Europe and the scope of their economic cooperation with Russia, to the benefit of peace and stability in Europe. And after their May elections, they can revise some of the arrangements for a special status for Crimea, but they should not do so under duress or attack from a neighbor driven by imperial or personal ambitions.
Putin’s end game is anyone’s guess but the opinions of Russia-watchers should be given serious consideration. Not everyone sees the days of Perestroika and Glasnost as being beneficial for Russia. Vladimir Putin is one of these people. The very political, social and economic controls that disappeared with the Soviet Union are tucked away neatly in Putin’s breast pocket. It’s a game of global chess. One that Putin is playing very well. In September 2001, as the U.S. reeled from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vladimir Putin supported Washington’s imminent invasion of Afghanistan in ways that would have been inconceivable during the Cold War. He agreed that U.S. planes carrying humanitarian aid could fly through Russian air space. He said the U.S. military could use airbases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia. And he ordered his generals to brief their U.S. counterparts on their own ill-fated 1980s occupation of Afghanistan.
During Putin’s visit to President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch two months later, the U.S. leader, speaking at a local high school, declared his Russian counterpart “a new style of leader, a reformer…, a man who’s going to make a huge difference in making the world more peaceful, by working closely with the United States.” For a moment, it seemed, the distrust and antipathy of the Cold War were fading. Then, just weeks later, Bush announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, so that it could build a system in Eastern Europe to protect NATO allies and U.S. bases from Iranian missile attack. In a nationally televised address, Putin warned that the move would undermine arms control and nonproliferation efforts. “This step has not come as a surprise to us,” Putin said. “But we believe this decision to be mistaken.”
The sequence of events early in Washington’s relationship with Putin reflects a dynamic that has persisted through the ensuing 14 years and the current crisis in Ukraine: U.S. actions, some intentional and some not, sparking an overreaction from an aggrieved Putin. As Russia masses tens of thousands of troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border, Putin is thwarting what the Kremlin says is an American plot to surround Russia with hostile neighbors. Experts said he is also promoting “Putinism” – a conservative, ultra-nationalist form of state capitalism – as a global alternative to Western democracy. It’s also a dynamic that some current and former U.S. officials said reflects an American failure to recognize that while the Soviet Union is gone as an ideological enemy, Russia has remained a major power that demands the same level of foreign policy attention as China and other large nations – a relationship that should not just be a means to other ends, but an end in itself. “I just don’t think we were really paying attention,” said James F. Collins, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow in the late 1990s. The bilateral relationship “was seen as not a big deal.”
Putin was never going to be an easy partner. He is a Russian nationalist with authoritarian tendencies who, like his Russian predecessors for centuries, harbors a deep distrust of the West, according to senior U.S. officials. Much of his world view was formed as a KGB officer in the twilight years of the Cold War and as a government official in the chaotic post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s, which Putin and many other Russians view as a period when the United States repeatedly took advantage of Russian weakness. Since becoming Russia’s president in 2000, Putin has made restoring Russia’s strength – and its traditional sphere of influence – his central goal. He has also cemented his hold on power, systematically quashed dissent and used Russia’s energy supplies as an economic billy club against its neighbors. Aided by high oil prices and Russia’s United Nations Security Council veto, Putin has perfected the art of needling American presidents, at times obstructing U.S. policies.
Officials from the administrations of Presidents Bush and Barack Obama said American officials initially overestimated their potential areas of cooperation with Putin. Then, through a combination of overconfidence, inattention and occasional clumsiness, Washington contributed to a deep spiral in relations with Moscow. Bush and Putin’s post-2001 camaraderie foundered on a core dispute: Russia’s relationship with its neighbors. In November 2002, Bush backed NATO’s invitation to seven nations – including former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – to begin talks to join the Western alliance. In 2004, with Bush as a driving force, the seven Eastern European nations joined NATO. Putin and other Russian officials asked why NATO continued to grow when the enemy it was created to fight, the Soviet Union, had ceased to exist. And they asked what NATO expansion would do to counter new dangers, such as terrorism and proliferation. “This purely mechanical expansion does not let us face the current threats,” Putin said, “and cannot allow us to prevent such things as the terrorist attacks in Madrid or restore stability in Afghanistan.”
Thomas E. Graham, who served as Bush’s senior director for Russia on the National Security Council, said a larger effort should have been made to create a new post-Soviet, European security structure that replaced NATO and included Russia. “What we should have been aiming for – and what we should be aiming for at this point,” Graham said, “is a security structure that’s based on three pillars: the United States, a more or less unified Europe, and Russia.” Graham said small, incremental attempts to test Russian intentions in the early 2000s in Afghanistan, for example, would have been low-risk ways to gauge Putin’s sincerity. “We never tested Putin,” Graham said. “Our policy never tested Putin to see whether he was really committed to a different type of relationship.” But Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator John McCain and other conservatives, as well as hawkish Democrats, remained suspicious of Russia and eager to expand NATO. They argued that Moscow should not be given veto power over which nations could join the alliance, and that no American president should rebuff demands from Eastern European nations to escape Russian dominance.
Another core dispute between Bush and Putin related to democracy. What Bush and other American officials saw as democracy spreading across the former Soviet bloc, Putin saw as pro-American regime change. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, without U.N. authorization and over the objections of France, Germany and Russia, was a turning point for Putin. He said the war made a mockery of American claims of promoting democracy abroad and upholding international law. Putin was also deeply skeptical of U.S. efforts to nurture democracy in the former Soviet bloc, where the State Department and American nonprofit groups provided training and funds to local civil-society groups. In public speeches, he accused the United States of meddling. In late 2003, street protests in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, known as the Rose Revolution, led to the election of a pro-Western leader. Four months later, street protests in Ukraine that became known as the Orange Revolution resulted in a pro-Western president taking office there.
Putin saw both developments as American-backed plots and slaps in the face, so soon after his assistance in Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. officials. In 2006, Bush and Putin’s sparring over democracy intensified. In a press conference at the first G-8 summit hosted by Russia, the two presidents had a testy exchange. Bush said that the United States was promoting freedom in Iraq, which was engulfed in violence. Putin openly mocked him. “We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq,” Putin said, smiling as the audience erupted into laughter, “I will tell you quite honestly.” Bush tried to laugh off the remark. “Just wait,” he replied, referring to Iraq. Graham said the Bush administration telegraphed in small but telling ways that other foreign countries, particularly Iraq, took precedence over the bilateral relationship with Moscow.
In 2006, for example, the White House asked the Kremlin for permission for Bush to make a refueling stop in Moscow on his way to an Asia-Pacific summit meeting. But it made clear that Bush was not looking to meet with Putin, whom he would see on the sidelines of the summit. After Russian diplomats complained, Graham was sent to Moscow to determine if Putin really wanted a meeting and to make clear that if there was one, it would be substance-free. In the end, the two presidents met and agreed to ask their underlings to work on a nonproliferation package. “When the Russian team came to Washington in December 2006, in a fairly high-level … group, we didn’t have anything to offer,” Graham said. “We hadn’t had any time to think about it. We were still focused on Iraq.” Graham said that the Bush administration’s approach slighted Moscow. “We missed some opportunities in the Bush administration’s initial years to put this on a different track,” Graham said. “And then later on, some of our actions, intentional or not, sent a clear message to Moscow that we didn’t care.”
Bush’s relationship with Putin unraveled in 2008. In February, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia with the support of the United States – a step that Russia, a longtime supporter of Serbia, had been trying to block diplomatically for more than a decade. In April, Bush won support at a NATO summit in Bucharest for the construction of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Bush called on NATO to give Ukraine and Georgia a so-called Membership Action Plan, a formal process that would put each on a path toward eventually joining the alliance. France and Germany blocked him and warned that further NATO expansion would spur an aggressive Russian stance when Moscow regained power. In the end, the alliance simply issued a statement saying the two countries “will become members of NATO.” That compromise risked the worst of both worlds – antagonizing Moscow without giving Kiev and Tbilisi a roadmap to join NATO.
The senior U.S. official said these steps amounted to “three train wrecks” from Putin’s point of view, exacerbating the Russian leader’s sense of victimization. “Doing all three of those things in kind of close proximity – Kosovo independence, missile defense and the NATO expansion decisions – sort of fed his sense of people trying to take advantage of Russia,” he said. In August 2008, Putin struck back. After Georgia launched an offensive to regain control of the breakaway, pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, Putin launched a military operation that expanded Russian control of South Ossetia and a second breakaway area, Abkhazia. The Bush administration, tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, publicly protested but declined to intervene militarily in Georgia. Putin emerged as the clear winner and achieved his goal of standing up to the West.
After his 2008 election victory, Barack Obama carried out a sweeping review of Russia policy. Its primary architect was Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and vocal proponent of greater democracy in Russia who took the National Security Council position previously held by Thomas Graham. In a recent interview, McFaul said that when Obama’s new national security team surveyed the administration’s primary foreign policy objectives, they found that few involved Russia. Only one directly related to bilateral relations with Moscow: a new nuclear arms reduction treaty. The result, McFaul said, was that relations with Moscow were seen as important in terms of achieving other foreign policy goals, and not as important in terms of Russia itself. “So that was our approach,” he said. Obama’s new Russia strategy was called “the reset.” In July 2009, he traveled to Moscow to start implementing it.
In an interview with the Associated Press a few days before leaving Washington, Obama chided Putin, who had become Russia’s prime minister in 2008 after reaching his two-term constitutional limit as president. Obama said the United States was developing a “very good relationship” with the man Putin had anointed as his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and accused Putin of using “Cold War approaches” to relations with Washington. “I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new,” Obama said. In Moscow, Obama spent five hours meeting with Medvedev and only one hour meeting with Putin, who was still widely seen as the country’s real power. After their meeting, Putin said U.S.-Russian relations had gone through various stages. “There were periods when our relations flourished quite a bit and there were also periods of, shall we say, grayish mood between our two countries and of stagnation,” he said, as Obama sat a few feet away.
At first, the reset fared well. During Obama’s visit, Moscow agreed to greatly expand Washington’s ability to ship military supplies to Afghanistan via Russia. In April 2010, the United States and Russia signed a new START treaty, further reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. Later that year, Russia supported sweeping new U.N. economic sanctions on Iran and blocked the sale of sophisticated, Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Tehran. Experts said the two-year honeymoon was the result of the Obama administration’s engaging Russia on issues where the two countries shared interests, such as reducing nuclear arms, countering terrorism and nonproliferation. The same core issues that sparked tensions during the Bush administration – democracy and Russia’s neighbors – largely went unaddressed. In 2011, Putin accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of secretly organizing street demonstrations after disputed Russian parliamentary elections. Putin said Clinton had encouraged “mercenary” Kremlin foes. And he claimed that foreign governments had provided “hundreds of millions” of dollars to Russian opposition groups. “She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work,” Putin said.
McFaul called that a gross exaggeration. He said the U.S. government and American non-profit groups in total have provided tens of millions of dollars in support to civil society groups in Russia and former Soviet bloc countries since 1989. In 2012, Putin was elected to a third term as president and launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent and re-centralization of power. McFaul, then the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, publicly criticized the moves in speeches and Twitter posts. In the interview, McFaul blamed Putin for the collapse in relations. McFaul said the Russian leader rebuffed repeated invitations to visit Washington when he was prime minister and declined to attend a G-8 meeting in Washington after he again became president. Echoing Bush-era officials, McFaul said it was politically impossible for an American president to trade Russian cooperation on Iran, for example, for U.S. silence on democracy in Russia and Moscow’s pressuring of its neighbors. “We’re not going to do it if it means trading partnerships or interests with our partners or allies in the region,” McFaul said. “And we’re not going to do it if it means trading our speaking about democracy and human rights.”
Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that clashes over democracy ended any hopes of U.S.-Russian rapprochement, as they had in the Bush administration. “That fight basically vaporizes the relationship,” said Weiss. In 2013, U.S.-Russian relations plummeted. In June, Putin granted asylum to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obama, in turn, canceled a planned summit meeting with Putin in Moscow that fall. It was the first time a U.S. summit with the Kremlin had been canceled in 50 years. Last fall, demonstrators in Kiev began demanding that Ukraine move closer to the European Union. At the time, the Obama White House was deeply skeptical of Putin and paying little attention to the former Soviet bloc, according to Weiss. White House officials had come to see Russia as a foreign policy dead end, not a source of potential successes.
Deferring to European officials, the Obama administration backed a plan that would have moved Ukraine closer to the EU and away from a pro-Russian economic bloc created by Putin. Critics said it was a mistake to make Ukraine choose sides. Jack F. Matlock, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991, said that years of escalating protests by Putin made it clear he believed the West was surrounding him with hostile neighbors. And for centuries, Russian leaders have viewed a friendly Ukraine as vital to Moscow’s defense. “The real red line has always been Ukraine,” Matlock said. “When you begin to poke them in the most sensitive area, unnecessarily, about their security, you are going to get a reaction that makes them a lot less cooperative.” American experts said it was vital for the U.S. to establish a new long-term strategy toward Russia that does not blame the current crisis solely on Putin. Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center, argued that demonizing Putin reflected the continued failure of American officials to recognize Russia’s power, interest and importance. “Putin is a reflection of Russia,” Rojansky said. “This weird notion that Putin will go away and there will suddenly be a pliant Russia is false.”
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, called for a long-term strategy that exploits the multiple advantages the U.S. and Europe enjoy over Putin’s Russia. “I would much rather be playing our hand than his over the longer term,” the official said. “Because he has a number of, I think, pretty serious strategic disadvantages – a one-dimensional economy, a political system and a political elite that’s pretty rotten through corruption.” Matlock, the former U.S. ambassador, said it was vital for Washington and Moscow to end a destructive pattern of careless American action followed by Russian overreaction. “So many of the problems in our relationship really relate, I would say, to what I’d call inconsiderate American actions,” Matlock said. “Many of them were not meant to be damaging to Russia. … But the Russian interpretation often exaggerated the degree of hostility and overreacted.”
The original North America Treaty Organization, created as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and as a hedge against the revival of European nationalism,; it was rooted in the Western part of Europe and in North America. The 12 alliance members agreed that “an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all.” Eastern Europe had fallen under Soviet sway and there was concern that Moscow’s influence would creep westward.
For decades, NATO has expanded inexorably outward, taking on new members and new missions that have carried it far beyond its original mandate in Western Europe and deep into the former Soviet sphere. But Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has sent shivers down the spines of Eastern European countries from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south. NATO’s newest members have been left feeling vulnerable and wondering whether the world’s most powerful military alliance is truly committed to their defense. Concerns have been especially acute in the three Baltic nations that were once part of the Soviet empire and now fear that they could be next on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hit list.
NATO has long resisted placing much of a footprint in the Baltics, worried that doing so would jeopardize ever-precarious cooperation with Moscow. Now that that cooperation is on life support, NATO announced this week that it plans to substantially boost its air, sea and ground presence in the Baltic states. After meetings with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said in an interview with Washington Post editors Friday that he expected a plan to dispatch U.S. ground troops to Poland, and likely the Baltics, to be announced next week. The decision has been made on a political level, and military planners are working out details, Siemoniak said.
A Pentagon spokesman said in a statement Friday that the United States is “considering a range of additional measures” to bolster air, maritime and ground readiness in Europe. “Some of those activities will be pursued bilaterally with individual NATO nations. Some will be pursued through the Alliance itself. All of them will be rotational in nature,” Rear Adm. John Kirby said. NATO has been deliberately vague about plans for the positioning of its ground forces in Eastern Europe, a strategy that is in part intended to keep Moscow guessing but also reflects the lingering divisions within NATO over how far to go in provoking the Russian bear. Like Ukraine, the three Baltic nations —Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have significant Russian-speaking populations, people who Putin has suggested should, by all rights, be living in Russia. But unlike Ukraine, those three nations joined NATO in 2004.
The decision to increase the NATO presence has brought some relief in the lightly defended Baltics, but also questions about why NATO did not act earlier to try to deter Russia with a more robust show of strength on its eastern flank. “Of course, we always wanted to see a more permanent presence from our NATO allies here. But before, it was not considered so urgent,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said in an interview. “Now, the circumstances have changed.” Paet said that as part of NATO’s renewed commitment to the Baltics, NATO warplanes would, for the first time, regularly police the skies from an Estonian air base. Other measures are still under discussion, he said, including the stationing of U.S. ground forces in his country — a development that Paet said he would welcome.
NATO is a mutual defense organization, meaning that an attack on one nation is considered an attack on all. But for years after the tiny Baltic nations joined the alliance, NATO stalled in developing plans for how to defend its newest members. The alliance also avoided training exercises in the Baltics, out of deference to Putin’s complaints that NATO was reaching too far into his orbit. The defense plans were drawn up only after Russian forces entered Georgia in 2008, and major training exercises remained largely off the table until the recent crisis. Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO under presidents Obama and George W. Bush, said the delay was a mistake and that the alliance still is not doing enough to deter Russian advances. “It’s a reactive stance. We’re saying to the Russians, ‘You do more, and we’ll do more,’ ” Volker said. “Frankly, Russia’s not impressed by that.”
Other NATO members have openly campaigned for the alliance to seize on the current crisis to make a major and lasting statement in Eastern Europe. Poland has been the most outspoken, with Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski calling for the alliance to permanently station 10,000 troops in his country. “For a long time, we’ve been considering the prospect of NATO, post-Afghanistan,” said Siemoniak, the Polish defense minister. “Now we have an answer to this question. It is that NATO must be able to respond to what is happening in Europe.” Russia has argued that any mass deployment of NATO forces in Eastern European would violate the 1997 Founding Act, which covers the terms of cooperation between Moscow and NATO. Polish officials say that with 40,000 Russian troops allegedly massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, that deal has been voided. But that view is not widely shared in NATO, and the alliance has been careful to avoid doing anything that could give Russia a pretext for escalation. Germany, which has extensive economic ties to Russia, has led the push for restraint.
“If we go down the direction of military threats, it’s easier to call our bluff,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, who favors the use of stiff economic sanctions. But Stelzenmüller said German officials understand what makes Eastern European leaders so nervous, given the seemingly erratic nature of Putin’s recent behavior. “The logic that Putin seems to be operating under is not the same logic that led us to believe that we could cooperate with and have pragmatic compromises with Russia,” she said. When Putin held a televised question-and-answer session Thursday, it was evident thatNATO’s push into Eastern Europe still rankled. “We were once promised in Munich that after the unification of Germany, no expansion of NATO would happen to the east,” the Russian president said. “Then it started to expand by adding former Warsaw Pact countries, former U.S.S.R. countries. I asked: ‘Why are you doing that?’ They told me, ‘It is not your business.’ ”
If NATO had expanded further still to Ukraine, Putin said, Russia would have lost critical access to the Black Sea. But Ukraine did not join NATO, and now the country’s territorial integrity has been compromised. Baltic officials say they do not believe that Russia is planning operations in their countries like the one in Ukraine, and they cite the threat of a NATO response as a key reason. “Article Five is absolutely a red line,” said Andrejs Pildegovics, Latvia’s state secretary for foreign affairs, referring to the provision in NATO’s charter that guarantees collective defense. “All allies should have full protection.” But there is no question that Baltic officials are deeply apprehensive about what could happen if Russia succeeds in breaking off even more of Ukraine, after annexing Crimea last month.
This week, the head of Latvia’s national security committee accused Russian agents of quietly surveying Latvian opinion on the country’s eastern border — behavior that mirrors the lead-up to the Crimean invasion. About a quarter of Latvia’s 2 million people are ethnically Russian, but Latvian voters in 2012 rejected a referendum that would have made Russian the country’s second official language. In the nation’s Russian-heavy east, there have been periodic calls for greater autonomy from the capital, and officials are worried that those calls will now grow louder, courtesy of covert Russian backing. “There’s a huge difference between Ukraine and the Baltics,’’ said Tom Rostoks, a political scientist at the University of Latvia. “But after Crimea, we got the idea that almost anything could happen.”
The Texas justice system strikes again. An inmate with the critical thinking ability of a first-grader has been waiting some 34 years for a new trial. And now he’ll wait some more. In a recent ruling, a judge decided that Jerry Hartfield’s constitutional right to a speedy trial had not been violated — despite being imprisoned since 1980 on a murder conviction that had been overturned — because, in essence, Hartfield did not ask for a new trial. Judge Craig Estlinbaum found the state had been negligent in failing to retry the 56-year-old man, and that his ability to adequately defend himself had diminished over time, but he ultimately ruled Hartfield was responsible for his own incarceration because he failed to seek a new trial.
The decision is the latest in a series of confusing and baffling proceedings that have kept the Bay City man behind bars since his 1976 conviction for robbing and killing a bus station worker in 1976. Hartfield, whose IQ has been estimated at 51, claims he is innocent and that police used a false confession against him. He was sentenced to death, but his conviction was overturned in 1980 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal, which ruled a juror had been improperly dismissed for voicing concerns about capital punishment. Prosecutors twice tried to persuade the court to reconsider that ruling, but failed. And then things began to legally fall apart for Hartfield.
Then-Gov. Mark White, at the urging of prison officials, commuted Hartfield’s sentence from death to life imprisonment in 1983. Whether he had been informed that Hartfield’s conviction had been overturned is not known, according to Hartfield’s current attorney, Jeffrey Newberry of the Texas Innocence Project. What is now known, however, is that the governor’s commutation was issued in error, Newberry said. “He couldn’t commute the sentence because there was nothing left to commute,” Newberry told the Daily News Friday. “Mr. Hartfield should have had a new trial. But he didn’t get one.” He didn’t get one because he had no legal counsel after his trial. “So he just sat there,” Newberry said.
Fast-forward to 2006, when a fellow inmate told Hartfield that he should have received a new trial after his conviction was overturned. “Someone helped him write documents on his own saying ‘Hey, I never got my new trial,”’ Newberry said. Eventually, his handwritten legal filings resulted in him receiving a court-appointed attorney while he fought to be released. Over the next eight years, his case bounced from federal court to state courts. Meanwhile, the murder weapon, a pick-axe, has been lost and witnesses have died. In a jailhouse interview last year, Hartfield said he was not angry about what happened to him. He became a Christian behind bars, he said. “Being a God-fearing person, he doesn’t allow me to be bitter,” Hartfield said. “He allows me to be forgiving.” Newberry said he is appealing last week’s most recent ruling in Hartfield’s case.
He disputes Judge Estlinbaum assertion that no evidence was submitted of Hartfield’s mental incapacity. He also disputes the logic of the decision, saying the judge essentially ruled “Mr. Hartfield’s right to a speedy trial had not been violated … because the fact that he waited (to request a new trial) was an indication that he didn’t want a new trial,” Newberry said. Separate proceedings to retry the criminal case are also underway, the attorney said. A hearing on that matter is scheduled for next month.