In 2013, President Barack Obama set about channeling all his foreign policy resources into a mighty effort to start up diplomatic and strategic processes. This would give him a quiet life in his second term.
Intractable issues, like Iran’s nuclear bomb, North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue could be pushed to and fro across negotiating tables and end up in the in-tray of his successor in the White House in 2017.
Obama and his strategic advisers must have realized that the world might not play along with these tactics and was capable of popping up with unwanted surprises.
As a cushion against such intrusions, Obama began the first year of his second term by molding his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin into a strategic and diplomatic partnership of unprecedented cordiality and cooperation.
The two leaders worked together on the Iranian nuclear threat, the Syrian conflict, the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons and a secret deal for Afghanistan. In September 2013, Putin took a hand personally in saving Washington from military intervention in Syria.
Obama repaid him by turning a blind eye to Russia's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. When it went too far, Washington did not confront Moscow, but the Saudi architect of relations with Russia, Intelligence Director Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
The idyllic Obama-Putin partnership shattered
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavov meanwhile practiced their unbeatable duo act on the international stage, with “John” and “Sergey” vying to lavish praise and smiles on one another.
This song-and-dance hit was rudely cut short in the last week of February, when Russian special forces invaded the Crimean Peninsula after Moscow’s Ukraine ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, absconded from Kiev and an anti-Russian clique moved in.
This galloping crisis quickly brought home to Washington the realization that the edifice the administration had built for Obama’s legacy around his successful termination of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, keeping the US out of any new conflicts, and the elimination of the arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden had been swept away.
The Obama legacy was more likely now to be burdened by the revival of the Cold War with Russia and the uncertain fate of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, half Eastern European and half Western European, which has no special strategic or economic importance aside from its borders with Russia and the Black Sea.
Ironically, an American president, who adhered proudly to the philosophy that all diplomatic and political disputes were susceptible to resolution by international diplomacy and dialogue, may end his term three years hence leaving America in the grip of a military, political and economic confrontation with Moscow.
The countless words poured out this week, instead of allaying discord, served only to widen the gap between the two powers.
So how did this happen?
Obama and Putin in personal duel over Ukraine
A conspicuous feature of the Ukraine crisis is that it offers the US and Russian presidents not an inch of common ground. Worse – out of all the options available, none holds out an anchor for future compromise.
Both Obama and Putin are deeply dug in on matters of principle, respect and their legacies.
Ukraine has become battleground for a personal duel between these two powerful figures, the sort of contest which is the hardest to resolve. More often than not, these knock-down, one-on-one contests go hand in hand with deep national or religious causes, which may take years to sort out.
Putin’s immovability in the 2014 US-Russian conflict over Ukraine has its roots in the West’s Libyan campaign in 2011 and its dark residue of distrust and resentment.
The Russian leader has never believed that the military venture in Libya to overthrow the autocratic Muammar Qaddafi was the outcome of the 'Arab Spring,' which sent ordinary Libyans out on the streets to clamor for freedom and democracy. He is convinced to this day that the US, Britain and France cheated by hatching a secret conspiracy – each for its own reasons – to remove Qaddafi and lay hands on Libyan oil to bail themselves out of the recession overtaking their economies.
In fact, he reckons that Obama and his advisers deceived him personally three times over the Libyan episode:
Once, by a promise that neither the US nor NATO would directly engineer Qaddafi’s removal; second, by undertaking to broker peace talks between the Libyan rebels and opposition and Qaddafi’s bloc; and a third time, when Putin was certain that he had received US guarantees not to cause the Libyan ruler personal harm.
Putin won’t tolerate NATO on Russia’s back door
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Libyan case, its fallout on the Ukraine crisis is palpable, because DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow sources report, it caused Putin to take an oath to himself and his political, military and intelligence advisers, never again to stand aside for the US and Europe to treat another ruler in which Moscow had an interest, as they did Qaddafi.
This oath accounts for his care for Bashar Assad’s survival in the Syrian war. He will not let him fall, even if the Russian military has to intervene to save him.
In the power games he plays with the world, the Russian ruler is certainly not guided by moral considerations, but rather by fairly ruthless self-interest. Yet his determination to never again let the West remove leaders in office with an affinity to Moscow is unshakeable.
This determination was triggered by the intelligence reports put on his desk in the Kremlin during February, which informed him that, after three months of turbulent unresolved protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square, European undercover agencies were preparing to move in and instigate a coup.
When Putin learned that the protesters had been gingered up by armed extremists from outside Kiev and were about to oust Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich, he decided to step in.
US contempt for Russia’s strategic interests in its next-door neighbor, as manifested in Kerry’s charge that Putin invaded Crimea on “completely phony pretexts,” has made him dig in his heels still further.
So has NATO’s pledge Thursday to stand by Ukraine and its interim government, at the expense of its military ties with Russia. Moscow sees the next step as being the deployment of the US missile shield at Russia’s front door.
Obama won’t stand for Crimea’s annexation to Russia
In Washington, Obama is jus as fiercely dug in against Russia’s military takeover of Crimea, Ukraine’s most valuable strategic asset. For him, this violates every norm of international relations and is akin to the
brutal Soviet invasion of former Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Thursday, the pro-Russian parliament in Simferopol voted to hold a referendum on March 16 on Crimea’s annexation to Russia, while in Moscow lawmakers started drafting legislation to enable this step.
President Obama reacted within a few short hours by signing an executive order imposing visa and property sanctions against “individuals and entities responsible for undermining the democracy and the territorial integrity of Ukraine” – with major application to pro-Russian Ukrainian and Crimean citizens.
In Rome, European foreign ministers were unable to agree on sanctions to end Russia’s takeover of Crimea, because their own economies are too dependent on trade relations with Moscow to risk a cutoff.
At stake in the Ukrainian crisis therefore is not just Putin’s stubbornness or Russian neo-imperialism. There are grave economic matters at issue too.
Some American and other Western intelligence experts reckon that the Kremlin believes it will profit from the crisis to the tune of billions of dollars of revenue – to the detriment of the US and West European economies.
They believe that the ruble’s plunge and sell-off of Russian bonds in the first week of the Ukraine crisis were engineered by the Kremlin.
By the end of this week, no one had come forward with any proposal for narrowing the chasm dividing Obama and Putin or putting the brakes on the slide into further escalation.