News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
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.
With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a weakened state because of its huge defeat on Iran—where AIPAC tried and failed to undermine the US-Iran talks by demanding provocative new economic sanctions—it’s the perfect moment for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to unveil their peace plan for Israel-Palestine. As Trita Parsi points out, AIPAC has suffered a series of important setbacks recently, and it’s in no strong position to fight Obama over Israel.
Given that the problem has festered unsolved since 1967—or, depending on your view, since 1948—it’s a good idea to be skeptical. We don’t know yet the specifics of the plan that Obama and Kerry are considering, although it’s increasingly clear that it will require extraordinarily vast sums of cash to make it work: billions of dollars for economic development in the West Bank and Gaza, billions more to resettle Israeli settlers who are evacuated from West Bank settlements, more billions to compensate Palestinian refugees who demand their “right of return” but who certainly won’t be going back to Israel in more than token numbers, more billions for Israel to compensate Jews who’ve fled Arab countries over the past decades, and finally, yet more billions for Jordan, which is increasingly nervous about the idea of any settlement that endorses the ongoing presence of millions of Palestinians in Jordan, including those in refugee camps.
That, by any account, is a lot of money.
I don’t usually quote New York Times bloviator Tom Friedman, but he’s right:
If Secretary of State John Kerry brings his peace mission to a head and presents the parties with a clear framework for an agreement, Israel and the Jewish people will face one of the most critical choices in their history. And when they do, all hell could break loose in Israel.
And when all hell does break loose, it won’t be so easy for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call the AIPAC hot line.
Palestinians, too, are suspicious and skeptical, of course.
By all indications, one of the core issues will be an American plan for transitional security for Israel as the West Bank turns into a state for Palestine. That means, it appears, a three-to-five-year Israeli military presence in the West Bank—which President Mahmoud Abbas has already said he’d accept—and some sort of long-term US and/or NATO role in the Jordan Valley, Palestine’s eastern border with Jordan, to ease Israeli fears of infiltration by radical Islamists and the illegal transfer of heavy weapons to what will be a mostly demilitarized Palestinian state. (Sweetening the deal for Israel, according to Defense News, is the fact that Israeli military contractors may reap huge deals over military systems to monitor the border.)
Semi-hysterical neoconservatives have already started to rev up charges that Kerry’s not-yet-announced plan will bring Al Qaeda to Israel’s borders. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Lee Smith says:
Kerry may wind up leaving on Israel’s doorstep what the White House believes is the greatest threat to American national security—al Qaeda…. The deal Kerry is brokering is not for an independent Palestinian state but for a failed state, dead on arrival. Contrary to what Kerry may profess, the status quo is not only sustainable, but for Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan it’s also preferable to al Qaeda on the West Bank.
That’s nonsense, of course. Fact is, the Palestinians will get far less than half a loaf in any deal with Israel, but given the power imbalance between the two sides, most Palestinian leaders have long ago recognized that there’s a limit to what they can achieve, and that they’ll have to settle for a state on the West Bank and Gaza, with some territorial swaps and a share of Jerusalem as its capital.
That won’t many everyone happy, and it’ll draw fire from the folks who still believe in the absurd idea of a “one-state solution,” in which Jews and Arabs live side-by-side happily in a state—to be named later, I suppose—that will include Israel and the occupied territories. That, simply, ain’t gonna happen.
So Obama is in the last round of a major diplomatic push to get this deal done. Next month, he’ll host Netanyahu at the White House. He’s meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah this week. And he’ll be heading off soon to Riyadh to sit down with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, too, to discuss Iran, Syria and, of course, Israel-Palestine. Reports The Wall Street Journal:
The March trip to Saudi Arabia, Mr. Obama’s second, is shaping up as a crucial mission that Arab officials say will draw in leaders from other Persian Gulf countries for a regional summit in the Saudi capital. U.S. officials said arrangements for such a summit weren’t completed.
While the Saudi visit, and the meetings with other Persian Gulf Arab leaders, will undoubtedly have to deal with the unhappiness among the Sunni kleptocracies over the idea of US-Iran entente—and the related notion that the United States might strike a deal with Russia to settle the war in Syria in a way not completely to the liking of the Saudis—the issue of Israel-Palestine is a huge one. Ever since 2002, Saudi King Abdullah put forward an Arab Peace Initiative for a deal with Israel, and he’s been miffed ever since that first the Bush administration and then Obama gave it short shrift. Now, the Obama-Kerry plan will be based in part on the ideas in Abdullah’s 2002 initiative.
But it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
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Here’s a really, really terrible idea from two otherwise progressive thinkers: let’s use military force to aid Syria’s civilian population.
Like many liberal interventionists, often called humanitarian interventionists—in true, oxymoronic fashion—Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi believe that it’s time to invoke the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) to go into Syria with guns blazing, if need be. Writing in an op-ed in The New York Times, they say:
We should invoke the Responsibility to Protect, the principle that if a state fails to protect its populations from mass atrocities—or is in fact the perpetrator of such crimes—the international community must step in to protect the victims, with the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council. And if a multinational force cannot be assembled, then at least some countries should step up and organize Syria’s democratically oriented rebel groups to provide the necessary force on the ground, with air cover from participating nations.
Indeed, there’s a bit of a fight at the United Nations Security Council right now, with Russia and China looking askance at Western efforts to pit forward a UNSC resolution that would open the door to getting aid into Syria by force, though it doesn’t say so directly—and, if it did, it would be vetoed by Russia in a New York minute. But, in any case, the Russian and Chinese delegates stayed away from the UNSC session on the measure. Said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to Reuters:
Our Western partners in the Security Council…proposed that we cooperate in working out a resolution. The ideas they shared with us were absolutely one-sided and detached from reality.
Instead, Russia wants stronger efforts to support a cease-fire in Syria and to halt the delivery of arms to the Syrian rebels, part of which is the object of just-resumed peace talks in Geneva between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the anti-Assad opposition. Not without reason, Moscow says that its military aid to Syria is legal, on a state-to-state basis, while American, Saudi and other military support to the rebels is illegal.
The Geneva talks, which are in their second round, are off to a slow start once again, but in fact the talks represent the only hope of stabilizing the crisis in Syria, and if it’s possible to arrange even local cease-fires for the delivery of humanitarian supplies, then lives will be saved.
Another hopeful sign, often overlooked now, is that Syria is quietly divesting itself of chemical weapons stockpiles, in a deal brokered by the United States and Russia last September. Both the local cease-fire hopes and the chemical arms transfers might be upset or destroyed if the United States barged into Syria with guns to deliver aid.
And, as The Los Angeles Times reports, despite enormous problems there is still hope that a recent accord to get supplies to blockaded areas around the Syrian city of Homs might work.
Meanwhile, along with the liberal hawks, the conservative hawks—the usual kind—are demanding tougher action by the United States. Marco Rubio, the right-wing senator from Florida and a would-be presidential candidate, says that the United States ought to “overtly” supply arms to the anti-Assad forces. According to Defense News:
The potential Republican candidate, in a statement issued late Wednesday, revealed an interventionist flavor to the foreign and national security policy approach he would bring to the White House Situation Room.… “It is time for the administration to increase pressure on Assad instead of giving him more room to maneuver,” Rubio said, in an apparent reference to Obama’s decision last year to hold off on air strikes when Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons.
Rubio made it clear that he, as commander in chief, would not hesitate to plunge the United States into other nations’ internal conflicts.… “There are concrete actions that we should be taking immediately rather than placing our hope in endless negotiations and counterproductive agreements with a mass murderer,” a muscular-sounding Rubio said.… Specifically, the likely GOP candidate signaled a major departure from Obama when he said the United States “should overtly provide lethal support and increase non-lethal support to carefully and properly vetted elements of the opposition, especially those who are fighting al-Qaida affiliates.”
Rubio may be “muscular-sounding,” but there’s little indication of brain-cell activity. The real danger is that liberal interventionists and old-style conservative ones might make common cause. If so, they’d probably find an ally in Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s wanted to bomb Syria for a long while—despite President Obama’s opposition to the idea.
Rarely has the sheer arrogance and manipulative game-playing of the United States in foreign policy been more clearly highlighted than in the recent episode involving a phone call between Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine.
In a stunning development, the entirety of the Nuland-Pyatt telephone call was taped and then released on YouTube, possibly as the result of a Russian intelligence coup or, less dramatically, by a snooper somewhere in Europe or Ukraine who managed to gain access to a crystal-clear, high-definition recording of their talk. In the course of a little over four minutes, the two American diplomats exchange ideas about who ought to be promoted, and who ought to be demoted, by the United States inside Ukraine, which is suffering through a difficult and even violent political dispute over whether Ukraine will tilt east, toward Russia, or west, toward the United States and Europe.
Let it first be noted that it shouldn’t be surprising that Nuland would come off as a would-be imperialist or game player. If anything, she’s long been the neoconservative inside the Obama administration. For starters, for years she served as chief foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and then as the George W. Bush administration’s ambassador to NATO. She’s married to another prominent neocon, Robert Kagan, one of the co-founders of the Project for a New American Century, the outfit that did more than any other to promote the invasion of Iraq starting in the late 1990s. For two years, Nuland served as the official spokesperson for the US State Department. Why President Obama let Nuland into his administration is anyone’s guess, but there she is.
The transcript of the Nuland-Pyatt phone call, which apparently occurred sometime last week and was released on YouTube on February 6, reveals how deeply the United States is enmeshed into internal Ukrainian affairs. The two diplomats banter about which of the Ukrainian opposition figures ought to go into the government, perhaps as prime minister, if a deal can be struck with Viktor Yanukovich, the president. As if it’s any of her business, Nuland says, referring to Vitali Klitschko (“Klitsch”), an opposition leader, “I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” To which Pyatt, after a long pause, replies, “Just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff.” Instead, Pyatt and Nuland agree that Arseniy Yatseniuk (“Yats”) ought be the guy who goes in. “I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience.” Then Nuland concludes: “I just think Klitsch going in… he’s going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it’s just not going to work.”
After going back and forth, in which the two Americans decide on who’ll make what phone call to give Yats and Klitsch their apparent marching orders, and after they note that Oleh Tyahnybok, who represents an outright fascist-nationalist party, might be a “problem” (but, still, it seems, someone they can work with), it gets worse.
After noting that Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations and a UN envoy will be weighing in, Nuland expresses her disdain for the European Union (EU), which has been taking the lead on trying to bribe, cajole and persuade Ukraine to drop its dependence on Russia and start the process of joining the EU. Although the United States has officially said that the EU ought to be out front, in Washington—and in Nuland’s office—there is frustration over the fact that the EU won’t move faster and more aggressively to undercut Russia. “Fuck the EU!” says Nuland. Pyatt replies, rather hilariously, “No, exactly.” Exactly?
Well, that hasn’t gone over too well with leaders in Europe, especially with Germany’s Angela Merkel, who’s already expressed her extreme displeasure over the fact that the Bush and Obama administrations have been bugging her private telephone and otherwise spying on Germany, an ostensible ally. Obviously not thrilled about the idea of being fucked by Victoria Nuland, Merkel called the ambassador’s comments “totally unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, the United States has tried to distract from the actual content of the phone call by blaming Russia for its release. Said Jay Carney, the White House spokesman: “The video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government. I think it says something about Russia’s role.”
And Jen Psaki, using spy lingo, added: “Certainly we think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft.” Tradecraft, of course, is spy-talk for the secret techniques of espionage agents.
Victoria Nuland, laughing it off and noting that the quality of the audio was good, echoed Psaki, calling the whole episode “pretty impressive tradecraft.” (Less impressive, of course, is the idea that phone calls between two top American diplomats in the midst of an international crisis can’t be properly protected using secure transmission lines and encryption.) Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, a German journalist and editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, said that as a result Russian President Vladimir Putin “should certainly be laughing himself stupid.”
No surprise: Ukraine’s own intelligence and law enforcement agencies aren’t going to bother investigating who did it.
Lastly, appearing on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS on Sunday, the outgoing US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, had this to say about the phone call episode, adding that he too had been bugged and the tape released:
Well, I haven’t seen any confirmation that it came from the Russians. I’ve been down here in Sochi during this period. I can say that the Russian government does have tremendous capacity when it comes to listening to conversations. I’ve had one of mine put on the web before when I was—a couple years ago. And most certainly we respect their capacities. We don’t respect what I consider if it’s true, to be a real breach of diplomacy. That’s just not the way we do business between countries.
No, the way we do business is far more aggressive than that.
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