Man Overboard in the Black Sea: Cobbling Together the Latest Coalition of the Willing in Ukraine
Teaching the next generation: Alternative lessons from America and Russia
At an event in New York on April 16th, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described for an audience how she tries to teach her five year-old son “the truth about her work”. As recounted by Jodi Cantor:
“One of [my son’s] very dear friends was trying to take the toys he was playing with and my son said — and I never guessed he would be capable of this — ‘You’re just like Putin!' ” she said, taking a whack at the Russian leader from an unexpected angle. The audience howled in appreciation.
In stark contrast, a six year-old Russian girl named Albina posed a question to the Russian President during an annual Direct Line interview with Vladimir Putin broadcast the next day on April 17th, “Do you think President Obama would save you if you were drowning?” He responded:
“I can’t say that I have a special personal relationship with the US President, but I think he is a decent man and brave enough. So, I think he definitely would.”
The Washington Post and other news agencies continued this discussion by speculating about what would happen if the tables were turned, before President Obama eventually confirmed his position in a press conference in Seoul the following week. But recent developments in Ukraine raise another related question: who threw the Obama Administration’s policy on Russia and the former Soviet Union into the sea to begin with, creating today’s problems?
Putting aside the implications of such respective statements on the apparent upbringing of Russian and American children, the recent comments of Vladimir Putin and Samantha Power offer valuable insights into the core underlying source of challenges now seen in Ukraine. Whether covert or in the open, the smack-down approach inherent in U.S. policies, philosophies and actions stands as an undeniable obstacle to future détente. Indeed the continuation of this approach ensures the downward spiral which has now been established for European security and economics.
Fulfilling U.S. foreign policy objectives: Myopic and counterproductive, but coordinated
In a Charlie Rose interview on April 18, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul outlined the principles agreed by the foreign ministers of the U.S., EU, Russia and Ukraine earlier that week in Geneva. As he noted, “Everybody needs to evacuate these buildings that they seized, put down their weapons,” in return for reforms by the Ukrainian government.
When Rose asked whether he thought the Russians were behind the takeover of the government buildings, McFaul responded, “Yes, I do. Whether they were Russian, carrying Russian passports or not, and how many were or not, that doesn’t really matter. It was obvious from the reporting that it was coordinated with Moscow and they were fulfilling a political, foreign policy objective that Vladimir Putin wanted them to do.”
Applying identical logic to an assessment of U.S. tactics during the revolution at the strategic national level in Ukraine speaks to the origins of the current conflict. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has correctly alluded to, Washington’s coordinated approach was clearly documented in the conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. Other U.S. leaders applied similar tactics at the Kiev street protests, when the prospects for meaningful comprehensive support were limited.
In a recent report on Iraq in the New Yorker magazine, Dexter Filkins recounted how the U.S. government helped to similarly hand-select that country’s Prime Minister in 2006 based on interviews with then American Ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad:In parliamentary elections the previous December, a coalition of Shiite parties had won the most votes. But their nominee for Prime Minister, the incumbent, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was struggling to form a government. An avuncular, bookish figure, Jaafari had infuriated Bush with his indecisiveness, amiably presiding over the sectarian bloodbath that had followed the recent bombing of a major Shiite shrine. Bush asked Khalilzad, “Can you get rid of Jaafari?” “Yes,” Khalilzad replied, “but it will be difficult.” For several days, Khalilzad told me, he worked to block Jaafari from securing a parliamentary majority, and finally he succeeded. But, as a condition for withdrawing quietly, Jaafari insisted that Iraq’s next Prime Minister come from his party, the Islamist group known as Dawa, which for five decades had fought tenaciously for Shiite interests. Ali al-Adeeb, a well-liked party official, seemed to be a logical candidate. But Khalilzad was troubled by Adeeb; his father was Iranian, and many Iraqis were already convinced that Iran secretly controlled their country. “He’s of Persian blood,” Khalilzad said. “This is what they believe.” Frustrated, Khalilzad turned to the C.I.A. analyst assigned to his office, a fluent Arabic speaker whose job was to know Iraq’s leaders. “Can it be that, in this country of thirty million people, the choice of Prime Minister is either Jaafari, who is incompetent, or Ali Adeeb, who is Iranian? Isn’t there anyone else?” “I have a name for you,” the C.I.A. officer said. “Maliki.”
Just as that prior U.S. Administration in which Victoria Nuland served as a staffer under Dick Cheney helped skew Iraqi democracy to its liking through the choice of the country’s Prime Minister, she eventually graduated to a central role in this latest revolution and subsequent leadership selection in Ukraine. While U.S. officials have protested the Russian government’s influence in current events, Moscow’s impact remains minor when compared to Washington’s fundamentally important encouragement at the national level which started the crisis in the first place.
Personal vendettas against those with the greatest accomplishments
On April 28th, the U.S. government added Rosneft Chairman Igor Sechin to its latest sanctions target list. Through the partnerships he has personally built with ExxonMobil, the largest energy company in North America, Sechin has done more to advance U.S.-Russian relations than any individual in or out of government from either side of the Atlantic over the past decade. President Putin recognized ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson by awarding Sechin’s leading partner from the U.S. the Order of Friendship last summer in St. Petersburg.
While Michael McFaul had previously done extensive research on Russia's unfinished revolution as an academic at Stanford, he eventually put theory into practice by playing a pivotal role in the Obama Administration’s efforts to advance several revolutionary endeavors in the country. One case in point was the financial support of civil society endeavors through the U.S. Agency for International Development, before these schemes were uncovered and the organization was forced to leave Russia in 2012. To understand the logic of Moscow’s move, it helps to consider the criteria that McFaul explained to Charlie Rose in his recent interview by paraphrasing the same ideas: Whether these civil society tactics were carried out by Americans, carrying U.S. passports or not, or how many were or not, that doesn’t really matter. It was obvious that efforts to incite unrest and instability in Russia were coordinated with Washington.
Perhaps learning from the experience of the U.S. establishing a coalition of the willing in Iraq, the EU has avoided similar levels of draconian and senseless measures thus far. London-based BP, one of the UK’s largest companies, may nonetheless be hampered by sanctions given the fact that their CEO Bob Dudley is an American citizen and thus restricted in his dealings with the CEO of their strategic partner Rosneft.
Just as Samantha Power’s speech on smacking Putin down was followed the next day by Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic tone in referring to President Obama’s decency and integrity, Igor Sechin took a similar approach the day after getting slapped with sanctions. “I qualify the latest moves by Washington as the highest marks to the efficiency of our activity… We assure our shareholders and partners, including American ones, that this efficiency will not decrease and our co-operation will not only stay undamaged, but will develop dynamically.” The EU would benefit from maintaining a similar lean towards a more cooperative approach rather than jumping overboard with its Transatlantic partners in the form of this latest coalition of the willing.
Carter W. Page is Founder and Managing Partner of Global Energy Capital LLC, an Adjunct Associate Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Energy Fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington.