News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
The Russian seizure of Crimea—and let’s face it: it’s a done deal—is not a good thing for world peace and stable international relations. By this weekend, when the provocative referendum takes place (under Russian military occupation, of course, and contrary to Ukraine’s constitution), Vladimir Putin will have a fig leaf of democratic support for his Crimea operation. But it will lead to howls of outrage from neoconservatives, hawks and pro-NATO advocates inside the United States. As a result, it will be exceedingly difficult for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to engage in creative diplomacy with Russia on issues including Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.
But does that mean that the United States should call for a revolution in Russia? Bring Ukraine into NATO? Step up military exercises all across Eastern Europe? Take steps to permanently isolate Russia’s economy? No, of course not. But that’s what the hawks are calling for.
Inside the White House, Obama may be thinking: Okay, let Putin have his gosh-darned Crimea, and let’s get on with it. But he can’t, and won’t, ever say anything like that. As time goes on, Obama will be buffeted by his ever-present right-wing critics over Ukraine, and those critics will use every opportunity to propose and defend a long list of aggressive steps that the United States can take in response—steps that, while they’ll do nothing to reverse Putin’s indefensible Ukraine policy, are laundry-list items that they want anyway. And given Obama’s all-too-frequent willingness to meet his critics halfway, they just might get them.
Among Republicans, the libertarians and so-called “realists” have cut Obama some slack. Robert Gates, the discredited former CIA chieftain who was picked as secretary of defense by George W. Bush and then inexplicably retained by Obama, told a shocked Fox News host, Chris Wallace, that Crimea is “gone”:
“You think Crimea’s gone?” “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace asked.
“I do,” Gates replied. “I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hand.”
He’s no doubt right about that. Henry Kissinger, the über-realist (and butcher of Vietnam) suggested in an even-toned op-ed in The Washington Post that rather than fight over Ukraine, the United States and Russia ought to see the country “as a bridge between them,” and he said that Obama and Putin shouldn’t “compete in posturing.”
And the Pauls, father and son (Ron and Rand) have pretty much written off Ukraine and told their fellow Republicans—provided that the GOP still considers the Pauls to be members in good standing with the GOP—to lay off Ukraine. According to Daddy Paul, who no doubt would rather go about the business of getting rid of the income tax and abolishing Medicare and Social Security, Americans are “sick and tired of the U.S. government getting involved in every crisis that arises.” (His column was entitled: “Leave Ukraine alone!”) For good measure, appearing on the propagandistic Russian outlet RT, Paul said that it was “global bankers” who want the United States to get involved in Ukraine. And Paul fils, the senator from Kentucky, commented intelligently, in an interview with The Washington Post: “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.”
But then: guess what? Under pressure from hawks, who don’t like the Pauls’ libertarian/isolationist POV, Rand Paul decided that, oops, we really do need to punish Putin, big time. In a Time magazine op-ed, Paul said:
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a gross violation of that nation’s sovereignty and an affront to the international community. His continuing occupation of Ukraine is completely unacceptable, and Russia’s President should be isolated for his actions.… Putin must be punished for violating the Budapest Memorandum, and Russia must learn that the U.S. will isolate it if it insists on acting like a rogue nation.
And then, wow! Paul backed every single measure proposed by hawks to “punish” Putin, including tough economic sanctions, reinstating the missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, imposing bans on visas for Russian officials, expelling Russia from the G-8 and more.
Sounds like “tweaking” to me!
Of course, the pressure from the hawks on someone like Paul is effective because Rand Paul wants to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016, the chances of which are less than the chance that Putin will give Crimea as a gift to Poland. But Obama, too, is under pressure from hawks, and it isn’t at all clear that he won’t listen. Not that Obama will use the military against Putin, but he might give the hawks a few of the items on their laundry list.
And the hawks are lining up. Besides Paul, other would-be candidates for the GOP presidential nomination have weighed in, too, including Rob Portman and Bobby Jindal. Writing in Forbes, Portman, not generally regarded as a foreign policy expert, issued a call for strengthening and expanding NATO, including in Ukraine:
Increased training exercises with our NATO allies will improve interoperability between our forces and reassure them of our commitment. In addition, we should ensure that NATO’s doors remain open to all who qualify for membership; NATO should stand with countries that choose a democratic path and whose forces serve alongside NATO troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
An editorial in The Wall Street Journal suggests that the battle of Ukraine be carried directly into Russia itself. “Kiev’s best revenge would be to become an inspiration for Russia’s freedom fighters,” it says, citing the visit to Kiev by the former Russian oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Said the editorial:
The former Yukos oil tycoon, who spent a decade in Mr. Putin’s prisons for trying to create political competition in Russia, has spoken little in public since his December release. So it was all the more remarkable that he chose Kiev’s revolutionary square for his coming out party. “Glory to the people of a new and democratic Ukraine!” he began. Before he could go on, the crowd chanted “Russia, rise up!”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens says:
Vladimir Putin isn’t playing by Mr. Obama’s idea of 21st-century rules. The right response to a Russian power play is a power play of our own. Ballistic missile defenses on NATO’s eastern flank would be a good place to start.
In USA Today, Paula Dobriansky and David Rivkin say:
While going to war with Russia over Ukraine is unthinkable, the U.S., Britain, France and Germany should at least mitigate the damage to the cause of non-proliferation and international law by imposing the most robust set of economic, financial and diplomatic sanctions on Moscow.
You can’t swing a dead cat in Washington without knocking over another advocate for getting tough with Putin. They include Charles Krauthammer, the ubiquitous Fred Hiatt and Eric Edelman, who, writing in The Weekly Standard, wants NATO to get involved in boosting Ukraine, and who concludes with this sweeping call for remilitarizing the United States and NATO:
A…necessary step is to strengthen NATO’s deterrent posture and ability to reassure allies. Reinforcing the NATO air policing mission in the Baltics is a good beginning, but this will also require a thorough reconsideration by the alliance of the self-abnegating undertakings it assumed at the time of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. The alliance should consider whether and how it wants to position ground combat forces on the territory of the former Warsaw Pact states that now are members of NATO. It should also reconsider the so-called three no’s—no intention, no plan, no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the new NATO members. Bringing NATO military power closer to the borders of Russia would impose a real cost on the Russian military and might cause nationalists who support Putin’s current course to reconsider. All of this would need to be accompanied by a large increase in the defense budget, much like the one Jimmy Carter obtained after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A jolt to the budget—at least to the levels proposed by Secretary Gates in 2011—would signal an end to the relative decline in U.S. military power over the past four years that, in Secretary Hagel’s words, has meant that “we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.” That would send a powerful and unwelcome message to those in both Moscow and Beijing who are betting on the end of the unipolar world.
Let’s hope that Obama was too busy with his appearance on “Between Two Ferns” to have paid attention to Edelman.
Read Next: Tom Tomorrow sketches the Ukraine crisis from a neocon perspective.
Plain, old-fashioned capitalism will prevent a new cold war between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and Russia’s gobbling up of the Crimean region. Capitalism, plus the fact that probably not one American in a thousand could locate Crimea on a map, and even the most hard-headed US political analysts have trouble coming up with a decent definition of what US interests in Ukraine might be.
Helping to contain the crisis is the fact that Russia, Europe and to a lesser extent the United States are tied together in a powerful web of financial and economic ties that didn’t exist, say, during the real Cold War. Their influence runs counter to the many, many cries from hawks to impose tough economic sanctions on Russia, as if the giant Eurasian power were a small “rogue state.” The Washington Post, for instance, said in an editorial:
Some argue that the West lacks the means to damage the Putin regime or that the United States cannot act without Europe, but neither claim is true. Banking sanctions—denying Russians and their banks access to the U.S. financial system—could deal a powerful blow. Mr. Obama must respond to Mr. Putin with measures that force the Russian ruler to rethink his options.
But, as CNN reports:
Russia is the European Union’s third-biggest trading partner after the United States and China, with goods and services worth more than $500 billion exchanged in 2012. About 75% of all foreign direct investment in Russia originates in EU member states, according to the European Commission.
In addition, Russia is the single biggest supplier of energy to the European Union. British energy firm BP is the second-largest shareholder in Russia’s leading oil producer Rosneft, and some of the biggest energy companies in Germany, the Netherlands and France are invested in a joint venture with Russian gas giant Gazprom.
And, in a lengthy interview in The American Interest, Zbigniew Brzezinski points with regret to the fact that British bankers, who have large deposits of Russian cash—particularly from Russian oligarchs—are resisting any sort of confrontation over Ukraine:
The British seem inclined to argue, “Well, there’s a lot of Russian money in our banks.”… The bankers doubtless have a lot of influence, particularly in political systems in which money is increasingly the mechanism that oils the “democratic process.”
Earlier, the BBC had reported that a document carried by a top British official read: “The U.K. should not support for now trade sanctions or close London’s financial center to Russians.”
The New York Times, in a long March 7 piece analyzing US and European business interests in Russia and their effect on the politics of the situation, quoted several executives with Western firms who clearly want to cool the crisis talk:
European businesses “have no interests in any deterioration of the current international situation linked to Ukraine,” Frank Schauff, the chief executive of the Association of European Businesses in Russia, said on Friday. “We call upon all parties to engage in a constructive dialogue, which will secure stability, welfare and economic growth on the European Continent.”
Among American companies cited in the Times are Pepsi, Ford and John Deere. The Times quoted Ken Golden, director of global public relations for Deere, in its piece:
While Russia represents less than 5 percent of Deere’s total equipment sales, the company recently cited Russia as being key to its future growth. “We urge political leaders to solve this issue without violence and in accord with international agreements,” Mr. Golden said.
It even extends to the defense industry. According to Defense News, in a piece titled “Amid Ukraine Crisis, EU Plays It Safe,” various European arms manufacturers, including in Sweden, value current and potential sales to Russia. France is apparently insisting that it will continue to sell arms to Russia, including a $1.7 billion deal for two Mistral-class helicopter carriers. Said one expert quoted in the piece:
It looks like the Europeans are extremely keen to do everything except anything that hurts their commercial interests. There is zero appetite to hurt business interests, and arms sales fit into that category.
Still, while Vladimir Putin and his nationalist Russian base might believe that ancient monasteries, the Kievan Rus and heaven knows what else justify the illegitimate annexation of Crimea and Russia’s overweening influence in Ukraine, and that Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine need protecting, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are nearly certain to contribute to a deeper political divide between the United States and Russia. Just as the unilateral US and NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1998–99, the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the US-NATO war against Libya in 2011 all bolstered Russian nationalism and strengthened the Russian military, Russia’s occupation and pending annexation of Crimea will do the same in reverse. Hawks, pro-NATO militants, supporters of building up US military forces and missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe, and critics of President Obama’s defense cuts, will all be aided greatly by Putin’s actions.
We’ll review the bidding on that tomorrow.
Read Next: Conn Hallinan on the dark side of the Ukraine revolt
With the crisis in Ukraine eclipsing the rest of the international news, you’d never know that the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) unfolded in Washington this week. That’s bad news for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose latest warnings about the imminent Iranian nuclear bomb—a bomb that’s been “imminent” since the 1990s—went mostly unheard. But it’s also bad news for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who are planning to unveil their plan for a framework for a two-state solution. Obama met with Netanyahu, of course, and later this month he’ll meet with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.
The big problem for AIPAC, of course, is that they spent all their political capital earlier this year, in vain, trying to impose new sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions would have destroyed the US-Iran talks with the P5+1 and wrecked the chances of a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. It’s not often that AIPAC loses so badly, but lose they did, and it didn’t win them any favors with the Obama administration. They’re still worried about Iran, of course, but with the Obama-Kerry plan about to be unveiled, AIPAC has to refocus on its core issue, namely, Israel and the Palestinians. As the Jewish Telegraph Agency put it, "in the wake of battles over Iran sanctions legislation that pitted the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse against the White House, many congressional Democrats and liberals more generally, AIPAC’s traditional emphasis on Israel as a bipartisan issue has taken on added urgency.
But AIPAC itself is split, and it’s being challenged from the left by groups such as J Street and from the right by ultra-hardliners such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and its patron, Sheldon Adelson. In addition, there’s a new move afoot to create yet another pro-Israel organization, on the far right, that would explicitly oppose a two-state solution of any kind. As reported by the Jerusalem Post, one of its would-be founders expressed the purpose this way:
J Street supports a state of all its citizens, and AIPAC supports a two-state solution.... This has created a situation in which those of us who think that the establishment of a Palestinian state would be a disaster have no way to express this, and there is no organization that will communicate our protestations to the administration in Washington.
That sort of fragmentation can only further weaken both AIPAC and the Israel lobby more broadly. Politico, noting the splits within and about AIPAC, wrote:
As President Barack Obama pushes forward on both an Israeli-Palestinian peace process framework and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program…there’s an active effort among more liberal groups to show that the changing politics in the American Jewish community mean that AIPAC’s positions represent fewer and fewer people, and should be getting less and less attention.
Indeed, neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden bothered to speak to AIPAC, and not because of Ukraine, either. They’d decided to pass it up earlier, though Kerry did make an appearance. Kerry filled his speech with the typical boilerplate about US-Israel ties, but he also strongly defended the talks with Iran, something that the Tehran Times picked up on, under the headline: “Kerry voices support for diplomacy with Iran.” Reported the Tehran Times:
“Those who say strike and hit need to check what might happen after we do that,” Kerry said at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington. “Only strong diplomacy can justify more forceful options if we will have to use them.”
Kerry added, according to the text of his speech, “Let’s seize the diplomatic moment.”
In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu didn’t spend a lot of time on Iran, and instead talked a great deal about Israel itself, denouncing the movement to boycott Israel and defending the state’s character. But in J Street's report on Netanyahu’s address, the organization chose to emphasize the positive parts of his remarks. Here’s part of J Street’s news release:
Pledging to work with the US and the Palestinians to “forge a durable peace” based on “mutual recognition,” the prime minister declared, “Peace would be good for us. Peace would be good for the Palestinians” and peace would “catapult the entire region forward.”
Netanyahu acknowledged that “many Arab leaders today already realize that Israel is not their enemy, that peace with the Palestinians would turn our relations with them and with many Arab countries into open and thriving relationships.”
Of course, peace is hardly breaking out in Palestine, and in his meeting with President Obama—where the president, it turns out, had to address Ukraine, too—Netanyahu reverted to his old shibboleths about Palestinian “incitement” against Israel. In a Jerusalem Post article on the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, headlined, “Obama gets lecture on peace talks from Netanyahu in White House meeting,” the Post reported:
“Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven’t,” Netanyahu said to Obama, in front of the press. “The people of Israel know that it’s the case.”
“What we want is peace—not a piece of paper,” he said. Netanyahu called for a “real peace…based on mutual recognition,” and chided his Palestinian counterparts for promoting “incessant violence” against the Jewish state. “Israel, the Jewish state, is the realization of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination,” Netanyahu said. “I think it’s about time they recognized a nation state for the Jewish people. We’ve only been here for about 4,000 years.”
Actually, it’s more like six decades.
AIPAC is coming in for a lot of criticism these days, including from Peter Beinart and John Judis. The problem that the organization has faced since at least the 1990s, and especially during the administration of George W. Bush, is that it found itself caught between extremes. For years, AIPAC thrived on a kind of traditional bipartisanship, in which it generated nearly equal support from Democrats and Republicans—or even, slightly more Democratic support—and struck a balance between Israel’s liberal left-Zionist establishment and the far-right Likud and that party’s even more rightwing allies. But in a Washington so polarized now, with Republicans out to wreck Obama’s foreign policy whatever he does—even if it means sabotaging the Iran talks and scuttling an Israel-Palestinian accord—AIPAC faces an exceedingly difficult choice. Were it to choose to support the GOP and its wrecking-ball approach on Iran, it would lose any shred of bipartisan balance, and that could cost it dearly. But, at the same time, it will struggle to align with Netanyahu, especially if the Israel government resists what Obama and Kerry propose for a solution.
Read Next: Chase Madar on why bankrolling Israel prevents peace in the Middle East.
UPDATE I: As predicted, President Obama is under heavy pressure from the right and from members of Congress to take strong action immediately to confront Russia. The New York Times summarizes the pressure, but it’s coming from many directions: Senator Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.), Senator Marco Rubio, who’s trying to build his thin foreign policy credentials, from John McCain, the NATO expansion advocate, and many other hawks and neoconservatives. The way it’s being posed is: Obama has supported diplomacy with Iran and Syria, he’s cut the military budget, and he’s generally weak in regard to Russia and China, so he’s reaping what he’s sowed. That’s ludicrous – but, when the pressure starts to include Kerry, other administration officials, and perhaps (let’s see) Hillary Clinton, then Obama might, against his better judgment, opt for a more confrontational stance. The statement from the Foreign Policy Initiative goes so far as to advocatean “emergency NATO meeting” and “forward deployment of NATO forces in the former Warsaw Pact countries.”
Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee today, McCain accused Obama of having a “feckless” foreign policy – feckless meaning, in this case, not invading other countries. The crisis in Ukraine, he said, “is the ultimate result of feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore.”
ORIGINAL POST Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic president and would-be reviver of Russian greatness, must back down.
Unfortunately, Russia’s jingoistic media is hyping the threat to “Russians” and “Russian-speaking” Ukrainians, they’re playing up pro-military demonstrations by “patriotic youth” and other Russians—even as security forces in Russia arrest antiwar protesters—and they’re reporting on the happy “tea and sandwich brigades” helping out in now-occupied Crimea. In one absurd passage, RT reports:
Russia’s biggest bikers’ club, the Night Wolves, has staged a major motorbike rally in the capital in support of Russian speakers in Ukraine. Despite the fact that the motorcycle season hasn’t yet kicked off, over 100 bikes participated in the rally.
It’s outright war propaganda. A statement from Moscow described Putin’s call with President Obama thus:
In response to the concern shown by Obama about the plans for the possible use of Russia’s armed forces on the territory of Ukraine, Putin drew attention to the provocative, criminal actions by ultra-nationalists, in essence encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev…. The Russian President underlined that there are real threats to the life and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory. Vladimir Putin stressed that if violence spread further in the eastern regions of Ukraine and in Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers living there.
The trick for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry is to create a face-saving way for Putin to accept the fact that Ukraine, including the disputed Crimea, isn’t Russia’s any longer, and neither the Russian empire nor the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics exists any longer. And the venue has to shift to the United Nations.
Russia’s actions, so far, indeed amount to acts of war. Its troops have invaded Ukrainian territory, and Putin—sounding like George W. Bush vis-à-vis Iraq—has asked Russia’s legislature for permission to use Russian troops throughout all of Ukraine. Memo to Putin: like Iraq, Ukraine is a sovereign nation, whose territory is inviolable. And Crimea, though Russia has legitimate interests there—its Black Sea fleet, after all, is based there according to a lease arrangement with Kiev—is part of Ukraine.
It may not be possible, at this stage, to resolve the crisis peacefully at all. It may be that nothing the United States can do, whether threatening Russia with economic sanctions and expulsion from the G-8, can change Putin’s mind regarding Ukraine. In that case, Russia will seize and consolidate control of Crimea, build support for broader Russian intervention in Ukraine’s pro-Russian east—the country’s industrial heartland—and back the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, or some other pro-Russian proxy as a vehicle for expanding Russian involvement into Ukraine’s west. In the Russian argument, the accord that was negotiated last month, which would have allowed Yanukovych to remain in power until new presidential elections were held, is still valid—which is utter nonsense. The change in Kiev is permanent, and the fact that it was so violent and chaotic is a testament to Russia’s overplaying its hand.
The fact that the United States has few, if any, real options to stop Russia doesn’t make Russia’s aggression any less ominous. Fact is, the fragile US-Russian relationship, which has been spiraling downwards for years, is critical to resolving several world crises: the civil war in Syria, the nuclear talks with Iran and the stabilization of Afghanistan after 2014, just for starters. If Russia expands its invasion of Ukraine, beyond what it’s already done, all that is at risk. And not just at risk: Russia’s actions in Ukraine could tip the balance in Washington sharply against President Obama’s recent, more pronounced shift toward diplomacy rather than conflict. With the president already under fire from hardliners and neoconservatives, as well as hawks within his own administration, Obama’s very inability to halt the Russian action in Ukraine could lead him to accede to the demands of those who, for instance, want to take military action in Syria.
It’s true that Russia has profound strategic and economic interests in Ukraine, and it’s also true that the United States, really, has none whatsoever. But that’s an argument for both Russian patience and American forbearance, since eventually the turmoil in Ukraine will settle into some sort of stability, and Russia’s overwhelming presence in the region will allow an accommodation in which Moscow, Washington and especially the European Union—and not NATO!—all can have relations with whatever government emerges in Kiev.
So far, Obama and Putin have had a least two tense and unproductive telephone discussions in recent days. Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, Kerry issued the starkest warnings yet about consequences if Russia doesn’t hold off. He said—and there was some question about this—that all of Europe’s major powers will join the United States is taking economic measures to isolate Russia unless the invasion is halted. And Kerry said:
He is not going to have a Sochi G-8. He may not even remain in the G-8 if this continues. He may find himself with asset freezes on Russian business. American business may pull back. There may be a further tumble of the ruble. There’s a huge price to pay.
Threats and promises of punishment to come are one thing, but if the crisis is to be resolved without catastrophic consequences in international affairs, then the United States and Europe have to offer some sweeteners to Moscow, too, at least in private. Incredibly, though, in his Meet the Press appearance, Kerry refused to rule out a military response to Russia’s actions, even though there is no credible American action to take and, if the United States did engage militarily, it would undoubtedly be the most serious event since the 1962 Cuban missile showdown. Still, Kerry said: “The last thing anybody wants is a military option in this kind of a situation,” and then added, “But.”
President Obama has made a series of statements on Ukraine, including the March 1 White House statement after speaking with Putin and his February 28 remarks on the crisis in Ukraine.
Obama’s remarks, in his February 28 statement, did in fact acknowledge Russia’s substantial interest in Ukraine:
I also spoke several days ago with President Putin, and my administration has been in daily communication with Russian officials, and we’ve made clear that they can be part of an international community’s effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia’s interest.
However, we are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea, but any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.
But the president needs to go further to outline how the crisis might be resolved, to Russia’s advantage and in the interests of the Ukrainians and world affairs, if and when Russia halts its military actions.
Read Next: Nicolai N. Petro on the growing threat of military confrontation in Ukraine.
The Russian threats, bluster, troop mobilizations and pledges to throw their support to the ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine—who, delusional to the end, still asserts that he’s president despite a revolution in the streets that’s plain to see—are worrying, and ominous. Yanukovych, who has blood on his hands from the massacre of protesters in Kiev, will never, ever again have a role in Ukrainian politics.
And it’s also ominous that both Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO have talked about NATO’s role in Russia’s periphery yesterday. With exquisitely bad timing, while meeting the Georgia’s prime minister, Kerry said, “We stand by the Bucharest decision and all subsequent decisions that Georgia will become a member of NATO.” And NATO’s secretary-general, whose organization ought to have nothing whatsoever to say about Ukraine, said yesterday: “Ukraine is a close and long-standing partner to NATO. And NATO is a sincere friend of Ukraine. We stand ready to continue assisting Ukraine in its democratic reforms.” Needless to say, Ukraine doesn’t need NATO to help build a democracy.
But an important news analysis in The Los Angeles Times notes that Russia gave NATO advance notice of its military maneuvers near Ukraine, and it says that in the end Russia, the European Union and the United States may be able to reach an accommodation over Ukraine’s future:
Those ominous events, however, may obscure what is largely a meeting of minds among Russian President Vladimir Putin, European Union officials, the White House and more pragmatic elements of Ukraine’s new leadership.
The [military maneuvers were] apparently intended to impress on the new Kiev leadership that it should keep in mind the interests of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority. However, Moscow’s heads-up to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization quietly underscored the Putin administration’s repeated assurances that it has no intention of interfering in Ukraine’s domestic crisis, much less sending troops or encouraging secession.
As I reported earlier this week, apocalyptic scenarios for Ukraine remain unlikely.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who played a ruthless game of chess to protect Russia’s interests there, ought to know when it’s time to admit that he’s been checkmated. The game’s over, Vlad.
Sans Russian direct interventions—that is, without Moscow’s military intervention, which would be not only hopeless but catastrophically misguided—and without Russian covert support for pro-Russian guerrilla actions, including in Crimea, there’s a chance that Ukrainians can resolve their problems without generating a US-Russian, Cold War–like crisis.
And the Obama administration and the Europeans, who apparently didn’t foresee the revolution—at the last minute, last week, they were still negotiating a deal to organize early presidential elections to resolve the political crisis—it’s time to avoid pressing their advantage. To calm the crisis, the United States ought to acknowledge right away that it has no plans, ever, to include Ukraine in NATO. That would be easier to say if Russia hadn’t decided to exacerbate the crisis by pledging support for Yanukovich and ordering military exercises along the Ukrainian border.
As The New York Times reported:
Eight hundred miles away, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was ordering a surprise military exercise of ground and air forces on Ukraine’s doorstep on Wednesday, adding to the tensions with Europe and the United States and underscoring his intention to keep the country in Moscow’s orbit.
Sensibly enough—but then it’s easy to be sensible when your side has come out on top—Kerry said yesterday:
We’re hoping that Russia will not see this as a sort of a continuation of the Cold War; we don’t see it that way. We do not believe this should be an East-West, Russia-United States—this is not ‘Rocky IV’.… We see this as an opportunity for Russia, the United States and others to strengthen Ukraine, help them in this transition and there’s no reason they can’t look east and west and be involved as a vital cog in the economy of all of us going forward.
That’s the ideal approach, one that Russia too ought to adopt, but so far there’s little sign that Moscow is ready to admit it’s been checkmated and move on. Were it to do so, Russia could insert itself in the various schemes being cooked up to rescue Ukraine’s collapsed economy. Already the United States is pledging a $1 billion down payment for Ukraine, and both the European Union and the IMF are readying packages. But that doesn’t mean that Russia’s own, vital economic interests in Ukraine can’t be protected, or that Russia can’t defend its legitimate interests in its neighbor—a country that is far more important to Russia than to the EU, and which has almost no interest at all for the United States.
Russia’s military movements can only backfire, and the revolt by pro-Russian forces in Crimea could easily provoke a Ukraine vs. Russia military flare-up, in which case NATO and the United States might very well get involved. In a statement not exactly couched to reduce tensions, the acting president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, said:
I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet…. Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory (the base) will be seen by us as military aggression.
He’s right, of course: it would be military aggression. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely.
Read Next: Nicolai N. Petro on the battle for Kiev.
For a long time now, it’s been obvious that the United States can’t sustain the bloated military budget that it supports now, and with the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan nearly done—at least from the standpoint of direct US involvement with ground forces—Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel yesterday outlined a preview of how the Obama administration will approach defense spending over the next several years.
But the cuts, though substantial, ought to be seen as only a down payment on the level of defense spending reductions that are needed. Last evening, on PBS Newshour, defense budget expert Gordon Adams of American University said:
I call this 50 percent towards reality.… We’re coming down right now in the defense budget at about a pace like other drawdowns that we have done after Korea, after Vietnam, at the end of the Cold War. We have always come down somewhere around 30 percent in constant dollars from the top of spending to the way we reached the bottom. And we’re at the shallow end of that right now.
According to the Defense Department’s release about Hagel’s proposals—which still have to get through Congress and its Iron Triangle, including hawkish members of the House and Senate, defense lobbyists and the military itself—the Defence Secretary’s plan includes “shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II and eliminating an entire fleet of Air Force fighter planes.” Hagel and Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that “the Pentagon budget that will shrink by more than $75 billion over the next two years.” Among the details: the size of the US Army will shrink from 520,000 to as low as 440,000 active duty soldiers and the Marine Corps will be cut from 190,000 to 182,000. And Hagel frankly linked the cuts to what America can afford:
An Army of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defense strategy. It is also larger than we can afford to modernize and keep ready.… This is the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to Congress that is not a war footing budget.
The Obama-Hagel DOD budget ideas are already drawing intense fire from hawks and neoconservatives, including in Congress, but there’s plenty for progressives to complain about, too. Major weapons systems that might have been cut were sustained, the US special forces units are being increased substantially from already high levels and Hagel announced that the US Navy would maintain all eleven of its aircraft carriers.
Indeed, the military-industrial complex was so thrilled about continuing Pentagon support for big-budget, high-tech weapons systems that, according to The Wall Street Journal, stock prices for major defense contractors rose after the announcement, and the Journal said:
The Pentagon is proposing to reverse a four-year slide in its weapons-buying and research spending, lifting prospects for higher revenue at hard-hit military contractors including Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.
The $496 billion fiscal 2015 request outlined on Monday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would protect most of the Pentagon’s major programs in return for limited cuts, canceling an Army combat vehicle and halting purchases of the Navy’s littoral combat ship. The cuts would fund new projects including cyberwarfare capabilities, $1 billion for a more fuel-efficient jet engine, and plans for a new Navy surface ship.
And the Journal added:
Only three of the Pentagon’s largest contractors by revenue—BAE, Boeing and United Technologies—didn’t register 52-week highs as the Pentagon’s plans emerged.
Naturally, recalcitrant hawks are already denouncing the cuts in personnel and the related reductions in spending on military pay, pensions and healthcare benefits. For instance:
In the House, Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon faulted President Barack Obama on Monday for “trying to solve our financial problems on the back of the military.” The Pentagon has already given up more than its fair share of the federal budget, McKeon said, adding Washington’s real spending problem is with mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not the armed forces. “Unless we address that, we’re just going to keep digging ourselves further and further in the hole,” McKeon said.
Others, like Senator Kelly Ayotte (R.-NH), will weigh in on their favorite programs, such as the A-10 Warthog plane that will be canceled under Hagel’s proposal.
And Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who’s not noted as a defense expert, also lambasted Hagel:
Reducing the size of the Army to its lowest levels in 70 years does not accurately reflect the current security environment, in which the administration’s own officials have noted the threats facing our country are more diffuse than ever. Cutting key Air Force and naval capabilities just as we are trying to increase our presence in the Pacific does not make strategic sense. I am concerned that we are on a path to repeat the mistakes we’ve made during past attempts to cash in on expected peace dividends that never materialized.
But Rubio, if he wants to run for president, better get his talking points straight, because many of his Tea Party and libertarian-conservative backers—some of whom are outright isolationists—are more than willing to cut back on defense spending.
The cuts to military benefits, such as pensions and healthcare, ought to be applauded—but they’ll be exceedingly difficult to enact over the opposition of veterans groups and others. Those benefits are incredibly excessive as is, designed in part to attract enlistees to volunteer for the armed forces, and the military won’t give them up without a brutal fight to the finish. In the past, when presidents have tried to cut into these bloated benefits, they’ve been shot down every time—yet, from a budget point of view, that’s where the big bucks are.
Read Next: Nick Turse on misremembering America’s wars, from Vietnam to Iraq
The “February Revolution” in Ukraine may be just getting underway, and the future of the country may be unsettled, to say the least, for years to come, but the Obama administration needs to approach the situation with great care. That’s because Russia, Ukraine’s powerful next-door neighbor, has vastly greater national interest in Kiev than does the United States. (Indeed, America’s national interest in Ukraine is almost nil, and aside from vague formulations about the need to support “democracy”—something that doesn’t enter into the US vocabulary when dealing with, say, Saudi Arabia—the United States really has nothing to gain or to lose in Ukraine.) For the United States, its priority has to be centered on establishing a decent working relationship with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
On issues from terrorism to energy, and above all in dealing with Iran and Syria, the United States needs Russia. That means, among other things, no victory dances in the end zone by the White House. So far, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other US officials have kept in constant contact with Putin, Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov and other Russian leaders. But it won’t be easy going.
Apocalyptic scenarios about Ukraine are far-fetched. It’s very, very unlikely that Russia will intervene militarily in Ukraine, despite warnings to that effect from Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, other American politicians and pundits, including The Washington Post, which said in an editorial on Saturday: “It’s possible Mr. Putin will try to use force to impose his dominion over Ukraine once the Sochi Olympics end this weekend.” And it’s equally unlikely that Ukraine, which is deeply split between the pro-Russian east and parts of the south and its more European-oriented west, will break apart. By all accounts, even Viktor Yanukovich’s own Party of Regions—to the extent that it hasn’t fallen apart—has abandoned him, condemning his actions in the deaths of scores of Ukrainians in the final days of the revolution. Still, it’s worrying that the tumultuous Ukrainian parliament, which ordered Yanukovich’s arrest for murder, has also passed a resolution eliminating Russian as one of Ukraine’s languages. That’s not a promising start if there is to be bridge-building in the new Ukraine.
Probably the last thing that the European Union (EU) ought to want is to bring Ukraine into membership, and if that happens it will probably be many, many years from now. Having spent half a decade dealing with the struggling nations of Southern Europe that have been on the brink of default and bankruptcy, it’s hardly a good idea for the EU to absorb Ukraine, which is not only bankrupt but politically in utter turmoil. Perhaps that’s why the United States and the EU have invited Russia to contribute to an economic bailout of Ukraine, which is not only politically astute but economically the right thing to do. Indeed, according to The Wall Street Journal, Russia’s Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, who spoke with US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew on Sunday, even suggested that the EU and the International Monetary Fund could play a positive role. Said Siluanov:
The fund has the experience of supporting countries in difficult situations…and they have a well-established set of tools to help in such cases. Naturally, the IMF experience could help.
But other Russian politicians have issued far darker comments on the crisis in Ukraine. Earlier, of course, Russia had offered a $15 billion bailout package to Ukraine, but that was suspended last week and it’s unclear how much, if anything, Russia might be willing to chip in to prevent Ukraine from spinning into chaos economically.
It’s important to note that the very moment that power tipped from the Yanukovich government to the opposition, the Interior Ministry, the police and especially the armed forces either withdrew or stayed neutral. According to The New York Times, the protesters and the opposition leaders were in close contact with security officials to prevent an escalation of the crisis. And the armed forces, whose chief wisely refused to take phone calls from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in the week before the departure of Yanukovich, didn’t want any part of a defense of the ancien régime.
“Please be assured that the armed forces of Ukraine cannot and will not be involved in any political conflict,” said a statement from the military command. And Ukraine’s chief of staff, Yuriy Ilyin, added: “As an officer I see no other way than to serve the Ukrainian people honestly and assure that I have not and won’t give any criminal orders.”
Read Next: Nicolai N. Petro on the battle for Kiev
Let us stipulate that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has blood on his hands for the massacre of protesters in Kiev, and that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin—who seems to view the repression of Ukraine’s opposition with equanimity—bears a lot of guilt for the killings. And let us hope that the cease-fire reached overnight in Kiev, after much to-ing and fro-ing by Western diplomats and desperate phone calls from Vice President Joe Biden, will hold—though it isn’t likely.
Now what? Well, though the United States has little leverage, Washington could start by letting Moscow know that it doesn’t want Ukraine to blow up.
To American hawks and neoconservatives, the crisis in Ukraine ought to trigger a muscular American response. A Wall Street Journal editorial blames “Western passivity” for Ukraine’s tumble into near–civil war conditions, blaming the Obama administration for not taking stronger measures, such as freezing Ukraine’s financial assets. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan says:
It is particularly important now for us to show the people of Ukraine, and of Europe, that America is not some exhausted shell of itself with no adherence to anything larger than the daily concerns of its welfare state, but still a nation with meaning.
And hawks in Congress are demanding, among other things, that the United States immediately offer membership in NATO to Georgia, apparently seeking deliberately to widen the crisis and further provoke Russia. Additionally—and again in the Journal—Bernard-Henri Lévy, the reliable old war horse, demands that the United States pull out of the Sochi Olympics, which would accomplish precisely nothing.
And there’s more. Anna Borschchevskaya, writing in National Review, says: “This is one battle the U.S. cannot ignore.” And Ariel Cohen, the venerable neoconservative at the Heritage Foundation, writes: “An East-West confrontation may be imminent.” But Cohen has little to offer as to steps that the United States might take other than sanctions and, well, bluster.
The tough talk from hawks is expected. But what’s evident in reading their prescriptions is that there is really little or nothing that the United States can do, except perhaps what it’s already doing, namely, having talks with the government of Ukraine and the opposition (at least the mainstream representatives of the opposition), and trying to bring Western Europe and even Moscow into the picture—though contacts with Moscow, at least directly, seem few and far between.
You don’t have to look far for evidence of the lack of American leverage in Ukraine. Take, for example, the inability of the Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon and US military leadership even to get Ukrainian leaders to answer the phone.
Hagel spoke with [Ukrainian Minister of Defense] Lebedev on Dec. 13 and ‘warned Minister Lebedev not to use the armed forces of Ukraine against the civilian population in any fashion,’ according to a statement issued then by Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog…. Other Pentagon leaders, including Gen. Philip Breedlove, the head of the U.S. European Command, have attempted to reach the Ukrainian military without success, said Col. Ed Thomas, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Hagel has since attempted to call the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense as the situation worsened, but “the Ukrainian defense minister won’t take Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s calls; in fact, no one at the defense ministry will even answer the phone,” according to Stars and Stripes.
USA Today headlined its article: “Hagel not able to engage Ukrainian counterpart.” And Stars and Stripes says Rear Adm. John Kirby “described the situation as ‘pretty unusual,’ and said nothing like this has ever happened to Hagel since he took office.”
The very nature of the shocking police assault on the protesters may itself be Yanukovich’s undoing, since he’s now losing control both of his own party and of Ukraine’s fractious parliament, plus apparently losing the backing of some of the oligarchs who’ve supported him until now. If so, it’s possible that the accord will lead to new presidential elections, almost certain to empower the pro-Western (and anti-Russian) political powers in Ukraine.
How that will sit with Putin isn’t clear. Putin has both defensive reasons—opposition to the expansion of the European Union and NATO to Russia’s very borders to the south and west, and vast economic interests in Ukraine that he hopes to integrate into a revived Russian power—and offensive reasons for pressing Russian influence in Kiev. The editor of Russia in Global Affairs—on whose board sits Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, along with other prominent Russians, including a former ambassador to the United States is Fyodor Lukyanov. Writing for the BBC, Lukyanov describes Putin’s view thus:
In his view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls. The West is destructive. It is either unable to understand the complexity of the situation and acts in a primitive way, designating “good” and “bad” players, or it deliberately destroys undesirable systems. The result is always the same—things get worse. The desire to limit Russian influence and hinder Moscow’s initiatives is the invariable imperative of the Western policy.
And he adds:
Putin fears chaos. The main driving force behind his policy towards Ukraine will be not a desire for expansion, but a desire to reduce the risk of chaos spilling into Russia. To this end, anything goes—both defensive and offensive means.
It ought to be the role of the United States to ease tensions in Ukraine, by backing off, supporting a smoother European-Russian dialogue (one in which the words “Fuck the EU” aren’t heard), and hoping for a commitment from all sides in the Ukrainian dispute to come up with a political solution that works. That may mean that Ukraine does indeed reorient toward a closer economic affiliation with the EU, or that it joins the confederation being assembled by Russia, or something in between. But, despite what’s being said by so many in the US establishment, Ukraine is hardly a top American national security interest.
Above all, easing tensions means letting Putin know that Washington isn’t seeking “chaos” in Kiev. And meaning it.
Read Next: the battle for Kiev
When a government that has clearly lost legitimacy and lacks popular support decides to use brutal force to maintain itself in power, there’s no going back. Like China’s government during the Tiananmen crisis—or more recently, like Egypt’s military government in Cairo, where heavily armed police killed hundreds to oust protesters from a square—the government of Ukraine is now engaged in a police and military effort to crush a long-running opposition protest that had paralyzed the capital, and the country, for weeks.
It’s an enormous, and unnecessary, tragedy.
And there’s not much the United States can do about it. Likely, there will be American and European sanctions against Ukraine now, at least directed at some of its leaders, but sanctions will simply push the country’s leaders even farther from the West, and from any accord with the European Union. In the Cold War–like struggle between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, which many Russians (including Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic, czar-like leader) see as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, Moscow—which urged the Ukrainian government to crack down on protesters—may have won a round. But a bloody, shaky peace, filled with simmering hatreds, is not likely to be the final result of the ongoing crackdown in Kiev.
According to The Guardian, at least two dozen people, including police, have been killed, and hundreds wounded, in the “bloodiest night in independent Ukraine’s history.” And, says the paper, by this morning only one-third of the square had been retaken.
The Russian view, which simplifies the issue significantly, is that the protests were led by “extremists,” and that the leaders of the opposition should have condemned the occupation of the square. (The Russian media, and some officials, call the protesters “terrorists” and “insurgents,” though very little violence has occurred and there is no evidence whatsoever of an insurgency. It remains to be seen whether the two main leaders of the opposition now, Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk—who’ve been meeting with European leaders this week—will be able to sit down anytime soon, or ever, with President Viktor Yanukovich and his government. Far more likely will be an angry standoff, martial law and a breakdown in any talks.
The crisis is yet another piece of evidence that the United States has little or no ability to alter events in Ukraine—other than, perhaps, to stoke the anti-Russian fires and egg the protesters on. The recently released telephone call between two leading US diplomats, including the American ambassador in Kiev—in which Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said “Fuck the EU!”—provided a glimpse into the outright manipulation and interference by the United States in Ukrainian politics. In the end, however, their actions just underscored how little the United States can do if a government such as Ukraine’s—backed by Russia—decides to crack down and rule by force. A Russian diplomat, speaking to Russia’s RT, called the US actions in Ukraine “puppeteering.” Which, of course, Russia is very good at doing, itself.
So the Russians have made a power play, calling the US bluff. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, blames the entire crisis on the West. According to RT: “The responsibility for the deadly riots in Ukraine lies not with extremists alone, but also with the leaders of the Ukrainian opposition and some Western politicians, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said.” The same Russian outlet, RT, adds:
Ukraine’s security service has announced it is launching a counter-terror operation. Radicals have seized over 1,500 firing arms and 100,000 bullets in the last 24 hours, the service said.
Like the Egyptian military, which suddenly found weapons caches and called its crackdown a “counterterrorism” operation.
Back in December, writing in The New York Review of Books, Timothy Snyder tried to find a way out of the crisis for Ukraine, asking in his lead sentence:
Would anyone anywhere in the world be willing to take a truncheon in the head for the sake of a trade agreement with the United States?
Of course, it wasn’t just a trade agreement, i.e., the interim deal with the EU that Ukraine had flirted with and then backed away from. And Snyder added:
The dangerous fantasy is the Russian idea that Ukraine is not really a different country, but rather a kind of Slavic younger brother. This is a legacy of the late Soviet Union and the Russification policies of the 1970s.
In any case, it’s Snyder’s concluding paragraph that stands out:
For now, all interested parties should do what they can to keep the discussion squarely on the basic issues of free trade, free speech, and freedom of assembly. The Ukrainian fantasy of geopolitics has played itself out, the Russian fantasy of Ukraine as part of its Slavic sphere of influence perhaps has not. Putin is no doubt too canny to really believe in some fairy tale of fraternal assistance. But it would be wise to make very sure.
Now we know the answer to that. At least for now.
Read Next: Stephen F. Cohen on how the American media misrepresent Russia
It’s time for the United States to surrender on Syria. The embattled government of Bashar al-Assad hasn’t won the war, exactly, but it’s demonstrated that it isn’t going anywhere. The rebels, increasingly dominated by hard-core Islamists and Al Qaeda types, aren’t fit to take over. For Washington, the only way out of the crisis, other than to give up the fight, would be conduct a military operation on the scale of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and not only would that be a regional disaster for the United States, Syria and its neighbors, but it’s also out of the question, politically. Using American air power to dislodge Assad won’t work, though it could cause vast casualties, and it would force Russia and Iran to step up their military aid to Damascus in response. And simply upping the ante, by giving the rebels more and heavier weapons, will only prolong the carnage.
According to The New York Times, President Obama is deeply “frustrated” with the crisis in Syria, though it’s a crisis partly of his own making. The US-Russia diplomacy, including two rounds in Geneva since January, has not moved forward, and today the Times quotes an official involved in the discussion of what to do about Syria thus:
The Russian view is that their guy is winning, and they may be right. So we’re back to the question we faced a year ago: How do you change the balance and force the Syrians to negotiate?
Answer: you don’t. You give up.
According to the Times, a secret meeting just concluded of all of the intelligence agencies involved in the anti-Assad coalition, including the CIA and the spy chiefs from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. If so, that’s a sign that the administration’s commitment to diplomacy is fading, and that Obama is prepared to let the covert operators go to work with a freer leash. Indeed, it appears that the Obama administration has given the green light to Saudi Arabia to supply the rebels with heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles. Until now, Washington has been reluctant to send these devastating weapons to the anti-Assad forces because they will inevitably fall into the hands of Al Qaeda and its allies, who will use them against El Al and Western airlines.
On February 14, The Wall Street Journal reported the Saudi decision to send the missiles to Syria:
Washington’s Arab allies, disappointed with Syria peace talks, have agreed to provide rebels there with more sophisticated weaponry, including shoulder-fired missiles that can take down jets, according to Western and Arab diplomats and opposition figures.
And it adds:
Rebel leaders say they met with U.S. and Saudi intelligence agents, among others, in Jordan on Jan. 30 as the first round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva came to a close. That is when wealthy Gulf States offered the more sophisticated weapons.
In a second piece, The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend:
The Obama administration, exasperated by stalled talks over Syria and seeking ways to pressure the regime and its Russian allies, plans to revisit options ranging from expanding efforts to train and equip moderate rebels to setting up no-fly zones, according to officials briefed on the deliberations.
To get a sense of how expansive the escalation might be, read the whole piece in The Wall Street Journal, if you have access.
The American officials involved in this escalation appear to believe that if they escalate the war in Syria, Russia will back down. They’re drawing that conclusion because when, in August 2013, President Obama threatened to rain cruise missiles down on Syria in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the Russians stepped in at the last minute with a plan to rid Syria of its chemical arms. But that’s drawing the wrong lesson from that episode, because in August Obama had little to no support for the bombing of Syria, not from the Europeans, not from the Arab League, and certainly not from Congress or the American public. So the Russian initiative was designed, in the most embarrassing way, to bail out Obama. But a determined, US-led escalation of the war now would be a frontal challenge to Russian power and prestige, and Moscow won’t tolerate that.
Meanwhile, as diplomacy stalls, the United States says that it is still committed to the talks. But Secretary of State John Kerry is warning the Russians to back off, and he’s blasting Assad for stonewalling in Geneva. On Russia, Kerry slammed Moscow for sending weapons to Damascus, adding: “They’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem.” But in fact it’s the United States that is creating the problem, by using the CIA and its covert allies to wage a war of regime change.
Read Next: Barbara Crossette on Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s middleman on Syria.