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West Beats Retreat in Ukraine

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The author was India's former Ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.  Retired from the Foreign Service, he is a prominent columnist in major Indian publications.  This article originally appeared in Indian Punchline

Considering the huge lift the White House gave last week to the visit by the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — the ‘rare honour’ of addressing a joint session of the US Congress etc — one might think the Obama administration was getting into a mood of heightened belligerence towards Russia.  

But a close reading of President Obama’s remarks after the bilateral meeting with Poroshenko tells a different story.

Obama is a smart politician who can make a retreat appear a victory. He’s done it in Afghanistan. Is he doing it in Ukraine? Consider the following: Obama who poured scorn on the Minsk dialogue has now become its fan. 

 He says Ukraine should have “good relations with all its neighbours, both east and west.” He recommends Ukraine should continue its strong economic links and people-to-people relations with Russia.

This is vintage Obama. 

 Are we seeing signs of Obama all but counselling Poroshenko to sort out issues directly with Moscow? It seems so. On returning to Kiev, Poroshenko disclosed the US will only supply “non-lethal” military items to Ukraine, which of course falls far short of Poroshenko’s wish list. 

 As for economic assistance, the White House agreed to give Ukraine the princely sum of $50 million to help Poroshenko see through 2015. It’s rather tragi-comic when the IMF says Ukraine needs around $19 billion, if the civil war continues, to survive through next year.  It’s a macabre joke: handing out a measly $50 million after egging on Ukraine to go to war with Russia. Where is the remaining $18,450 million coming from? 

Europe? Not Poland or the Baltic States. It has to come from ‘Old Europe’. In essence Germany has to loosen the purse strings. Chancellor Angela Merkel must be hopping mad.

Meanwhile the IMF has revised its own estimate of six months ago.  It now says a staggering bailout of $55 billion is needed as external financing for Ukraine. Experts forecast this figure could turn out to be closer to $100 billion.

Ukraine’s economic contraction this year could be in double digits.

All this may go a long way to explain certain intriguing developments: a) European Union’s summary decision to consign its hurriedly-signed Association Agreement with Ukraine in the freezer at least until end-2015; b) the robust EU backing for the Minsk accord between Kiev and the separatists in southeastern Ukraine; c) the top secret meeting between the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Russia on the sidelines of the recent international conference in Paris regarding the Islamic State; d) NATO’s belated acknowledgment that Russia has pulled troops back from Ukraine border; and, e) the meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia and the US in New York. 

Vladimir Putin may be pulling off a major diplomatic coup in getting the West to recognize Moscow has legitimate interests in Ukraine. The West has no option but to accept that Ukraine’s economy is connected to Moscow with an umbilical cord.  Without whole-hearted Russian cooperation, it cannot be salvaged. 

Washington too should realize engaging Moscow is necessary for effectively mobilizing an international campaign against the Islamic State. It could be a sign of the way the wind is turning that the former British defence secretary and Conservative MP, Liam Fox explicitly cautioned Europe and the US against making threats against Russia over Ukraine. 

Fox said, “I think it’s very important not to pretend that you [West] can or will do things that you clearly won’t. Making false threats, I think, is a big problem. We have to look at different ways of dealing with the Ukrainian situation.

Don’t be surprised, therefore, if one of these days Putin comes once again to Obama’s aid in Syria. Russia can help Obama legitimize the international campaign against the Islamic State by getting a UN Security Council mandate for it.  Russia can help the US deal with Syria’s President Assad. Make no mistake, Russia’s stance (herehere and here) on the Islamic State threat is unequivocal and broadly supportive of the US-led international campaign. 

Russia’s only caveat is that US operations in Syria should be agreed with the Syrian government and/or should have a UN mandate.  What stops Obama from seeking a UN mandate?  The fear Moscow may not cooperate. 

The ice may be broken regarding Syria at the meeting between Lavrov and Kerry in New York. The New Cold war, which started with a bang, might be ending with a whimper. 


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