Putin, Crimea and Iran

Putin, Crimea and Iran 


Howard Adelman


Netanyahu may have been visiting Kerry and Obama in Washington yesterday, but the greatest concern of all three had to be Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine in spite of the immanence of Abbas’ visit to Washington in two weeks. Besides, in spite of Obama’s tough letter to Netanyahu preceding his visit, Netanyahu is now largely onside. Abbas still only understands the costs of failure. The main focus of the talks with Obama was likely Iran. As Secretary of State John Kerry stressed all other options must be exhausted before considering military action. On the other hand, if America is unwilling to contemplate some form of military action when its vital interests are challenged in Europe, does such a verbal statement carry any weight? For although Iran is in the process of implementing the planned deal and the UN reported that its stockpile of highly enriched uranium had been reduced by 50 percent, there are still serious fears that Iran is using the interim period of the agreement to develop its delivery capacity (ballistic missiles and warheads) and to get ready to deploy its newest far more efficient centrifuges. How Obama leads the response to Putin’s actions in the Crimea will affect how Iran will respond to Western efforts on decommissioning the nuclear arms preparations in Iran and Netanyahu’s trust in Obama’s resolve.

When Netanyahu faces AIPAC today, he will be addressing a much weakened political lobby. For just as Putin has embarrassed Obama with the Russian invasion of The Crimea and temporarily established that the U.S. is a paper tiger, Obama in turn faced down AIPAC and proved that, when push came to shove, AIPAC could not deliver on its determination to pressure the House of Representatives to press forward with the Menendez-Kirk Iran Sanctions Bill (S1881). AIPAC was not able to get the Senate on side and to round up enough votes in the House to override a Presidential promised veto, though Menendez and Kirk will introduce Netanyahu when he addresses AIPAC today. In spite of pressure from veterans, Republican Senators embarrassingly voted against veteran benefit legislation after their efforts to attach an Iran sanctions amendment had been stripped from the legislation. As American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Delinger said in a press conference last week, the vote of the 41 Republican Senators was “inexcusable”. It was a humiliating loss to the Republicans all around, but especially AIPAC.  Although they are no at all on the same level and the comparison if far fetched, nevertheless Obama’s dealing with AIPAC showed considerable resolve.

Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute  and of the Weekly Standard and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, reported in yesterday’s Tablet on AIPAC’s routing and fall from grace. For AIPAC tried to ride two widely diverging horses at one and the same time – bipartisanship and pressure for sanctions that became only a Republican issue. To save the principle of bipartisanship, AIPAC pulled its punches and folded into its corner by agreeing with Democrats in delaying the sanctions bill until the results of the Iran negotiations are further along, leaving the Republicans stranded without a vocal Jewish lobby behind it. There is now a danger that AIPAC will split and hive off a Z-Street of Z-Pac purely rightist Jewish lobby. Resolve on one side is helped by weakness on the other.

The AIPAC meeting today, haunted by the Iran issue and the question of the failure of Obama’s reset with authoritarian regimes, will be particularly poignant in light of rumours of Putin’s escalation of the crisis by demanding that the Ukrainian troops in The Crimea disarm and surrender and that the seamen aboard the Ukrainian military vessels (two) and the coast guard do the same. Russian official spokesmen have adamantly denied the rumours, but the Putin regime has lost all credibility since it insisted first that it had no intention of occupying The Crimea and then said it was doing so only to protect Russians, a clear and blatant lie if such a move requires evidence that Russians were under threat. I suspect the Russian Defence Ministry is correct, nevertheless, since Russia has no need to disarm the Ukrainian troops at this time, but then how do we explain the reports by Ukrainian naval officers to their government that the Russian Commander of the Black Sea Fleet visited the Ukrainian navel vessels and not only demanded surrender but threatened an attack? How do we explain Russian troops firing warning shots this morning at unarmed Ukrainian soldiers trying to repossess their aircraft? In any case, soon enough the Ukrainian military personnel in The Crimea will have to surrender just to be able to bring in provisions so the Russian military has no need to attack at this time.

In the interim, a key question in international law is the legitimacy of the current government. Russia backs Viktor Yanukovych who, contrary to his previous insistence that he would never ask for Russian military intervention, has now formally requested Russian military intervention in ALL of Ukraine “to establish legitimacy, peace, law and order, stability and defence of the people of Ukraine.” Edgar Savisaar, Mayor of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, urges Ukraine to establish a “strong” democracy, and claims the current government is radical and was put in place with baseball bats, and, thus, is not legitimate and even lacks the ability or power to hold free and democratic elections. However, the rejection of Yanukovich was voted on by parliament. That majority vote included many members of the President’s own party. However, those representatives of the Party of Regions were too few and the government is dominated by supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko and does include some “radicals”. Nevertheless, The Ukrainian parliament, with a majority 336 votes, including many from Yanukovich’s own party, voted to remove Yanukovich from the presidency.

Until yesterday, we had not heard nearly sufficiently about why Western democracies considered the current Ukrainian government legitimate and why Yanukovich, crook that he is, lacks any political legitimacy. Further, some detailed analysis is needed of the ostensible trigger, the passage by the Ukraine legislature to cancel the 2012 bill to permit Russian to be made an official language in regions of the Ukraine in spite of  Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov’s promise to veto the legislation. But the rationale does focus one’s attention on Putin’s invasion as an effort to protect the Russian ethnic significance in the Ukraine and his defining of all opposition to such an allegedly R2P (Responsibility to Protect) effort as resisted and defended only by fascists elements in the Ukrainian polity.

Let me deal with the legitimacy of the current Ukraine government first. Stephen Cohen called the effort (leaked) of US Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, and American Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, to analyze scenarios for supporting a democratic transition in the Ukraine as a plot to carry out a coup against a democratically elected president. But there is a difference between a coup and efforts to influence events through diplomatic means in a particular direction. The latter is not an example of neo-colonialism as isolationist realists like Jacob Heilbrunn (The National Interest 6 Fenruary) contend. As John McCain argued, this is very different than Putin using nineteenth century real imperial actions to intimidate and coerce a government. But the legitimacy of the current government still needs to be explained.

After attacking Putin’s rationale for his invasion as an effort to protect minorities and from radicals and anti-semites as a preposterous fabrication and the invasion as a breach of Article 2 of the UN Charter, Russia’s obligations under the 1975 Helsinki pact and its obligations under the 1997 bilateral Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Russia and the Ukraine, and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ambassador Lyall Grant of the UK Mission to the UN, in addressing the Security Council meeting on Ukraine yesterday, provided the most solid and succinct answer to that challenge.

The Russian representative claims that Mr Yanukovich has called for Russian military intervention. We are talking about a former leader who abandoned his office, his capital and his country. Whose corrupt governance brought his country to the brink of economic ruin. Who suppressed protests against his government leading to over eighty deaths and whose own party has abandoned him. The idea that his pronouncements now convey any legitimacy whatsoever is farfetched and of a keeping with the rest of Russia’s bogus justification for its actions. The government in Kiev is legitimate and has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the Ukrainian parliament.

With the invasion of eastern Ukraine not only a prospect but possibly immanent, the West will have to take some military action and not just diplomatic and economic action. Will NATO invite the Ukraine to join NATO? Sensitive to Russian concerns about having NATO adjacent to its borders, NATO discouraged such an application by both Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, even though NATO had recruited 12 other former Soviet satellites to join, a move Malcolm Fraser of Australia and American Russian expert Stephen Cohen considered “provocative” and “unwise”. Further, previously, only 22% of Ukrainians supported such a move. But given Russia’s action, I suspect the mood of both Ukrainians and most of the legislature has radically shifted with respect to this issue.

This is the most urgent issue – determining whether NATO has potency or not in the face of an overt invasion without even the facsimile of a legitimate cause, at least for invasion — though possibly for concern. Russia considered the potential EU agreement itself to be a Trojan horse for NATO since the agreement included a clause that said: “The parties shall explore the potential of military and technological co-operation. Ukraine and the European Defence Agency (EDA) will establish close contacts to discuss military capability improvement, including technological issues.” Putin would regard Ukraine joining NATO at this time as a significant escalation. And it would be. But given Putin’s unwillingness to reconsider his invasion of Crimea, one could expect from such a pugilist a direct response not simply in fomenting trouble in Eastern Europe but a direct or indirect invasion be sending in “volunteers”.  This is the danger and the conundrum: how does the West respond with conviction, with determination and with effectiveness without setting off a 1914 sequence of actions and counter-actions that lead to war rather than de-escalation?

The second verbal part of the action – defence against the charge that the Ukraine Parliamentary actions are threatening the rights of Russians and other minorities in the Ukraine – requires attention. The Ukraine Parliament did act precipitously, and unnecessarily, in cancelling the 2012 law “On State Language Policy” and the right of the country’s regions, including Crimea with a majority of Russians, to make Russian, or other languages, a second official language if at least 10% of the population spoke that language. The cancellation of the law stood in blatant opposition not only to Russia but to the EU Parliament which called on the Ukraine parliament to protect the rights of minorities, including their language rights, and to respect the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Thirteen of Ukraine’s regions, 11 in the east, adopted Russian as a second official language. Two western regions introduced Romanian and Hungarian, respectively. The reality is that the rejection of the 2012 minority language law was both a snub to both Moscow and Brussels, but was NOT a justification for a Russian invasion. Even if some of the parliamentarians considered the law too generous and in need of modification, taking such action just after dismissing the President was unnecessary and rash. Part of the diplomatic efforts to get Putin to back off must include a promise to pass a new form of minority language laws.

After all, the Crimea was not the only eastern region to respond negatively to the cancellation of the law and the ouster of the President. Several regions rejected the appointed governor of the region and replaced that individual with a locally elected head. That means that the Kyiv Parliament has to enter into a dialogue with the regions and not simply run roughshod over their wishes and priorities.

This raises the question of Obama’s reset of his reset with Russia. Russophile and eminent Russian Expert, Stephen Cohen, has been perhaps the most prominent exponent of the initial reset arguing for Obama cooperating with Russia and Putin in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and in the battle against terrorism since that battle is a central interest of Russia. But as a contributing editor to The Nation, Cohen recently penned an essay, “Distorting Russia” in defense of Putinism and attacked what he alleged was the demonization of Putin and his portrayal as an autocrat. Even as Cohen continues to defend and apologize for Putin’s authoritarian and anti-gay Russian ethno-nationalist autocratic behaviour and urged Obama to go to Sochi out of gratitude to Putin, Putin was planning action that undermined the whole reset doctrine. Obama now must discard Cohen’s advice in light of Putin’s violations of international law and previous agreements and reset the reset. But how strong a reset will it be? How much should it also take into account Russia’s expressed concern with Russian minorities and rights and with the precipitous actions of the Ukrainian parliament?

Economic sanctions will also be considered and will undoubtedly be imposed, but the issue of sanctioning Russian oil and gas exports can be left to a later date, especially in light of Germany’s dependence of Russia for one-third of its supplies, at least until alternate sources can be put in place. But what then is to be done about the 40% of Ukrainian exports that go to Russia? What about Putin’s offer in December to reduce gas prices to the Ukraine from $400 to $268.50 per 1,000 cubic metres?  Ukraine will need massive amounts of economic interim aid while the Ukrainian economy is integrated into Europe. On the verbal as distinct from the action channel, there is a need to deal with three issues, first and foremost, what government is legal secondly, the minority language issue and why the plans for new elections broke down. More pragmatically, is there any real and immanent threat of Ukraine disintegrating into an ethnic war or is this just a projection of Putin’s own ethno-nationalism in giving as a key reason for his invasion the need to protect ethnic Russians?

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