Ukraine, Russia Walk Back Economic War Over Crimea

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at his country residence outside Moscow, October 13, 2014 (Kremlin)

Russia said on Wednesday it would resume coal supplies to Ukraine a day after power was restored to the Crimean Peninsula it annexed last year.

“In principle, these supplies are not really needed now,” Russia’s Vladimir Putin told his ministers in Moscow. “But our Ukrainian partners have resumed supply. So be it. In response, we need to resume our coal supplies to Ukraine.”

Ukrainian engineers reconnected power lines to the Crimea on Tuesday. Read more “Ukraine, Russia Walk Back Economic War Over Crimea”

Russia Escalates Tit for Tat with Ukraine, Blocks Gas

A village in Crimea, Ukraine, August 16, 2012
A village in Crimea, Ukraine, August 16, 2012 (Yuri Shornikov)

Russia on Wednesday stopped delivering natural gas to Ukraine days after nationalists and ethnic Crimean Tatars destroyed pylons carrying electricity to the Black Sea peninsula, leaving the Russian-annexed territory in the dark.

It is the fourth time since 2006 that Russia has cut off gas supplies to its former satellite state.

Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, blamed Ukraine, saying it had failed to pay for deliveries in advance.

But only two months ago, the two stuck a deal under European auspices that would have seen Gazprom supply two billion cubic meters of gas to Ukraine at a price of $500 million.

Around half the natural gas Russia sells to European Union member states is piped through Ukraine. Read more “Russia Escalates Tit for Tat with Ukraine, Blocks Gas”

Israel Sees Obama’s Crimea Response as Sign of Weakness

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with American president Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, March 3, 2014
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with American president Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, March 3, 2014 (GPO/Avi Ohayon)

A cursory overview of the opinions expressed in Israel media and official circles about Russia’s annexation of the Crimea reveals a sentiment that has begun to develop deep roots there. Simply put, the events in Ukraine, in which the United States failed to deter Russian president Vladimir Putin from annexing the Crimea, are seen as further “proof” of American weakness and the inability of the United States to effectively deal with aggressive leaders.

Based on this view, some commentators conclude that the events in Ukraine demonstrate the futility and danger of relying on American promises and guarantees.

Not surprisingly, this view is most prevalent on the Israeli right which is already quite critical of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies — especially his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

However, the perception of American weakness is not exclusively right-wing. Other, less politically biased commentators have expressed similar opinions.

Much of the criticism is directed at top members of the Obama Administration, including the president himself, who are seen as naive, weak and unwilling to use force even when clear American interests are at stake. This image is sharpened when compared to popular Israeli impressions of Vladimir Putin who is being portrayed as a resolute visionary, determined to do whatever it takes to protect his country’s vital security interest. In this regard, the events in Ukraine are interpreted by the mainstream Israeli media as symptomatic of the weak American foreign policy of recent years.

Those who wish to advance the argument that President Obama is weak and pushes forward with policies which consistently undermine the ability of the United States to exert influence and protect its own interests (as well as those of their allies) find no shortage of evidence to support their claim, from the willingness to negotiate a deal with Iran that would allow the anti-Israeli regime in Tehran to break out of its international isolation without having to concede its nuclear program — which, as Israeli commentators are keen to mention, is still advancing — to Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis which signaled his reticence for militarily intervention in the face of clear violations of international norms and his own “red line.” In doing so, he set the stage for the Crimean crisis — and perhaps other crises to come.

All these issues are deemed to have a direct bearing on the Middle East, on American-Israeli relations and Israel’s own national security. Indeed, many in Israel argue that due to its failures elsewhere, and in an attempt to mask the fact that American influence and power are rapidly declining around the world, the Obama Administration is trying to “salvage” what is left of American prestige by pushing forward with an Israeli-Palestinians peace agreement, despite the fact that these efforts are likely to be doomed.

Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Israeli dissatisfaction with American foreign policies at the top levels of government has flowed into the public sphere and led to highly publicized backlashes.

Most recently, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, publicly criticized efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, saying America has “misconceived notions” and “does not understand the Middle East.”

His remarks came five days after he personally attacked Secretary of State John Kerry saying, “Kerry is messianic and obsessive. The only chance for Israel to be left alone is if Kerry wins a Nobel Peace Prize and leaves us alone.”

Despite the fact that, following strong domestic criticism, Ya’alon later apologized, many other politicians and pundits seemed to agree — if not with the style, then at least with the spirit of Ya’alon’s criticism. Two weeks later, Minister for Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s, responded to comments Kerry had made about the negative consequences Israel could face in case the United States failed to broker a peace deal by slamming the American diplomat and accusing the Americans of “holding a gun to Israel’s head.”

These few examples reflect a wider deteriorating in American-Israeli relations which are increasingly characterized by mistrust, suspicion and dissatisfaction. It is unclear to what extent this represents the views of the average Israeli. But considering the result of the previous elections, the composition of the current Israeli government and especially the fact that Ya’alon’s own popularity has not suffered in opinion polls, it appears that a sober and pessimistic view of the United States has become the norm rather than the exception.

What does all this mean for the United States?

The developing mindset regarding American weakness and unreliability as a strategic ally will likely affect media coverage as well as estimates of what Israel should — and should not — do regarding a wide range of issues. American policymakers should realize that a deep mistrust of Israel’s foremost ally is developing and this affects virtually all of the most important matters at hand.

Although Israel has always stressed that it can, and will, rely only on itself when it comes to its own security, it has trusted the Americans to exert their political influence on behalf of both countries’ shared interests which was an important component of the “special relationship” between them. But if America cannot stand up for its own interests in Egypt, Syria, Crimea and elsewhere, how can it be expected to stand up on Israel’s behalf?

The Obama Administration’s response to the Crimean crisis is seen, at least in Israel, as an ominous sign of the dangers that befall those who rely on American guarantees in volatile regions where the United States have no significant presence or interests. This perception can have dangerous consequences for the future success of American policy in the Middle East.

Crimea Annexation Could Kill South Stream Pipeline

Nord Stream pipeline construction
Nord Stream pipeline construction (Gazprom)

Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimea last month could have repercussions for its plans to lay a pipeline on the bottom of the Black Sea. Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper reports that the European Commission has warned Bulgaria not to intervene if it decides to block the project.

Bulgarian foreign minister Kristian Vigenin earlier insisted there was no long-term threat to the construction of the South Stream pipeline. But in Brussels, Günther Oettinger, the European energy commissioner, said talks with Russia about the project were on hold. Read more “Crimea Annexation Could Kill South Stream Pipeline”

East Asia Nervously Watching Events in Crimea

When the Crimea was voting to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, President Vladimir Putin was said to be on his proverbial hands and knees offering cheap gas and other inducements to China for its support. But China decided in no uncertain terms that it would stay out of this dispute when it abstained from a resolution condemning the Crimean vote in the United Nations Security Council. China is walking a diplomatic tightrope. It wants to avoid antagonizing a key ally in Russia without siding with the West and causing repercussions in East Asia.

What is certain is that East Asians are watching China’s actions closely for indications of its future policy in regards to the disputes it has in the East and South China Seas with its smaller neighbors. Read more “East Asia Nervously Watching Events in Crimea”

Former Defense Chief Calls for Tougher Action Against Russia

Robert Gates
American defense secretary Robert Gates delivers a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, June 24, 2010 (DoD)

It has been nearly a month since Russian president Vladimir Putin, in response to the overthrow of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich, ordered thousands of Russian soldiers into the Crimean. Seemingly caught off guard by Putin’s moves, which came despite American intelligence assessments that he would not enter into Ukraine by force, the Obama Administration has been forced to react to the situation largely on the fly.

Republican lawmakers in Washington DC have attempted to use the crisis in Ukraine to bolster their narrative of Barack Obama as a president who is unable to anticipate events or demonstrate strong leadership during times of crisis and unwilling to send a visible message to America’s adversaries that bad behavior will be met with stern consequences. The government, assisted by Democratic Party allies, has fought back against such accusations. And, despite poor approval ratings and concern in Democratic circles that Republicans could pick up more seats in the congressional elections this fall, President Obama has brushed aside criticisms as partisan and contrary to the facts.

But when a former cabinet official starts to question the president’s policy, the criticism seems less partisan and more substantive. Read more “Former Defense Chief Calls for Tougher Action Against Russia”

Russia’s Crimea Seizure Underscores NATO’s Traditional Role

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea should be a reminder that NATO is still most relevant for what it set out to do in the first place — keep the Russians out of Europe.

Navel gazing about NATO’s future has been the favorite pastime of Atlanticists for more than twenty years. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemingly robbed the alliance of its raison d’être. “Out of theater” operations on the scale of Afghanistan — where NATO commanded more than 100,000 soldiers — are unlikely to be repeated. Many European allies have decreased their troop numbers there ahead of a 2014 deadline or pulled out altogether, prompting familiar complaints from Americans that the Europeans aren’t doing their fair share. Read more “Russia’s Crimea Seizure Underscores NATO’s Traditional Role”

Russia Formally Annexes Crimea, Transnistria Requests Same

Vladimir Putin Sergei Lavrov
Russian president Vladimir Putin speaks with his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Sochi, March 10 (Kremlin)

President Vladimir Putin formalized his country’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea on Tuesday when he signed a treaty that returned the peninsula to Russia.

A day earlier, lawmakers in the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria requested similar admission into the Russian Federation.

Putin announced the annexation in an address to a joint session of parliament in Moscow’s Kremlin, days after an overwhelming majority of the Crimea’s population had voted in favor of joining Russia.

Denounced by Ukraine’s government and Western nations as illegitimate, the referendum saw almost 97 percent of Crimeans voting to become Russian with turnout at 83 percent. Read more “Russia Formally Annexes Crimea, Transnistria Requests Same”

Don’t Confuse Russia’s Motives in Crimea for Justification

Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoygu, arrive in Anapa on the Black Sea to observe military exercises, March 29, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoygu, arrive in Anapa on the Black Sea to observe military exercises, March 29, 2013 (Kremlin)

Commentators who try to explain Russia’s invasion of the Crimea are right to point out the former superpower’s many grievances. But those should be not mistaken for a justification of its actions.

Russia moved troops into the Crimean Peninsula, which headquarters its Black Sea Fleet, late last month, when the country’s relatively pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was deposed after months of protests against his decision to pull out of an associated agreement with the European Union in favor of deeper ties with Russia.

The move — which Western leaders have rightly condemned as a breach of Ukrainian sovereignty and Russia’s own treaty obligation to it — follows two decades of perceived Russian humiliation by the West. As Russia saw it, Ukraine was but the latest of former satellite states the West tried to snatch from under its nose.

Writing in The New York Times, John Mearsheimer, a political scientist, explains, “The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” Whereas Russia — grudgingly — tolerated NATO’s expansion into its former Soviet sphere after the end of the Cold War in 1991, he believes it drew a line in the sand when the alliance considered admitting Georgia and Ukraine in 2008.

Drawing on Mearsheimer’s analysis, Tom Switzer, who is a research associate at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, argues that the West “provoked” Russia by leaving open the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO and that its response to alleged Western meddling in Ukraine is both rational and “understandable.”

Pat Buchanan, a former Republican Party presidential candidate and conservative commentator, is even more sympathetic to Russia’s motives. He predicts at his blog that future historians “will as surely point to the Bushes and Clintons who shoved NATO into Moscow’s face” if there is to be a second Cold War. (The first NATO expansion following the Soviet Union’s collapse came with Germany’s reunification when George H.W. Bush was president; the second under Bill Clinton; the third under George W. Bush.)

What the West should do, according to Mearsheimer, is not oppose Russia’s blatant invasion of a neighboring country, and what appears an attempt to annex part of it, but “emphasize that Georgia and Ukraine will not become NATO members. It should make clear that America will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev.”

There is truth in what Buchanan, Mearsheimer, Switzer and others — including Stephen F. Cohen writing in The Nation, The New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman and the Daily Mail‘s Peter Hitchens — have argued. Russia does mistrust the West’s motives and sees the gradual eastward expansion of the European Union and NATO as a threat to its security. But this does not justify Russia’s behavior.

For one thing, Cathy Young writes in Time magazine, the West also made efforts to comfort Russia. It provided $55 billion in aid for its economic reconstruction between 1992 and 1997 alone. Russia was invited to the club of top industrialized nations, which became the G8. It was included in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and a NATO-Russia Council was founded in 2002 to facilitate security cooperation.

NATO did expand but so what? If Russia ever expected an attack from the West once the Cold War had ended, this was surely paranoia. Russia’s “humiliation” had far more to do with its own misguided experiment in communism than the liberation of Central and Eastern European nations from communism’s embrace.

Sadly, this paranoia is real and many, if not most, Russians have yet to come to terms with their loss of empire, evidenced in their continued admiration for tyrannical leaders from the past and willingness to believe that whatever ails their country is the result of foreign plots.

Western leaders would be wise to take this, far from rational, Russian mindset into account when dealing with the country. But that is not to say they should attempt appeasement.

Lilia Shevtsova, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues in The American Interest against letting Vladimir Putin get away with annexing the Crimea. Western inaction in Ukraine would follow Western inaction in 2008 when Russia virtually annexed Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — which, like the Crimea, are home to ethnic Russian majorities — and not only validate the recreation of a Russian sphere of influence but the reintroduced of a “doctrine of interference” under the pretext of protecting Russian compatriots. She warns, “Since Russian speakers live in most of the newly independent states, this ‘doctrine’ threatens the stability of the entire post-Soviet space.”

Whatever Russia’s grievances, real or imagined, they are no justification for a return to an international order in which big states invade and carve up smaller ones simply because they can. In this sense, American secretary of state John Kerry’s exasperation — “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” he said on CBS News’ Face the Nation last week — was perfectly appropriate.

Now the United States and its allies just need to come up with a more powerful response.

Ukraine Fears Invasion as Russia Stages Military Drills on Border

Russia staged massive military exercises near Ukraine’s border on Thursday in what authorities there feared could be a precursor to another attack.

Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, which advises the country’s president, claimed Russia had deployed more than 80,000 soldiers near the border, along with 270 tanks and 140 combat aircraft. “Ukraine today is facing the threat of a full-scale invasion from various directions,” he said.

Russia insisted that the troop movements were an exercise but until Thursday had denied they were even taking place. If also failed to notify its neighbors of the drills beforehand. Read more “Ukraine Fears Invasion as Russia Stages Military Drills on Border”