Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The U.S.-Russia Reset Finally Paying Off?

Posted in European-Russian Relations, Nuclear Proliferation by Dan on March 26, 2010

It looks like President Barack Obama finally has something to put on his foreign-policy resume.  This past Wednesday, U.S. officials in the White House and Russian officials in Moscow have both confirmed that a new strategic nuclear reduction treaty is within days of being completed.  The details of the accord are still sketchy (God forbid information be released to the general public), but there are a few things that we do know.

First off, the treaty explicitly states that both parties (the United States and Russia) are required to decrease their nuclear arsenals to approximately 1,500 warheads.  I know this sounds like an exceedingly high number, but it’s still a pretty noteworthy improvement from the last agreement Washington and Moscow signed in 2002, which tolerated up to 2,200 operational warheads.

The 2010 treaty also has a legal provision that makes sure both sides are actually complying with the law.  This too, is a great step forward.  An agreement is only effective if teeth and enforcement are included.  Otherwise, a party could renege on the deal whenever it wants to, rendering the whole concept of negotiation a huge waste of time and effort.  This is why the 2002 Bush-era provision with Russia was questionable at best…there was no incentive for the United States and Russia to follow through on the basic tenants.

So that is about it at this point in time.  Again, officials in the State Department are making this story rather difficult for reporters, perhaps because the treaty still has to be ratified in the U.S. Senate (which is always a tough battle, because as everyone knows, Senators always have to make a name for themselves on the national scene).  But yet again, if this prospective accord does slide through the Senate, this would represent the first true achievement for the Obama administration on the foreign-policy front.  Politically, the nuclear deal would give President Obama a solid diplomatic win for his portfolio, perhaps on par with his health-care reform victory a week earlier.  And symbolically, the ratification would demonstrate to the rest of the world that the United States is commitment to disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.  If there is anything that Washington could use to convince its partners to sign off on new sanctions against the Iranian Government, it is this sort of sincerity and credibility.

Stay tuned for more.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Obama Scraps Eastern-European Missile Plan

Posted in European-Russian Relations by Dan on September 19, 2009
President Obama's decision to eliminate a proposed U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe is a victory for pragmaticism

President Obama's decision to eliminate a proposed U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe is a victory for pragmatism

What is really behind President Obama’s plans for scrapping a U.S. missile defense shield in Eastern Europe?  This question has been repeated many times over the last two days, so much so that Republicans inside Congress have begun to cry foul over the president’s “real” intentions.  Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, vowed that he would “work to overturn this wrong-headed policy,” while Senate Republican Jon Kyl labeled the decision “dangerous and short-sighted.”  Is this just another instance of partisan rhetoric on Capitol Hill, in an attempt to delegitimize the Obama administration’s record on national security?  Or do Republicans actually have a convincing case?

Readers of this blog know quite well that I am frequently opposed to many of President Obama’s foreign-policy decisions; engagement with Iran, de-escalation in Iraq, and a lack of priorities in Afghanistan to name only a few.  Yet, while a registered Republican, I cannot help but support Mr. Obama in this specific case.  However valid Mr. Cantor and Mr. Kyl’s press-releases are, their views are based on an outdated version of the international order; a philosophy that takes on a Cold War attitude at a time when multi-polarity is creeping up in significance.

The main objective of the U.S. missile shield was to protect Europe against a possible Iranian attack, most likely from long-range ballistic missiles.  The Czech Republic and Poland, two countries that are still recovering from decades of Soviet occupation, perceived this same program as a military deterrent against a resurgent Russian power.

As ridiculous as this may sound, the missile shield would have had that exact effect: showing Russia that the United States will not tolerate aggressive behavior towards its European allies.  Of course, none of this would have been an issue if Russia decided not to invade Georgia in the summer of 2008…a campaign that lasted a few months and reeked significant damage on Georgian infrastructure.

Certainly, a buffer-zone against Moscow would have been beneficial to Eastern and Central Europe, further enhancing their security in the face of the “Russian beast.”  Yet, there is no basis for arguing that the defense program would have protected American interests in the wider region…despite consistent claims by anti-Russian hawks that this would have been the case.  Russia, while authoritarian in many respects, is not a direct descendant of its former Soviet past.  Russian institutions have changed markedly during Boris Yelstin’s tenure, taking a more democratic turn at the expense of the old autocratic traditions of coercion and forceful repression.  Obviously, there is still work to be done…Moscow is still heavily authoritarian in its political process, and the Communist Party is still regarded as one of the most legitimate parties in parliament.  Yet, this does not dismiss the fact that the Cold War is long gone; another piece of history that we can all learn from.

The Czech and Polish governments will be especially angry at this decision.  Eastern European officials have waited a long time for a missile defense deterrent against Moscow, only strengthened by President George W Bush’s proposed plan during his second term.  Yet, anger aside, common-sense dictates that the Czech and Polish people have nothing to worry about.  Their fear is the equivalent to a child scared of a monster in the closet.  We are currently living in the 21st century, an era where a major economic or political catastrophe would have worldwide effects.  A Russian “invasion” on its eastern flank is just as impractical as suicidal; such an act would surely provoke the wrath of the United States, Europe, and the international community all at the same time.  Taking its position in the system today, I severely doubt that the Russians would sacrifice their future as a major power on an issue as trivial as Eastern European control.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Anne Gearan and Desmond Butler from the Associated Press contributed to this blog.  The full article can be found here: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090917/ap_on_go_pr_wh/us_us_missile_defense

Is Russia Funding State-Sponsors of Terrorism?

Posted in European-Russian Relations by Dan on September 7, 2009
EU Piracy Chief:  Russia is Smuggling Weapons to Syria and Iran

EU Piracy Chief: Russia is Smuggling Weapons to Syria and Iran

In a world where international security tops the agendas of national governments and global institutions, unexpected developments are often considered the norm.  Take the hijacking of a Russian vessel by former Soviet sympathizers, and people will be able to see how a simple piracy issue can snowball into a devastating foreign-policy quagmire.

According to sources familiar with the story, a Russian ship (named the Arctic Sea) was taken hostage by a group of 19 men on July 24…smugglers who were reportedly attempting to sell the ship’s contents (most notably millions of dollars worth of timber) to the highest bidder in the informal market.  As the Russian Government began to lose sight of the Arctic Sea somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the Kremlin’s navy dispatched a search and rescue mission that eventually took back the vessel from its captures; arresting and interrogating all the men involved in the maritime incident.  This seems simple enough, considering the fact that national governments across the globe have started to devote more time and energy towards the safety of their fleets.  The fact that piracy has grown exponentially over the past year (off the coast of Eastern Africa specifically) only serves to reinforce these security measures.

Sounds like just another illegality.  Yet, upon further investigation, this seemingly conventional situation is slowly transforming into a more controversial headline; one that has far-reaching consequences for the international community as a whole.

Based on some recent remarks by the European Union’s chairman on piracy, Moscow has deliberately fabricated the story in the hopes of covering up what really happened in the waters last August.  And what really happened?  Well, apparently the Israeli Government intercepted the Russian vessel as it attempted to deliver a cache of arms to both Syria and Iran.

A fool’s conclusion, you might say?  Why would the Russian Government risk its political reputation by transporting weapons to two hostile regimes, both of whom have been repeatedly isolated by the international community over their respective support for Middle Eastern terrorism?  Such questions are appropriate to ask…indeed they currently describe the mainstream view in foreign-policy circles.  However, when studying Moscow’s historically deep relationship in the Middle East, this dominant perspective could very well lose a large portion of its credibility.

For years, Russia has always regarded the Arab world as a priority in its foreign and defense policies, both for strategic and purely political reasons.  Throughout the Cold War, the former Soviet Union sent money, resources, and heavy weapons to Arab Governments that would pledge to oppose American dominance…both in the Persian Gulf and in the historically violent Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  Egypt was often seen as Moscow’s best friend, a country that agreed to participate under the Soviet umbrella by buttressing itself against the pro-American government of the Shah.  Arab states such as Syria possessed a similar world-outlook to the former U.S.S.R., agreeing to form a unified front against Washington’s “imperial” ambitions.  This balance-of-power strategy was pursued by both superpowers during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Of course, the Cold War is now a figment of the imagination; a period viewed by the general population as just another victim of history.  Common knowledge states that the United States eventually defeated the Soviet Union, giving Washington the primary position in world affairs.  This is all true, minus some fabrications and generalities.  With this being said, we cannot assume that the termination of the Cold War has translated into a termination of Moscow’s involvement in the Middle East.

In fact, evidence proves that Russia is re-inserting itself in Islamic political life.  Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has agreed to sell Russian-manufactured MiG-31 planes to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria; the same Syria that consistently provides Hezbollah with the resources it needs to blackmail the Lebanese Government into submission.  Putin and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have met several times over the years, discussing a variety of initiatives from trade relations to security alliances.  Perhaps more counterproductive to both Washington and the United Nations, the Kremlin has taken the role as Iran’s primary exporter of natural materials; helping build the Islamic Republic’s nuclear installations.  And obviously, we cannot avoid Russia’s aggressive posture in the U.N. Security Council, refusing to endorse harsher sanctions towards Iran for its refusal to provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with wholehearted disclosure.

I completely understand that Prime Minister Putin and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev are performing these functions through a narrow-lens.  At the end of the day, every world leader is ultimately responsible for their country’s national interests.  Strengthening diplomatic ties with Syria and Iran could simply be Moscow’s new economic plan, praying that oil-deals and manufacturing agreements will slow the damage associated with a global recession.

Yet, using the national-interest excuse should not tame global skepticism towards last month’s naval dilemma.  The United States should be somewhat disturbed over Moscow’s behavior.  After all, Washington’s most important ally in the region has already made it quite clear that the Kremlin’s relationship with Syria and Iran threatens the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state.  The repeated scenario of Hezbollah and Hamas fighters storing and using sophisticated Russian weaponry is almost as serious a situation as one can get in an era of asymmetrical warfare.  Is the United States willing to respond if the EU’s piracy chair is right?  Or will Washington stand down, afraid of questioning and instigating a resurgent Russia in the current system?

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Simon Shuster of Time Magazine contributed to this blog.  His full article can be accessed at:  http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1919342,00.html