Donald Johnston and Donald Trump: Europe and Russia

Donald Johnston and Donald Trump: Europe and Russia

by

Howard Adelman

Russia and Europe are both in the headlines these days, Russia because of the probe into the connections with the Trump White House, and Europe because of the fallout from Donald Trump’s visit last week. “The American-German relationship has been the core of the transatlantic alliance for more than 70 years. It was in Berlin in 1963 that President John Kennedy uttered the phrase, “Ich bin ein Berliner” signalling the unbreakable link between the U.S. and Germany.

Following last week, that close relationship is now dead. At its centre were trade and a military alliance. With respect to the latter, Donald Trump refrained from endorsing Clause 5 of the NATO pact. Trump even lectured his European colleagues for their failure to pay their fair share of NATO costs. Yesterday we learned that most are expecting Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris Accords.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel rebuked the American leader. “Anyone who accelerates climate change by weakening environmental protection, who sells more weapons in conflict zones and who does not want to politically resolve religious conflicts is putting peace in Europe at risk.” Angela Merkel said that it was time for Europeans, “to take our fates in our own hands.” Given “what I’ve experienced in recent days,” the days when “we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent.” “We have to fight for our own future, as Europeans, for our destiny.”

These statements, as much as one might deplore this extraordinary breach in the trans-Atlantic alliance, seemed to prove Donald Johnston’s conviction that Europe had to have strong, visionary leadership. Though he had not seen it yet when he wrote Chapter 3 of his book, “Europe Listing, but Afloat,” the statements of German leaders, the election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France, the prior rejection in Austria of a right-wing populist government, the rebirth of Greece and its rejection of a Greek Grexit, the solidification of the Spanish and Irish economic recoveries, all spoke to a revived Europe, and one without the UK which had voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit upset referendum.

The UK seems to be on a downward slide. London’s place as a world financial centre will begin a slow spiral driven by the gravity of less access to markets. Further, the UK faces the possibility of disintegrating into even smaller nation-states as Scotland looks forward to another vote for separation and rejoining Europe. While most Germans, Dutch and French identify as Europeans, the English still overwhelmingly identify their nationality with their little British Isle. Nevertheless, Johnston believes that the English will soon come to their senses, especially as the unravelling gets closer and more difficult. He believes that Brits will reverse course before it is too late.

One reason Donald Johnston offers is not only the difficulties in unravelling membership, not only the increasingly apparent high costs, but his belief that the Brexit referendum “was a vote of passion, not reason.” Rational self-interest would win out over identity politics currently manifest in the U.K.’s resistance to the influx of outsiders, even though two-thirds of migrants to the UK were not Europeans. Further, like populists on the right in the U.S., those supporting exit from the EU hated the Brussels bureaucracy and called for “independence.”

Nevertheless, Johnston believes that Brits will change their minds before the break is finalized. “What government would have the courage to sign off on Brexit if the polls show a large majority of electors opposed, which is likely to be the case when the consequences are well understood?” If they don’t, separation will take place “against the will of the majority of people in the United Kingdom.” How does he arrive at that assessment? He adds together those who voted against exit with those who did not vote at all on the assumption that 100% would oppose Brexit. Further, even if the divorce is concluded, he expresses the belief that Britain would remain in the European economic zone or, at the very least, forge a free-trade agreement.

Ignoring the statistical sleight of hand above, which Johnston rails against in his chapter on stats, for someone who supports democratic institutions, it reveals a strong distaste for populism and referenda, a dislike he repeatedly expresses in the book. The problem, of course, is that a united Europe is primarily a mandarin’s dream while people throughout Europe and not only in the UK resent the usurping of tradition, of national parliaments and national pride. Johnston believes in a federated state model for Europe. He is an unabashed supporter of multilateralism and globalization as he envisions an even stronger Europe with increasingly open markets, a diminution of trade subsidies, a supporter of structural reforms in the provision of labour and manufacturing. But without completing the mission of creating a united federal state of Europe, the prospect of it becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world while ensuring social cohesion is, for DJ, iffy.

It is not that Johnston has not considered the reasons for populism – the suspicion of remote bureaucracies or the desire for greater parochialism. He has, but only to dismiss such approaches and to double down in defence of globalization. Nowhere in the book could I find an analysis of the effects of restructuring and globalization on workers. Further, and this is most surprising, though he applauds the goals of the Lisbon Declaration in support of education, research and innovation, research and innovation are not included in his graphic summary of his moral economics. Nor is his support for representative democracy and his fears, even hatred, of referenda and populism. The latter just provide grounds for demagogues and irrational passions displacing the task of rational decision-making. DJ quotes Edmund Burke with enthusiasm for parliamentarians who offer unbiased opinions, mature judgement and an enlightened conscience applied to political decision-making. Even those who have a deep faith in rational decision-making can be romantic visionaries.

What remains wrong in Europe? No equivalent to a European-wide securities and exchange commission, no EU-wide drug or food agency, no effective common immigration and refugee position, if only to counter-balance population decline, no formula for redistribution and strengthening weak regions. These unachieved goals, not identity politics, are responsible for the reassertion of populist, irrational, ill-informed and volatile popular will.

Donald Johnston presents himself as the antithesis to Donald Trump. Except he thinks Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an effective leader in Turkey and only became a radical pro-Islamic politician because Europe procrastinated and dithered on Turkey’s application to join the EU. Turkey’s flaws are largely the product of that rejection, even though he concedes that many who suspected his demagoguery and counter-democratic tendencies may have been correct. What he writes abut Russia offers a test of whether he can reconcile his support of parliamentary representative democracy and admiration for strong, effective leaders, for the latter is the trait he unabashedly shares with Donald Trump.

That, however, does not seem to be the case when he begins his chapter on Russia. “Putin’s personal agenda is totally incompatible with democratic ideals, free markets, freedom of expression, and even human rights.” Sounds pretty much like Erdoğan. Both men came to power with a very specific goal – to make their respective countries great again. Both used democracy to advance their own popularity and agenda. Both are economic mercantilists. And both are enemies of freedom and human rights. So why is Johnston so favourable to Erdoğan but critical of Putin? The sentence that follows partially answers the question. “His popularity is founded on hostility and aggressive policies towards the west.” (p. 41)

But what is the difference between the two leaders of Turkey and Russia respectively? Both disappeared adversaries, Erdoğan blatantly, openly and extensively. Putin was more surreptitious, but only Putin is accused. The difference seems to be that people eliminated in Russia included technocrats who Johnston knew – Boris Nemstov, for example.  Erdoğan only wiped out Kurds, jailed journalists and rounded up tens of thousands of members of his own party, civil servants and members of the judiciary, or anyone he thought might be opposed to his increasingly autocratic rule. The only substantive difference: Turkey had a much longer period as a democratic state.

But the causes are the same. Western failures. “Putin [like Erdoğan] is a product of Western blindness.” The stimulus may be different – the closure of the EU to Turkey versus the resurrection of the Cold War in a new form against Russia. The EU dithered on admitting Turkey. OECD procrastinated with Russia’s application to join.

Look at DJ’s answer to Putin’s query to him for an example of bad practices that OECD could help eliminate. Johnston replied, with only the slightest hesitation: “In Canada, which is a vast and diversified country and has similarities with Russia, we committed many mistakes. We pushed local development policies that were more tailored to positive political outcomes than to economic ones.” His reaction to Putin’s impassive response is even more interesting, explaining that passivity because Putin recognized that, “in democracies, placating local constituencies with public funds is an odious, yet obvious (my italics), by-product of the election process.” (p. 45) That says very little about Putin, but a great deal about Johnston’s cynicism and very guarded qualified defence of democracy, which seemed to boil down to the less you consulted your constituents, the less you tried to placate and cater to them, the better leader you were.

Putin could ignore proposals to liberalization of trade, effective taxation, privatization and methods for attracting foreign capital investments. Why? Because the West had made him justifiably wary because of the advance of Western missile defence systems eastward and NATO expansion to the borders of Russia. Those missile defence systems and the move of NATO eastward were not because former satellites had learned to distrust Russia throughout their history and needed reassurances if they were going to embrace the West.

Whether the problem was Crimea, the Ukraine or Syria, the answer is always the same: the mindblindness of the West. The West had failed to provide, in a timely way, healthy market-oriented and properly regulated economic nostrums in the nineties so that Russia could have avoided the depredations of corruption and kleptocratic oligarchs. Why? Because “the Harvard boys” with their unboundaried faith in self-correcting free markets got to Moscow before the OECD boys and their ethical economic doctrines. Russia could and should have been made part of the EU community earlier and history would have run a different course. The IMF got it wrong. OECD had it right.There are vast differences between DJ and DT: DJ’s high regard for civil servants and DT’s contempt for them; their joint appreciation of free markets, but Trump for unregulated ones and DJ’s belief in moral boundaries to them; DJ’s and DT’s contempt for the populace, but with Trump gleefully manipulating the public while DJ did so with his head down and with no sense of self-satisfaction. However, look at the similarities. Both support military withdrawal from spheres of Russian interest. Both share a belief in the power of personal diplomacy. Both respect strong leadership. Trump crusaded against corruption while openly admitting he was part of the corrupt system. DJ, though critical, was more accepting of corruption in its institutionalized democratic forms.

With respect to the latter, there is a major difference. DJ believes in consulting, placating and catering to constituents as little as possible. Trump does not exactly consult them, but psychologically he needs their approval and applause – look at how he is handling the abrogation of America’s signature to the Paris Accords.

DJ and DT are not the same. They are in many ways opposites. However, they are twins, though DT is the hairy one prone to mistakes, governed by instinct and unabashedly frank and even trusting. DJ is cautious, reads his briefing papers diligently and, even more importantly, appreciates others who do the same. Both have strong opinions and both offer very weak defenses of them. Trump’s are almost non-existent or simply products of his imagination.  But DJ respects mandarins. DT despises them. DJ is a globalist and cosmopolitan. DT is a nationalist. DJ is the epitome of civility. DT disses his opponents.

But both believe that history can be commanded and controlled – DJ through thoughtful and careful deliberation, DT through instinct and unabashed self-trust.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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Reflections on the Trump Overseas Tour

Reflections on the Trump Overseas Tour

by

Howard Adelman

My overall impression of Donald Trump’s first excursion overseas as President is the low standard American commentators have set for their President. Further, Trump has surrendered American leadership in the world, although the focus has been on whether his visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican and the G7 were far less damaging than expected.  I examine the trip thus far one stop at a time.

Saudi Arabia

The glitz was familiar. Friendships were forged and solidified. The dancing at the ardha ceremony on the part of the Americans was awkward, and that may have been the metaphor for the whole visit. At the same time, a number of issues came into sharper focus.

  1. Donald’s supreme ignorance concerning terrorism

Though Trump declared that the war against terror was not a war of one civilization against another or one religion against another, but a war against evil, Iran alone was blamed as the heinous source of terrorism, as “the tip of the spear of global terrorism.” To some extent, in the Middle East, the country is a prime source. However, most radical Islamicist terrorism in Europe, in North America and even in the Middle East, is a product of Sunni, not Shiite, background. Wahhabism, rooted in Saudi Arabia, is both a source of proselytizing as well as repression, though both merge together in terrorism in only a small proportion of adherents to this fundamentalism. ISIS in its theology and jurisprudence is far closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran.

  1. Donald proved he could be diplomatic

He learned to follow Barack Obama’s lead, a lead at which he once aimed withering criticism, and avoided the phrase “Islamic terrorism.” He also deliberately ignored his anti-Islamic rhetoric in addressing Muslim leaders and conveniently forgot that he had once declared that Muslims hate us.

  1. Donald’s Respect for Democracy

Saudi Arabia is a dynasty and theocracy, permitting only male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman al-Saud, to rule. Further, the Basic Law that dictates a dictatorship is rooted in sharia law; punishment can be severe for apostasy, sorcery and adultery. Trump could have offered indirect criticisms of the Saudi democratic deficit by applauding the honesty of its December 2016 elections and the innovation in allowing women to both vote and run as candidates, while urging moves towards further reform. If he had a deeper sense of diplomacy than he exhibited, this need not have emerged as a scolding, but as encouragement towards judicial independence and due process in opposition to rampant use of arbitrary arrest, particularly targeting human rights activists. However, Donald Trump’s “principled realism” unveiled an absence of any principles.

  1. Donald’s Ethos

Donald seems to have no sense of human rights – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly – and universal values; he expresses a positive disdain for them in the leaders he admires. He never once brought up the issue of human rights or confronted the repressive government of the Saudis. Instead, a member of his executive, Secretary Wilbur Ross, lauded his visit to Saudi Arabia by noting there were no protesters. “There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard.” When Ross was offered an option to amend or qualify the statement, he abjured and, instead, doubled down on the plaudits he awarded Saudi Arabia without reference to the authoritarian reasons.

(See the U.S. Government Report: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/253157.pdf)

This State Department Report explicitly notes that, “the [Saudi] government categorically forbids participation in political protests or unauthorized public assemblies.” Two protesters currently sit on death row sentenced to be beheaded.

  1. Donald’s Economic Interests

While the billions in trade deals (selling billions of dollars in arms to the Saudis whom he once charged with masterminding 9/11) were being celebrated, so was Saudi investments in America – $55 billion in defence, manufacturing and resource companies. Sales and investments also promised to bring more jobs to America. Less apparent was the fact that a close associate of Donald Trump, Hussain Sajwani, whose DAMAC Properties built the Trump International Golf Course Dubai, might be a big beneficiary.

  1. Saudi Middle East Peace Plan

Though the fifteen-year-old Saudi-led plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians had previously led nowhere, there were hints that the Saudis had modified their approach by offering Israeli recognition as well as trade and investment cooperation if Israel took positive steps towards peace – freezing settlements, releasing prisoners. The increasing surreptitious cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia in trade, security and even diplomacy has, in fact, provided the possibility of making the current period propitious for an advance toward peace, however unlikely that seems to be.

Israel and the Palestinians

At this time, virtually no one with any in-depth knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict expects any breakthrough on the conflict. This is especially true of the Palestinians. Some still believe that Palestinian stubbornness on the “right of return” is a, if not the, major impediment. In fact, there is a deal in the backdrop which allows Israel to ensure its demographic Jewish majority while giving a nod to Palestinian honour. Since there are agreements in place for trading territory and various resolutions are thrown about in dealing with the 80,000 Jewish settlers outside Area C in the West Bank, the problem of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel versus East Jerusalem serving as a capital of a Palestinian state still seems insurmountable. Could that problem be bracketed and a peace deal agreed upon on the other issues?

  1. Orthodox Jews were already suspicious when an unknown rabbi purportedly gave permission to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner landing in Saudi Arabia after the sun had set for the beginning of shabat.
  2. Donald Trump arrived in Israel against a background in Washington where he let the Russians know that intelligence had come from Israel.
  3. Former MK Moshe Feiglin, former leader of Zehut, criticized the $110 billion dollar-weapons-deal signed by Donald with Saudi Arabia.
  4. Netanyahu had to order his ministers to meet Trump at the airport; extreme right wing members recognized that they could not win Trump’s endorsement for a one-state solution based on Israeli victory.
  5. Netanyahu welcomed Trump to the “united capital of the Jewish state.”
  6. Donald Trump, whatever the huge range of his ignorance and inadequacies, does have a keen ear for identity politics and an ability to appeal to that side of Palestinian political concerns. In the past, efforts to strike a deal based on Palestinian self interest have failed. Would Donald be able appeal to their identity concerns?
  7. Recall that in February, Trump suggested that he, and the U.S., were no longer wedded to a two-state solution, even as the State Department reaffirmed that the U.S. still supported a two-state solution. Only a bare majority of Israelis continued to support a two-state solution and the support among Palestinians had dropped to 44%. However, it was not clear whether Trump had dumped the two-state solution or whether he was holding out that possibility if the Palestinians refused to bend and compromise. In his dealings with Israel, he was much clearer that he continued, for the present, to support a two-state solution, but it was also clear that it would not be based on a return to the Green Armistice Line, though Trump disdained the use of a label to characterize the solution without clarification of any content.
  8. When Donald Trump went to Bethlehem to meet Mahmud Abbas, he was greeted with a banner declaring Trump to be a man of peace: “the city of peace welcomes the man of peace.”
  9. Donald Trump did urge Palestinians to refrain from inciting violence.
  10. Trump broke a taboo and flew directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.
  11. Trump broke another taboo and, as U.S. President, visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, but without any Israeli politicians.
  12. He also reinforced Netanyahu’s propensity to demonize Iran as Trump insisted that Iran would never be allowed to make nuclear arms in the same week that a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, had just been re-elected as President of Iran.
  13. On the other hand, Trump did not announce moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem as he had promised.
  14. Further, Trump asked Netanyahu to “curb” settlement expansion, but did not ask for a freeze on building housing units in existing settlements.

The Vatican

  1. Instead of building bridges, as Pope Francis favoured, the Pope had criticized Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border during his campaign.
  2. Trump in return had called Francis “disgraceful.”
  3. Pope Francis, a critic of climate change sceptics, openly advocated adopting policies to deal with climate change. (Francis gave Trump a copy of his encyclical on preserving the environment – of course, there is little possibility that Trump will read it).
  4. Francis is also perhaps the best-known world figure who identifies with giving a helping hand to the poor, with compassion for refugees and, in a Ted talk, he had urged the powerful to put the needs of the people ahead of profits and products.
  5. Francis and Trump did not end up in fisticuffs, but the half-hour visit appeared to be a downer for the Donald and certainly for Sean Spicer, a Catholic, who never got to meet the Pope; the background of the Manchester terror attack did not help, though Trump is all sentiment when children are killed and riled up when terrorists do the killing.

Brussels

  1. The visit to the heartland of globalism was bound to depress the Donald, especially when the UK placed a curb on sharing intelligence with the U.S. since Washington leaks could have compromised the investigation of the Manchester terror attack.
  2. The release of the CPO discussed yesterday did not help.
  3. Donald lectured other members of NATO – totally ignoring the progress made towards the 2% of GDP to be dedicated to the military; he claimed other members owed “massive amounts”; “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying.”
  4. The combination of ignorance and bravado earned some open sniggers from a few European leaders but more frowns.
  5. Donald did not say that NATO was obsolete or dysfunctional, but neither did he pledge America’s unconditional fealty to NATO as required under Article 5 dealing with collective defence and the requirement that each member come to the defence of another.
  6. Donald was mostly left to wallow in his depressed isolation.

The G7

  1. At the G7, Trump lost the control he had exhibited in the Middle East and even Rome.
  2. It is difficult to say whether this was because of events back in Washington – John Brennan’s testimony that there definitely was Russian interference in the election and “possible” collusion because of Trump campaign officials contacts with the Russians, the breaking news of Trump possible obstruction of a criminal probe when he urged his intelligence chiefs to announce that there was no evidence of collusion, and the continuing parade of information that the Trump budget would be disastrous for Trump’s working class white supporters, or whether it was a result of events at the G7, or some combination thereof.
  3. First, while Trump refused to commit to the Paris Accord on the environment, he bragged that he won two environmental awards. And he did – for soil erosion control and preserving a bird sanctuary on one of his golf courses and for donating park land to New York State. Donald did not add that the first on the golf course complemented his self interest and the second was a way to get a charitable donation for land on which he was refused permission to build a golf course. Further, as one drives on the Taconic State Parkway through Westchester, you are greeted with large signs advertising the approach to Donald J. Trump State Park, but one finds the park is small (436 acres of woods and wetlands) relative to the signs, lacks any amenities – trails, parking, washrooms and picnic areas – and is uncared for (overgrown pathways and buildings deteriorated and covered with graffiti) since Trump never donated the money needed for its maintenance.
  4. President Xi of China told Trump that the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord would be irresponsible.
  5. Was America’s pledge to commit $2 billion to the Green Climate Fund alive or would Trump issue an executive order this week cancelling the American commitment?
  6. In turn, European leaders lectured Trump on the fallout for the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Accord – a wave of international anger that would lead to retribution, declining trade with the U.S. and destroy the last shred of trust in Washington; withdrawal would be treated by the world as “diplomatic malpractice” and characterized as betrayal; Trump had delayed an announcement before he arrived at the G7 and, perhaps, might allow U.S. state interests to take precedence over fulfilling his wild and destructive promises.
  7. Europeans tried to educate Trump on globalization and trade policy, but there was little indication that they had made a dint in his thinking. However, a private meeting with Justin Trudeau seemed to indicate that Trump would not scrap NAFTA, but would work to iron out wrinkles. On the other hand, the Europeans rejected out of hand his plea for bilateral trade deals instead of multilateral ones.
  8. The Donald was sabotaged in his effort to deliver French President Emmanuel Macron his traditional macho pull and handshake. Macron, instead of greeting Trump first, let him stand there, as he planted cheek kisses on Angela Merkel, greeted several others and then, having been briefed, subverted Trump’s effort and even pressed his hand harder and longer and would not let Trump pull away.
  9. When all other leaders are seen chatting informally with one another as they look over an iron fence at the spectacular view, Trump is nowhere in sight. Instead of walking there with the others, he went in a golf cart. When he arrived, he was surrounded by a phalanx of security men and only then joined the group and appeared to dominate the conversation.
  10. When Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, as host of the conference, addressed his fellow leaders, all leaders had on headphones and listened – except Donald Trump, sitting two seats away, Donald without headphones sat looking vacantly at the table. Perhaps no one can understand Italian as well as he can.
  11. Trump had been gone too long from living in what he owned and projected his possessive individualism. Was it the requirement of collegiality that made him slip from his vacuous demeanour at the Vatican to his glumness in Taormina, Sicily?
  12. There was a media dustup over whether he referred to Germany as evil or bad, and, if “bad,” as seems to be the case, did he mean the situation in which Germany finds itself, specifically with respect to refugees, or did he mean German political policies were bad?
  13. The meetings confirmed what Angela Merkel had come to believe: a) that the U.S. was no longer a reliable ally on which Germany could depend; b) American current policies on trade and climate change were disastrous.
  14. Trump had gone from dancing with swords in Riyadh to dodging darts at the G7.

The trip overseas marked the U.S. loss of leadership in the Western world and threatened America with negative repercussions because the Europeans had linked action on climate change with trade policy. Trump managed to keep his head above water in this overseas trip as he escaped the domestic closing in on the administration in its fourth month in office, but only by moving America towards disastrous policies that would be economically and politically detrimental to the U.S.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Putin, the Crimea and Syria

I received a number of responses to yesterday’s blog, many of them almost immediate. Here is a sample:

 

“This is a beautiful and timely essay. Thank you Howard.”

 

Nergis

 

“Uncanny — no? — how empires then partition the nations they reluctantly sire?

 

Actually, you could also flip the Sochi-Crimea story and say that what’s remarkable — and revealing — about Putin’s moves is his willingness to throw away $50b in Olympic spending to announce Russia’s resurrection into a 21st century ‘power’ by dragging it all down with a 20th century land grab.”

 

Jeremy

Don’t be so sure of Russia’s continued rise. It is a decayed and deteriorating society. He will bite off more then he can chew and indigestion will follow.

He’s a thug and he surrounds himself with thugs. He should be treated as such. Unfortunately the West is bankrupt, not only economically, but in terms of thought and especially leadership. When it’s the last quality we have really needed for the last years, golf appears a priority. Unfortunately, the US is governed by a rank amateur, and one that appears to have little regard for the truth, whose only saving grace is a corrupt congress.

Best Regards,”

Mark

“This is a very insightful analysis.

I have read both of Remnick’s books on Russia. Lenin’s Tomb was a masterpiece.
I will check out the New Yorker article. Remnick always writes so well.

I really enjoyed your article. I found it very valuable to understand modern Russia and Putin’s motivations.

Putin seems to know when to hold them and when to fold them.”

Eric

 

The Ukraine is now mobilizing. The question will quickly come to the fore whether the West is willing to challenge Putin militarily through NATO. We will very quickly see how Obama et al will handle a bully and whether Putin knows when to hold and when to fold. Some of this action will be played out on the periphery.

 

 

Putin, The Crimea and Syria

by

Howard Adelman

 

As the West and Russia clash over The Crimea diplomatically and economically, and the possibility of a clash militarily creeps closer in spite of the unwillingness of all parties, including Putin, to clash in that arena, what will the effect be on Syria? Whatever either the US or Russia henceforth do, there will be serious repercussions. One will be on the prospects of enhanced warfare in Syria as well as other fallout on U.S.-Russian relations. After all, Bashir Assad has been strongly supported by Putin and US backed off its red line when Russia got the Assad regime to surrender its chemical weapons.

As the situation deteriorates – and it will before and if it gets better – will the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal stop even though it is in no one’s interest to do so? That would be one way to counter the economic and diplomatic initiatives now underway by the West. Putin may send a signal, “If you do not cooperate with me when Russia’s vital interests are affected, if you seem on the verge of bringing NATO troops right up to the borders of Russia, if you seem to threaten the ability of the Russian fleet to mobilize and move through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, then my efforts to cooperate with the West must stop immediately.”

Further, the U.S., particularly American hawks, may now see an opportunity to resurrect its strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and offer real military support to the rebels, especially now that the radical Islamists, ISIS and al-Nusra, have totally fallen out. Hawks have been calling Obama a weak-kneed statesman, especially for trusting Putin and allowing Russia to become a key player in the Syrian peace talks. In taking up that role, Putin made sure that Assad would not be required to resign as a condition of peace. As a result, the peace talks were going nowhere fast.

The emptiness of those peace talks will become totally evident. They will end very soon and the West will not only have immediate decisions to make about NATO-Ukraine relations, but about its backing for the rebels in Syria with significant military supplies. The West has few ways it can influence Putin directly. As the action focuses on NATO and the Ukraine, other political and economic action will shift to the margins, particularly since Obama now owes Putin nothing for saving Obama from having to cross the red line and intervene militarily in Syria. Obama now has to calculate how he can weaken Russia’s leverage in the Middle East, weaken Assad, yet not strengthen the radical jihadists.

In opting for direct military action against all international norms and agreements, given his belief in the primacy of a president and his use of Parliament only as a rubber stamp, in getting the Russian Duma to authorize the deployment of Russian military forces in all of Ukraine and not just The Crimea, Putin has opted not to use proxies in Kyiv because they failed him. Putin has the “cover” of claiming to act on behalf of the legitimately elected government of the Ukraine. As John Kerry has said, that is a cover that is so transparent and thin as to be more revealing than concealing. Will Putin also desert his past record of caution and deliberate and stealthy moves now that the challenge is on his doorstep? He may or may not use direct action in eastern Ukraine, but he is bound to stir up the Russophiles.

Putin has repeatedly despised the way the USSR folded up and gave away its western frontier states because of its unwillingness to use force when the people revolted. He has always admired the way the Hungarian and Czech revolts were put down deliberately and decisively. Is he still convinced that NATO will continue to stand down in the face of a direct challenge when a society like Ukraine is on the verge of taking the next crucial step in throwing off the autocratic yoke of Russia?

Recall that Putin has his own domestic demons, a society he believes he can and, more importantly, needs to rally behind him in the face of alleged external threats. So his supporters peacefully rally without interference while those advocating peace and criticizing Putin are rounded up and arrested. Putin does not want to go the way of Recep Tayyip Erdogan where the endemic corruption of the extractive kleptocratic economy becomes apparent for all too see and he loses his last tenuous hold on the loyalty of the Russian people. What better way to rally the troops than giving proof that the U.S. and the West cannot be trusted and intend to surround Russia with military troops in its expansionist vision!.

The Syrian peace prospect has been dead for a long time. That announcement will soon be forthcoming, but there will unlikely be time for a funeral. There will continue to be an escalation in military activity on the Syrian front and Saudi Arabia hopefully will be pulled away at the last minute from its flirtation with Putin. As Putin moves speedily to foment dissent in Eastern Ukraine where Russians are decisively in the minority, distractions will be needed. Expect the periphery to heat up considerably as well.

 It already has. Assad’s escalation in the barrel-bombing campaign on Aleppo has driven out residents and rebels by the tens of thousands. What is the difference between the depopulation of Darfur of sources of rebel strength in the Sudan and the depopulation of Aleppo and its surroundings? After all, proxy forces, including both the Palestinian Quds Battalion and Hezbollah’s Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, have been active in cleaning up the villages around Aleppo of rebels leaving only the radical Islamists in contention, both with one another and the Assad regime. Will the U.S. finally supply the rebels with shoulder-launched anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and risk those weapons falling into the hands of jihadists? Will the U.S. provide direct military support for the rebel training camps and rally their morale? Will the rebels reassert themselves on the Daraa front to offset losses along the Turkish border? Will Obama decide that the regime needs to overthrown or will he allow the rebels to be beaten on the battlefield? Or is it already too late? Will Obama and the West reset the reset policy in time, but with care and prudence?