Sunday, February 05, 2017

Russia and Ukraine

Trump's pal Vladimir Putin seems to be testing the Trump Family Business Administration by escalating military activity in Ukraine via their Russian separatist allies there. Shaun Walker reports (Ukraine clashes leave several dead and test Trump's Russia stance Guardian 02/01/2017):

The conflict in Ukraine has raged for nearly three years and cost more than 10,000 lives. A ceasefire was agreed in Minsk two years ago, and although little progress has been made since on a political solution, large-scale clashes have been rare over the past year.

However, in the last few days both sides have accused the other of using Grad systems, imprecise weapons that rain down multiple rockets over a wide area.

On Wednesday the Ukrainian military said three soldiers had died overnight, and separatist authorities claimed four civilians had been killed.

In a clear sign that US policy towards Russia could indeed be heading for a sharp change of course under Trump, the state department made no criticism of Russia or the separatist side, in contrast to most of its statements in response to similar spikes in violence in the past.
Aljazeera's Inside Story takes a more recent look at the new upsurge in violence in Is Russia testing Donald Trump in eastern Ukraine? 02/05/2017:

That segment includes Putin spokesman Sergei Markov defending the Kremlin's current position. And the moderator Jane Dutton does what a real journalist should and challenges him with probing questions. But anyone who thinks their brain will be washed if you listen to an official Russian spokesperson on a news program should probably pass on watching it.

While I certainly think US policy on the Russia borders has been unwise at best and reckless at worst in several ways, the US and its allies do have sanctions in place. So even a US leadership who thought that the sanctions were fundamentally misguided would be foolish not to diplomatically posture against Russia over this particular escalation. It seems perfectly sensible to see this as a test of the new American administration by Putin and Russia.

Peter Ford writes, "US presidential handovers are often times of uncertainty. But President Trump’s accession has been especially bumpy, and governments around the world, from Iran to Russia, are seizing their chance to probe his administration, send it signals, and perhaps steer events in their interest while Washington is in disarray." (As countries eye the new US president, many see good moment to test him Christian Science Monitor 02/03/2017)

The latest issue of The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review 44:2017 is a special issue devoted to Russia and Ukraine. The editor of the issue, Michael Slobodchikoff, writes in his introduction about what he sees as several major inflection points in the post-Soviet relationship between Russia and the West.

First, there was the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the fall of the Eastern European Communist government, a set of events symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Then there was the fall of the Soviet Union itself, which wound up with Ukraine independent along with other formerly Soviet nations.

Slobodchikoff lists several Western foreign policy decisions that were major shapers of US/NATO relations with Russia:

First, the us through nato used force in the Balkan wars. Russia’s traditional ally, Serbia, found itself pitted against NATO forces. ... accordingly. Further exacerbating Moscow’s animosity toward Western policy came when nato ensured the freedom and independence of Kosovo from Serbia. ...

In addition to the Balkan Wars, NATO began to expand into what had once been a part of the Soviet bloc. Despite the assurances to Gorbachev at the time of German unification, an organization whose main purpose had been to counter the Soviet threat had now expanded into the former Soviet bloc. ... NATO expanded in 1999, accepting the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. ...

Despite these early setbacks in the relationship between Russia and the United States, following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Russia was one of the first states to offer to cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism and sharing intelligence that would lead to defeating Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Russia also agreed to allow over flights of its territory by American aircraft in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Further, Russian military officers helped to consult with the Pentagon about Afghan tactics, having learned from their own war in Afghanistan.

Cooperation between the United States and Russia was relatively short-lived. us President George W. Bush announced that the United States would withdraw from the Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. ...

In June, 2002, the us officially allowed the ABM Treaty to expire without renewal, thus ending an important chapter in the relationship between Russia and the United States. The us began trying to build a missile shield in Poland, insisting that the missile shield was to protect the United States from a missile attack from Iran. ...

Relations further soured in the run up to the war in Iraq ...

The following year, in 2004, NATO again expanded, this time to include the Baltic states, which had once been a part of the Soviet Union. Moscow again raised a significant protest, but again was unable to muster enough power to prevent NATO from expanding. Despite Moscow’s protests, NATO began holding talks with Georgia in 2005 on the likelihood of Georgia joining the alliance, and in February, 2005, both states signed a Partnership for Peace Agreement, which began the process of bringing Georgia into the alliance. Further, in 2008, the Bucharest Summit promised Georgia eventual membership in NATO. Also, in 2008, Ukraine officially requested a NATO Membership Action Plan, which is the first formal step to joining NATO.
Russia began pushing back more assertively on NATO's potential expansion into Georgia in 2008. But the confrontation continued, culminating in the Ukraine crisis of 2014.

"The Ukraine Crisis is a seminal event in the post-Cold War era, and has profound implications not only for Ukraine itself, but also for Ukraine–Russian relations, US/EU–Russian relations, and for the global order itself," writes Slobodchikoff.

Peter Ford reminds us that Ukraine is not the only instance of the new President being tested by foreign players:

In the Middle East, Putin took advantage decisively of the US presidential transition, and of American reluctance to act, to step up Russian bombing of Aleppo and ensure the city’s recapture by Syrian government forces before the end of last year. International outrage at the human cost of the Russian and Syrian bombardments counted for nothing, and Putin was confident that in the dying days of his presidency, lame-duck Mr. Obama would do nothing to stop him.

The timing of the intense assault on Aleppo recalled Israel’s war in Gaza, declared in December 2008 and ended on Jan. 18, 2009, just two days before Obama’s inauguration. That operation too was carried out when US attention was distracted and unfocused; it was also timed to end before Obama – who would likely have opposed it more forcefully than his predecessor, George W. Bush – took office.

This time, however, Israel has taken advantage of the presidential transition in a different way. Since Trump took office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a major new Jewish settlement drive in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, announcing the construction of more than 6,000 new settler homes.

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