Saturday, October 11, 2014

Mearsheimer on the Obama Administration's policy on Ukraine

Über-Realist John Mearsheimer writes about US policy toward Russia in Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin Foreign Affairs Sept-Oct 2014. This article has a feature I haven't noticed or used before. The article is behind subscription, but you can send the full article to your Kindle for free.

"Russia's invasion of Georgia in August 2008 should have dispelled any remaining doubts about Putin's determination to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO," Mearsheimer writes.

I'm cautious about the theoretical framework that "realist" foreign-policy theorists like Mearsheimer use, because in the minds and hands of people like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, it can produce some beneficial, pragmatic policies (normalizing relations with China, detente with the USSR) alongside cynical, foolish and destructive ones (prolonging and expanding the war in Indochina, getting up a coup in Chile). But the best of the Realists, like Mearsheimer, his sometime collaborator Stephen Walt, and the late George Kennan, provide valuable and unsentimental analysis that takes into account capabilities and intentions, aspirations and delusions.

In the United States, even the most critical foreign policy issues are publicly discussed by policymakers and elected officials in highly ideological terms, heavily influenced by an unreflective Cold War triumphalism. The latter of which was un-Realist and unrealistic to begin with, and now is fast approaching the clinically delusional. Mearsheimer and Walt also take into account a few years of history in looking at current foreign policy problems, something that our major media in the US, including CNN, have effectively lost the ability to do.

Intelligence analysts and foreign policy professionals and the occasional news junkie were aware of the background that Mearsheimer relates on Russia's resistance to NATO expansion. The Clinton and Bush II Administrations were always taking on a bigger risk with NATO expansion than the American public realized. We don't have to assume any benign motives on the part of Russian leaders for policymakers to have known that Russia was highly likely to eventually push back against it, as they have done in Georgia and Ukraine. Taking the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia into NATO was an especially questionable move. As Mearsheimer reminds us, NATO made Albania and Croatia full members in 2009.

As Stephen Walt has pointed out that NATO hasn't bothered to put in place the kind of forward military capabilities to effectively defend the Baltic countries against an actual Russian invasion, as Kennan predicted in 1998 in an earlier stage of NATO expansion (see below). So, in the world of war-gaming, what does NATO do if we want to go to war with Russia in non-NATO member Georgia but Russia simultaneously threatens the actual NATO allies in the Baltics?

Actually, such scenarios are a little far-fetched in Mearsheimer's view: "Russia's mediocre army, which shows few signs of turning into a modern Wehrmacht, would have little chance of pacifying all of Ukraine. Moscow is also poorly positioned to pay for a costly occupation; its weak economy would suffer even more in the face of the resulting sanctions." He judges that Vladimir Putin's "response to events there has been defensive, not offensive."

So whatever larger questions of virtue may be at stake, the US and NATO really seem to have underestimated the risks and real costs of the NATO expansion policy. And now the reliance on economic sanctions against Russia coincides with the continuing depression in the eurozone for which there is no end in sight under Angela Merkel's deflationary "ordoliberal" economic policies. The whole set of US-NATO policies on Russia needs more of a dose of realism, on both the theoretical and policy levels.

Mearsheimer notes that in addition to NATO expansion, the West established an Eastern Partnership initiative, "a program to foster prosperity in such countries as Ukraine and integrate them into the EU economy." He says Russia viewed "the plan as hostile to their country's interests." He writes, "In the eyes of Russian leaders, EU expansion is a stalking horse for NATO expansion."

Then there's Victoria Nuland and the dubious "democracy-promotion" efforts that have targeted Ukraine, Venezuela and other countries that, perhaps coincidentally, don't have the best relations with the United States.

The West's final tool for peeling Kiev away from Moscow has been its efforts to spread Western values and promote democracy in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, a plan that often entails funding pro-Western individuals and organizations. Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, estimated in December 2013 that the United States had invested more than $5 billion since 1991 to help Ukraine achieve "the future it deserves." As part of that effort, the U.S government has bankrolled the National Endowment for Democracy. The nonprofit foundation has funded more than 60 projects aimed at promoting civil society in Ukraine, and the NED's president, Carl Gershman, has called that country "the biggest prize." After [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych won Ukraine's presidential election in February 2010, the NED decided he was undermining its goals, and so it stepped up its efforts to support the opposition and strengthen the country's democratic institutions. [my emphasis]
The State Department website has the Congressional testimony of Nuland from last year before a Senate subcommittee, A Pivotal Moment for the Eastern Partnership: Outlook for Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan 11/14/2013:

The United States supports the sovereign right of these countries to choose their own future, and we welcome their closer relationship with the EU. We have been working in lock-step with our European Allies and partners to help Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia meet the tough conditions for a “yes” vote at Vilnius. We’ve also been aligning future U.S. assistance with that of the EU to ensure that these countries can continue on the politically difficult, but necessary, path of reform and economic adjustment, including after Vilnius. At the same time, we have been working with the EU and each candidate country to anticipate and prepare them for any negative reaction to their choice, whether it comes from inside or outside their countries. I would note in this regard that any form of pressure to prevent sovereign states from pursuing greater integration with the EU, or any organization of their choosing, would contravene obligations under the OSCE Helsinki Principles and the Charter of Paris. The message we are sending in the neighborhood is that all countries benefit when their neighbors open their markets and become more stable and prosperous.
Nuland presented US assistance in a very benign light:

Ukraine still needs to take three important reform steps to meet the EU’s conditions for signature at Vilnius including: passage of legislation reforming its Prosecutor General’s Office; passage of legislation reforming its parliamentary election code; and the release of jailed former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko for medical treatment. Since its independence in 1991, the American people have supported Ukraine’s transition to democracy and a free market economy with over $5 billion in assistance. In FY2013, our assistance topped $100 million, and much of it went to help Ukraine meet European standards in law enforcement, electoral reform, business climate and the judicial sector, including key support for Ukraine’s newly adopted Criminal Procedure Code. If Ukraine meets the EU’s conditions and signs in Vilnius, it will be able to export its goods to the largest single market in the world, tariff-free, by early 2014. This should provide a great stimulus to an economy which has been in a difficult recession for over a year. In the past few months, Ukraine has come under pressure from Russia, including bans on chocolate, stoppage of refrigerated goods at the border, and reductions in other key imports. We are working with the EU on options to help Ukraine make difficult trade adjustments and weather the EU implementation period if Ukraine makes the political decisions necessary to sign its AA at Vilnius.
When regime change from the elected if authoritarian-minded, pro-Russian Yanukovych government fell to an anti-Russian one. Mearsheimer even uses one of those f-words, saying that the new government "contained four high-ranking members who could legitimately be labeled neofascists."

And Mearsheimer explains why it's difficult to assume there was not a US-directed regime-change operation in play:

Although the full extent of U.S. involvement has not yet come to light, it is clear that Washington backed the coup. Nuland and Republican Senator John McCain participated in antigovernment demonstrations, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, proclaimed after Yanukovych's toppling that it was "a day for the history books." As a leaked telephone recording revealed, Nuland had advocated regime change and wanted the Ukrainian politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk to become prime minister in the new government, which he did. No wonder Russians of all persuasions think the West played a role in Yanukovych's ouster.
Russia's leaders, and apparently much of the public, see a Western alliance by Georgia or Ukraine to be very much against Russia's national interest. "Washington may not like Moscow's position," writes Mearsheimer, "but it should understand the logic behind it." Because, as it puts in a classic Realist tone, "it is the Russians, not the West, who ultimately get to decide what counts as a threat to them."

That other famous realist, George Kennan, warned in strong terms in 1998 when the Senate approved the first round of NATO expansion negotiated by the Clinton Administration, that it was a bad idea (Thomas Friedman, Foreign Affairs; Now a Word From X New York Times 05/02/1998; yes, Little Tommy Friedman once did some decent reporting):

"I think it is the beginning of a new cold war," said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. "I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs."

"What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was," added Mr. Kennan, who was present at the creation of NATO and whose anonymous 1947 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, signed "X," defined America's cold-war containment policy for 40 years. "I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don't people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

... "It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are -- but this is just wrong." [my emphasis]
Mearsheimer sees a theoretical/ideological aspect to the Clinton Administration view on NATO expansion, a badly flawed view in Mearsheimer's opinion:

Most liberals, on the other hand, favored enlargement, including many key members of the Clinton administration. They believed that the end of the Cold War had fundamentally transformed international politics and that a new, postnational order had replaced the realist logic that used to govern Europe. The United States was not only the "indispensable nation," as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it; it was also a benign hegemon and thus unlikely to be viewed as a threat in Moscow. The aim, in essence, was to make the entire continent look like western Europe. ...

... Europeans were even more wedded than Americans to the idea that geopolitics no longer mattered and that an all-inclusive liberal order could maintain peace in Europe.

... NATO has expanded in the past because liberals assumed the alliance would never have to honor its new security guarantees.
Robert Parry has been providing a lot of critical coverage on the Ukrainian events since February at his Consortium News site, including:

Robert Parry, Neocons and the Ukraine Coup 02/23/2014:

Over the past several weeks, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was undercut by a destabilization campaign encouraged by Nuland and Pyatt and then deposed in a coup spearheaded by neo-Nazi militias. Even after Yanukovych and the political opposition agreed to an orderly transition toward early elections, right-wing armed patrols shattered the agreement and took strategic positions around Kiev.

Despite these ominous signs, Ambassador Pyatt hailed the coup as “a day for the history books.” Most of the mainstream U.S. news media also sided with the coup, with commentators praising the overthrow of an elected government as “reform.” But a few dissonant reports have pierced the happy talk by noting that the armed militias are part of the Pravy Sektor, a right-wing nationalist group which is often compared to the Nazis.

Thus, the Ukrainian coup could become the latest neocon-initiated “regime change” that ousted a target government but failed to take into account who would fill the void.
Robert Parry, Cheering a ‘Democratic’ Coup in Ukraine 02/26/2014:

Reasonable people can disagree about whether the EU was driving too hard a bargain or whether Ukraine should undertake such painful economic “reforms” – or how Yanukovych should have balanced the interests of his divided country, with the east dominated by ethnic Russians and the west leaning toward Europe.

But protesters from western Ukraine, including far-right nationalists, sought to turn this policy dispute into a means for overthrowing the elected government. Police efforts to quell the disturbances turned violent, with the police not the only culprits. Police faced armed neo-Nazi storm troopers who attacked with firebombs and other weapons.

Though the U.S. news media did show scenes of these violent melees, the U.S. press almost universally blamed Yanukovych – and took almost gleeful pleasure as his elected government collapsed and was replaced by thuggish right-wing militias “guarding” government buildings.
Robert Parry, A Shadow US Foreign Policy 02/27/2014:

The National Endowment for Democracy, a central part of Ronald Reagan’s propaganda war against the Soviet Union three decades ago, has evolved into a $100 million U.S. government-financed slush fund that generally supports a neocon agenda often at cross-purposes with the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

NED is one reason why there is so much confusion about the administration’s policies toward attempted ousters of democratically elected leaders in Ukraine and Venezuela. Some of the non-government organizations (or NGOs) supporting these rebellions trace back to NED and its U.S. government money, even as Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior officials insist the U.S. is not behind these insurrections.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Ukraine joining with the EU or staying with Russia (or a combination of the two) – depending on the will of the people and their elected representatives – this latest U.S./EU plan was motivated, at least in part, by hostility toward Russia.

That attitude was expressed in a Sept. 26, 2013, op-ed in the Washington Post by Carl Gershman, the neoconservative president of the National Endowment for Democracy, which doles out more than $100 million in U.S. funds a year to help organize “activists,” support “journalists” and finance programs that can be used to destabilize targeted governments.

Gershman, whose job amounts to being a neocon paymaster, expressed antagonism toward Russia in the op-ed and identified Ukraine as “the biggest prize,” the capture of which could ultimately lead to the ouster of Putin, who “may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”

The NED, which was founded in 1983 to do in relative openness what the CIA had long done in secret, listed 65 projects that it was financing in Ukraine, using U.S. taxpayers’ money. In other words, Gershman’s op-ed reflected U.S. policy – at least inside the State Department’s still-neocon-dominated bureaucracy – which viewed the EU’s snatching of Ukraine from Russia’s embrace as a way to weaken Russia and hurt Putin.

In late September, as the neocon drive for bombing Syria was petering out, neocon Carl Gershman, president of the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), penned a Washington Post op-ed that called Ukraine “the biggest prize” and expressed hope that “Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.”

NED was founded in 1983 essentially to carry out the sorts of activities that traditionally were done by the CIA, i.e., supporting activists, “journalists” and other operatives who would be useful in destabilization campaigns against troublesome governments, all in the name of “democracy promotion.” NED’s annual report listed a staggering 65 projects in Ukraine.

By fall 2013, Kerry’s State Department was committed to prying Ukraine loose from Russia’s orbit, all the better to weaken Putin (and drive a wedge between him and Obama). At the forefront of this effort was Victoria Nuland, the wife of prominent neocon Robert Kagan, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century which famously pushed the case for invading Iraq.

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