Merkel and Hollande in Moscow

The tragedy in Ukraine grinds on. After the comparatively peaceful period ushered in by the Minsk agreement in September, renewed fighting has broken out in recent weeks. Russia is copping most of the blame with the US (and more aggressive European players) considering sizeable arms transfers to Ukraine.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. In (most) western eyes, Russia is ipso facto guilty. That Ukraine has failed to honour their side of the Minsk agreement is never mentioned. The obligations, it seems, are entirely one-sided.

At any rate, the more important (or at least intriguing) news is that Merkel and Hollande are in Moscow this weekend. They arrived on Friday night, direct from Kiev, and went straight to the Kremlin where they remained closeted with Putin for an initial five hours. Media were not welcome; apparently photographers were allowed in for about 30 seconds and not a word was spoken.

German Chancellor Merkel gets into a car upon her arrival at Moscow's Vnukovo airport

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gets into a car upon her arrival at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport February 6, 2015. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin) – Courtesy RT

What does this all mean? Continue reading

‘The Collapse of Order in the Middle East’ | Ambassador Chas Freeman

The friend (FB Ali) who pointed me to this recent talk by Chas Freeman described it as “the best analysis I have read of the problems of the ME, US policy, and what the future likely holds. It is superb.”

Amen. The hardest part was choosing which of my twelve lengthy highlights was most likely to persuade you to read the whole thing.

The need for restraint extends to refraining from expansive rhetoric about our values or attempting to compel others to conform to them. In practice, we have insisted on democratization only in countries we have invaded or that were otherwise falling apart, as Egypt was during the first of the two “non coups” it suffered. When elections have yielded governments whose policies we oppose, we have not hesitated to conspire with their opponents to overthrow them. But the results of our efforts to coerce political change in the Middle East are not just failure but catastrophic failure. Our policies have nowhere produced democracy. They have instead contrived the destabilization of societies, the kindling of religious warfare, and the installation of dictatorships contemptuous of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.

Americans used to believe that we could best lead by example. We and those in the Middle East seeking nonviolent change would all be better off if America returned to that tradition and foreswore ideologically motivated intervention.  Despite our unparalleled ability to use force against foreigners, the best way to inspire them to emulate us remains showing them that we have our act together. At the moment, we do not.

Every other attempted analysis of these matters has seemed to me to suffer from various failings, whether of perception or in the proposed solution. Continue reading

ISIS: A Cognitive, Systemic Failure | Alastair Crooke

The essence of the successes enjoyed by the Islamic State to date centres not on any wide-spread embrace of their radical vision, but rather the fact that their movement gives voice to a dream that has long been dampened by the forces of the West and their autocratic regional allies. The Obama administration has stated that the recent strikes against Syria are but the beginning of a more comprehensive campaign to defeat the Islamic State. But bombs and missiles, while adept at blowing up concrete and creating martyrs, have never been successful when it comes to eradicating ideas…

Void of any competing ideology, it is hard to see how this new war on the Islamic State will ever succeed in supplanting the visionary dream of a Sunni Arab Caliphate that resides in the hearts and minds of so many Sunni Arabs living in Syria and Iraq today. On the contrary, it is likely that this campaign will succeed only in fanning the flames of the radical Sunni fringe, empowering them in a way nothing else could.”

That’s Scott Ritter, quoted by Alisdair Crooke in this sobering piece.

Crooke believes the west’s perceptions of the Middle East have been skewed for generations.

No, it [this latess crisis] is not an “intelligence failure.” It is far worse. It is a cognitive and intellectual failure of the system itself. In fact, the signs of this impending “madness” have been out there — “hiding” in the open, as it were — for the last 25 years. You did not need “secret intelligence” to tell us where we were heading; you just needed cognitive openness: the ability to “read” the direction that events were taking.

The current dystopian nightmare is, as he sees it, the logical endpoint of a catastrophic series of events and decisions over the last century. Every Arab attempt to work out a modus vivendi with modernity has failed, Continue reading

Lavrov and Zarif

The general perception in the west is that Russia and Iran lack subtlety and our broader understanding of the world. That they’re driven by aggression, or ancient angers, ideology or religion.

Coming to the realisation that this view is simply wrong has for me been a progressive journey over the last few decades. What I have to guard against now is falling into a sort of mirror image perception where their qualities are unduly lionised and ours dismissed. Given the frequent incoherence of western policies and pronouncements in recent years, guarding against that danger has from time to time been a near full-time job.

What prompted these brief reflections was the coincidence of two recent interviews, one with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the other with the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, both appearing on the same day.

Question: Will Russia and European countries be able to restore mutual trust in the foreseeable future?

Sergey Lavrov: Obviously, relations between Russia and the European Union are under severe strain. The destructive line our European partners have taken on the Ukrainian crisis – applying double standards to the situation in Ukraine, unjustifiably blaming the Ukrainian tragedy on us, attempting to exert pressure through sanctions – seriously undermines confidence in Europe.

However, I am convinced that our relations have not yet reached the point of no return. We hope that the safety net that has been created over the years will prove strong enough and will enable us not only to return to the status quo that existed before the conflict, but to move forward. To this end, it is necessary to abandon the faulty logic of sanctions and threats and begin a constructive and pragmatic search for solutions to the problems that have piled up. It is important that common sense and an awareness of the dead-end nature of the policy pursued with regard to our country prevail over hawkish sentiments.

We have consistently argued that there is no reasonable alternative to continued mutually beneficial and equitable cooperation between Russia and the EU, because there is too much that binds us geographically, economically, historically and in human terms.

Continue reading

Airstrikes against Islamic State will lose effectiveness | Washington Post

Bone hard realism from US Major-General Robert H Scales (Rtd).

The bottom line is simple. In a firepower approach to war, escalation and mission creep are both inevitable and necessary. As the enemy grows more skilled, we will be left with two unattractive alternatives: Escalate until tragedy occurs or accept battlefield stasis until the American people tire of these “targeted strikes.” And when we fly away with the Islamic State still dominant on the battlefield, the terrorists will proclaim to the world that the United States is a cowardly country that has been beaten again.

The Islamic State will not be easy to contain, much less turn back. They are proving to be capable and adaptable, fueled by a deeply held belief in the rightness and inevitability of their vision.

If they are to be successfully countered, locals with an unavoidable stake in the outcome must take on most of the burden. The years since 9/11 have hammered home that core truth. Or at least they should have.

Insofar as Iraq is concerned, here’s Col Pat Lang (Rtd). Continue reading

Ukraine, MH17 and the Struggle for Europe | Conflicts Forum

In 1989 the US was supreme. Victorious, incomparably powerful and, for the most part, adored and admired.

Had it honoured its subsequent promises to Russia, kept its nose clean in the Middle East and tried to genuinely broker a settlement between Israel and Palestine, those accolades would still hold. Instead it’s riven internally, distrusted externally and burdened with a strategically incoherent and increasingly belligerent foreign policy.

It’s a sad tale, indeed a tragic one, not just for America but for the world. Rarely has so much been thrown away so quickly.

In “Ukraine, MH17 and the Struggle for Europe“, Alistair Crooke looks at how all this is playing out in the troubled relationship between the US and Germany. After more than a half-century of almost intimate relations, they now stand on the brink. The spying revelations have done serious damage.

Germans, who acutely remember the totalitarian surveillance of Nazi Germany and East Germany, cherish their strict data protection and limits on state monitoring. The pervasive spying on one of America’s most valuable partners — including the snooping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone from a rooftop listening post at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin — has enraged the German public.

Even more important though is the growing sense that the US has become an alarmingly, perhaps even dangerously unpredictable partner.

It is not surprising that Europeans ask to where will escalating sanctions take us?  What is the end game?  Sanctions will hollow out the significant European trade with Russia, and will leave European economies open and vulnerable to US commercial interests. That the American establishment sees sanctions as an end itself – sees ‘breaking’ and humiliating Putin – as an end in itself is a truly frightening prospect.

Continue reading

Don’t isolate Russia | Tom Switzer

Putin currently graces the cover of Time, Newsweek, Der Spiegel and The Economist, together with a host of lesser publications. Always unfavourably of course, with the possible exception of Time where the headline is “Cold War II” and the subhead “The West is losing Putin’s dangerous game”.

In the midst of this stampede, it’s refreshing to find authors who take a longer view. Two popped up today, both writing in conservative publications and from a realist standpoint.

In “Don’t Isolate Russia” over at The American Conservative, Tom Switzer implores us to “think clearly and, if necessary, coldly, about the underlying cause of the Russia-Ukraine standoff, which sparked the military blunder.”

It [the West] has repudiated the implicit agreement between president George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990-91 that the Atlantic alliance would not extend into Eastern Europe and the Baltics, a region that Russia has viewed as a necessary zone of protection long before Stalin appeared on the scene. In so doing, the West has taken no account at all for Russian susceptibilities and interests.

For Moscow, unlike Washington and Brussels, Ukraine is a matter of intense strategic importance: it covers a huge terrain that the French and Germans crossed to attack Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries: [ . . .]

Since the collapse of Soviet communism, Western liberals and neo-conservatives have declared the demise of power politics and triumph of self-determination. But Putin’s calculations are based on an old truth of geopolitics: great powers fight tooth and nail when vital strategic interests are at stake and doggedly guard what they deem as their spheres of influence.

This is unfortunate, but it is the way the world works, and always has. Imagine how Washington would respond if Russia had signed up Panama in a military pact, put rockets and missiles in Cuba, or helped bring down a democratically elected, pro-U.S. government in Mexico.

In The National Interest, Dmitri Trenin considers Russia’s likely security strategy now that the West appears to have definitively turned against it. Continue reading