The price of failed American leadership?

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," March 22, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," with Vladimir Putin showing no signs of backing down, President Obama ratchets up sanctions on Russia. Is the Ukraine crisis and growing global disorder the price of failed American leadership?

Plus, Democrats wage war on the Koch brothers with Harry Reid leading the charge. What they hope to accomplish heading into the midterm elections.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community. The basic principles that govern relations between nations and Europe and around the world must be upheld in the 21st century. That includes respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.


GIGOT: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

That was President Obama on Thursday announcing a new round of sanctions against Russia and warning that there could be more to come as Russian President Vladimir Putin showed no signs of backing down from his Ukraine land grab, signing legislation Friday to complete Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Wall Street Journal editorial board member, Matt Kaminski, just came back from Crimea, and joins me now.

Welcome back, Matt.


GIGOT: So 97 percent of Crimean voters voted to join the Soviet Union -- excuse me, Russia.

KAMINSKI: Freudian slip.


GIGOT: Freudian slip, Russia. Was it a free and fair election?

KAMINSKI: I think you're shortchanging them. In one city of Sevastopol, it was 122 percent of eligible votes who voted to join Russia. The serious point is in Crimea you did have the Russian majority of about 58 percent.

GIGOT: Right.

KAMINSKI: And before this crisis, I would say maybe a fifth supported separatist parties, separatist causes. What happened --


GIGOT: Separatism from Ukraine.

KAMINSKI: Exactly. But what happened is really a model of the way that Vladimir Putin does politics in Russia. Put on hyper speed for Crimea. He went in only two and a half weeks ago with the military.

GIGOT: Right.

KAMINSKI: He closed down the information space, meaning that you couldn't watch any television but Russian television, get any other kind of news. There was no campaign against joining Russia.

GIGOT: Right.

KAMINSKI: And in fact, the ballot itself had two questions. Do you want to join Russia or do you want to adopt a separatist constitution from 22 years ago that would make it possible for --


GIGOT: There was no option to say we'll stay in Ukraine?

KAMINSKI: There was no status quo option. But there was a lot of intimidation of people, not only the Crimea Tatars, who are a minority, who want to be part of Ukraine --

GIGOT: Right.

KAMINSKI: -- and a very sizable Ukrainian-speaking population. But I met a lot of young educated ethnic Russians who said, I'm a Russian, I'm not threatened here in any way, but I want to stay in Ukraine, I'm a Ukrainian citizen. And that was not an option given these people. So, no, it was not legitimate or free and fair.

GIGOT: So President Obama and Chancellor Merkel of Germany both say they're not going to accept the annexation as fait accompli. But realistically speaking, is Crimea now, for the foreseeable future, part of Russia?

KAMINSKI: As long as Vladimir Putin or someone like him is in charge in Russia, Crimea is part of Russia. The Ukraines have given up on their - - they pulled out their military forces this week.

GIGOT: Right.

KAMINSKI: And I think the real challenge is now, how do you save the Ukraine itself.

GIGOT: Let's talk about that because there have been Russian reports of Russian troops along the border and maybe going into eastern or southern Ukraine if they get the order. Would the Ukrainian military have any capacity to defend itself from that kind of incursion?

KAMINSKI: I think the Ukraine military would be an underdog. Remember, Ukraine just went through a three-month revolution.

GIGOT: Right.

KAMINSKI: Putin struck Ukraine at its weakest. But the Ukraine military has about 150,000 people who served in the military. They have just mobilized. They have had some time to prepare out east. What is going on in eastern Ukraine is Russian-speaking, but remember, ethically, Ukrainian regions is that you have infiltrators coming across the border from Russia. You have a really intensive Russian special operations. KGB --


GIGOT: You reported when were over there that there were some of these Russians coming in. They were actually Russian citizens who had been brought in, bused in, to wave the flag and --



GIGOT: -- they wanted secession.

KAMINSKI: And the ones who were picking fights with people, the guy who raised the flag on the city hall in Harka (ph), which is the second- biggest city in Ukraine, was a Russian citizen who was from across the border in Russia itself.

There is some support for Russia in these parts. There are definitely a lot of Russian speakers. They also watch Russian television.

GIGOT: Right.

KAMINSKI: But there was never a separatist problem in this part of Ukraine until a few weeks ago.

GIGOT: Ukraine has now asked the United States for military aid. So far, not forthcoming. Would that make a difference militarily? I guess it would make some difference. But would it make a bigger psychological impact?

KAMINSKI: I think it would be very important for the U.S. to show that the survival of Ukraine -- we're going to do everything that we can to make sure that this country gets to decide its own future. And the future it wants is to be a normal, free, transparent democratic place. Now, we should be providing the military with aid. If we don't provide aid -- and there are countries, allied countries in NATO that will. For example, Poland has a fairly sizable military. It's Ukraine's western neighbor. Also --


GIGOT: And Poland is a member of NATO.

KAMINSKI: Absolutely. So I think Poles will not stand by and let Ukraine be carved up anymore than it has been now.

GIGOT: Now, you are a Russian speaker and you watched Russian television when you were over there. What does Russian television -- it's obviously controlled by the Kremlin substantially. But what does it say about Western Europe, about the Ukraine leadership, and about the United States?

KAMINSKI: Russian TV is very slick. They really know how to do this very well. And Putin has very good political -- they call them technologists. But you have to understand that Russian television and now the Internet, radio, as well, has been pushing one message over and over again. The message is that the government in Kiev are fascists who want to oppress Russians. It says that what happened in Kiev was illegitimate.

GIGOT: And a coup.

KAMINSKI: Was a coup, but it was done by the U.S. and Europe, and that Russia is being welcomed with open arms in Crimea, but also in eastern Ukraine because there is a real threat to Russians there.

GIGOT: What is the message about the United States briefly?

KAMINSKI: It's basically this is all the U.S.'s fault, that we are -- that Russia is in a -- is competing with the U.S. for control of Ukraine and Ukraine is our brother and we can't let it go.

GIGOT: It's a nationalist message.

KAMINSKI: Very nationalist, but creating a kind of reality in a does not exist on the ground in Ukraine, which is actually a fairly nice place these days and very tolerant and multi-ethnic, multi-lingual. But in Russian minds, it is preparing them, I think, for more conflict and possibly a major war.

GIGOT: All right. Thanks so much, Matt.

When we come back, the Ukraine crisis and growing global disorder. Is Russia's new aggression the price of failed American leadership?



VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: President Obama wanted me to come personally to make it clear what you already know, that under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, we will respond. We will respond to any aggression against a NATO ally.


GIGOT: Vice President Joe Biden in Lithuania this week reassuring our eastern European allies that the United States stands with them in the face of Russian aggression. So just how confident should they be?

We're back with Matt Kaminski. Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; and foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stevens, also joins us.

So, Bret, let's step back a bit, kind of bigger picture. How significant an event for European security and American security is this territorial acquisition, the first since I think the end of World War II by Vladimir Putin?

BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: It's the most significant since 1991 since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Far more significant than the very bloody events in the Balkans in the 1990s when Yugoslavia was breaking up into several pieces.


STEPHENS: Because this is a great power confrontation. This is not a question of small, out-of-the-way countries with insubstantial armies killing one another. This is the revival of Russia as a major power trying to make a play in a strategically vital region of the world. The Crimea is Russia's -- historically, its access to warm-water ports. There's a great deal of oil in the Black Sea. And it raises very significant issue, which Joe Biden alluded to, about other post-Soviet states like the Baltic States --

GIGOT: Right.

STEPHEN: like the Baltic States, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia --


STEPHENS: -- now members of NATO and which we are obliged to defend.

GIGOT: What do you think Putin's goal is?

STEPHENS: Putin's ultimate goal is to reconstitute as much of the old Soviet Union as he can, minus state planning of the economy and all of the encumbrances of Communism. Putin is -- sees himself as a new Russian czar with designs on the European continent as a major Eurasian player. And whether we stop him now or forcefully counteract what he's done is going to have an affect going forward, not for year, but for decades, Paul.

GIGOT: Matt, there is an argument out there, you hear it from Russia, but you also hear it from some Americans, that the cause of this is actually Russian insecurity, that we caused this because we've expanded NATO not -- from the border of Germany to Poland, to the Baltic States, and therefore we gave this Russia this sense that it's surrounded. Is that at all true?

KAMINSKI: I think blaming ourselves only says something about us, that we want to excuse Vladimir Putin's misbehavior, as we have over the years. The bottom line is that Vladimir Putin is doing what he's doing for all those reasons but also because of his own insecurity. He's terrified about what happened in Ukraine, the fact that a country very similar to his might become a democracy. His economy is slowing down dramatically. He needs a distraction from inevitable trouble in Russia itself. And that's also why he's moving against Ukraine and trying to gin up this nationalism.

But more broadly, NATO did not expand to Ukraine. Remember that five years ago, we denied Georgia and Ukraine --

GIGOT: And Ukraine.

KAMINSKI: -- a very simple first step into NATO. Since then, Vladimir Put has invaded Georgia and invaded Ukraine. Our weakness has been an invitation to his aggression.

GIGOT: On that point, Dan, you've been very tough on the president --


GIGOT: -- and his leadership, failed leadership and, yet, some liberals would come back at you and say, hey, look, this is nothing about Obama, this is Putin. Why blame anything having to do with Barack Obama for Putin's aggression? What is your point about Obama and American leadership, may perhaps having invited this?

HENNINGER: Well, I think that Putin has been sitting there watching America's president behave in areas like Syria, when he declined to bomb Assad's air fields, and decided that if we were going to pull back and as part of Obama's ideology for the United States to kind of just go alongside international institutions, he would test it. He would move forward. And he's done that now. And I think he's not only did it, he's thrown down the gauntlet to the leadership in the West. It's not only the western Europeans, but it's the United States. And the western Europeans, I think, have been making it pretty clear that although they would do some economic damage to themselves if they proceed with sanctions against the Russians, some their leaders, Angela Merkel especially, have made it clear they would be willing to do it if there would be so-to-speak burden sharing on taking a hit. This is not going to happen though, Paul, unless the president of the United States gets out front of the Europeans and leads them in that direction. And so far, Obama has not done that.

STEPHENS: Paul, people ask what does Syria have to do with Ukraine.

GIGOT: Right.

STEPHENS: You know, there is no causal relationship. I would disagree. I think the relationship is environmental. Remember the broken windows theory of policing? When people see disorder at the surface level --

GIGOT: Right.

STEPHENS: -- it creates deeper disorders. That's precisely what's happening now. China's aggression in the South China Sea, the collapse of the Syria state --

GIGOT: Right.

STEPHENS: -- and the civil war taking place, the capitulation with the negotiations with Iran, all of this is creating an environment of global disorder that is an invitation to a range of states that want to revise the global order to take advantage of what is clearly Western indecision, weakness and desire to --


GIGOT: Almost three years left in this president's term. What can he do to reclaim the initiative and stop that fraying of global order?

STEPHENS: The most significant challenge that is going to confront him now is whether the United States will accept Iran as a de facto nuclear weapon state. That's exactly what they did with this temporary agreement. We'll find out in six months whether that will happen.

KAMINSKI: I would add to that that we need a new strategy for Europe and a commitment to NATO, and to push back Putin and hit him hard.

GIGOT: OK, thank you. With sanctions, I assume you mean?


GIGOT: When we come back, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid heading the charge, Democrats wage war on the Koch brothers. What is behind their attack strategy and will it make a difference in the midterms.



SEN. HARRY REID, D-NEV.: This is about two very wealthy brothers who intend to buy their own Congress, a Congress beholden to their money and bound to enact their radical philosophy.


GIGOT: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid earlier this month, denouncing billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch from the Senate floor. The brothers, whose group Americans for Prosperity spent a reported $122 million in the 2012 elections, are well-known for the support of conservative candidates and causes. And as the 2014 midterm elections approach, the Senate's top Democrat is leading a party-wide effort to silence them.

Wall Street Journal Potomac Watch columnist, Kim Strassel, joins us with more.

So, Kim, it's not every day you see the majority leader attack two businessmen in such personal terms. What are they up to?

KIM STRASSEL, POTOMAC WATCH COLUMNIST: Well, this is a sign of desperation on Harry Reid's part, Paul. Look, the story here is that the Kochs helped found some groups, outside conservative groups that are now playing very effectively in a lot of races in which there are vulnerable Democrats. They're talking about Obamacare, bringing up issues that voters want to hear. Harry Reid doesn't like this. And so there are two things going on here. One, this is an attempt to change the conversation, to suggest that it is all about, as he said, evil wealthy Americans, special interests trying to buy an election. It's also, I think, about Harry Reid trying to scare his own donors into giving some more money for this race because right now the Democrat I go base is quite dispirited about the midterm.

GIGOT: What about the argument they're making that the Kochs, because of their wealth, have undue influence over American politics, and therefore, we need to rein them in somehow so they don't have that influence.

STRASSEL: I mean, the interesting thing about the Kochs here is, look, they have, again, helped found these groups that are doing nothing more than talking about the issues that Americans want to hear, about the economy, about Obamacare. This is a huge contrast, Paul. For instance, when G.E. goes and hires a lobbyist, it's very transactional. They are asking for a subsidy.

GIGOT: Right.

STRASSEL: When the unions say we'll give money to Democrats, they're saying if you'll give us Card Check.

GIGOT: But wait a minute, Kim.

STRASSEL: The Kochs aren't doing --


GIGOT: But you and I can't go out and spend $100 million on an election. Most Americans can't. The Kochs can because they have the money. What about the charge that that gives them undue influence over politics?

STRASSEL: First of all, money is speech. And also, what's interesting here, Paul, we don't actually know how much money the Kochs are spending. They founded a group like Americans for Prosperity which, by the way, has 90,000 donors and 2.3 million members. So because some of this is not disclosed, it's not actually for certain how much Koch money is going into this.

But the bigger point is money is speech, they're putting issues on the table, and American voters get to decide.

GIGOT: And you also have Democrats -- don't complain about George Soros or Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire who is going to spend -- raise $50 million and spend $50 million of his own money in this election.

HENNINGER: Or the big unions, who are always in the top-10 list of contributors to these elections.

I think, largely, what is going on here, Paul, is this is about the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United, which said that corporations and private groups, like this --

GIGOT: And unions.

HENNINGER: -- and unions, could financially participate in elections. The Democrats are absolutely crazy over this. They hate it because it basically leveled the playing field. It allowed a lot of conservative groups to join. Like the Tea Party groups. That's what the IRS investigations are all about. And I think what Harry Reid is doing and what the IRS thing was about is intimidating. The Kochs won't be intimidated, but other donors at levels below them might be intimidated if they think they will be singled out on the floor of the Senate or criticized in this way, drive them off the playing field, and it allows the Democrats at least a marginal advantage in some of these tight elections that Kim was describing.

GIGOT: Kim, do you think this will work politically?

STRASSEL: You know, I don't. Here is the thing. Most Americans don't know who the Kochs are.

GIGOT: Right.

STRASSEL: And when you have these Democratic candidates out talking about them, they're not really paying attention, especially this early in the midterm cycle.

Again, I think what Harry Reid is trying to do is push his own donors to match some of that Koch money.

GIGOT: Well, and he might.

STRASSEL: And that actually may have a greater impact on the race because, you know, this is an issue that does tend to really wind up a lot of liberals. And it could inspire them to open their pocketbooks.

GIGOT: But it does give the lie to the idea that somehow only -- that the rich are dominating politics if all Harry Reid wants is other rich folks to write him checks.



GIGOT: All right. We have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits and Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits and Misses" of the week -- Dan?

HENNINGER: Well, Paul, for the last two weeks, the biggest thing in the news has been Putin's takeover of Crimea, threats to his neighbors, and how the U.S. and the Western world will respond. I'm scrolling through the news and the next thing I see is there is the president of the United States on ESPN filling out his March Madness bracket and making it clear how much he knows about college basketball. So the world is burning and he's telling us how much he watches hoops.


HENNINGER: Give this man a fiddle.



STRASSEL: Everyone it seems is getting on board with President Obama's election-year themes, even National Aeronautics and Space Administration. My miss goes to that agency, which rather than dreaming up bold space adventures, has been blowing taxpayer dollars on a new study that purports to study the demise of civilizations and to say that if American wants to avoid the fate of Rome, we need to reduce inequality and also stop using natural resources. Sound familiar?


GIGOT: Bret?

STEPHENS: This is a big hit to astrophysicists everywhere, but particularly Alan Guth of MIT and John Kovac of Harvard. This week, it was announced that they have empirical evidence to confirm what is a standard model for how the universe came into being. Astrophysicists is the South Pole peered 13.8 billion years back in time to find gravitational waves confirming a certain view of the Big Bang. It's an amazing discovery. And it reminds us that part of science is enjoying the wonder of it all.

GIGOT: Bigger scoop than I've ever had, Bret, as a journalist.

And remember, if you have your own hit or miss, please send it to us at And be sure to follow us on Twitter, JERonFNC.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel. Thanks to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Hope to see you right here next week.

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