Thursday, 6 March 2014

Ukraine and the Middle East connection

                         "Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defence or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United   Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”
                                     – Vladimir Putin, Russian President, September 2013, 
arguing against a US military strike on President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.

        What’s sauce for the American goose is surely sauce for the Russian gander.  But search for consistency in politicians, and you search in vain.  Self-interest is what governs international affairs.

President Obama swore not once, but several times, that if President Bashar Assad of Syria used chemical weapons against his own people, swift retribution would follow.  But Syria is Russia’s main foothold in the Middle East, and Assad and his regime its close allies.  Had America used its military might to punish Assad, the power balance in Syria’s civil conflict might have been tilted irrevocably and Assad forced from the scene.  So Putin mounted a clever, and highly effective, diplomatic campaign, persuading Assad to dismantle his chemical weapons stockpile in exchange for the US desisting from its threatened military intervention.

Obama succumbed.  Assad was spared the humiliation of facing the consequences of his appallingly inhumane, not to say illegal, actions.

Now the pernicious results of that retreat from military action in Syria by the US and the West generally are, according to some observers, being made manifest in the Crimea.

The argument was succinctly put on March 1 by US Senator Bob Corker,  when he unequivocally linked Putin’s invasion into Crimea to Obama’s pull-back from conducting an airstrike in Syria

“Ever since the administration threw themselves into the arms of Russia in Syria,” said Coker, “to keep from carrying out what they said they would carry out, I think [Putin] saw weakness. These are the consequences.”

The same argument has created something of a furore in the UK

On February 28, UK government ministers Sajid Javid and Nick Boles linked Britain’s "appeasement" of Russia over Syria to its aggression in Ukraine.  They attacked Labour Opposition leader, Ed Miliband, for torpedoing the government's hopes of joining a US-led attack on Assad in August 2013, when it was clear beyond a peradventure that the Syrian president had indeed used chemical weapons to gas opposition forces and any civilians, including heartbreaking numbers of small children, who happened to get in the way.

Miliband, together with some backbench Conservatives who voted against a government motion on missile strikes, have been taking credit for stopping western military action in Syria,  But, said Boles, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, "was right to urge parliament to stand up to Putin and punish Assad's use of chemical weapons. Look where Miliband's weakness has led us." Javid said there was a "direct link between Miliband's cynical vote against the Syria motion and Russia's actions in Ukraine".

Miliband dismissed their comments as party political point-scoring. And just as he opposed military intervention in Syria, he opposes western military intervention in Ukraine.  Applying maximum diplomatic and economic pressure on Putin is what he favours.  He went so far as to suggest that the UK might boycott the forthcoming G8 summit in Sochi, Russia.

            Putin, in his televised press conference on March 4, laughed to scorn the likely effect of diplomatic or economic sanctions applied against Russia, but was far from gung-ho in what he said about Russia’s intentions in Ukraine in general, and the Crimea in particular.  His approach may reflect the backstairs negotiations which, according to informed sources, are already in place between the US and Russia.

Putin is seeking a demilitarized Crimea that would not threaten Russia from its western doorstep.  He is also demanding that a new Ukrainian government not the present one, which he regards as illegitimate stays clear of NATO, and that no NATO military or anti-missile hardware is positioned in Ukraine.  He wants local military bodies to be set up to protect the Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian regions of the country. Until Putin get what he wants, Russian forces will remain where they are in Crimea and if deemed necessary, advance into other parts of Ukraine.

   Putin’s confident stance on the world stage has been immeasurably strengthened by recent events in the Middle East, especially the apparent disinclination of the Obama administration to sustain the US’s dominant position, acquired since the collapse of the USSR.  He has scored not only in the Syrian chemical weapons debacle and the Iranian nuclear decommissioning talks, but also in the fact that Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Egypt all feeling let down by Washington’s weak-kneed attitude in the region – have turned to Moscow in search of closer diplomatic and military ties.

The key to Putin’s political position on the Crimea is the port city of Sevastapol. Sevastopol, under the terms of the 1997 Black Sea Fleet agreement, is the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. A strong military presence in Sevastapol is a political necessity for Russia which explains Putin’s insistence that Ukraine does not tie itself to NATO.  But the terms of the agreement are many and complex, and in its current incursion into the Crimea, Russia is violating many of its provisions.

The Russian president has made restoring his country’s international prestige the overarching goal of his foreign policy, and he has embraced military force as the means to do so. According to one observer of the Russian scene Putin is intent on regaining the military and economic equivalence of the old USSR vis-à-vis the USA.  His hope is to establish a Eurasian sphere of influence – and this explains Putin’s recent proactive strategy in the Middle East. Now the Ukraine conflict is reshaping Russia’s relations with the United States and indeed the European Union,  the repercussions will be widely felt, especially perhaps in the Middle East.

For example, the crisis in Ukraine will certainly impact on the issue of natural gas supplies to the EU. Nearly 25% of the European Union’s natural gas comes from Russia, and 80% of that gas passes through the Ukraine. Attempts to secure gas for the EU from other sources – including from the Israeli and Cypriot deep-sea fields via pipelines over Turkish territory – must now seem all the more urgent to European governments.

Moreover, if the conflict in Ukraine is not resolved swiftly, it may directly shift the dynamics in the Syrian civil war. Both sides in the conflict are dependent on foreign support, and the United States and Russia are major contributors. The outcome of the crisis in Ukraine could determine the outcome of the crisis in Syria.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 March 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 March 2014:

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