Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama have reason to be disappointed after their telephone conversation on June 25.
It was the first direct communication between these leaders since February, and both the Kremlin and the White House reported that the conversation ranged over the Ukraine crisis, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq and the NATO buildup in Eastern Europe, as well as the impending conclusion of the talks with Iran over suspect nuclear weapons.
Putin initiated the exchange, but Obama did all of the asserting and exhorting that, in the end, came to a standoff in all the threatened regions. Chiefly, Obama is said to have insisted upon actions by Putin without offering anything in exchange. Obama’s conduct, according to Kremlin informants, was a premeditated performance of ultimatum.
Demands and provocations
First, Obama pressed Putin with the claim that Russia must withdraw from Ukraine, including the Crimean peninsula.
The White House reported Obama’s remarks in terms of last February’s Minsk agreement between the so-called Normandy Four, Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia: “President Obama reiterated the need for Russia to fulfill its commitments under the Minsk agreements, including the removal of all Russian troops and equipment from Ukrainian territory.”
At no point before or after that agreement has the Kremlin acknowledged there are Russian troops or weapon systems inside Ukraine in support of the Donbass separatists. There is no language in the agreement saying that there exist Russian armed forces in Ukraine to be withdrawn. There is mention of “foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries.” Since then, the U.S. has deployed both military units and military equipment into Ukraine in support of the Kiev government. Kiev claims it has deployed 60,000 troops along the Donbass cease-fire line. The U.S., Great Britain and Canada speak of sending trainers for the elite national guard units (though not the neo-fascist Azov Battalion).
Obama’s remarks to Putin about Ukraine took the form of a diktat. From the Russian point of view, Obama sounded peculiarly unrealistic. There was the suggestion of desperation in Obama’s demands in order to create a foreign policy legacy despite the disorder in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.
Obama also demanded that Russia support the pending deal between the P5+1 powers — the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — and Iran over Tehran’s suspected secret nuclear weapons program. Russia, a party to the negotiations, has not voiced its opinion of a deal yet to be concluded. Obama told Putin that Russia must go along with the deal because this is what the international community demands.
The two presidents ended their call where they had started, with adamant positions that speak to distrust and disdain.
The Kremlin is as fretful about the Iranian nuclear program as any other power. Russia’s heartland is well within Iran’s ballistic missile range, but it is also within China’s, India’s and Pakistan’s. The Kremlin worries less about whether or not Iran has nukes than about who in Tehran has the finger on the button. Russia has long voiced its hope that Iran will turn back to its Persian heritage as a peaceful neighbor, and away from the apocalyptic Mahdists such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps leadership.
Obama also demanded that Russia quit its support for the besieged Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus. Obama wants Assad out of the way so that the so-called rebels, who include the Al Qaeda-backed Al Nusra Front, can concentrate on fighting the anarchistic Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Russia has shown much doubt about Assad’s survival recently, but as of now Russia continues to provide technical and material support for Damascus and for Assad’s only sponsor, Tehran.
Obama also warned Putin of harsh consequences if Russia reacts belligerently to the deployment of U.S. weaponry to the nations bordering the Russian frontier, from the Baltic states to Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Last week, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced in Tallinn, Estonia, that the US would deploy tanks, artillery, and equipment suited for a combat brigade of 3,000-5,000 troops.
“These are responses to Russia’s provocations,” Carter said.
In sharp contrast, Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, indicated just days before Carter’s announcement that Russia regards NATO as a provocateur.
“And we hear now that heavy weaponry has to be deployed, “Ivanov told the Financial Times, “which is forbidden under the NATO-Russian Founding Act of 1997, not to mention the promise which was given to us much earlier that NATO would not expand to the east at all. They are expanding very much!”
The two presidents ended their call where they had started, with adamant positions that speak to distrust and disdain. Obama will not trade Crimea for Donbass. Putin will not trade Assad for al-Nusra or ISIL. Neither side wants the supremacists of Iran to possess nuclear weapons atop ballistic missiles, but then neither will offer to work together to contain the Mahdist threat.
Most darkly, Washington and Moscow have moved swiftly into the familiar rhetoric and escalation games of the original Cold War. Moscow sorties nuclear-capable strategic bombers over European waters. The US sends cruise-missile-bearing warships into the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. It is freshly commonplace for both sides to strategize about nightmare scenarios: to ponder Russia launching a tactical nuclear weapon to counter an overwhelming NATO conventional attack, and for U.S. think tanks to debate a Non-Strategic Nuclear Force in the U.S. arsenal.
It could be 1979 except for the considerable advantage that Russia enjoys with its new alliance with China, which itself is nurturing expansionist aims across the South China Sean and the India Ocean. Meanwhile, the European Union is in a crisis of unknown proportions with the looming Greek default, and the EU does not seem capable of handling the Ukrainian civil war at the same time the euro is plunging toward parity with the U.S. dollar.
Putin called Obama with the confidence to hear out the American president’s pressing demands. Afterward, the Kremlin opinion was that the call might have been a bad decision. Still, Putin knows that time is in Moscow’s favor. Obama will be out of the way in eighteen months. Putin isn’t going anywhere.