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Robert E. Hunter. Ukraine and Syria: Linked Together by Russia

Ukraine and Syria: Linked Together by Russia

by Robert E. Hunter

LobeLog Foreign Policy
October 6, 2016

The United States and Russia are now at daggers drawn over Syria. Following the collapse of the ceasefire negotiated last month by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the United States has abandoned talks with the Russians o­n Syria
. Meanwhile, in a supposedly unrelated part of the relationship, Russia has suspended the 2000 agreement between the two countries o­n ridding themselves of excess stocks of weapons-grade plutonium.

Not since Russia seized Crimea in February 2014 and began incursions, directly and through little green men, into other parts of Ukraine have relations between Moscow and Washington been so poor.

In terms of trying at long last to stop the carnage in Syria, now entering its sixth year with hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of displaced persons, the failure of the United States and Russia to agree o­n a way forward is a tragedy for all those involved. Because of the flood of refugees to Europe, it is also a central factor in the worst crisis ever to face the European Union.

The American-Russian standoff o­n Syria marks a decisive point in the effort, since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, to see whether Russia can live at peace with its neighbors and others, neither threatening them nor feelingrightly or wronglythreatened by o­ne or more of them, notably the United States.

This aspect of the Syrian civil warUS-Russian relationshas to be seen in the context of this larger picture, as the Russians surely do. To begin with, the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the most profound strategic retreat by any nation or empire, without war, in all of history. The Wests victory in the Cold War, over both Soviet geopolitical power and European communism, was virtually total. But it would have been unrealistic to expect that the largest part of the USSR, the Russian Federation, would remain the third-rate power it had suddenly become. In o­ne Western jibe, it was Burkina Faso with nuclear weapons. Yet inherent facts of geography, natural resources, and power potential always meant that Russia would again become a major competitor for the West.

Reaching out to Russia

The most relevant question was whether Russias natural and ineluctable ambitions could be accommodated by embedding the country in a system of security, political, and economic relationships, especially with other European countries, the United States, and Canada. President George H.W. Bush tried, by advancing a vision of a Europe whole and free and at peace. Part of this vision was based o­n a desire not to repeat with Russia what happened with Germany after the punishing provisions of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles: German revanchism and a spur to the rise of Adolph Hitler.

Russia embraced much of what the West proposed to implement this vision of a Europe whole and free, though reluctantly. It acquiesced to a unified Germany in NATO. It joined NATOs Partnership for Peace. It sent soldiersits very bestto take part in the Bosnian Implementation Force after the 1995 Dayton Accords, notably placing these soldiers under US command. Russia agreed to a NATO-Russia Founding Act (which included 19 areas for potential cooperation). And it even tolerated, though with asperity, NATOs enlargement to include two countries o­n Germanys eastern frontier, Poland and the Czech Republici.e. to surround Germany with NATOplus Hungary, whose NATO membership was for the Russians neither here nor there.

Maybe this work could have been built upon. Maybe Russia would have accepted that it would be part of some larger European security construct, in whose design it would be involved, rather than having to dominate countries in its near abroad. By contrast, the aftereffects of a humiliating loss in the Cold War might inevitably have impelled Russia to be assertive abroad, even had not Vladimir Putin, a leader with his own personal and national ambitions, come to power in Moscow. History, of course, can never be revisited.

Unfortunately, the West and the United States in particular stopped caring whether Russia could be included in Europe as a respected and serious, if not exactly an equal, member. The West ignored Moscows opposition to NATOs 1999 intervention in Kosovo. Washington more-or-less scrapped the Russian dimension of Bushs vision for Europe. The United States pressed for more countries to join NATO, butting up against Russias frontiers, without engaging with Russia o­n the subject.

On taking office, the George W. Bush administration unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. After the collapse of the US-Soviet nuclear balance of terror, the treaty did not much matter. But it was a symbol for the Russians that they could continue to claim a seat at the head table with the o­nly country that mattered, the United States. Something similar happened when the US decided to deploy missile defenses in Central Europe against potential threats from North Korea and Iran. Russia objected, claiming that these defenses could blunt its own capacity for deterrence, however obsolete that notion was. The US argued that the Russians must know that the size of these missile defenses could never pose a challenge to Russia. They did know it, but that was not the point: it was another example of a unilateral American move in Russias backyard o­n a strategic issue. (To prove the point about the importance for Moscow of being at the head table with the United States, Russia did negotiate and agree to the New START strategic arms agreement.)

Worst of all, in 2008, again at Americas behest, NATO declared that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO, a statement that could o­nly mean that the alliance was prepared to include both countries under the protection of the Western alliances security umbrella. The pledge of membership for Ukraine violated the tacit understanding that the countrys future in European security would remain indeterminate while the West tried to work something out with Russia. Shortly after the NATO summit came the brief Russian conflict with Georgia, in which, tellingly, not a single NATO ally leapt to Tbilisis defense.

Then Ukraine moved front and center. In February 2014, a popular uprising sent a pro-Russian government in Kiev packing. Then the United States sought to bring Ukraine solidly into the Western (i.e., NATO) orbit. Both sides had crossed a red line. But Russia was the side that chose to act in response, by what it did in Crimea and continues to do elsewhere in Ukraine, while also intimidating the Baltic states that are now NATO members. This led to Western sanctions o­n Russia, a buildup of both NATO and Russian military power in Europe, diplomatic and political stalemate, and a virtual end to efforts, o­n both sides, to see whether Russia could be part of a Europe whole and free. Ominously, there has been talk in both the United States and Russia about a new cold war, with senior US military leaders saying that Russia poses an existential threat to the United States, a judgment that is both nonsense and potentially dangerous.

Russia Shifts the Focus to the Middle East

For the United States, Ukraine and Syria might seem worlds apart. Not so for Putins Russia. It has naturally sought a way both to counter the Wests economic sanctions over Ukraine and to reassert its global power, whether that is based o­n substance or for now mostly o­n bluff. Syria has proved to be a perfect place for Russia to show the West that, despite economic sanctions, it has cards to play in an area that the United States for decades had made its own sphere of influence.

By what it has done in Syria and elsewhere in the region, and especially by what it has not done, the United States gave Russia the opportunity to meddle. Arguably, if the United States and its partners had found some way to end the Syrian civil war and to begin dealing more effectively than now with some of the regions broader problems, Russia would have found few opportunities to exploit, beyond retaining the small naval base it has long had o­n Syrias Mediterranean coast.

But the Obama administration has still not crafted a set of policies that can lead toward effective resolution of conflict in Syria. Here, the United States has found itself at a structural disadvantage to Russia. In Moscow, o­nly a few leaders make decisions, with o­nePutincasting the decisive vote. In the United States, by contrast, not o­nly is the president subject to the Constitutions checks and balances, he also faces pressures from a host of foreign partners and allies, along with their supporters in US domestic politics. (Russia has no allies to whom Putin has to listen.)

If Washingtons key objectivein Syria and surrounding territory were primarily to limit opportunities for Putins Russia, it would have done a number of things differently. It would have sought many years earlier than it did to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. Indeed, the final deal was very close to terms that Teheran advanced at the time of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when Iran feared that it could be next. Even now, the US should be implementing the nuclear deal scrupulously, including o­n relief of sanctions against Iran, in order to give it an incentive to be more accommodating to US interests in the region. Instead, the US has ceded the opportunity to Russia to try engaging Iran, despite centuries of their mutual animosity.

Nor, in this scenario, would the administration call for the departure of Syrias Alawite president, Bashar al-Assad, without first spelling out in detail how the Alawites and every other confessional group in Syria could survive regime change. However, the US finds itself under intense pressure from its friends and partners in the region not to pursue that obvious course. Sunni states, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, want Assad gone and a government in Syria dominated by the Sunni majority, the Alawites be damned (along with Shiites elsewhere in the region). It should thus not be surprising that Russia is supporting the Assad regime and the Alawites, who fear for their survival, and in the process showing the United States that Moscow has to be reckoned with.

Because of its partners in the region, the United States in effect has become a dog with multiple tails, each o­ne wagging vigorously. At least o­ne of these tails, Saudi Arabia, has made matters even worse for the United States, the West in general, and just about everyone in the Middle East who does not support the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). The major fuel for IS, in both inspiration and money for arms, has come from Saudi Arabia, despite what it and its supporters in the United States would have us believe otherwise. Instead, the US continues to turn a blind eye to the export of Wahhabi extremism, accepts Saudi protestations o­n this point, and also buys into the argument that Iran seeks to become the regions superpower. Yet, Irans o­nly serious challenge to regional states, beyond a narrow Shia belt partially responsive to Teheran, lies in the fact that it is modernizing faster than any of its neighbors, most of whom are still stuck in the 20th century and some, socially and politically, even earlier.

Everyone of good will who wants to see greater stability in the Middle East should be thankful to President Barack Obama for taking o­n the opposition to a deal with Iran that effectively constrains any ambitions it could have to become a nuclear-armed power. The negotiating with Teheran was tough enough; negotiating with major elements in the Congress and not caving in to pressures from the Arab oil and Israeli lobbies was even tougher. These forces are now working intensely to prevent Obama from committing what they believe to be a double sin of exploring a broader accommodation with Iran, assuming, of course, that it would reciprocate.

Connecting the Dots

U.S. leaders and senior officials dont seem to understand how, for Russia, the European and Middle East theaters relate to o­ne another. They dont understand that the Middle East cannot be seen in bits and pieces but must be viewed as an interconnected whole. And they dont seem to understand that other countries have interests, will pursue them, and will take Americas interests into account o­nly to the degree that that course makes sense to them and that we also require them to do so as a price of their relationship with us. They are sovereign states and partner with the United States o­nly when it is to their advantage.

It is not too late for Washington to start sorting all of this out, even in the short period in office remaining to President Obama. It can limit Russian opportunities by fully implementing the nuclear deal with Iran and start exploring mutual accommodation with Teheran o­n other matters. It can finally craft an approach to peace in Syria that recognizes the needs of all its people and not just the Sunnis and their regional kin. That could both create a real chance for peace and counter Russias meddling in Syria.

In the broader context, Washington needs to recognize that, inevitably, Russia will have to be reckoned with in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Of course, we need to make clear that o­ne price of its full readmission to the international community is its playing by rules to which all can agree. But we will have to accept that it will have a seat at the table in setting these rules.

Its not an easy balancing act. But the alternativeno prospect of ending the Syrian civil war and the risk of deepening tensions in Central Europe, perhaps hardening into a new cold warshould elicit this administrations imagination and activity in its waning months and then should focus the best minds of the new foreign policy team that will take over next year.

Additional underlining by ST

About the Author

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and o­n the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He has been Chairman of the Council for a Community of Democracies since 2002 and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


Original: http://ccisf.org/ukraine-syria-linked-together-russia/




We may begin to see the Washington/NATO house of cards totter before this year ends.

By pushing the threat-of-war card, while U.S. Congress members endorse forcing Russia to depart Syria, the Wests bluff has been called by Russia. This is where the dangerous and unpredictable situation stands as of this writing. With U.S. mainstream media remaining silent, Internet news services and now former U.S ambassadors and other authorities are popping out of the woodwork with their much needed perspectives. They call for backing off and recognizing Russias legitimate concerns rather than demonizing and threatening consequences that could go nuclear in minutes.

Robert E. Hunter, U.S. Ambassador to NATO (1993 1998), who also has held many strategic positions since 1970, spells out a different position in the article below. His is a clear picture of how Washington missed o­ne opportunity after another to pursue common-sense policies with Russia. Although the situation is near irretrievable at this late date, Hunter nonetheless remains somewhat hopeful that progress may be made after the November Presidential election.

Lets hope more authorities like this Ambassador choose to Speak Truth to Power to our Congress and to the American public at large during this critical period.


PS: If you wish to pass a short message to Ambassador Hunter, send to me and Ill pass to him via email.



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