The New Republic: Russia Threatened to Nix the Iran Talks. Does It Really Have That Power?

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Russia Threatened to Nix the Iran Talks. Does It Really Have That Power?

March 21, 2014

A day after slapping travel bans on John McCain, Mary Landrieu, and John Boehner, Russia’s Vladimir Putin called today for a temporary halt in his tit-for-tat sanctions battle with the United States and the E.U. over his annexation of Crimea. But despite the truce—if it can indeed be called that—more serious battlegrounds between Russia and the West are already coming into view. On Wednesday, Russia gave the first real confirmation that the struggles over Crimea could leak over into the crucial ongoing multi-party talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

Regarding the talks between Iran and the P5+1 coalition, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax News Agency, “We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes, taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington … but if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well.” The subtext was clear to anyone familiar with gangster movies and their cliches: Nice nuclear weapons talks you got here … it’d be a shame if something happened to them. But as much as Russia clearly relishes the leverage it holds over the last best hope for President Obama’s foreign policy legacy, it’s unclear how much control they have over the success of the talks—or if scuttling them would even be in Russia’s best interest.

After all, Russia has been a constructive member of the Iran negotiations since 2006. Russian cooperation with the talks has been “pretty good so far, considering that … Russia tends to underestimate Iran’s nuclear weapons potential,” says Gary Samore, President Obama’s advisor on weapons of mass destruction until 2012. Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the Russians have been “more than cooperative.”

That’s because Russia and the West share the same vested interest in seeing the Iranian nuclear program slowed or halted. (Russia’s interest is arguably larger—its southern border is only 100 miles from Iran and the two countries have long sparred for influence in central Asia.) For the same reason it worked assiduously with the United States and the U.K. in the early 1990s to remove the nuclear threat of Ukraine, Russia is now willing to work with other members of the nuclear club to exclude Iran.

And the alternative to a successful nuclear deal—a preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel, the United States, or their allies—is repugnant to Russia. “Ultimately, if the talks fail, the only alternative for the administration would be some use of force and that obviously isn’t in the Russians’ interest or to their advantage,” said Maloney. For this reason, she called a dramatic shift in Russian approach toward negotiations “highly unlikely.”

But Russia also recognizes that the Obama administration has staked a significant amount of political capital on the success of the Iran nuclear talks. “The door is open for the Russians to employ this linkage to their advantage,” Robert Litwak, director of international security studies at the Wilson Center, told me.

So how might the Russians go about this? None of the experts I spoke to expect Russia to pull out of the Iran talks outright. As Maloney noted, Russia’s presence in the talks is “a key part of their own influence,” and a boycott would remove that immediately while yielding little in the way of desirable results. Unlike a natural gas pipeline, delicate nuclear negotiations cannot be turned off and on at will.

In the New York Times yesterday, Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned that Russia may try to undercut sanctions by opening up trade with Iran. “If you’re Putin and you think you’re going to be a target of sanctions, the most obvious leverage is in the Iranian file, where Russian cooperation is so important,” Dubowitz said. He referred specifically to a tentative barter deal in which Russia would supply Iran with unspecified equipment and goods in exchange for 500,000 barrels of oil a day. (The swap was first reported by Reuters in January and subsequently denied by the Russian government.)

The veracity of this specific deal aside, experts I spoke to expressed doubts about Russia’s ability to seriously harm the sanctions through unilateral trade deals. “If the Russians decided to conclude some major new trade pacts with the Iranians,” said Maloney, “obviously it would hurt the optics of our attempts to continue to apply pressure to Iran, but it probably wouldn’t mean a lot in terms of either the Iranian or Russian economy.”

That’s because Russia’s trade with Iran is minuscule—Russia accounts for only 1.8 percent of Iran’s foreign trade volume (Iran, for its part, trades with Turkmenistan more than it trades with Russia). The potential Iranian oil-for-goods deal would increase Iranian oil exports by 50 percent, but only because those exports have been so markedly reduced by the EU-U.S. sanctions regime.

Of course, securing a final deal in the P5+1 talks was already a massive uphill battle even without any potential Russian sabotage. As Samore told Jeffrey Goldberg in February, the current talks have almost zero chance of achieving the level of nuclear dismantlement that Western powers are demanding; the powerful influence of hardliners in Iran means that President Hassan Rouhani “cannot make the kinds of concessions necessary” to achieve a successful final deal. If Putin’s goal is to see Obama’s Iranian dreams come to naught, he might do best to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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The New Republic: NATO Is In No Position to Protect Eastern Europe From Russia

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NATO Is In No Position to Protect Eastern Europe From Russia

March 11, 2014

Last week, Russia launched a surprise military exercise involving “deepwater bombing and mine planting” on the Baltic Sea coast of its Kaliningrad exclave, which is nestled in between Lithuania and Poland. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said the exercise shows that “Russia is trying to threaten all Europe and becoming unpredictable.” She’s not alone in worrying. All across the former Soviet borderlands, leaders are looking at Russia’s naked play for Crimea and finding uncomfortable similarities. Ethnic Russians amount to roughly a quarter of the population in both Latvia and Estonia, and a majority in major cities like Narva and Daugavpils. If Simferopol can come back into the Russian fold, the Baltic leaders wonder, why not Narva?

The answer always given, of course, is that Poland and the Baltic States are members of both the European Union and, more importantly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Any incursion into their territory would obligate a response from NATO’s 28 members, including the United States. “Thanks be to God, we are NATO members,” Grybauskaite told reporters.

It’s hard to know if NATO’s eastern flank should be thanking God or praying to Him. Russia’s return to military adventurism in Europe comes at perhaps the weakest point in NATO’s 65-year history. The coalition’s disturbing lack of cohesion and preparedness for even small engagements, along with shifting American priorities, cast serious doubt on the guarantee of protection that made Eastern Europe so eager for NATO’s embrace.

Of course, NATO’s leadership has duly made gestures of support for its Eastern European caucus in the aftermath of Crimea. After Poland and Lithuania invoked an emergency meeting under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty for only the fourth time since 1949, NATO cancelled a joint military mission with Russia and announced plans to increase military cooperation with Ukraine. The U.S. also sent six additional fighter jets to a routine air policing mission in the Baltic states. But these are symbolic moves, nothing more.

NATO relies heavily on the United States to project power and deter external threats. The U.S. provides 22 percent of NATO’s common-funded budget and is the organization’s largest member—its military spending represents nearly three quarters of all NATO members’ military spending combined. As a result, notes Stratfor Chairman George Friedman in his prescient book The Next 100 Years, NATO’s collective defense guarantee is “effective only if the United States is prepared to use force.”

Concerned Poles and Balts seeking hard evidence behind America’s rhetorical support for NATO are bound to be disappointed. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” is only the latest stage in a multi-decade drawdown of U.S. forces in Europe. Only 64,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed there, compared to 450,000 at the height of the Cold War. And U.S. military forces have never been deployed east of the Oder River, which forms the boundary between Germany and Poland. Even planned U.S. missile defense shields for Poland and the Czech Republic were cancelled as part of Obama’s attempted reset with Russia in 2009.

Russia’s intervention in Crimea also came just days after the Department of Defense proposed a 2015 budget that would reduce the U.S. army to its smallest size since before World War II. The budget is a recognition that the U.S. has been spending too much on its military for decades and will no longer be at war for the first time since 2001. It is also a much larger recognition that a debt-ridden, sequestered America cannot be expected to militarily enforce the interests of every ally in every corner of the globe.

Despite this, the rest of NATO continues to operate as if the full force of the U.S. military is behind it. In the interest of rectifying the massive imbalance within NATO, its members agreed in 2006 to each spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense (the U.S. typically spends around 4 percent). As of last year, only seven members met that mark. In fact, since 2010, most European countries’ defense expenditures have actually fallen between 8 percent and 30 percent.

That imbalance was apparent during the 2011 intervention in Libya. After the U.S. moved into a “supporting role,” the NATO countries maintaining the no-fly zone quickly began to run out of precision bombs, and the U.S. was forced to provide 80 percent of aerial refueling. In a preview of his post-retirement candor, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned at the time of “a dim, if not dismal future” of “collective military irrelevance” for NATO if trends continued.

Ultimately, of course, military spending trends will not tell us what happens if a NATO member is attacked. But Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires the response of every member if one member is attacked, is virtually untested. The only time it has ever been invoked, after the September 11th attacks, was at the behest of the United States. And as Syria has shown, the ghost of Iraq still stalks America’s foreign policy, poisoning the debate over any intervention no matter how righteous.

When it comes to Ukraine, “The United States is not about to risk a conventional war over Russia’s neighbors because our interests there are limited and the dispute might escalate to the nuclear level,” Joseph Parent, a University of Miami professor specializing in U.S. foreign policy, told me in an email. “Crimea isn’t worth Charleston.” Indeed, President Barack Obama, who came out in favor of Ukraine joining NATO while running for president, is probably thanking his lucky stars today that America’s only commitment to Ukraine is an unenforceable 20-year-old memorandum. And he has made clear that a military response is not on the table in Ukraine. How much does that calculation change if Estonia or Latvia is in the crosshairs?

The New Republic: The U.S. Was Ready to Impose Sanctions on Ukraine. Why Not Venezuela, Too?

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The U.S. Was Ready to Impose Sanctions on Ukraine. Why Not Venezuela, Too?

February 28, 2014

In the past month, two governments have embarked on remarkably similar crackdowns against entrenched protest movements. Last week, the world watched as Kiev’s Independence Square burned, while in Venezuela, motorcycle-mounted national guardsmen fired on student protesters. All told, at least 17 people in Venezuela and at least 77 in Ukraine died in the violence. But whereas President Barack Obama threatened, before the ouster of Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, “There will be consequences if people step over the line,” the U.S. government’s response to the Venezuelan crackdown has been notably anodyne. In a press briefing the day after some of the worst violence in Venezuela took place, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said little more than “we believe the most appropriate way to resolve differences is through consultations and dialogue…not the arrest of people who may be political foes.” (In the same briefing, Harf called the crackdown in Ukraine “completely outrageous.”)

It’s not that the U.S. government has any love for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime; Secretary of State John Kerry later clarified that the violence in the country was “unacceptable.” But the rhetoric has yet to be matched with any concrete action to influence the Maduro regime besides a tit-for-tat dismissal of three Venezuean diplomats after Maduro sent three U.S. diplomats home for alleged involvement in the protests. Compare that to Ukraine, where the U.S. and European Union were already preparing sanctions in January and, after violence erupted on February 18, 20 government officials were swiftly hit with travel bans.

Even more important were diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and EU to seek an end to the crisis. The State Department was in close contact with the opposition in Ukraine, and Kerry even met with protest leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko in January. The now notorious “Fuck the EU” call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt revealed, if nothing else, how deeply the United States was involved in trying to forge a deal on creating a new government in Ukraine.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has taken the State Department to task for this disparity. In a torrent of tweets and public appearances over the past two weeks, Rubio has railed against the violence perpetrated by the Venezuelan government, which he sees as a puppet of Cuban dictator Raul Castro. After Kerry expressed “increasing concern” over the situation in Venezuela, Rubio told CNN, “They shouldn’t be concerned about what is happening in Venezuela, they should be outraged about it. And it should be getting the same level of attention as what’s happening in Egypt, or what’s happening in Ukraine, or other parts of the world because this is actually closer to us.”

But the U.S. has severely limited options when it comes to leaning on the Venezuelan government. In a Senate resolution introduced yesterday, Rubio and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey called on President Barack Obama to immediately impose measures similar to those levied against Ukraine, freezing the assets and visas of government officials involved in the crackdown. This would help show that the U.S. takes violence against protesters seriously wherever it occurs, but it is unlikely to have a significant impact on the Maduro regime.

That’s because, whereas Ukrainian sanctions accompanied ongoing multilateral talks, the U.S. and Venezuela have had little to no diplomatic contact throughout the 2014 protests. The already strained U.S.-Venezuela relationship deteriorated even further after the U.S. questioned the legitimacy of Maduro’s election in 2013. There hasn’t even been a U.S. ambassador to Venezuela since 2010. And despite the Obama administration’s relative lack of action, Maduro has already accused it of “financing, promoting and defending members of the opposition.”

In his interview with CNN last week, Rubio suggested that a sanctions package could include a “moratorium on private investment.” But Harold Trinkunas, an expert on Latin America at the Brookings Institution, says economic sanctions would have limited practical effect. “Most U.S. businesses are already holding off on new investments in Venezuela because of the poor business climate and inability repatriate profits or purchase inputs needed to operate a business in Venezuela,” he explained. The core chavista policy of nationalization rose to perverse extremes last November when Maduro took over a chain of electronics stores because he believed it was overcharging customers.

Even an embargo on Venezuela’s all-important oil exports would likely have much less impact than hoped. While still the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, Venezuela’s share of the American market has fallen steadily since Hugo Chavez came to power, to a mere 8.3 percent in 2011. That amounts to 40 percent of the oil Venezuela exports worldwide, but in the event of an embargo, “China would be very happy to take more” at a discounted price, says Jacqueline Weaver, a professor specialising in energy policy at the University of Houston Law Center. It’s also unclear how an embargo would affect CITGO, the Houston-based supplier to 14,000 U.S. gas stations that is wholly owned by Venezuela’s national oil company.

More importantly, an embargo would probably have the opposite of the desired political effect in the eyes of the world, turning Venezuela into a cause célèbre and the United States into a imperialist bully. The U.S. embargo of Cuba is already loathed by nearly the entire world and all of Latin America. Installing a new embargo, this time against a government that, though throughly undemocratic in many ways, was installed by popular vote, could be devastating for our foreign policy image while doing little to influence the Maduro government.

The Venezuelan government sees America the way many western Ukrainians see Russia—as an erstwhile hegemon and untrustworthy actor with an ugly past of self-serving intervention. Most Latin American leaders have stood behind Maduro since the crackdown began, either out of agreement with Venezuela’s leftist anti-gringo stance or in hopes that the cheap Venezuelan crude won’t stop flowing their way. (The State Department’s statements on Venezuela look positively censorious next to Mexico’s curt two-line press release on the crackdown.) Serious sanctions will only play into this narrative, while achieving little in the way of concessions.

Ukraine is the exception. In the case of Venezuela, realpolitik trumps human rights once again.