Tag Archives: Russia

Human Rights in War

A new report by Amnesty International contends that Russia may have committed war crimes when it launched an airstrike on a market in Syria last week. According to the report, Russia may have killed as many as 200 civilians since it began using its air power to strike rebel forces in Syria last November. Amnesty International accuses Russia of using cluster munitions—bombs that carry dozens of bomblets—during its airstrikes. Amnesty avoids calling Russian attacks purposeful, suggesting that targets may have been based on faulty intelligence.

Russia responded, stating that the report was “groundless” and “full of lies,” and denies they have used cluster munitions in Syria. The Russian government also pointed out that US airstrikes have also resulted in civilian casualties, most notably in Afghanistan, where a US airstrike accidentally targeted a medical facility run by the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 19 people.

Yet the legality of Russia’s actions in Syria are less than clear. The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, transfer, and stockpile of cluster bombs by countries that have ratified the convention. While 107 countries have ratified the agreement, countries that have the largest stockpile of such weapons—including Russia, China, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, India, and Brazil—have refused to do so and are thus not subject to the agreement’s provisions. Similarly, the Rome Statute and Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions prohibit the deliberate or indiscriminate targeting of civilians in war. But making the case that Russia deliberately targeted civilians—rather than aiming for a military target but accidentally striking civilians—is a difficult claim to substantiate, and one that Amnesty did not make in the report.

What do you think? Has Russia violated international humanitarian law during its airstrikes in Syria? Has the United States violated international humanitarian law in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan? And if so, what can be or should be done to prevent such violations by Russia or the United States in the future?

Are Russia and NATO on a Path to War?

Following the downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, the international media quickly speculated that Russia and Turkey were on a warpath. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), called for an emergency meeting of the group, a move which Russia described as an escalation. The downing of the Russian jet marks the first direct engagement between NATO and Russian forces since the end of the Cold War.

The issue at the heart of the current crisis was the subject of intense dispute. The Russian government maintains that the Russian aircraft were striking Islamic State targets in northern Syria, when Turkish fighter jets engaged and shot down a Russian plane. Turkey maintains that Russia was striking Turkmen rebel forces, repeatedly crossing into Turkish airspace and ignoring multiple warnings to leave Turkish airspace before being fired on. Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan condemned the event, which he said was provoked by a Russian violation of Turkish airspace and an infringement of Turkish sovereignty. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov implied the act was premeditated, stating that the downing “looks very much like a planned provocation.” He ordered the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft batteries to Syria.

In addressing the situation, US President Barak Obama called on both Russia and Turkey to “take measures to avoid escalation.” But Russian intervention in Syria has complicated American and NATO allies efforts to fight the Islamic State in Syria. American strategy has been to oppose both ISIS and the Syrian government, supporting rebel forces in the region and striking ISIS targets from the air. Russian intervention has centered on supporting the Syrian government. While the Russian government maintains that its intervention is focused on defeating ISIS, Russian airstrikes have been condemned by the West for primarily targeting anti-government forces.

What do you think? Are NATO and Russia on a path to war? How might the situation in Turkey (and relatedly in Syria) be resolved to prevent further escalation?

Air Transportation Safety and Government Responsibility

The Dutch Safety Board yesterday released its final report into the cause of the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014. That flight was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur on July 17 when it crashed over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. The Dutch report confirmed earlier assertions by the United States and German governments that the flight was shot down by a Russian SA-11 BUK surface-to-air missile. Although the report does not confirm this, earlier evidence suggested that the missile system was under the control of pro-Russian separatists, who believed they were firing on a Ukrainian military transport. The Russian government has maintained it was not involved in the downing of the flight and released its own report pointing blame at the Ukrainian government.

The report also drew attention to the failure of the Ukrainian government to close airspace over the warzone, leading the Ukrainian government to defend its decision. A statement by the Ukrainian government asserted that “Nobody could imagine that such powerful facilities, such powerful equipment as the BUK [surface-to-air missile] could be used against a civilian aircraft.” The government had closed its airspace to flights operating below 7,900 meters (approximately 26,000 feet), but believed airspace above that altitude was safe. The decision to fly over conflict zones frequently rests with the individual carrier, but the Federal Aviation Administration has recently strengthened rules prohibiting US carries from flying over conflict zones in places like Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, and Somalia.

What do you think? Was Russia responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17? What responsibility, if any, do governments have to ensure that their airspace is protected? What responsibility, if any, do air carriers have to navigate safe air routes? And what lessons might we learn from the Dutch report?

Is the Middle East in Danger of Destabilization?

It was announced yesterday that missiles launched from a Russian naval vessel intended to strike targets in Syria instead veered off course and exploded in a remote part of Iran on Thursday. Then today, a Russian jet was reportedly shot down by Turkish defense forces after it strayed into Turkey’s airspace.  Russian intervention in Syria has largely been condemned by the West as an effort to prop up the Assad regime, which has been destabilized by both anti-government forces and Islamic State militants operating in the country. Although the Russia has maintained its airstrikes are intended to weaken ISIS militants, the United States and its allies have condemned Russian intervention as an effort to help shore up the Assad regime. Shortly after Russian airstrikes, the Syrian government launched a series of renewed operations which drove rebel forces in the country back. And now, key American military advisers warned the Obama Administration that it’s goal of supporting rebel forces in their efforts to overthrow the Assad regime may no longer be a viable strategy in Syria, leading the Obama Administration to concede it would end its policy of supporting rebel forces in the country.

What do you think? Is the Middle East in danger of destabilizing? How has Russian intervention changed the strategic calculus for the United States in Syria? Do you agree with the advisers warning that the United States’ goal of overthrowing the Assad regime is no longer viable? Why? And if so, how should the United States proceed?

Russia and the United States in Syria

More than twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, the American and Russian foreign policy seem to be at odds in the Middle East. Today, Senator John McCain, who unsuccessfully ran against President Barack Obama for the Presidency of the United States in 2008, took to the Senate floor to condemn Russian intervention in Syria. According to McCain, Russian intervention in Syria is intended to bolster the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. US foreign policy in Syria is complicated, seeking both to destroy the capacity of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) while simultaneously opposing the al-Assad regime.

Russia announced that it had launched airstrikes against ISIS forces in Homs. But according to McCain, the strikes targeted opponents of the al-Assad regime, not ISIS forces. McCain also described the Obama administration efforts in Syria as a failure, noting the sharp increase in the number of refugees fleeing Syria for Europe and the inability of anti-Assad forces to make headway in the region.

What do you think? Has US foreign policy in Syria been a failure? What is the fundamental goal of US policy in the region? Can it be successful? Why? And how does expanded Russian involvement Syria complicate efforts to disrupt ISIS and the Assad government?

Is the US Losing the Fight Against ISIS?

Retired General John Allen, who currently serves as President Obama’s envoy in the global fight against ISIS, pushed back against assertions that the United States is losing its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL). He said that while the fight will be a long lone, progress is being made. He pointed in particular to the situation in Iraq as evidence of success.

At the same time, efforts by the United States and its allies to combat ISIS’s growing influence are complicated by the situation in Syria. Over the weekend, the Russian government announced it was stepping up its support for the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who is also fighting against ISIS but has been isolated by the West due to human rights abuses in the country. But the situation in Syria is complicated. While the United States and its allies oppose the Bashir government and support Syrian rebels, Russia supports the Syrian government. And both the Syrian government and the United States and its allies are fighting against ISIS. News that ISIS is likely making and using chemical weapons in its fight further complicates the situation.

What do you think? Is the United States losing its fight against ISIS? Why? How does the situation in Syria complicate the struggle against ISIS? What, if anything, should the United States change in its strategy to fight ISIS to more quickly and effectively achieve its foreign policy goals?

Spy Games

A British investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a fugitive Russian secret agent who had been granted asylum in the United Kingdom, concluded that the Russian government was likely responsible for Litvinenko’s death. The report confirmed earlier findings by medical investigators who concluded that Litvinenko died after consuming a lethal dose of Polonium 210, a radioactive substance that caused acute radiation poisoning and led to his death. Investigators believe that two Russian agents likely introduced the substance into Litvinenko’s tea at a meeting in October 2006. The agents have refused to cooperate with British authorities and have been extended diplomatic protection by Russian authorities.

While Litvinenko’s widow greeted the news with gratitude, it is not clear what options the British government may choose to pursue in response to the findings. Russia is already subject to economic sanctions as a result of their involvement in Ukraine, and European Union officials are hesitant to expand those sanctions for fear that they may adversely affect the EU economy.

What do you think? How might the British government respond to developments in the Litvinenko case?

A New Cold War?

In testimony before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee last week, General Joseph Dunford, President Obama’s nominee to become the next Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the primary military adviser to the president, asserted that Russia poses an existential threat to the United States. Citing Russia’s close ties to Iran, General Dunford asserted that Russia continues to push for elimination of Western sanctions on Iran, a move that would permit the open sale of Iranian oil on international markets. Such a development could generate billions in revenue for the Iranian government, fueling acquisition of advanced Russian missile systems that could make potential airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities more challenging.

General Dunford testified in his confirmation hearing, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia…And if you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”

Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to reject the General’s statement. According to US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner, Secretary Kerry,

“The secretary doesn’t agree with the assessment that Russia is an existential threat to the United States, nor China, quite frankly…You know, these are major powers with whom we engage and cooperate on a number of issues, despite any disagreements we may have with them. Certainly we have disagreements with Russia and its activities within the region, but we don’t view it as an existential threat.”

The conflicting statements highlight a divide inside the Obama White House as to the nature of US-Russian relations in the context of tensions in Ukraine, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and elsewhere. While the United States and Russia clearly have competing foreign policy objectives, do you think that Russia poses an “existential threat” to the United States? What do you think are the primary security challenges facing the United States today? And what are the implications of apparent disagreements in the assessment of Russia (and potentially other national security challenges) inside the White House for US foreign policy?

The Resurgence of the Ukrainian Crisis

Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was on CNN yesterday and claimed that there were 10,000 Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil. As part of a plea to the West to help train and equip the Ukrainian military, he also suggested the Minsk Protocol was still viable. Negotiated in late 2014, the Minsk agreement included provisions establishing a ceasefire in Ukraine and mandated the withdrawal of heavy weapons and combat aircraft from  a “line of contact” crossing the eastern part of the country.

To date, the West has been hesitant to take a more proactive stance against Russia. At the G-7 summit over the weekend, US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement agreeing to leave economic sanctions against Russia in place until the Minsk Protocol was fully implemented. At the same time, Jeb Bush, a likely Republican candidate for the Presidency, issued a blistering statement in Germany yesterday, suggesting that President Obama’s permissive stance towards Russia precipitated the crisis in Ukraine, and demanding the United States take a more aggressive posture towards Russia.

What do you think? What factors are driving Russia’s intervention in Ukraine? Is Bush right? Should the United States take a more aggressive posture towards Russia? And if so, what exactly would that involve? What responsibility, if any, do the United States and the European Union have to address the resurgent crisis in Ukraine? Why?

Russia’s Economic Crisis

rubleThe Russian ruble continues to plummet despite a last-ditch effort by the Kremlin to stabilize the currency by sharply increasing interest rates. Since December, the Central Bank of Russia has nearly doubled its benchmark one-week rate, from less than 9.7 percent at the start of the month to 17 percent by month’s end. Meanwhile, the Russian ruble continued its slide, falling more than 45 percent against the US dollar. Inflation is sharply higher, and the Russian government forecast the country’s economy would shrink by half a percent for 2014.

Russia’s economic crisis has been driven by two factors. First, Western sanctions against Russia are starting to have an effect. Sanctions were imposed after Russia took control of Crimea, a region formerly under the control of Ukraine. Second, and more importantly, the sharp decline in global oil prices have sharply curtailed Russia’s foreign exchange earnings, making it difficult for the country to finance governmental operations. Oil and natural gas exports account for about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product and about half of the federal budget.  Oil is trading at just over $55 per barrel today, down from more than $115 per barrel less than a year ago. This is by far the biggest drag on the Russian economy today.

All of this is having a dramatic impact on the lives of ordinary Russians, who now face savings that have little real value, higher mortgage and interest rates, declining real wages, and higher prices for most consumer goods.

What do you think? How will Russia’s economic crisis affect President Vladimir Putin’s popularity? Will the country’s economic crisis affect Russian policy in Crimea? Why?