High stakes

Filed in Perspectives by on 29th Jul 2017 4 Comments

Russia acted swiftly in late July 2017 in retaliating against a decision by the US Senate to impose sanctions against Moscow. Russia’s foreign ministry gave the United States a month to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 people. That’s the same number of Russian diplomats left in the United States at the end of 2016 when the outgoing Obama administration expelled 35 Russians, and seized two Russian compounds. Moscow also announced the seizure of a recreational compound and a US diplomatic warehouse. Moscow’s action gives the US little choice but to cut hundreds of personnel. Most of the US diplomatic staff is based in Moscow. Others are in consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. A day before Moscow’s announcement, the US Senate voted 98 to 2 to strengthen existing sanctions as a further punishment against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The vote also gave Congress the power to block President Donald Trump from using his veto against the sanctions. The US action and Russia’s reaction have brought relations between Moscow and Washington to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Diplomatic ties between the two superpowers have been on a downward spiral because of allegations by US intelligence agencies that Russia tried to influence last year’s presidential election in favour of Donald Trump. Moscow denies the allegation. Russia’s Foreign Ministry says “The adoption of the new sanctions law showed clearly that relations with Russia have become hostage to a domestic political battle in the United States. The new law aims to use political tools to create dishonest competitive advantages for the United States in the global economy. Such blackmail, aimed at limiting cooperation between Russia and its foreign partners, is a threat for many countries and for international business.” The Ministry’s statement also said that the US action confirmed “the extreme aggression of the United States in international affairs”, while Washington “arrogantly ignores the positions and interests of other countries…. counter to the principles of international law.”

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and his American counterpart, Donald Trump, met for the first time at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany earlier in the month. Each was positive about their talks though their meetings did little to dispel distrust in Washington that Trump is willing to overlook Russia for any part it played in the US vote. Three weeks later the US Senate voted for tougher sanctions, followed by Russia’s counter sanctions a day later. Media reports spoke of US officials being shocked at the quickness and severity of Moscow’s reaction. However, Russia had already made it clear after President Obama’s sanctions that it would respond in kind should the Trump administration impose further sanctions. Ukraine’s president, Petro Porochenko, congratulated the US Senate for taking a stand against the “Russian aggressor”. Brussels says the new sanctions would hurt energy security for the European Union because they target plans for a new pipeline to bring natural gas from Russia to northern Europe. Berlin says Germany will not accept the sanctions against Russia being applied to countries in Europe.

The sanctions also impose financial restrictions against Iran and North Korea. Lu Kang, spokesman for Beijing’s Ministry of International Affairs, says “China is resolutely opposed to any measure that harms its interests.” North Korea’s reaction was more direct. It launched another missile that landed about one thousand kilometres away in the Sea of Japan. The altitude and distance of the test flight prompted international experts to suggest that Pyongyang now has the capability to target cities in the United States. Trump’s own actions in speaking out against globalisation, cancelling US participation in the Pacific Trade Agreement, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Accord convey a message of wanting to go it alone rather than honour international agreements. Russia’s annexation of Crimea shows that it too is not above challenging international law. North Korea’s actions reveal hostility and contempt for international law.

According to the US Senate, the sanctions are also to punish Russia for tampering with US elections, and to serve as a warning not to do it again. However, revelations by Edward Snowden make it clear that the United States is as guilty in using its intelligence services and cyber-capacity for economic and political goals as Russia. The current rounds of sanctions, American and Russian, amount to little more than sabre-rattling in an increasingly high-stakes game. Years of sanctions did little to prevent North Korea from developing its own nuclear weapons. It is natural for a State to pursue its logical interests. However, as Lord Palmerston once said countries don’t have friends, they have interests. Through the lens of political realism that means avoiding conflict, and reaching agreements with other States even if it sometimes means turning a blind eye to how they conduct their own affairs. Ultimately cooperation leads to more productive relations than sanctions. The United States, Russia and North Korea have yet to learn that lesson. One can only wonder what the next step will be, and by whom. The clock is ticking.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Ken Harrison says:

    Hello Derek

    I have enjoyed reading your various articles. You certainly have quite a grasp of history in addition to what the world is currently facing. I notice, however, that you seem to believe diplomacy should be the criteria that all countries should follow, as opposed to punitive actions.
    I was a teenager, living in Canada during WW 2. While there was no such thing as television in those days, the news papers and radio kept everyone fully informed on what was happening in the war. One thing that comes vividly to mind is the picture I saw of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving the treaty he and Hitler had signed at Munich, and saying “We shall have peace in our time”. Eleven months later we were at war when Hitler invaded Poland.

    As both of us know, WW 1 ended with the treaty of Versailles. In that treaty a large segment of the German people ended up in a sector of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland. Hitler wanted to unite all Germans back into one country, and started with Austria. The treaty that Hitler and Chamberlain signed at Munich permitted Hitler to claim Sudetenland in exchange for his vow that there were no further territories that he wanted.
    Because all of the European countries and Britain were not prepared to fight a war, Hitler was given all of the time he needed to build up an immense army, navy, aircraft, and supply of missiles. Are we not seeing history being repeated today? None of the countries in Europe, Asia or America are prepared or want to engage in what will probably become a nuclear war, so we are giving North Korea all the time they need to perfect and build a vast supply of nuclear ICBMs. The leader of North Korea is a second Hitler. He has visions of ruling the world. Once he feels he is ready, he will attack. To me, the only thing that can prevent this is to attack him now. Delay through diplomacy is fatal. He is not yet ready to start his war but it won’t take too much longer. In January I shall turn 90. I hope the Good Lord takes me before I have to live through WW3.So Derek, that is my opinion on only diplomacy.
    Best regards, Ken

    Hi Ken,
    Thank you for the comment. Although I favour diplomacy as long as it’s possible I don’t entirely disagree with you. The Treaty of Versailles did indeed carry the seeds of the Second World War. A strong front against NAZI Germany in the 1930’s could have prevented Hitler’s invasion of Poland. However, major powers shy away from direct conflict until it can’t be avoided.
    Even though the media keeps us informed, too many people read only what reinforces their point of view, and governments seem only too happy to take advantage. Diplomacy is based on a wider perspective that suggests solutions.
    In October 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to end its nuclear programme, and to join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. President George W. Bush discarded the agreement prompting North Korea to withdraw from the NPT and resume the development of nuclear arms. In the words of North Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kang Sok ju, “We can’t discuss matters like gentlemen because you have made us part of the axis of evil. If we disarm ourselves because of US pressure, then we will become like Yugoslavia or Afghanistan’s Taliban to be beaten to death.” Still, western news reports regularly refer to North Korea as irrational.
    President Trump blames China for not acting to stop North Korea, yet ignores Beijing’s distrust of having a US anti-missile system in South Korea. The THAAD system is to counter missiles launched by North Korea but its radar penetrates several hundred kilometres into eastern China. Michael Morelli, the former acting head of the Central Intelligence Agency says the US has three options: 1) Diplomacy 2) Containment 3) Military action. As long as both sides are willing to deal, there is still time to resolve a tense situation. One suggestion might be to offer aid to North Korea and for both sides to slowly and mutually stand down so trust can be restored. Improved relations outweigh the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. However, if diplomacy fails, preventative action may be the only solution.
    Best regards, Derek

  2. Thank you Derek, very good article of yours: everything is clear and to the point! The difference between American and Snowden’s allegations is that Snowden provided proof of US actions, Americans – none. Be well, Женя

    Hi Zhenya – I appreciate your comment. It raises an interesting question whether President Obama’s decision to restrict the NSA from gathering metadata could be seen as an admission of guilt or proof of US actions. Derek

  3. Michael says:

    Interesting and valid comments re US/Russia. I believe the US government is highly frustrated with Putin ever since he refused to join the game of Western global domination – the US being the leader of the pack. Clearly, the US believes that they are the only ones who can defend democracy in the world. Unfortunately, they spread “amerocracy”. Basically, anything that works in the interests of the USA.

  4. How interesting that US Senators, unable to agree on anything else, were able to work up a united huff against Moscow. There just ain’t anything like an external enemy when internal divisions become impossible to resolve. Both sides know the steps to this dance and Trump and Putin have to go through the motions even if their hearts are not in it. But that’s hardly the end of the story. Trump’s skill is in promoting division. He thrives on it and having alienated the politicians in Washington he can’t afford to let them remain united for very long. We will have to hope that Mattis and Tillerson at Defence and State will figure out some way to work through the next iteration.

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