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Monday, 9 February 2015

How Obama can lose gracefully on Ukraine

The threat by the United States that “all options” are open to President Barack Obama in Ukraine is turning out to be bluster. Ironically, it was left to two of the US’ close allies – German Chancellor and French President Francois Hollande – to call Washington’s bluff, while the Russian President Vladimir Putin himself attended to more important things – celebrating the anniversary of the Sochi Winter Olympics (which Obama had boycotted) – instead of worrying that the White House is brooding over arming the Ukrainian military with American weapons.
Merkel did some plain speaking in Berlin yesterday on her return from Moscow where she had gone with Hollande to discuss a peace plan with Putin – “I am firmly convinced this conflict cannot be solved with military means. I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily. I have to put it that bluntly.” Merkel didn’t even wait for another 48 hours to tell this to Obama in person. (She is due to travel to Washington on Monday.)
Merkel also gave some lessons of history to the political class in Washington. She said force had never proved to be the solution in the past when dealing with Russia. “I grew up in East Germany, I have seen the Wall. The Americans did not intervene in the Wall, but in the end we won.” Bravo! She punctured the US’ triumphalism that it ‘won’ the Cold War and she should know as a close aide to the then German chancellor Helmut Kohl who only negotiated the reunification of Germany with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

US weapons to Ukraine, by Marian Kamensky, Austria

Merkel’s plain speaking must be a rude awakening for the US. The point is, Europe cannot take the US’ bitching anymore. Every time a peace proposal is floated by the ‘Normandy format’ – between Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Kiev (President Petro Poroshenko) – Uncle Sam intervened to derail the process via the hardliners within the Ukrainian regime. This has gone far too long. But the rout of Ukraine’s military (which was punching far above its weight at US prodding) bordering on disarray and the collapse of the economy poses a grim choice to the West – settle for a moth-eaten part of Ukraine (which is a veritable basket case and also as venal and corrupt as any country can be) as Europe’s new partner and make the best out of a bad situation, or, let the war itself creep right up to Europe’s doorstep.
It is an unsavory choice because this was not what the ‘regime change’ in Ukraine was supposed to lead to. Put differently, Europe is virtually rebelling against the US’s Russia policies. Of course, the conflict in Ukraine does not threaten America’s ‘homeland security’ and its continuation will only further complicate Europe’s relations with Russia, which suits the cementing of the US’ trans-Atlantic leadership. But for Europe, the nadir has been reached and it needs to part ways with the US and find its own path of co-habitation – if not cooperation – with its big neighbor in the east, Russia.
Quite obviously, the swing of the pendulum on the battlefield in southeastern Ukraine has shifted in favor of the separatist forces and the US strategy of getting Russia bogged down in a quagmire is at a dead end. Suffice it to say, the military victories of the separatist forces would please Russia, which has been consistently arguing for a federated Ukraine where the Russian-speaking eastern regions enjoy autonomy and would have a voice in the country’s foreign and security policies (which will be a permanent guarantee for Ukraine’s neutrality.) Meanwhile, the latest round of fighting is also inexorably spreading toward the port city of Mariupol, whose capture by the separatists will give Russia direct land access to Crimea. Unsurprisingly, Poroshenko desperately wants a ceasefire now instead of pursuing any further the military option, which the US had prompted him to resort to, lest the separatists made more territorial gains in the fighting in the coming days.
Following the 5-hour long consultations with Putin and Merkel at the Kremlin meeting on Friday, President Hollande has since spelt out the broad contours of a plausible settlement in Ukraine. He underlined that France will oppose Ukraine’s NATO membership. Hollande disclosed that the plan that he and Merkel carried to the Kremlin envisages a 50—to-70 kilometer demilitarized zone separating the Ukrainian military and the separatist forces’ and provisions for “rather strong” autonomy for the Russian-speaking eastern region – “These people have gone to war. It will be difficult to make them share a common life.”
Merkel herself is unsure whether the plan will succeed, “but it is, from my point of view and that of the French president, in any case worth making this attempt. This conflict cannot be resolved by military means. It is all the more important now to set out substantial steps that serve to fill with life the Minsk agreement.” (By the way, this was Merkel’s first visit to Moscow after the Ukraine crisis erupted and all indications are that she and Hollande undertook it without coordinating with Obama.)
Clearly, a divide has appeared between Europe and the US, which is fraught will long-term implications for the trans-Atlantic relationship. Ironically, even as Merkel and Hollande reached out to Putin, it is the US that is getting ‘isolated’. Clearly, Obama overreached by personalizing matters to the extent of not losing any opportunity to berate Russia – and Putin personally. He did it even while in Delhi recently notwithstanding India’s ‘time-tested friendship’ with Russia.
This was bad diplomacy, when a statesman gets carried away by his own rhetoric. The plain truth is that Putin has the upper hand today and everyone is holding breath to hear what he has to say about the peace plan on the table when the 4-way video link within the Normandy format between Berlin, Paris, Kiev and Moscow is put through later today. Hollande has starkly warned, “If we don’t manage to find not just a compromise but a lasting peace agreement, we know perfectly well what the scenario will be. It has a name, it’s called war.” Paradoxically, Hollande and Merkel are fighting for the ‘Obama doctrine’ only, which abhors wars — “Use military force, unilaterally if necessarily, when our [US's] core interests demand it… when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States… when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher, Obama had said (here) in his speech at West Point last May.
The bottom line is, Europe doesn’t want a war and will not be hustled into one by the neocons running the Obama administration’s Ukraine policies and their allies in the US Congress. It is once again an occasion for Obama to assert, as he did boldly and strategically (while taking Putin’s helping hand) to call off a military strike against Syria in September 2013.
It was a gross miscalculation to have been made that Russia would accept a fait accompli in Ukraine. Simply put, Russia’s core interests are at stake in Ukraine, where there is hardly any scope for compromise. How could anyone have been so naive to imagine that through ‘smart sanctions’ Russia’s national will could be broken or its existential concerns compromised? The year 2015 is the seventieth anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Red Army and it is an occasion for an erudite mind like Obama’s to look back at Russian history and draw appropriate conclusions.
Above all, two years is a long time in politics and it is still possible for Obama to reset the Russia policies. At the very minimum, leave things to Europe to show the way. He can afford to disengage from the neocons and will not be finding himself in isolation, since Ukraine is an issue where contrarian voices ranging from Henry Kissinger (here) to Noam Chomsky (here) are in agreement in sounding caution in the larger interests of world peace.

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