Sochi and Beyond

May 19, 2015
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet in Moscow

No sooner did John Kerry leave Sochi than did Moscow announce that it would not support an provision calling for an automatic re-imposition of sanctions on Iran should it violate the treaty now being negotiated with the P5+1 states. A Russian veto would mean that there is no “snapback” provision as President Obama called it. Therefore Iran would be virtually empowered to break the forthcoming agreement with relative impunity when it chooses to do so. At the same time there have been numerous reports that Syria continues to use the Russian-produced chemical weapons that Moscow has sold to it, against its own population in its long-standing civil war. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the tide is turning against Moscow’s Syrian client, Bashar Al-Assad. These are reasons for Moscow to solicit Washington’s help in the Middle East, not the other way around. Nevertheless the US government in the guise of Secretary of State Kerry continues to run after Moscow in the belief that the US needs Russia who supposedly is willing to help in the Middle East.

Such diplomatic incompetence reminds one of similar delusions in our past, Stalin was allegedly the captive of the Politburo or else we needed to find someone to whom he could “unburden himself” in Harry Truman’s words. Truman recovered from these delusions but it is by no means clear that the Obama Administration and its chief lieutenants have grasped that the Russian threat as revealed in Ukraine endangers the entire global order. In Ukraine Putin accomplished much the same thing as Saddam Hussein did in when he invaded Iraq except that he is getting away with it. Kerry let Putin keep him waiting for three hours as a deliberate sign of contempt for US power, and made no mention of Crimea and hardly discussed Ukraine. Yet he came to Sochi only 3-4 days after Angela Merkel called the Russian occupation of Crimea and the Donbass criminal actions that undermined the entire European, if not international, order. No wonder the Germans were reportedly not amused by Kerry and his boss’s belief that Russia could be induced to make an arrangement on the Middle East and that we should restore the superpower dialogue (on the dubious assumption that Russia really is a superpower) on the basis of gratuitous and unilateral concessions to Moscow.

The Russian government and press, the latter naturally responding to the former, seized upon this visit to crow over the US’ comeuppance and Russia’s victory. Supposedly this confirms that Moscow is Washington’s equal if not superior in political capability and statecraft if not everything else, an obsession and delusion devoutly to be wished by Moscow. But one suspects that the Russian regime will yet be surprised. Washington’s appeasement-like gestures probably conceal the fact that in the eyes of President Obama and his closest advisors’ Russia is a declining power of little consequence relative to the turmoil in the Middle East and the Iran issue which is their obsession and where Obama’s quest for resolution and a lasting legacy has become the mainspring of his foreign policy.

This continuing refusal to take Russia or its actions seriously and accord to those actions the importance they merit for international security are among Russia’s chief motives for its behavior. But that will not alter much for the policymakers in Washington. Indeed, it is clear that they are not even masters of their supposed brief. Kerry not only omitted any mention of Crimea, he stated that if Moscow obeyed Minsk II then sanctions may begin to be lifted when the sanctions were imposed because of Crimea, not the agreement in Minsk. In any case that agreement is not worth the paper it was written on as both sides have violated it consistently even before the ink was dry.

Last year the US government complained that it was not getting enough quality analysis on Russia even though there were plenty of analysts who had predicted that Moscow would use force to block a pro-western Ukraine. Indeed, Ukrainian Parliamentarians were telling US figures in October 2013 that Putin had threatened to invade Ukraine if it signed an agreement with the EU. So we should have expected a comparable reaction to the revolution that unseated Moscow’s client Viktor Yanukovych. Yet the Administration could not or would not bring itself to formulate an assessment of Russian activity in Crimea or make any kind of moves against it.

Today despite Russia’s clear intention to thwart US objectives in the Middle East by selling the S-300 air defense to Iran and refusing to accept sanctions if Iran violates the forthcoming treaty the Obama Administration still shows either its incapacity or disinterest in understanding what drives Moscow. President Obama claims not to have been surprised by the missile sale. But if that did not surprise him, does the statement on sanctions also conform to his expectations? And if it does then what value will this agreement with Iran have? On the other hand if Russia’s actions are a surprise we must ask why the US is so consistently surprised? Either way it is clear that the Administration still neither understands Russian goals and methods nor takes it sufficiently seriously. And as a result not only will Ukrainians and people in the Middle East pay for such incomprehension, but the Russian people and their European neighbors will also pay the ever-rising price of US incomprehension and delusion.