Syria – Russia Returns to the Table of Great Powers

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Russia just started its airstrike campaign in Syria after approval by the upper house of the Parliament. “We [Russia] ’re talking exclusively about operations of Russia’s Air Force,” announced Mr. Ivanov, Mr. Putin’s chief of staff, “as our president has already said, the use of armed forces on the ground theater of military operations is excluded.” The airstrikes have for objectives to assist the Bashar al-Assad regime in his war against the Islamic State.

After more than four and half years of war, Syria is the home of a complex crisis seeing a war between the Bashar al-Assad regime, Syrian militias, and many terrorist networks. The Syrian war has permitted the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Levant (ISIS), and has been costing the lives of 250,000 civilians and a million injured, displaced millions displaced, and put million refugees on the road. The Syrian civil war is taking a new turn with the direct military involvement of Russia. A simple, but yet complex question, ought to be raised: Does Russia dictate global politics in the European sphere of influence?

The Syrian Civil War

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad never lost his power. Even though the country is highly divided among a multitude of militias, terrorist networks and the al-Assad forces. The interesting case of Syria is that the West did not see coming the fall of Mubarak and Qaddafi and wanted to be proactive in the fall of al-Assad. In September 2013, the West was trying to build a coalition in order to start bombing Syria and the al-Assad forces after he was found guilty of having used sarin gas against civilians. Two forces played in favor of al-Assad, and

Photo: AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images

still are, avoiding the launch of airstrike against Syria’s al-Assad: Russia and Western public opinion.

Vladimir Putin has played an important role in sponsoring the al-Assad regime through military and financial assistance. Putin’s rationale is that the Assad regime is a better alternative and protection against radical Islamic groups than rebels. In the case of western public opinions, they had grown war-worn especially for the Americans and Brits both involved in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade. British citizens, through the UK House of Commons rejected to grant authorization to Prime Minister Cameron to participate in military airstrikes in Syria. The British aversion to use force in Syria was a powerful signal for the Obama administration, whom refused to intervene despite the fact that al-Assad had crossed the ‘redline’ in using sarin gas. Ultimately since 2013, the war in Syria has seen the rise of refugees, displaced individuals, rise of ISIS and a continuation of war without any direct role being played by the West to stop the conflict.

US-Russia Divergences

Mr. Putin has been very clear. Russia uses military force in order to fight ISIS and support the al-Assad regime. Vladimir Putin does not want to see his regional ally go and wants to maintain Russia’s influence in the region. Putin sees Russian intervention in order to stop the expansion and rise of ISIS in the region. If attention has been raised about radical islamists trying to conduct terrorist acts in Western Europe (like in Toulouse, Charlie Hebdo, the Thalys) and the US, Russia has as well been dealing with radical islamic terrorism for decades. Since being in power, Vladimir Putin has been fighting a lengthy war in Chechenya. Major Russian cities have been the targets of acts of terrorism over the years. In Syria, President Putin has played his game carefully by first bringing military capabilities, like fighter jets, in Syria at the airbase base of Latakia, in Western Syria.

In the case of the US, President Obama is neither interested in protecting al-Assad nor keeping him in power. As demonstrated by his two mandates, President Obama has been150928153854-barack-obama-vladimir-putin-toast-exlarge-169 trying to leave the Middle East and readjust American power towards Asia. Obama’s presidential promises were to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he has done even though some military forces are still on the ground. During the Arab spring, the US with his European allies missed the moment. The US was leading from behind in 2011 in the implementation of a no-fly zone in Libya. The mission was led by France and the UK, under the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011), which facilitated the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Since 2011, and especially after the killing of US ambassador in Benghazi, the Americans have been extremely reluctant in playing an active role on the ground and rather remain in the sky. But ISIS has brought back the US in the region. As demonstrated in recent polls, Americans consider ISIS as the greatest threat to the US.

Chart: Global Perceptions of Major Threats (Only the ‘Very Concerned about’ are being represented here)

Threats
Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. “Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger.” Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]

With the rise of ISIS over the region, President Obama was obliged to send some hundreds of military advisors in Iraq in order assist the Iraqi army and leadership. Since then, the US with France have conducted airstrikes over Iraq in order to limit the rise of ISIS.

Even within the US team, there is a certain division as reported by the New York Times between President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry. “Obama seems to approach Syria with a professor’s detachment”said David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “while Kerry — perhaps because of his high regard for his own diplomatic acuity — sees it as something he can solve.” President Obama deeply distrusts President Putin, while Kerry feels that he can work on a deal with the Russians in order to bring in the long-term Bashar al-Assad down from his leadership position.

But the tension between the US and Russia can be sensed. During his address before the UN General Assembly, Russian President underlined that the US air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were illegal and a violation of international law. Putin claimed that the US used military force with neither a UN Security Council Resolution nor with the consent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now it will be interesting to see if the UN Security Council agree on a resolution in order to fight ISIS in Syria.

Europeans, Russians and Americans

The Syrian crisis is, and ought to be perceived by the Europeans, as the top priority. From Europe, the civil war in Syria is causing regional instabilities all around the Mediterranean front, is at the origins of the worst migration crisis since World War two, and is exposing the failures of Europeans address a direct security threat to its continent. The massive number of migrants seeking for refuge in Western Europe is exposing the weaknesses of European cohesion and solidarity, European integration (see the failure of the Schengen agreement and Dublin rules), and is destroying the myth of Europe as a civilian/normative power.

The only power in Western Europe to be military active is France. Under Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande, France has sought to maintain its global and regional influence and interests. France has been flexing its muscles in Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Iraq, Libya and now Syria. Back in 2013, France was waiting on the Americans in order to start airstrikes against the al-Assad forces after he was proven to have used sarin gas against civilians. If French air power has been used as part of the coalition with the US over Iraq in order to fight ISIS, but it started its bombing campaign over Syria several days ago. However, François Hollande has maintained the fact that a solution in Syria cannot exist with Bashar al-Assad. As demonstrated during the nuclear talks with Iran, French diplomacy has been one of the toughest in order to assure that French and Western interests would be protected and enforced. On the Syrian case, Laurent Fabius is keeping the similar cap.

_85593741_iraq_syria_air_strikes_624_v45

The United Kingdom has expressed a less clear position. British Prime Minister Cameron said “I know there are people who think Isis is even worse than Assad, so shouldn’t we somehow cut a deal with Assad to team up and tackle Isis.” But the Brits, in order to show support to their American partners, underlined that a long-term solution cannot include Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. The French and Americans have been clear on the fact that any peace deals cannot include Bashar al-Assad.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy said that Russia was a central actor in the fight against ISIS in the region. His tone towards Moscow is much softer than his European partners, as Italy and Russia have always had deep relationship, especially in recent times. For instance, Italy has been the least supportive of European sanctions against Russia.

Russia, The Return of the Global Power?

Since the arrival of Putin to power in 2000, his priority has been to make Russia a great power once again. He has demonstrated that Russia not only plays an important role, but can shape global events. If Putin put himself in a corner after the annexation of Crimea and lingering war in Eastern Ukraine, he has brought Russia back at the table of great powers with his actions in the Middle East. If this aspect has been lost in translation as the world is more concerned about the approval of the deal by the US Congress, Russia played an important role on bringing a deal for the Iranian nuclear program. In the case of Syria, most powers have been reluctant to act aside from airstrike bombings over Syria and Iraq. Now Russia is actually forcing the West to act and do something about the vicious war in Syria.

Europeans have been inactive on dealing with Syria and have struggled on welcoming Syrian migrants. Aside from boosting border patrols in the Mediterranean and increasing financial assistances to countries hosting Syrian refugees, Europeans were unable to agree on a clear military operation in order to address the root causes of the migration crisis. The Americans, under Obama, have been much more reluctant to start another military mission in the Middle East. Obama promised in 2008 to quit the greater Middle East, he certainly does not want to leave office in 2016 with another war in Middle East.

With the escalation of its military intervention, Russia is bringing itself outside of the corner and rejoining the table of great powers. This last decade, Putin has demonstrated his ability to promote Russian influence and interests where and when desired. By using realpolitik, Putin has been able to promote Russia’s interests without any moral dilemmas, while the West is trying to act morally (which is highly debatable) and is actually limiting its flexibility and interests. Russia is back and the West needs to work with a complex partner.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
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Dying for the European Union?

Credit: REUTERS/Jean-Marc Loos
Credit: REUTERS/Jean-Marc Loos

Can a national soldier be asked to die for the European Union? In other words, can a Hungarian soldier be sent under an EU flag on the battlefield for another national and/or European cause?

With all the recent talks about the creation of a EU army (read here a recent analysis on Juncker’s proposal), or a European Defense Union, and the perpetual French calls for increasing burden-sharing in defense spending and actions, one variable is missing, would it be acceptable for Member States and European citizens to let their soldiers die for the EU? Can national Member States require their soldiers to fight on the battlefield exposing them to possibility of death for the EU? Would European citizens support such idea? Such questions may appear as a futile intellectual exercise, when in fact it is at the heart of the overall issue of European integration in the realm of security and defense.

Geopolitical Realities

There is no army without a demos, an identity, shared symbols and a common national vision (see the excellent book by Christopher Bickerton on the subject of integration from nation-states to member states). The Europeans and Americans have now since the end of the Cold War tried to create armies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Mali, Niger, in the Balkans, and other countries around the world. This is a complex and lengthy process requiring specific criteria such as a state, a national identity, and a will to defend the values and institutions of such state. The recent examples of the Iraqi and Afghan armies are demonstrating how difficult it is and in some instances unrealistic. In the case of the EU, the talk of a European army goes back to the failed attempt of the European Defense Community (EDC) in 1954 foreseeing the creation of a European army composed of 100,000 soldiers (read here a book review of Debating CSDP). Since then, the topic reappears and disappears as quickly as it emerges. The question of a European army is directly intertwined with the old-federalist vision.

Additionally, the case of the EU is a little different from the other regions of the world. The EU has grown under the protection of the nuclear umbrella of the Americans for the entirety of the Cold War. With the implosion of the Soviet Union, the EU was for over 20 years leaving with no major direct threats to its survival. With today’s reemergence of a more aggressive Russia, NATO has re-become the primary instrument for defense. Ultimately, the core perception of European security and defense incorporates two dimensions: American protection and lengthy regional stability. But with the collapse of world markets and the Arab Spring, the EU is now encircled by serious threats with Russia, the Islamic State (IS), mass-migration and rogue regional countries. The European reactions have been to ignore the realities and instead focus on domestic problems.

In some ways, the Europeans have to re-learn in accepting the threats affecting one’ security requiring the use of force. For decades, Europeans did not have to worry about basic existential survival. Europeans were instead deploying forces based on liberal beliefs. Today, the world and Europe are much different places. Despite the lethality of the regional threats, most European leaders and citizens are unwilling to consider the use of military force. For instance, in dealing with Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Europeans have never mentioned the deployment of troops on the Eastern European borders and even less the use of military force in stopping Russia. Europeans are not thinking in terms of hard power on their owns, only with NATO.

European Demos, Identity and CSDP

In most EU Member States, the mandatory military draft has been abolished. The military conscription policy in most EU Member States, at the exception of Austria, Denmark, Greece, Estonia and Finland, does not exist or is possible only in case of emergency. Most European armies are in fact composed of professional soldiers.

Military Conscription Policy by Country
ChartsBin statistics collector team 2011, Military Conscription Policy by Country, ChartsBin.com, viewed 4th April, 2015, <http://chartsbin.com/view/1887&gt;.

Additionally, since the financial crisis, EU Member States have seriously cut their military expenditures at the national and european levels. As illustrated below, the military expenditure of the EU in 2012 (with 1.5% of GDP) was one of the smallest in comparison to the other world powers. Taking into account to overall proportion of the percentage in the overall world economy, the 1.5% seems inappropriate. As per, many institutions (World Bank, European Commission) and agency (CIA), the overall GDP of the US ($16.7tn)  and EU ($15.8tn) in 2013 were almost equal, but not their military spending.

Source: SIPRI 2013
Source: SIPRI 2013

Certainly, the US is a unitary state (in terms of national security), while the EU is an international organization composed of 28 Member States. The US has its own yearly federal defense budget, while the EU does not have an united defense budget, but rather 28. But with 28 Member States, it is difficult to claim that solely 1.5% of the EU’s overall GDP is a fair share in military expenditure.

In January 2015, the European Parliament (EP) published a report about European perceptions on a variety of policy areas (access the report here). This report permits to shine a light on the perceptions of EU citizens on policy areas related to the eventual creation of a EU army.

European Parliament Eurobarometer. 2015. "Analytical Overview". (EB/EP 82.4) 2014 Parlemeter. January 30. Brussels.
European Parliament Eurobarometer. 2015. “Analytical Overview”. (EB/EP 82.4) 2014 Parlemeter. January 30. Brussels.

Based on the figure above, the strongest factors in composing the European identity are the values of democracy and freedom and the Euro. Interestingly, the three least recognized elements are in fact the ones that are the most symbolic in the formation and fostering of national unity: the anthem, the flag and the motto. Europeans principally feel united through the common share of beliefs – democracy and freedom – which are strongly ingrained in the membership process, the Copenhagen Criteria, in order to become an EU Member; and the currency, which is visible on daily basis in 19 Member States. However, the symbols remain strongly national. European citizens are in fact keeping their allegiance to their national symbols: flag, anthem and motto.

These symbols are necessary to be Europeanized in order to create a European army. Until European citizens do not envision the European symbols over their nationals, the creation of a European military allegiance won’t be possible.

Euro policies
European Parliament Eurobarometer. 2015. “Analytical Overview”. (EB/EP 82.4) 2014 Parlemeter. January 30. Brussels.

 The figure above illustrates the policies wherein European citizens feel that the EU should prioritize. In the case of high politics (defense, security and foreign policy), most Europeans disagree with a common policy. For instance, in the development of a ‘security and defense policy […] to face up to international crises’ EU citizens oppose it at 74%. In combating terrorism, once again the EU citizens are opposed at 71%, and in shaping a common foreign policy, 81% of EU citizens are opposing it. With such numbers, several explanations can be drawn: first, they consider high politics a national priority; second, the national governments are fighting in order not to loose the grip over the control of these policy-areas; third, citizens are overall against foreign, security and defense policy, caused by a certain power-aversion.

A United States of Europe?

All EU Member States are neither risk- nor power-averse. For instance, France since the turn of the century has not shied away from its rank of middle-power. In a matter of five years, it has waged war in Libya, Mali, Central African Republic, Iraq, the Sahel region, and almost in Syria. The United Kingdom was a very active international actor and French partner, but has been less interested in military action since the coalition in Libya in 2011. The UK is still dealing with the Iraq syndrome and lengthy Afghan war. Since the opposition of the legislature to go in Syria, the UK has been irrelevant in security and defense affairs at the great concern of its American partner. Other Member States have been more vocal. With the Arab Spring, the Russian incursions in Georgia (2008), Crimea, and now Eastern Ukraine, the rise of the Islamic State (IS), the Europeans may be united in rhetorics, but are neither willing to deploy forces nor empower the EU in doing more.

Ultimately, the creation of a true European army would require two things: first, theChurchil creation of a clear European demos; second, a federal entity where most European interests are common. The creation of a United States of Europe will be necessary. In the US, the Congress or the President, under special circumstances, can declare war to other states. The different military branches – Army, Navy, Air Force – are all regulated under the Department of Defense (DoD) and can be deployed at anytime even if a Governor of a state is opposed to it. The Federal government is in charged of world military operation. In the case of the EU, there is no such thing as a European DoD. The European External Action Service (EEAS) is a ‘service’ in charged of shaping a common European Foreign policy with the consent of the Member States. Only the Member States can decide on using military force. A European army will remain a topic of discussion, nothing more.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Does the World Hate Russia?

Photo: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A large segment of the academic literature reflects on the power of attraction, known as well as soft power, of the European Union and the United States. But what about Russia? and Putin? What are the global perceptions of Putin’s Russia since the turn of the century? In a recent survey produced by the Pew Research Center, most of the world – aside from China, India, Ghana and Vietnam – has a largely unfavorable opinions of Russia and Putin (see below).

Russia-Image-World Opinion

The concept of soft power is a very theoretical concept famously developed by Joseph Nye in his book ‘Soft Power: The Mean to Succeed in World Politics’ (1998). His argument is directly connected with the earlier work produced by Antonio Gramsci. But Nye was able to take the core of Gramsci’s argument and bring it at the global level in order to talk about foreign policy. Gramsci was mostly concerned about domestic Italian politics and non-change in the 30s. When talking about opinions and perceptions, the concept of soft power is certainly directly connected as it does influence state’s foreign policy. But let’s take a look at the way the transatlantic community see and perceive Russia and Putin.

Transatlantic Perceptions of Russia and Putin

The US-Russian perceptions are very much aligned with change of leadership in the US (from Bush to Obama), policy change (failed 2009 reset policy and the pivot), and the regional crises (Ukraine, Syria) and domestic narratives controlled by Putin. The graph below claims that the opinions have worsened on both sides of the Altantic. The last two years of the Bush administration were a period little more stable between the two superpowers despite the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. With the election of President Obama and his tentative to soften and deepen the relationship with Russia, the opinions of one another become more favorable in Russia (+13 point of %) than in the US (+6 point of %) though. From 2010 to the invasion of Crimea, the options were pretty stable. The lowest point was in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Russia-Image-US-Russia

Considering the European views and opinions of Russia, the Pew did not produce a graph, but included a set of numbers at the end of the survey. The transatlantic opinion is very homogenous since 2007 (since chart below). Not surprisingly France and the United Kingdom have had the most favorable opinion of Russia, and Poland the lowest in recent years. The US is in the mix of the transatlantic opinion. However, it would have been interesting to see how the Baltic and Nordic EU Member States (Finland, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Denmark) and Eastern EU Member States (Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Austria) perceive Russia over the years. The survey failed in providing the data for these states.

Source: Pew Research Center. 2015. p.11
Source: Pew Research Center. 2015. p.11 / Data compiled by Politipond

Vladimir Putin, Global Villain?

A big part of the negative views of Russia in the US and Western Europe is directly connected to the person of Vladimir Putin. The press, academia, and think tank communities (here are some excellent works and examples such as book by Fiona Hill, and a book review of Karen Dawisha’s manuscript) have created some type of admiration/incomprehension around the person of Vladimir Putin. There is a certain fascination about Putin in the US and Western Europe as Vladimir Putin has been framed as either an irrational actor, or a master of realpolitik (read here and here previous analyses). In any case, the US and Americans have never had the highest degree of confidence in Putin.

Even though the impacts of Russian influences on the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and 2008 war in Georgia were not major, as demonstrated by the data below, in affecting the confidence in Putin, the turning point was the incursion in Crimea and ultimately its annexation. Then with the lingering war in Eastern Ukraine, and even the ‘accidental’ targeting of the civilian Malaysian flight last summer, they have contributed in lowering the confidence and trust in Vladimir Putin. In some ways, the low degree confidence has been materialized in the isolation of Vladimir Putin, whom has been absent (or more accurately kick out of the G-8) of the recent G-7 meeting. In addition, Putin has not demonstrated being serious in trying to solve the Ukrainian crisis, as he was never committed to make the Minsk Protocol II work.

Russia-Image-Putin & US

All these graphs and data provided by the Pew highlight one common trend, most of the world share a common negative perceptions of Russia and his president. In the 21st century, it is quite rare to find such unanimous position on an issue. More seriously these data demonstrate that Putin’s Russia is not concerned about global perceptions. Putin has a vision for Russia and has demonstrated that he can not only remain in power (which he has done since 2000), control the domestic narrative (through playing the nationalist card and  limiting the freedom of press and civil society), and advance Russian interests where and when required.

European and American sanctions are certainly hurting the Russian economy, already weakened by the historically low prices of hydrocarbons, but Putin has been tactical in choosing which issues are important to fight for. For instance Ukraine is, but Iran was not so much as Putin, with his Chinese counterpart, agreed on the Vienna agreement in July. Putin will continue to fascinate and certainly won’t stop in leading Russia where he desires, with or without the approval of global opinions.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Mr. Renzi Goes to Washington

Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI
Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI

A year ago, President Obama and Matteo Renzi were meeting in Rome. On Friday, April 17, Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister, was in Washington D.C. meeting President Obama in his first trip to the United States as the head of the Italian government. In the statement delivered by the White House’s Press Secretary on March 17 announcing the visit a series of issues were highlighted such as “support for Ukraine and continued U.S.-EU unity on pressuring Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to adhere to the Minsk agreements; the situation in Libya; and the need for the international community to continue efforts to counter ISIL and other extremists throughout the Middle East.” Even though the issues on the table are the same ones discussed last year in Rome, Matteo Renzi came to D.C. with a very different aura considering the results already obtained thanks to his policies.

Matteo Renzi – Changing Italy’s Future

Matteo Renzi came to D.C. at the right time considering the solidification of his power at home and in Europe. Renzi has worked on rebuilding domestic trust and in reestablishing Italy as a core and central country of the European Union. The years under Silvio Berlusconi contributed to the decline of Italy from what used to be an axiomatic EU Member State. So far it seems that Matteo Renzi is succeeding on both fronts. Domestically, he has established himself as the man of the situation by ending years of political instabilities. Politically, Forza Italia, right wing political party, has been kept under control after the disastrous years under Silvio Berlusconi. Economically and fiscally, yes the Italian overall debt remains massive representing 126% of the GDP. But on the bright side, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) project that the Italian economic outlook should be promising for 2015 with an expected growth of 0.6%. Even though the growth seems at homeopathic dosage, it would be the first time since mid-2011 that Italy would see some types of economic growth. Italy has been in recession for over three years now. All the cuts possible won’t be enough in order to lower the overall debt without growth; Italy must re-familiarized itself with economic growth.

At the European level, Italy is becoming relevant and an active member once again. The federicamogherinimatteorenzigovernmentyf0fx-kziyglmost obvious example was the appointment of Federica Mogherini at the helm of European foreign affairs. In less than a year, she has already demonstrated her commitment to her mission and has represented the EU where needed. Her short tenure at the EEAS has offered the EU and its Member States a new dynamism and presence on the regional and international platforms (read here a previous analysis on Mogherini’s 100 days). However, Matteo Renzi seems to be too close, for many Europeans and Americans, to Russia. The relationship between Italy and Russia is certainly long, but for many it seems that Renzi needs to be stronger in his opposition to Putin’s actions in Europe.

For both reasons, Mr. Renzi went to Washington with a certain aura and credibility. The economic engine is on and Italy matters once again in Europe.

Solving Libya and Ukraine

Ahead of this high level meeting at the White House, two issues are extremely important for the transatlantic community: Libya and Ukraine. From Rome, the crises in Libya and Ukraine are affecting directly the national security of Italy as well as the EU as a whole, while from Washington, President Obama would rather lead from behind with the help of core Atlantic partners, Italy for instance, than having to be directly involved on the ground. For one it is about security and survival, for the other it is about influence.

The crisis in Libya is serious for two reasons. Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, led by an euro-atlantic coalition, the country has spiraled into a civil war. The civil war has created a power vacuum in the middle of North Africa offering the exit point for many Northern and Central Africans leaving their home countries because of political violence, war, dire economic conditions, terrorism with the hope to reach the European continent for a better life. The point of exit of Africa is Libya. Libya has become the transit country for most of illegal migration. In addition to unchecked migration, the civil war and lack of government have offered a new ground to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). ISIL has emerged in the country directly threatening neighboring countries, which includes Europe.

In the case of Ukraine, President Obama wants to assure the guarantee of unity of Europe

PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

in facing Russia. Crimea seems to belong to Russia and Ukraine should accept it, now the fights in Eastern Ukraine need to be solved. The Minsk agreement of February 2015 for a cease-fire was not enough, and the Euro-Atlantic community needs to be on the same page when addressing Russia. The economic sanctions implemented last summer by the EU are due to expire in late July 2015. So far there is no unity in the EU to extend them. A year ago, Italy was called on for trying to block the implementation of the economic sanctions against Russia. One reason is that Italy is the second largest trading partner with Russia after Germany. Russia has been strongly lobbying Italy in softening the sanctions against them. President Obama may want to avoid a situation wherein Italy limits the reach of the sanctions against Moscow.

In a matter of a year, Matteo Renzi seems to have delivered on many of his domestic promises and came with a certain aura to Washington. Matteo Renzi was hoping for some financial assistance in dealing with Libya (why not a NATO mission?) and in toughening his voice against Russia. Additionally, President Obama might have asked for some Italian support in order to try to finalize the massive T-TIP, which is lingering and creating strong discords in Europe. For what has been a very opaque meeting, due to the superficiality of Obama and Renzi’s comments (read here the joint press conference), Obama and Renzi wanted to solidify the ties and bring Italy back on the center stage.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Arming or Not Arming Ukraine?

Photo: Vadim Braydov/Associated Press
Photo: Vadim Braydov/Associated Press

The calls of arming the Ukrainian government in order to respond to Russia clear support of Ukrainian separatists are misguided. It is neither in the interest of the US, NATO, nor the EU and its 28 Member States to start an arm race with Russia over Ukraine. After one year of military combats in Ukraine, leading to the Russian annexation of Crimea, and violent fights in Eastern Ukraine, four-nations peace talks – composed of President of France, German Chancellor, Ukrainian President and Russian President – will be meeting in Minsk, Belarus’ capital (which is the bastion of the last true European dictator) on February 11th. The Minsk Summit, known as the last chance summit, will be trying to solve the Ukrainian conflict and lay the foundation for an eventual future peace in Ukraine.

The peace talks are a continuation of the four-way phone conference held on Sunday between the four leaders in order to implement the Minsk agreements signed on September 4th, 2014. Wednesday talks are supposed to seek for a cease-fire and a settlement for ending the conflict (even though very little has transpired about sunday’s long talks and the approach to Wednesday’s talks). As argued by the Elysée, France’s executive power, there are several points of contention prior tomorrow’s meeting:

  • reaching out a global agreement;
  • the degree of autonomy of territories held by separatists;
  • control of borders wherein Russian military equipments have gone through;
  • removal of heavy weaponry (which could be clearly undermined if the US decides to go on with providing heavy weaponry to the Ukrainian government);
  • about the future of territories conquered by the separatists.

Despite the very localized combat zone, the situation in Eastern Ukraine is worrisome for the overall regional stability of Europe. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a recent UN Report (from BBC News), the war in Ukraine has had serious consequences as illustrated below (see here portraits of the war):

  • 5,358 people killed and 12,235 wounded in eastern Ukraine;
  • Fatalities include 298 people on board flight MH17 shot down on 17 July;
  • 224 civilians killed in three-week period leading up to 1 February;
  • 5.2 million people estimated to be living in conflict areas;
  • 921,640 internally displaced people within Ukraine, including 136,216 children;
  • 600,000 fled to neighboring countries of whom more than 400,000 have gone to Russia.

Lack of Unity in the West

The numbers posted above illustrate the reality of war on the European continent. The strategy to solving the crisis is far from being a demonstration of unity between the members of the Euro-Atlantic community. The 2015 Munich Security conference illustrated the clear divergence of strategic approach to Ukraine between the two sides of the pond. During the 2015

Source: 51st Munich Security Conference
Source: 51st Munich Security Conference

Munich Security Conference, the US and Germany clearly went apart. US Secretary Kerry expressed the US support to arming Ukraine, while Chancellor Merkel expressed her opposition to such strategy and advocated instead for ‘strategic patience.’ Strategic patience is defined as the “capacity to stay united behind a coherent set of principles and, at the same time, back its policies with plenty of diplomatic activism and economic incentives.” Chancellor Merkel said during the Munich conference that “The progress that Ukraine needs cannot be achieved by more weapons.” US Senator McCain, a foreign policy hawk, was caught responding to her comments by saying “Foolishness.” His view represents the vision on the Capitol in Washington D.C. wherein a majority of republican senators as well as the democratic establishment are willing and apparently ready to arm the Ukrainian government. The White House expressed its support to providing Ukraine “lethal defensive weapons” in case of diplomatic failures. Such announcement by the White House may have put the President in the corner once again after the infamous ‘redline’ crossed by Bashar Al-Assad of Syria.

Russia, Russia, Russia

The Ukrainian dilemma is obviously a serious problem in terms of geopolitical stability, but as well Western unity. For instance as demonstrated by John Lough of the Chattam House:

On the one hand, Ukraine is a victim of aggression and deserves the right to defend itself against separatist forces that Russia is clearly supplying and supporting. On the other hand, the supply of defensive weaponry to Ukraine has the potential to split the West and precipitate a wider war.

Many seem confused behind Putin’s rationale – and called him an irrational actor – to continue pushing the Russian offensive in Ukraine. Why would Putin ‘gamble’ its legitimacy, legacy and even Russian economic prosperity for eastern Ukraine? The response is simple: sphere of influence. As expressed in an excellent op-ed by John J. Mearsheimer in the New York Times:

Great powers react harshly when distant rivals project military power into their neighborhood, much less attempt to make a country on their border an ally. This is why the United States has the Monroe Doctrine, and today no American leader would ever tolerate Canada or Mexico joining a military alliance headed by another great power.

What would Ukraine bring to the EU and/or NATO? Is it an acceptable risk for the euro-atlantic community to bring Ukraine within its institutional, legal, political, economic and military networks? It does not appear that neither Georgia nor Ukraine are strategic benefit for NATO and the EU at this point of time. The Euro-Atlantic community is deeply divided on opening the doors of NATO and the EU to Ukraine and Georgia. Thus, Russia has clearly demonstrated that it cares much more about keeping Ukraine at all cost than the West about loosing it. Powerful member states like France have expressed their opposition to the eventuality to incorporating these states within NATO. For instance, “France is not favorable to Ukraine’s entering the Atlantic alliance,” said President François Hollande. “Let this be absolutely clear.” President Hollande wants to end the violence and war and normalize relations with Putin (the two mistral ships are still waiting in French harbors).

Seeking for Western Strategic Soundness and Patience

If the West is so concerned about creating a clear demarcation between them and Russia, why not using Ukraine as a buffer zone? After all Ukraine has been very divided on picking a side, either the EU or Russia. This was one of the reasons behind the Orange revolution in 2004 and last year manifestations in Kiev snowballing into the current war. For the EU it will be more a matter of developing/strengthening either a bilateral partnership or a loosen commercial agreement with Ukraine than incorporating Ukraine as its 29th Member States. The EU has too many internal tensions, problems and distractions to even consider bringing Ukraine in.

But the real concern from a Western point of view is the degree of confusion and division

Source: 51st Munich Security Conference
Source: 51st Munich Security Conference

within the Euro-Atlantic community. The fact that the US has been relentless in its call to arm Ukraine without forging clear unity between NATO members speaks about the lack of common strategic vision. From a European standpoint, the neighborhoods are so unstable (read previous analyses here, here and here) that it slowly undermined its influence and security. The EU and the EU-28 cannot agree on a common strategy, so let alone the idea of forging one, for each crisis such as the ones raging in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq (Islamic State (IS)), and Nigeria (Boko Haram). This lack of European soundeness demonstrates several aspects: first, some Member States are completely out of foreign policy due to domestic troubles and do not realize the long-term consequences of their lack of interests and engagement (the United Kingdom is considerably silent on this important regional issue); second, some Member States are cheery-picking which issue to tackle without an overall vision; third, other Member States are simply seeking for going alone at the expense of the unity.

Several options are on the table: a possible Franco-German led cease-fire through diplomatic talks (or ‘strategic patience’); sending or not weapons to support Ukraine despite Germany’s opposition; or continuing the deepening of economic sanctions against Russia. But the talks about arming Ukraine and the eventuality that it could escalate the war with Russia is a reality.

It may seem that the West is miss-reading the Cold War. Yes, nuclear weapons and proxy wars locked the two superpowers in check. No, American hard power was not the only tool in the toolbox. Soft power, and its power of attraction, played an important role. Certainly hard power offers a quick solution; while soft power is much loosen, less precise, and slow. At this point of time, the best bet for the West is serious diplomatic talks in ending the conflict. Tomorrow’s Minsk peace talk between the Franco-German engine, Ukraine and Russia could arrive to possible agreements and redlines. The US should instead seek to work them instead of threatening Russia.

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