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?
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?
The 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?
The Malaysian airline flight that crashed in eastern Ukraine appears to have been downed by a surface-to-air missile. According to separate statements issued by the Ukrainian and American governments, the flight was downed by Ukrainian rebels using advanced surface-to-air missile systems acquired from Russia. While several observers have wondered why the flight was routed over the war zone in eastern Ukraine, the air route over Ukraine was—at least until yesterday—a common transit route for planes moving between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. A number of commercial airliners have been shot down due to conflicts on the ground—at least 6 since the 1970s.
Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was carrying almost 300 people, including 100 of the world’s leading HIV/AIDS researchers on their way to a conference in Malaysia. The tragic downing of the aircraft complicates an already complex situation in eastern Ukraine. US and Ukrainian officials that Ukrainian separatists used an advanced Russian missile system to down the plane, and several leading political leaders have already called for a response. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that “Putin has gone too far,” and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cautioned against jumping to conclusions but warned that there would be “hell to pay” if it was found that pro-Russian separatists were responsible. The Russian government asserted that such accusations were “sheer stupidity.”
What do you think? How should the United States respond if it is proven that pro-Russian separatists are responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17? How should the United States address the connection with Russia? How does Russia’s military (and nuclear) deterrent affect the political caucus?
The Russian government yesterday announced that a special pricing deal signed between the Ukrainian government and the Russian oil and natural gas company Gazprom would not be renewed. According to the Russian government, Ukraine currently owes more than $4 billion for previous shipments. But given deteriorating relations between the two countries and the desire of the Ukrainian government to develop closer ties with the European Union, Russia appears increasingly unwilling to offer favorable pricing deals to Ukraine.
This video, produced by the Russian news station RT, outlines the Russian position on the question.
What do you think? Is the Russian government justified in its decision to rescind the favorable pricing deal previously negotiated with Ukraine? If the goal of the Russian government is to punish Ukraine for looking to develop closer ties with Europe, will this move be successful? Can Russia use its oil and natural gas wealth as a foreign policy tool?
The G7 met yesterday, producing a statement on Russia that threatened additional “restrictive measures” on Russia if it continued its efforts to destabilize Ukraine. The G7 (which had been the G8 until Russia’s membership was suspended at the end of March over its intervention in eastern Ukraine) appears to be at a loss for how to effectively address the situation in Ukraine. The organization appears to be divided on how to proceed, with France and Germany pushing for “dialogue and de-escalation” The current meeting had been scheduled to take place in Sochi, Russia, but was relocated to Brussels following Russia’s suspension from the organization.
What do you think? Will the G7’s effort to isolate Russia be effective in changing Russia’s Ukraine policy? Does European reliance on Russia’s oil and energy production undermine the effectiveness of Western efforts to address the situation in Ukraine diplomatically? And if so, what other tools, if any, does the West have to address Russian intervention?
The annual Eurovision song contest held over the weekend provided some interesting insights into contemporary European politics. The annual contest pits one artist or band from each country against each other, with the winner determined by a combination of popular national vote and expert judges.
Eurovision was created in the aftermath of World War II to encourage closer ties between the countries of Europe. Today it regularly draws a massive television audience. While organizers of the event regularly proclaim it to be non-political, politics regularly seeps over into the event.
During the semifinal round this year, the Russian entry, a pair of 17 year-old twins named Anastasia and Maria Tolmachevy, were book by the audience in protest over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. And in the final this weekend, Austrian artist Conchita Wurst, the onstage drag persona of Thomas Neuwirth, won the final round of voting performing a ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix” in a skintight dress, glamorous makeup and hair, and a full beard.
Wurst’s victory marked the first time in almost fifty years that Austria took home the trophy. But her victory was widely seen as a protest against anti-gay legislation in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia. Russian politician Vitaly Milnov had described Wurst as a “pervert” and accused her of turning Eurovision into the “Sodom show.” Others in Eastern Europe decried Wurst’s performance as an illustration of Western decadence. Petitions in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus unsuccessfully sought to remove the Austrian performance from their national broadcasts—a violation of the rules of the competition.