Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘NATO’

Russia: Anything You Can Do ….

Watching Russia’s military intervention in Syria unfold has taken me back to my secondary school days when we put on the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

You may remember it from its best-known song “Anything you can do” and with the Russians carrying our air strikes in support of Syrian ground forces and using cruise missiles launched from ships in the far-off Caspian Sea, Moscow seems to be sending that same message to Washington

Where the US used its air power to help the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbian forces in 1999 and give the Northern Alliance the edge against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and where the US Navy used cruise missiles against Iraq, Serbia and Libya, the Russians seem to be using their Syria campaign to put down a marker and demonstrate the US and its NATO allies aren’t the only ones who have such capabilities.

And it is not just in military prowess that President Putin is showing he can do at least some of the things the US and NATO have pretty much had a monopoly on up to now.

More significantly, Moscow is showing that when the US decided to disregard the niceties of international law and the rules-based international system it did so much to establish after 1945, it set a dangerous precedent others would follow.

There has been quite a bit of commentary in western outlets about how Russia’s actions expose the relative decline of US power and also President Obama’s unwillingness to exercise the considerable power the US undoubtedly still possesses.

Russia’s Syria intervention is being seen as evidence that Putin is taking advantage of the unwillingness and inability of the US to lead and we are now living in a G-Zero world where power is exercised – by those who have it – in the pursuit of national interests rather than the common good.

But this analysis is missing some key points.

While it’s true US power is in relative decline and Obama has been reticent in using the conventional military on a large-scale – though not drones and special forces – the US itself is partly responsible for undermining the international order it criticises Russia for flouting.

From the 1989 invasion of Panama, through its disregard for the UN in the 1999 assault on Serbia, to Iraq in 2003, the Americans showed that when rules got in the way of what they wanted to do, they would be bent or just ignored – hence, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s self-serving formulation of the Kosovo intervention as “not legal but … right”.

The US response to Russian criticism over its manipulation of international law has been to argue each case is unique or “sui generis” and to insist it hasn’t set a precedent.

Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t get to decide what sets a precedent and what doesn’t. And since 2007, Putin seems to have decided that while continuing to publicly argue for the primacy of international law, Russia would use American conduct to justify its own actions.

When it went to war with Georgia in 2008 over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and subsequently recognised their independence from Tbilisi, Russia justified its action as humanitarian intervention and cited what the US and NATO had done in Kosovo.

Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea also cited previous western actions.

In entering the Syrian conflict, Putin’s case is more clear cut under international law given he was invited in by President Assad, who heads what is still recognised by the UN as the government of Syria, though we are yet to see if the conduct of the Russian campaign conforms to the laws of war.

If the world is to bolster the international system and establish a semblance of stability, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where let’s not forget a Saudi-led Gulf alliance has also taken a leaf out of the US book by intervening in Yemen’s civil war (and I’m surprised Moscow hasn’t cited this yet as another precedent for its actions in Syria), then a starting point would be to return to diplomacy over Syria.

An international system based on rules, rather then “might is right”, requires that all the international players, especially the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, swallow their pride and sit down together to thrash out a political solution that isolates the extremists of Islamic State and al-Nusra and ends Syria’s war and the suffering of its people.

With Russia escalating its attacks, NATO making angry noises at Moscow and Saudi Arabia talking about increasing support for the rebels, as things stand it doesn’t look like they’re willing to do this, so we continue on down the rocky road to a G-Zero world.

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Corbyn’s foreign policy: the radical change?

Forget the media labels “far-left” or “hard-left”, in terms of economic policy is the new Labour leader any more to the left than say George Osborne or Boris Johnson are to the right?

Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity ideas are in many ways quite conventional Keynesian economics not that far removed from those advocated by the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman.

Where Corbyn holds views that are a more obvious break with both past British governments and his own Labour Party is in foreign policy. In this sense it’s not surprising it was disagreements in this area that led several former shadow ministers to refuse to serve under him.

Barring the three years when Michael Foot led the party in the early 1980s, since 1945 Labour has been led by Atlanticists who see close relations with the US, the possession of nuclear weapons and membership of NATO and the EU as central to Britain’s place in the world.

Corbyn has been compared with Foot, but it’s hard to imagine him making the speech Foot did supporting British military action over the Falklands in 1982. His role in the Stop The War coalition opposing military interventions abroad and his advocacy of withdrawal from NATO makes comparisons with George Lansbury, the pacifist who led the party between 1932 and 1935, more apposite.

And even if he never makes it into government, as Leader of the Opposition his approach to foreign policy matters.

Through parliamentary debates and votes he can have a direct influence on policy as his predecessor Ed Miliband showed when he opted to vote against military action in Syria in 2013.

Also, as the main spokesperson for the UK’s main opposition party his positions on the international issues of the day will influence perceptions of Britain in the world.

The three areas where Corbyn is likely to have influence in the next few years are the main ones in Prime Minister Cameron’s in-tray: the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership and subsequent referendum; the decision whether or not to replace Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons; and if British forces should join the US-led military action against Islamic State in Syria.

During his leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn told journalists he had voted to leave what was then the EEC in the 1975 referendum and he sent out mixed signals about his approach to the next vote, which could be held as early as next year.

But since his victory Corbyn’s position has come under intense scrutiny and he has committed to campaign for Britain to remain a member.

As he laid out in a Financial Times Op Ed, his misgivings about today’s EU are based on its approach to economic policy which he identifies, quite correctly, as dominated by neo-liberal ideas. He wants to see greater protection for social and employment rights and will push Cameron to include these in his renegotiation.

This is counter to the agenda the Prime Minister is currently pursuing. So if Cameron gets most of what he wants in his renegotiation and recommends a ‘’Yes” vote, it could put Labour in a tricky position.

Corbyn’s FT article gives a clue to his likely approach to the vote. He implies Labour would also campaign for a “Yes” while at the same time promising to renegotiate a better deal when they return to power.

If that is the position he takes, it risks not only being a confusing message, but is also likely to be regarded as unrealistic given Britain’s EU partners, having just finished a painful renegotiation with Cameron, will be highly unlikely to agree to an incoming Labour government’s request for yet more special treatment for the UK.

On Syria, Cameron has already announced a drone was used to kill two British citizens fighting with IS who, he said, were a direct threat to the UK, but full-scale air strikes would have to get parliamentary approval.

Here Corbyn will have some sway.

If the government opts to take action, the Labour leader has made clear he will oppose it. The SNP would also vote against. So the result would hinge on how many Labour MPs broke ranks with their leader to back Cameron and how many Tories rebel against the government – in 2013, remember, thirty of his own MPs defied the Prime Minister on Syria. The final tally could depend on how well Corbyn argues the case against action to the House of Commons.

Then there’s the final decision on the replacement of Trident, expected to be made next year.

When Britain opted to replace Polaris with Trident in 1980, Cold War tensions were high following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and public opinion was not persuaded by opponents like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other activists.

This time public opinion seems more divided and polls where the people are told how much it would cost have shown majorities against replacement.

Cameron almost certainly has the votes in parliament, including some on the Labour side who would defy Corbyn if he whips the vote. But the platform the Labour leader now has to oppose the decision could help increase public opposition by galvanising a wider debate on the utility and affordability of nuclear weapons as well as the benefit Britain gets out of having them and could potentially reap from giving them up.

One other area where Corbyn has strong views is over Israel-Palestine, where he is a long-time critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Two years ago, Labour MPs led a symbolic vote in parliament to recognise Palestinian independence and the new leader can be expected to call for Britain to follow fellow EU member Sweden in officially recognising Palestine.

As things stand, it’s unlikely Cameron will take such action given his record of support for Israel, but another Israeli assault on Gaza or widespread unrest in the West Bank leading to violent Israeli repression could change that calculus.

All told, if the new Labour leader can broaden the appeal of his views on Britain’s role in the world among his parliamentary colleagues and the public, he could have an unexpected influence on UK foreign policy.

Ukraine – the crisis that hasn’t gone away

In case you had forgotten about it, the Ukraine conflict and the rift between Russia and the West are set to return to the headlines in the coming weeks.

A recent upsurge in fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces with their associated nationalist militia along with the looming deadline for renewal of EU sanctions on Russia guarantee the conflict will be taking column inches from the on-going battles in different parts of the Middle East and the tensions in the South China Sea.

Overall, the conflict has been in stalemate for the past few months.

But February’s Minsk 2 agreement between Kiev, Moscow, Berlin and Paris which called for a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, prisoner releases and constitutional reform in Ukraine is now under increasing strain after rebels tried to push into territory west of their Donetsk stronghold.

The insurgents continue to receive support from Russia – both supplies and manpower. The status of the fighters may be disputed, with Moscow calling them volunteers and Kiev claiming Russian regulars are also involved, but there is no doubt Russia shows no sign of withdrawing its backing.

For its part, Kiev continues to get western backing – with American and British forces training Ukrainian troops and the EU and US maintaining their sanctions on Russia.

The sanctions have increased the pressure on the Russian economy, which has been hard hit by the fall in oil prices, but they have not had any appreciable impact on Moscow’s approach to the conflict.

Russia has returned the favour with bans on food imports from the EU and increased air and naval probing along some NATO states’ borders.

At this week’s G7 summit in Germany, there was agreement to maintain sanctions on Russia until Moscow ends its backing for the rebels, which makes it almost inevitable the EU will renew its sanctions before they expire at the end of next month despite some members showing interest in getting back to business as usual with Russia.

In Washington, there is growing pressure for the US to tighten its sanctions and start supplying weapons to Kiev – something the Europeans have opposed in the past as they believe the only difference it would make would be a worsening of the fighting.

In the event that the US does take this course, expect to hear more accusations from American officials that Moscow has returned to its old expansionist ways and breached the post 1945 consensus that European borders should not be changed by force.

But, as I wrote in March last year, the fact that NATO military action Serbia in 1999 led nine years later to major western powers engineering and recognising the secession of Kosovo had already effectively breached the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

As for Moscow, its loud condemnation of the western support for Kosovo secession looks less principled following its stance on Ukraine and support for Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So once you strip away the hypocritical political and moralistic rhetoric, you are left with an old-fashioned power play where the West – without really knowing President Putin’s true objective – seeks to deny Russia a strategic victory in Ukraine and – in the absence of the rebels being able to carve out an economically or strategically viable territory – Moscow seems happy to keep its neighbour destabilised to prevent it restoring its economy to a semblance of health or eventually joining the EU and NATO.

All in all it is a nasty deadlock that is set to continue for the foreseeable future with the people of south-eastern Ukraine continuing to pay the price.

 

 

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