U.S. nuclear weapons could soon return to Europe

Der Spiegel reports: It’s been more than three decades since the vast peace protests took over Bonn’s Hofgarten meadow in the early 1980s. Back then, about half a million protesters pushed their way into the city center, a kilometer-long mass of people moving through the streets. It was the biggest rally in the history of the German Federal Republic.

Today, the situation isn’t quite that fraught, but it seems feasible that a similar scene may soon play out in front of the Chancellery in Berlin. For some time now, the Americans have once again been thinking about upgrading Europe’s nuclear arsenal, and in the past week, a rhetorical arms race has begun that is reminiscent of the coldest periods of the Cold War.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned of an “accelerating spiral of escalating words and then of actions.” He described them as “the old reflexes of the Cold War.” [Continue reading…]

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Russia urges U.S. not to deploy weapons to border areas

The New York Times reports: Moscow issued muted warnings on Monday in response to the Pentagon’s possible stationing of battle tanks and other heavy weapons to speed the deployment of American troops if needed in NATO states bordering Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying it hoped that Washington would ultimately decide not to deploy the weaponry, while other senior officials and analysts suggested that the deployment would provoke the placement of a more potent Russian arsenal near the frontier or even herald the start of a competitive arms buildup.

“We hope that reason will prevail and the situation in Europe will be prevented from sliding into a new military confrontation which may have dangerous consequences,” the Foreign Ministry said in the statement. [Continue reading…]

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Why does the U.S. have 800 military bases around the world?

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Vladimir Putin is fighting for political survival — by provoking unrest in Ukraine

John Simpson writes: Mikhail Vanin, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, looks like a shrewd little man, with fuzzy hair and sharp, Putin-like eyes behind rimless glasses. And he has quite a way with words. Speaking to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 21 March, he said: “I don’t think that Danes fully understand the consequences if Denmark joins the American-led missile defence shield . . . If they do, then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles . . .

“It is, of course, your own decision. I just want to remind you that your finances and security will suffer.” I don’t suppose that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of us imagined that we would hear threats of this crudity being uttered in Europe again.

It is a little over a year since the west’s relationship with Russia seemed, if inevitably spiky, at least rational and manageable. Now here is a Russian diplomat publicly warning a small member of Nato and the EU of the possibility of nuclear war. How could things have got this bad in such a short space of time? How could the post-cold war consensus have vanished so utterly?

After Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Moscow Ukrainian government collapsed following the often violent protests of February 2014, Russia started to infiltrate Crimea with its forces as part of a plan that was worked out, we are now told, by Putin himself. They cut off Crimea from mainland Ukraine, annexed it and received the post-dated agreement of a large majority of its inhabitants. After that, the same combination of nasty civilian thugs (one whom I came up against in Crimea had “Rossiya” tattooed across his forehead) and serving soldiers in unmarked uniforms headed to eastern Ukraine. They are still fighting there.

The methodology goes back to the heart of the postwar Soviet era, with a few 21st-century touches. If Moscow’s grip on a country that mattered seemed about to loosen, excuses were found and fraternal forces were assembled to make sure that it didn’t happen – the hard way. Remember Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979 and now Ukraine in 2014. Keeping hold of what they have has always mattered to Russia’s rulers. If they let one part go, the whole structure might start to fall down. Above all, it suggests weakness and there will always be those inside or outside the system who might take advantage of it and bring the rulers down. As we shall see, some Putin-watchers think that this pattern is being repeated. [Continue reading…]

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Denmark threatened with nuclear attack by Russian ambassador

AFP reports: Russia’s ambassador to Denmark said Saturday that the NATO country’s navy could be targeted by nuclear missiles if it joins the Western alliance’s anti-missile shield.

The threat made by Ambassador Mikhail Vanin in an opinion piece he wrote for the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten sparked an angry reaction and came amid an increasingly Cold War-style standoff between Moscow and the West.

“I do not think that the Danes fully understand the consequences of what happens if Denmark joins the US-led missile defence,” Ambassador Mikhail Vanin wrote in the daily.

“If this happens Danish warships become targets for Russian nuclear missiles.”

Russia has long opposed NATO’s missile shield — launched in 2010 and due to be fully operational by 2025 — in which member countries contribute radar and weaponry to protect Europe against missile attacks.

Denmark has pledged to supply one or more frigates equipped with advanced radar to track incoming missiles.

The chairwoman of the Danish parliament’s foreign affairs, Mette Gjerskov told AFP that the comments were “very threatening and not necessary” as the missile shield was simply an “intruder alarm” and no danger to Russia. [Continue reading…]

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The myth of the West’s threat to Russia

Alexander J. Motyl writes: Much Western thinking about the causes of the Russo-Ukrainian War is rooted in a myth. It posits that the West — or, more specifically, NATO — attempted to wrest Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence, thereby forcing Vladimir Putin to defend Russia’s legitimate strategic interests by going to war with Ukraine.

The logic is impeccable. The only problem is that there isn’t a shred of truth to this claim.

Was the West determined to integrate Ukraine into its institutions? Until the Maidan Revolution broke out in late 2013, Ukraine “fatigue” had characterized Western policy since about 2008, when the government of then-President Viktor Yushchenko lost the reformist zeal it had inherited from the 2004 Orange Revolution. Even before that, Western policymakers never talked of including Ukraine in the European Union. Indeed, the EU’s Eastern Partnership program and its offer of an Association Agreement to Kyiv were supposed to placate Ukraine without promising it even the distant prospect of membership in the EU. The reluctance to offer that prospect remains unchanged.

Was the West determined to transform Ukraine into a pro-Western democracy? The United States and Europe pumped several billions of dollars into Ukrainian civil society projects since 1991, while remaining indifferent to the Leonid Kuchma regime’s slide toward authoritarianism in the late 1990s, the abandonment by Yushchenko’s “Orange government” of its democratic reform agenda, and Viktor Yanukovych’s establishment of a full-fledged authoritarian regime in 2010-2013. Some Western policymakers supported the Maidan Revolution rhetorically and insisted that Yanukovych seek a compromise with the democratic revolutionaries; but most did not. No Western state actually provided any material assistance to the Maidan. And no Western presidents or prime ministers called on Yanukovych to step down during the revolution: quite the contrary, they travelled to Kyiv in late February 2014 with the express purpose of saving him. Once he abandoned his office, many Western policymakers welcomed his move — but that was after, and not before, the fact. [Continue reading…]

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Berlin alarmed by aggressive NATO stance on Ukraine

Der Spiegel reports: It was quiet in eastern Ukraine last Wednesday. Indeed, it was another quiet day in an extended stretch of relative calm. The battles between the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian separatists had largely stopped and heavy weaponry was being withdrawn. The Minsk cease-fire wasn’t holding perfectly, but it was holding.

On that same day, General Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander in Europe, stepped before the press in Washington. Putin, the 59-year-old said, had once again “upped the ante” in eastern Ukraine — with “well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of their most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery” having been sent to the Donbass. “What is clear,” Breedlove said, “is that right now, it is not getting better. It is getting worse every day.”

German leaders in Berlin were stunned. They didn’t understand what Breedlove was talking about. And it wasn’t the first time. Once again, the German government, supported by intelligence gathered by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, did not share the view of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

The pattern has become a familiar one. For months, Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove’s numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America’s NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the US Congress and in NATO.

The German government is alarmed. Are the Americans trying to thwart European efforts at mediation led by Chancellor Angela Merkel? Sources in the Chancellery have referred to Breedlove’s comments as “dangerous propaganda.” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even found it necessary recently to bring up Breedlove’s comments with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg. [Continue reading…]

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Russian soldiers ‘dying in large numbers’ in Ukraine, says NATO

BBC News: Nato’s deputy chief says Russian leaders are less and less able to conceal the deaths of “large numbers” of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

Alexander Vershbow said Russia’s involvement was becoming more unpopular with the Russian public as a result.

Russian officials dismissed on Thursday a US claim that Moscow had sent “thousands and thousands” of troops to fight alongside separatists.

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Libya: To intervene, or not to intervene, that is not the question

The New York Times: Largely overshadowed by the crises in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, Libya’s unraveling has received comparatively little attention over the past few months. As this oil-rich nation veers toward complete chaos, world leaders would be wise to redouble efforts led by the United Nations to broker a power-sharing deal among warring factions.

A few of the Islamist groups vying for control in Libya have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and carried out the type of barbaric executions that have galvanized international support for the military campaign against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. The growth and radicalization of Islamist groups raise the possibility that large parts of Libya could become a satellite of the Islamic State.

“Libya has the same features of potentially becoming as bad as what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria,” Bernardino León, the United Nations envoy to Libya, said in an interview. “The difference is that Libya is just a few miles away from Europe.” [Continue reading…]

Jenan Moussa sardonically observes:

Now as always, those who reflexively argue against all forms of intervention will maintain the conceit that to do nothing is to do no harm. The unspoken assumption is: if we do nothing, we will suffer no harm. It’s not so much a mind your own business, live and let live, philosophy. More like, live and let die.

But as Richard Haass points out, intervention does not simply involve a binary choice:


When Barack Obama reluctantly led from behind in 2011, joining in the NATO intervention which toppled Gaddafi, his attention was much more keenly focused on domestic politics and an upcoming election, than it was on the fate of Libya. He placed higher value on the intervention ending than on what might follow. That Libyan oil quickly started flowing again looked like a success — from a Western and myopic vantage point.

But even though Libyans understandably did not want to see international powers controlling what essentially amounted to the construction of a new state, it seems like the international community missed an opportunity to use oil revenues as a political tool. If revenues had been paid into a UN-controlled account instead of directly to the National Oil Company, their release to the central bank and government could have been made contingent on a set of political milestones being passed such as disarming the militias.

The Libyan economy is totally dependent on oil and the desire to continue selling oil is the one common interest that unites all political factions. Left to their own devises, each will vie for control of the oil supply and revenues. But the power to determine whether oil is a source of division or unity could rest in the hands of the buyers. The world can manage without Libyan oil but Libya can’t survive without selling oil.

No one — apart from ISIS — has an interest in Libya becoming an irretrievably failed state.

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How to make $70 billion look much bigger than $265 billion

The Economist has ingeniously created a way of making Russian defense spending look much greater than European NATO defense spending, even though the latter is almost four times as much as the former:

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Ukraine ceasefire announced at Minsk summit — what next?

By Stefan Wolff, University of Birmingham

After all night talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk, the outcomes of the four party talks in the so-called Normandy format (Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany) have neither brought a major breakthrough or a complete disaster. As a deal, it is not a solution, but perhaps a step towards one.

It almost seems to be business as usual – yet another ceasefire deal and commitments to further negotiations on a more durable political settlement – but, by the standards of this crisis, this is not the outcome Ukraine’s people may have hoped for. Not least because the deal, as soon as it was announced, ran into its first set of problems with rebels demanding Ukrainian forces withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve before they would agree to the ceasefire.

At the very least, this might mean two more days of heavy fighting before the ceasefire starts on 15 February, at worst it might mean the deal will never be implemented at all.

In the run-up to last might’s summit, the crisis in Ukraine seemed to head towards a major juncture, along with relations between Russia and the West and within the Transatlantic alliance. The weeks before the summit in Minsk has seen intensifying diplomacy, escalating rhetoric, increased fighting on the ground, and a worsening humanitarian situation.

[Read more…]

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Signs of desperation in the West’s latest moves to halt the Ukraine crisis

Lucian Kim writes: The European Union, with Germany at its head, sleepwalked into the Ukraine crisis. Shielded by U.S. military might since the end of World War Two, Western Europeans had come to live under the illusion that their irresistible soft power — democratic values and economic prosperity — is alone strong enough to bring the continent together. In their attempt to finalize an association agreement with Ukraine in 2013, EU leaders jostled with Putin for influence, not realizing that what they regarded as a trade deal, he viewed as brazen geopolitical encroachment. When the pro-EU protest on the Maidan unexpectedly succeeded in chasing Kremlin client Viktor Yanukovych from power last February, Putin watched the West crossing a red line it had chosen not to see. Securing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Crimea was the first priority. Wreaking havoc on Kiev’s interim government by fomenting an uprising in eastern Ukraine was the second.

Could anybody have anticipated Russia’s actions a year ago? Radoslaw Sikorski, who was Poland’s foreign minister during the Maidan protest, said that at last year’s Munich conference he had asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov if the Kremlin had territorial ambitions in Ukraine. “He flatly denied it,” Sikorski said. Less than a month later, Yanukovych fled Kiev, and Russian troops were fanning out across Crimea.

Lavrov was also in Munich this year. The usually suave Russian foreign minister was visibly nervous as he delivered his speech, rattling off a standard list of slights and transgressions — almost all of them committed by the Bush administration — and blaming the United States for everything. When Lavrov said that Crimea chose the path of self-determination as foreseen under the United Nations Charter, the audience of VIPs burst into laughter.

The Russian position afforded a glimpse into the alternate reality presented day in and day out by the Kremlin propaganda machine. “There are no Russian troops in Ukraine,” Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the Russian Duma’s foreign affairs committee, said in English. “There is no evidence — just statements, statements, statements.” According to his version of events, Russia is sitting and watching idly as a civil war unfolds across hundreds of miles of undefended border. “I thank Madame Merkel for a very strong position,” Kosachyov said about her rejection of arms for Ukraine.

Even if the West doesn’t believe that it’s engaged in a proxy war with Russia, the Kremlin reading is that it’s already taking place. [Continue reading…]

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Arming Ukraine army may escalate conflict, West warned

The Guardian reports: The head of the international organisation monitoring the conflict in Ukraine has said pro-Moscow separatists are constantly being re-armed, but warned that for western states to supply weapons to the Ukrainian army would risk an expansion of the war.

Lamberto Zannier, secretary general of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE), issued the warning at the Munich security conference where the debate over supplying arms to Kiev has pitted eastern European states and US members of Congress against Germany, the UK and other western European countries. The Obama administration says it has not made up its mind.

Zannier said he supported reform and non-lethal support of the Ukrainian army, but saw huge problems in supplying lethal weaponry.

“This carries a risk with it, and the risk is that this will strengthen a narrative we are seeing already appear on the side of the separatists, that they are fighting a war against Nato and against the west,” Zannier told the Guardian in an interview in Munich. [Continue reading…]

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Europeans warn Washington: arming Kiev will backfire

Reuters reports: European defence officials warned on Friday that arming Ukraine in its fight against pro-Russian separatists would only inflame the conflict, but were told by NATO’s top soldier, an American general, that the West should consider using “all tools” if diplomacy with Moscow wasn’t working.

The debate at the Munich Security Conference highlighted an emerging rift between Europe and Washington over how to confront Russian President Vladmir Putin as Moscow-backed rebels make territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.

President Barack Obama is under pressure from some in Congress to provide Kiev with lethal weapons.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen voiced Europe’s misgivings about this strategy: “Are we sure we would be improving the situation for the people in Ukraine by delivering weapons? Are we really sure that Ukraine can win against the Russian military machine?”

“And would this not be an excuse for Russia to intervene openly in the conflict?” asked the German minister.

Britain also fears that sending weapons could “escalate the conflict”, her British counterpart Michael Fallon told the conference. [Continue reading…]

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America’s failure in Afghanistan

Edward Girardet writes: The American-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is proving to be a failure. Against the advice of experienced diplomats, aid workers, journalists, and other analysts at the time, Washington’s decision to invade the country in October 2001 in a “war on terrorism” ignored basic realities as well as history. A top-down military approach exhibiting often astounding hubris hindered efforts to implement a more modest—and savvy—long-term development strategy that could have ameliorated a conflict that was already in its twenty-second year when U.S. and coalition forces intervened. It has been a costly thirteen-year involvement in lives and resources, with very little to show in the way of resolving Afghanistan’s problems. America’s war in Afghanistan may be as undistinguished as the failed Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989. Everything now depends on the ability of the Afghan army, police, and militia to hold their own—and whether the country will succeed in producing a thriving economy based on its own sweat and with a credible, broad-based political system.

Given the overwhelmingly artificial nature of Afghanistan’s post-2001 economy, which has enriched more than a few U.S. security companies plus various Afghan politicians, warlords, and other members of the privileged elite, military downsizing is bound to be devastating to Afghan pocketbooks. In 2011, at the height of Operation Enduring Freedom, as Washington dubbed its involvement, the military occupation of Afghanistan, run by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), stood at over 140,000 troops operating out of 800-odd bases throughout the country. Kandahar in the southeast, Bagram north of Kabul, and Camp Bastion in Helmand had become three of the world’s busiest military airfields: they handled hundreds of daily transport flights to Europe, the Middle East, and offshore aircraft carriers, as well as helicopter sorties against the Taliban and other insurgents.

By the end of 2013, the departure of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) incorporating forty-eight foreign armies, mainly from NATO, but also from countries such as Australia, Tonga, and Jordan, was well under way. Troops and equipment were being flown out daily, while ISAF and related military organizations had terminated most logistical contracts with private local and foreign companies. An indication of just how dependent Afghanistan had become on outside funding, this put more than 100,000 Afghans out of work and eliminated crucial income for up to two million dependents. [Continue reading…]

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As NATO allies unite against ISIS, it’s time for the U.S. to talk to the PKK

The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration accelerated efforts Friday to build an international coalition to combat the Islamic State, winning pledges of support from nine allies but leaving questions about the extent of possible expanded military force.

The United States has waged a series of airstrikes seeking to slow the advance of the Islamic State in northern Iraq and bolster the defenses of Western-allied fighters in the Iraq’s nearby Kurdish region.

But Washington is now eager to broaden the military and diplomatic pressures on the group, which has drawn international condemnation for sending non-Muslim minorities fleeing in fear and waging bloodshed such as mass killings and the beheadings of two American journalists.

The 10-nation alliance, forged at a NATO summit in Wales, could raise worries about deepening Western military engagement in the region nearly three years after the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel used the NATO forum to hold meetings with foreign and defense ministers from nine countries: Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark.

The leaders described themselves as the core of an emerging coalition to counter the Islamic State, although they downplayed the prospect of imminent joint military action. They also left unsaid whether they were planning to attack Islamic State’s strongholds in Syria or limit their mission to Iraq. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times adds this tough-talk from Kerry: “There is no containment policy for ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the beginning of the meeting, using an alternate acronym for ISIS. “They’re an ambitious, avowed, genocidal, territorial-grabbing, caliphate-desiring quasi state with an irregular army, and leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us.”

So even though the text of the statement issued by the State Department makes no mention of attacking ISIS in Syria, that’s part of the plan — right?

It’s widely recognized that the most effective force fighting against ISIS is the YPG (People’s Protection Units), the branch of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) based in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan.

When the U.S. claimed success in rescuing thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, it was YPG fighters on the ground who played the crucial role in creating a safe corridor.

In building its international coalition to fight ISIS, the U.S. will naturally want the support of as many allies as possible, yet what could be the most productive alliance of all — with the PKK — will remain hamstrung unless Washington grows up and ditches its childish anti-terrorism fundamentalism and quickly de-lists the PKK as a so-called terrorist organization.

Not only is this particular designation unwarranted — as Henri Barkey points out, the U.S. should be willing to talk to the PKK when the PKK’s chief adversary, Turkey, is already doing so — but the whole idea of designating organizations and individuals as terrorists is itself an insult to the rule of law. Such labeling functions as a political tool used without much more subtlety than the Catholic church’s practice of branding heretics at the time of the inquisition. Democracy, however, only allows for the designation of illegal actions — not illegal opinions or affiliations.

The necessity of fighting ISIS has arisen not because it promotes a diabolical ideology; it derives from the fact that the members of ISIS are engaging in genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

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Unappealing as nation-building may be, the alternative is usually even worse

Suzanne Nossel writes: Obama had good reason to be wary of nation-building [in Libya], having spent a good part of his presidency trying to unwind commitments George W. Bush made to Afghanistan and Iraq. But he now finds himself caught in a dilemma. On one hand, rebuilding failed states and conflict-torn societies is expensive, dangerous, unpredictable, open-ended, and painstakingly slow. Rather than thanks, an assertive approach can elicit debilitating and deadly political backlash. Because of its intense and sustained involvement, the nation-builder is held morally and politically accountable for the consequences of its efforts — even more so than the government that strafes a country from 30,000 feet. At least so far, as bad as the crisis in Libya is, international blame isn’t being pinned on Washington. On the other hand, failure to stabilize a nation after a debilitating war can undermine even the most decisive military action. Bad actors may be removed from authority, but the power vacuums, rivalries, corruption, incompetence, and dysfunction they leave behind can be as dangerous, if not more so. Terrorists and spoilers can encroach on weakly governed and poorly secured territory. Neighbors can jump into the fray, sparking regional conflagrations.

The nation-builder’s dilemma is not new. Failure to restore a beleaguered Germany after World War I arguably sowed the seeds of World War II. The massive investments of the Marshall Plan were designed to avoid a repeat, and they benefited from underlying political, economic, and institutional strengths in Japan and Germany. International military engagements in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti, and South Sudan were all followed by contested nation-building engagements, most of which continue in some form to this day.

The paradox of distaste for nation-building and the imperative to nation-build should prompt long-term strategic thinking about how to get done what no single government wants to do. Three principles can help: burden sharing; creative alignments of capabilities and political credibility; and greater attention to how international post-conflict missions can build national pride and smooth the path to full sovereignty for nations in transition.

Sharing the burdens of rebuilding a war-torn nation is often best achieved through the United Nations, which currently has more than 118,000 personnel deployed in peacekeeping operations in 16 countries, alongside another 10 political missions that don’t involve military forces. U.N. peacekeeping and related missions have played an indispensable role in midwifing relative political stability in Guatemala, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, Namibia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. But in Libya, there was no U.N. peacekeeping mission after Qaddafi’s ouster — only a small, unsecured stabilization effort. Cost concerns raised by Britain and France, coupled with the Libyans’ own reticence, scuttled early talk of a more ambitious U.N. presence. This understaffed operation was woefully unable to tackle Libya’s most serious security challenges, struggling instead to keep its own personnel out of danger. As discussions about an expanded U.N. presence in Libya now get underway, it’s worth recognizing that wherever the next stabilization operation occurs — eastern Ukraine, Syria — the United Nations’ role is unique and essential and should be adequately funded, equipped, and thought out ahead of time. It is hard to fathom any solution to the White House’s nation-building dilemma that doesn’t begin at U.N. headquarters in New York. [Continue reading…]

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The unfolding Ukraine crisis signals a new world order

Tony Brenton, former British ambassador to Russia, writes: A way out of the Ukraine crisis may now be faintly discernible. The round-table negotiations promoted by the Germans has the support of all the key governments. It is intended to produce a ceasefire, discussion of future Ukrainian constitutional arrangements, and the election of a new Ukrainian president on 25 May. There are still all sorts of ways it could go wrong: the east Ukrainian dissidents are not yet involved and will need to be; and polarisation continues, with both sides gradually losing control of their thuggish surrogates. But things now look marginally more hopeful than they have since the ill-fated Geneva agreement of a month ago.

The west has had to learn some hard lessons to get to where we are now.

It is generally accepted that the EU (in a mode splendidly described by one commentator as of “impotent megalomania”) precipitated matters by blundering into the most sensitive part of Russia’s backyard without seriously asking itself how it might react. This was not an isolated error but the culmination of 20 years of the west simply not taking Russia seriously, most notably with the Kosovo war and the expansion of Nato. When Russia did react in the (legally indefensible, but historically understandable) form of annexing Crimea and destabilising east Ukraine, the western view then swung 180 degrees to focusing on the need to “contain” a revanchist Russia intent on rebuilding the Soviet Union.

In the absence of any willingness among western publics to fight for the independence of Simferopol, the only weapon available was sanctions. These allowed western leaders to claim they were “doing something”, but in fact cruelly exposed their unwillingness to take real economic pain on Ukraine’s behalf. They have also become something of a badge of patriotic pride for those Russians targeted by them – of the six uses of sanctions by the west against the USSR/Russia since the second world war none have worked.

Happily, we now seem to be waking up to the reality that we are dealing not with a revanchist Russia, but with a coldly calculating one – a Russia that is neither patsy nor praying mantis. They don’t want to fight a war or take on the economic burden of rebuilding eastern Ukraine, but they do have a minimal list of requirements – Ukrainian neutrality, more autonomy for Russian speakers – which have to be met before they will back off. [Continue reading…]

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.

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