Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s April 8, 2014 blog post.

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This old cliché is still apropos in President Barrack Obama’s saber-rattling standoff with President Vladimir Putin. In Europe last week Mr. Obama said that Russia was a declining “regional power”. In seizing Crimea, Mr. Putin was expanding Russia’s influence over Ukraine–part of the lost former Soviet Empire–was the inference. I am sure Mr. Putin is still fuming over those remarks. For the U.S. the annexation of Crimea is not a national security threat as was the Cold War era.

Containing Russia’s further incursion into Ukraine is important however the most pressing foreign security issues are the control of Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical stockpile. Mr. Putin is the key to both issues.

Mr. Obama needs to spend time with Mr. Putin, to better understand his goals–at least his thinking. The Crimea takeover could have been averted. Reversing its integration into the Russian Empire probably will not happen. Western allies wringing their hands and seeking punishing sanctions will not change the takeover. What we don’t want to do is push Mr. Putin into annexing Ukraine. This would begin a more regional conflict and draw in neighboring countries.

As Rodney Dangerfield often said, I don’t get no respect”.  Mr. Putin may feel the same way. The annexation of Crimea is more of a European issue. Germany needs to take the lead. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who speaks Russian, needs to spend time with Mr. Putin who also speaks German. The two world leaders need to work together on global security concerns that could reach European soil.

The Islamist extremist attacks taking place in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria could easily spill over into Europe. The Crimean Tatars, Chechen and North Caucasian Islamists affiliated with Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar that are fighting in Syria will eventually return home. These extremists have extensive combat experience and could undertake attacks in Russia, and move westward into the heart of Europe.

Mr. Obama would be well served not to draw a Red Line regarding the Ukraine.  In Syria Mr. Obama had warned Bashar al-Assad if he used chemical weapons he would cross a Red Line, and be punished.  His chemical attack on Syrian citizens was an unconscionable act. The Red Line was crossed and the U.S. stood still, which damaged our credibility, and severely affected relations with our allies. The U.S. inaction possibly emboldened Mr. Putin in his quest to annex Crimea.

NATO has planned to move troops into Eastern Europe which could risk a cross border clash with Russian troops, leading to a more regional conflict. There is no need at this point to force Russia’s hand. With their 50,000 troops amassed on the Ukraine border, sending 50,000 or more NATO troops to the neighboring countries will only exacerbate the situation and possibly push us into a war with Russia.

Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Soviet Union’s former leader Nikita Khrushchev, blames the West for triggering the Ukrainian crisis by supporting the Maidan Square revolution in Kiev, the Ukraine capital. Mr. Putin has stated that he does not intend to invade Eastern Ukraine “unless the country descends into all out civil war”.

Khrushchev noted “It was not Putin who invaded Crimea and at the barrel of the gun just annexed it. It was the will of the people”. He further proffered, “Don’t try to provoke Ukrainians to fight with each other. If there will be no civil war Putin will not invade Ukraine”.

The European Community must take the lead in finding a diplomatic resolution to the Russian standoff. Hopefully Mr. Putin can be discouraged from expanding the Russian Empire further. They all live in the same neighborhood, drink from the same trough, need each other for economic survival, and security from terrorist attacks. Chancellor Merkel, representing Europe’s strongest power, needs to have a tête-àtête with Mr. Putin—keeping in mind the old cliché.

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