Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 14 – 21 March 2014

Conflicts Forum

A well-connected colleague (based in Washington) notes: “Regarding Syria, US attention has dropped precipitately, with the result that US intelligence analysts are warning that Assad is making military gains that will be near impossible to reverse. One analyst commented to us: “Assad has as good as won”.”  In this way, the ‘Ukraine effect’ is already making itself evident. US officials, already apprehensive about the impact on the P5+1 talks with Iran, have been cautiously heartened by Russian cooperativeness at least during the latest round of talks, but privately, they acknowledge that a closening between Russia and Iran may be one legacy of the stand-off between the US and its allies, and President Putin.  Much less explicit, but as important, the Ukraine crisis also has made the continued Obama-Putin teamwork on Syria and Iran extremely difficult, if not impossible – an outcome that some in Washington, may welcome.

In Tehran, closer relations with Russia are not just thought to be likely, but inevitable. There is a widespread sense that Ukraine (and the emotive vituperation it has generated against Russia and its President) has strengthened Tehran’s hand in its dealing with Europe and the US.  Russia will react by deepening its alliance with Iran.  This is a view that holds sway even if – somewhat paradoxically – it shares space with the conviction amongst many in Iran that the talks are destined to fail (or, at best, result in a further 6-month extension of the nuclear talks, when the present round concludes).  This strong sense of Iranian gain however, seems linked not just to the perceived Russian sense of grievance over Ukraine repercussing to Iran’s advantage, but is grounded rather in a feeling that recent events seem set to unleash more profound geo-political consequences. What are these?

It seems that, as foreshadowed in our last Weekly Comment, President Obama, pushed into a corner by some in his Administration, had indeed hoped to settle matters directly with President Putin. What is so striking, though, is the professed deep concern in Washington that President Putin has misread the determination of the West to impose costs on him.  This is mirrored only by the surprise in Russia and in much of the region, that the US and its allies could have so misread the likely reaction of Putin to the western ‘move’ in Ukraine, given the history of Ukraine and of the Crimea for most Russians – the way the mainstream media peaked on anti-Putin rhetoric may have ‘surprised’, but it should not have been: the signs were there to see.

At the February Munich security conference, US Secretaries Hagel and Kerry pushed hard against the current narrative of waning US power, which they denied, though they did concede that the transatlantic alliance had become flaccid (due to lack of US leadership).  Hagel noted: “With the United States moving off a 13-year war footing, it’s clear to us – it’s very clear to President Obama – that our future requires a renewed and enhanced era of partnership with our friends and allies … We need a transatlantic renaissance”.  [And] “the foundation of our collective security relationship with Europe has always been cooperation against common threats … The centerpiece of our transatlantic defense partnership will continue to be NATO”.

In short, evidence of the undiminished quality of US ‘power and leadership’ was to be made manifest to Europeans through a more aggressive NATO posture, and in case anyone misunderstood, John Kerry laid it out plainly: “Nowhere is the fight for a democratic European future more important today than in Ukraine.” NATO, in short, was to be reinvigorated, and Europe shepherded back under the American leadership cloak, by rallying it against the common ‘threat’ of a re-emergent Russia.  NATO thus would be ‘pivoted’ out from its long failing war in Afghanistan, into its new mission in Ukraine – thereby keeping NATO meaningful by continuing to stick its foot in the Eurasian ‘door’.  So when the mainstream press went into uproar at Putin so concertedly, we can be confident that NATO and others, have been preparing the ground well with their unattributable briefings.

Indeed they had. As veteran US investigative journalist Robert Parry notes, as far back as September 2013, the US-funding body, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) president, Carl Gershman, took to the pages of the Washington Post to write that Ukraine was now “the biggest prize.” (NED had 65 projects operating in Ukraine – training ‘activists,’ supporting ‘journalists’ and organizing business groups, according to its latest report). But Gershman added that Ukraine was really only an interim step to an even bigger prize — the removal of the strong-willed and independent-minded Putin, who, Gershman added, “may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad [i.e. Ukraine] but within Russia itself.” In other words, the new hope was for ‘regime change’ in Kiev and Moscow.

Did then the Russians then simply misread NATO’s willingness to impose ‘consequences’ on Putin for any opposition to Ukraine’s absorption into the western sphere, as some US officials assert?  Or, did Putin see the situation only too clearly: that this Ukraine ploy amounted to something far exceeding ‘payback’ for Syria – but constituted rather, an existential threat to the ‘homeland’ and to its strategic naval base at Sevastopol.

Leading Russia analyst, Fyodor Lukyanov, places events in a Russian context by asserting that the Ukraine events are no flash-in-the-pan, but foreshadow the end of a twenty-five year era of foreign policy in Russia: when Gorbachev formulated his ‘new thinking’, the world was being kept in balance by two roughly equal superpowers. [But] “the rapid dissolution of the Soviet Union buried Gorbachev’s dreams of equal rapprochement and mutual ideological enrichment, and [instead] gave the winning side the right to interpret human values and the rules of international relations at will”.

Russia, Lukyanov says, was all the while deeply chaffing at these unwritten rules – even at the depths of her foreign policy weakness.  Her vexation grew rapidly, and in direct proportion, to the recouping of her powers. Yet, despite the frustrations, and the many western regime-change interventions to which she was deeply opposed, Russia continued – against the odds – to preserve the main legacy from the Gorbachev era: the belief in the unquestionable value of constructive relations with the West.

So, though Russia formulated its decisions so as to minimize possible damage to its relations with Europe and the United States, Moscow found that it could never escape its status as ‘a defeated power’ (and being treated like Japan). It became understood that Russia would always be the ‘outsider’, viewed condescendingly as ‘an emergent power’ that never somehow would ‘emerge’.

The bitterness has become all the more acute however because Russians do not believe they ‘lost’ the Cold War, but, rather were pulled out – by their leaders – before it was over. “The Kremlin’s goal [now]”, Lukyanov writes, “is not to restore the country that fell apart in December 1991: Rather, it wants to replay the final phase of the Cold War”.

The old Gorbachev model, Russians believe, has nothing to offer. Russia has not – and will not – be accepted as an equal partner. No one intends to discuss the new rules of the game with it, and the leading world players believe that the post-Cold War system is good enough, and does not need to be corrected.  In short, constructive relations with western powers has not protected Russia, but rather exposed it to the machinations of the likes of the National Endowment for Democracy, with its agenda of creating pro-western constituencies that become the platform for popular disaffection, and an infrastructure for ultimate regime change.

The Russian leadership, Lukyanov suggests, has decided the country cannot break out of this ‘box’ on the present terms alone. Hence, it must either rise to become one of the core nations, or, alternatively, establish a “confrontational balance” with a focus on allying with non-Western partners, in order to draw a line in the sand: no NATO megabase in the heart of Eurasia.  This, perhaps, precisely is what the Iranians understand when they see Ukraine in terms of a geo-political tectonic shift that inevitably will be to its advantage, and which prompted President Assad to offer the full resources of his country in support of Putin’s position on Ukraine and Crimea.  There will be considerable support in the region – as well as quiet understanding from China – for halting NATO’s ambition to reinvent itself in Eurasia.

What may perhaps truly surprise many is that Europe did not perceive any of this possible blow-back, as it sought to ‘wrest the Ukrainian prize out of Putin’s grasp’.  It seems they followed the analysis of leading Western think-tanks who held that President Putin would have to acquiesce. But now that Putin has resisted, and seems set to defy the US and NATO, the lack of any real EU cards to play is very evident to all – despite the heightened anti-Putin rhetoric. (There is just a whiff of the Suez Crisis to all this).  Will Ukraine reinvigorate the NATO and US leaderships – as the Suez adventure was hoped would restore British and French prestige?  Or, will Ukraine (as Suez did for the then colonial powers), simply further underline NATO’s lack of  any plausible raison d’être?  We shall have to wait and see.

 As Lukyanov rightly observes: “Moscow has started a very big game. The risk of loss is considerable, but the prize is undeniably attractive. The old world order has become completely ineffective and should be replaced with a new one. Mikhail Gorbachev, who announced [his idea of how to transcend conflict between different systems] back in 1986, failed to accomplish this task. Vladimir Putin has returned to the crossroads to give it another try”.

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