Putin’s Subtle Message to Obama

Exclusive: Russian President Putin sought to cool the rhetoric over Ukraine with an appeal for a postponed referendum in the east and an order to pull back Russian troops, but another message was to President Obama – over the State Department’s head – that it’s time to talk, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Official Washington’s shock and disbelief at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calming words about Ukraine reveal more about the widening chasm between real-world nuances and the U.S. political/media elite’s hysteria than any dramatic shift in course by Putin.

I’m told that what Putin is doing – in urging ethnic Russians in east Ukraine to put off a referendum on possible secession and agreeing to pull Russian troops back from the border – is part of a behind-the-scenes initiative coordinated with President Barack Obama to prevent the Ukraine crisis from spinning further out of control.

President Vladimir Putin replies to journalists’ questions at a press conference with President of Switzerland and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Didier Burkhalter on May 7, 2014. (Russian government photo)

President Vladimir Putin replies to journalists’ questions at a press conference with President of Switzerland and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Didier Burkhalter on May 7, 2014. (Russian government photo)

On the American side, this also appears to be the latest example of Obama’s extraordinary way of conducting foreign policy, often at odds with his own State Department bureaucracy and relying on White House insiders and CIA analysts to counter the belligerence often exhibited by Obama’s two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

Obama’s unusual style arose from his fateful decision to appoint a “team of rivals” to top national security posts after winning the presidency in 2008. To close a rift in the Democratic Party, he gave the hawkish Clinton the job of Secretary of State; and to maintain some continuity during wartime, he left George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates in place and kept Bush’s high command, including neocon favorite Gen. David Petraeus.

But Obama soon learned that running the U.S. government wasn’t like managing a college seminar in which smart people sit around and debate various points of view. When actual policy decisions were at stake, such as whether to escalate the Afghan War by dispatching a “surge” of 30,000 troops and adopting a new “counterinsurgency” strategy, Obama found that powerful adversaries could manipulate the process by limiting his options and leaking to their friends in the news media.

In summer 2009, Obama was mouse-trapped into the neocon-favored “surge” in Afghanistan. The policy was devised by neocon theorist Frederick Kagan, pushed by Defense Secretary Gates and supported by Clinton and Petraeus, according to Gates’s memoir, Duty .

Obama was thoroughly outmaneuvered and ended up acquiescing to the plan although he reportedly regretted the decision almost immediately. (Kagan’s “surge” accomplished little beyond getting about 1,000 more Americans and many Afghans killed, without changing the trajectory of the failed war.)

But the Afghan “surge” experience apparently convinced Obama that he needed to beef up his own team, which he assembled in part from the ranks of CIA analysts who were working in the early days for one Obama loyalist, CIA Director Leon Panetta. Obama shied away from the other alternative of firing the “team of rivals” fearing political repercussions.

As Gates wrote in Duty, ”Clinton and I represented the only independent ‘power center’ [in the Obama administration’s national security decision-making], not least because, for very different reasons, we were both seen as ‘un-fireable.’” What was remarkable about Gates’s observation is that traditionally the President of the United States is considered the only “power center” that matters on foreign policy.

The ‘Un-fireables’ Get Their Way

So, faced with these “un-fireables” at the Pentagon and State, Obama was forced to finesse his foreign policy whenever it was not fully in line with the preferences of Gates and Clinton. At some key moments, the “un-fireables” directly defied Obama’s own desires, not only on Afghanistan but on the touchy issue of Iran’s nuclear program.

For instance, in spring 2010, Secretary of State Clinton helped sink an agreement negotiated with Iran to ship most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country, even though President Obama had blessed the initiative undertaken by the leaders of Brazil and Turkey.

The Brazil-Turkey arrangement came under fierce attack by Clinton and was derided by leading U.S. news outlets, including editorial writers at the New York Times who mocked Brazil and Turkey as being “played by Tehran.” The ridicule of Brazil and Turkey continued even after Brazil released Obama’s private letter to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva encouraging Brazil and Turkey to work out the deal.

Despite the letter’s release, Obama didn’t publicly defend the swap and instead joined in scuttling the deal, another moment when Clinton and administration hardliners got their way. That set the world on the course for tightened economic sanctions against Iran and heightened tensions that brought the region close to another war, with Israel repeatedly threatening to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The Iranian nuclear negotiations only got back on track after Clinton left the State Department at the start of Obama’s second term. But Obama’s relationship to his State Department remained strained under Secretary Kerry who has been known to complain about his infrequent access to the President.

Whether as an expression of annoyance at having to deal with White House underlings – or because he considers himself more steeped in world affairs than Obama – Kerry has continued to operate as something of a free agent getting wide latitude to pursue his ultimately doomed effort to seek an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But Kerry has also charged out front as the most bellicose voice of the administration on major crises.

On Aug. 30, 2013, Kerry gave an extraordinary speech, which sounded like a declaration of war against Syria, only to have Obama pull the rug out from under him several days later and then reach a chemical weapons compromise brokered with the Syrian government by Russia’s President Putin.

Kerry also nearly scuttled the interim nuclear agreement with Iran in fall 2013 when he was sent to Geneva to sign the accord and instead tried to insert some new language. Finally, under White House orders, he returned to Geneva to finalize the interim deal, which also had been pushed along by Putin.

Stymied by Putin

So, on both Syria and Iran, Kerry found himself not only stymied by Obama and the President’s ad hoc foreign policy team, but by the influence of the Russian president who had developed a surprisingly close odd-couple relationship with Obama. One outside analyst even compared the Obama-Putin relationship to the close collaboration between President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, albeit without the warm public appearances.

In other words, the fury toward Putin has been building inside the State Department, which is still dominated by neoconservative leftovers from the Bush years along with liberal “humanitarian” hawks who are also eager to unleash U.S. firepower against unsavory enemies. The pent-up frustration over Obama’s failure to bomb Syria and possibly Iran was let loose over Ukraine, with Putin the primary target of the anger.

The Ukraine crisis started in 2013 with a reckless dangle from the European Union of a possible future membership for Ukraine, an association offer that was then followed by draconian austerity demands from the International Monetary Fund. But the easy villains in the U.S. narrative were Ukraine’s elected President Viktor Yanukovych, who rejected the IMF’s demands, and Russia’s President Putin, who trumped the EU’s offer with a $15 billion loan without the austerity.

As anger among western Ukrainians led to mass demonstrations at the Maidan in Kiev, the State Department’s neocons, such as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland (who happens to be Frederick Kagan’s sister-in-law), cheered on and encouraged the increasingly violent protests. The U.S. press corps shed any pretense of objectivity and took the side of the Maidan protesters.

So, when neo-Nazi militias, allied with the Maidan protests, launched a putsch on Feb. 22, the State Department and the U.S. press fully embraced the ouster of the democratically elected president in what was deemed a “pro-democracy” uprising.

The events that followed, including the appointment of Nuland’s hand-picked politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk to be prime minister and his prompt enactment of the IMF austerity plan, were viewed through the U.S. narrative’s lens of “white hat” good guys — the coup regime in Kiev — versus “black hat” bad guys, i.e., anyone who objected to the putsch.

Reactions from Ukrainians who felt disenfranchised by the overthrow of their elected president or worried about the IMF’s austerity plan were dismissed as confused locals deceived by Moscow’s “disinformation,” which continued to cite the role of neo-Nazis and question the legitimacy of the post-coup regime.

In March, when the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the U.S. media portrayed the vote as “rigged” or forced on the population by a Russian invasion.

To this day, the New York Times and other major publications insist that Putin had denied that Russian troops were in Crimea at the time of the secession and only later admitted that they were present, all the better to dispute his denials that Russian troops are now operating in eastern Ukraine. It doesn’t seem to matter to the U.S. press that Putin and other Russian officials always said there were thousands of Russian troops in Crimea, operating under a longstanding agreement with Ukraine. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Twisting Putin’s Words on Ukraine.”]

The Putin Conspiracy Theory

The demonization of Putin in the U.S. news media was so total that virtually anything could be said or written about him and anyone who objected to the “group think” was immediately dismissed as a “Putin apologist” or a conveyor of “Russian propaganda.”

Because of this endless vilification, Official Washington couldn’t see straight when it came to what Putin actually wanted. Amid the waves of U.S. propaganda, the State Department and the mainstream U.S. media promoted wild speculation about Putin planning to seize large sections of Ukraine and even reach into Moldova, if not the Baltic states.

Yet, Putin faced challenges enough in accepting Crimea’s request for annexation, including the expenditure of billions of dollars to upgrade the peninsula’s decaying infrastructure and building a bridge or tunnel from the Russian mainland. Putin wasn’t eager to take on the care and feeding of tens of millions of Ukrainians.

Putin’s military threats appeared mostly designed to stay the hand of the coup regime in Kiev which kept announcing plans to crush the “terrorists” in eastern Ukrainians who had taken up arms against what they considered an illegitimate government.

If Ukraine adopted some federalist system to give the sections of the deeply divided country more self-rule, Putin and his diplomats indicated that the interests of the eastern Ukrainians would be served. I’m told that idea became the basis for private discussions between the Kremlin and the White House, including apparently direct one-on-one talks between Obama and Putin.

So, Putin’s initiative on Wednesday, urging the eastern Ukrainians to forego a May 11 referendum on possible secession and his announced pullback of troops from the border, fits with his interests. Whichever way the referendum were to go it would have meant trouble for Putin, since a strong vote for joining Russia would have raised expectations to a dangerous level and a strong vote for staying in Ukraine would be a potential embarrassment.

The interests of the eastern Ukrainian protesters, however, appear to be different, since they rejected Putin’s request to postpone the referendum scheduled for Sunday. To them, a strong vote for autonomy or for joining Russia might be seen as a blessing because it could force Putin’s hand on a possible military intervention.

But Putin’s conciliatory words appear to have another audience, as a signal to Obama that – despite all the acrimony over Ukraine – Russia is willing again to play its helpful role in reducing tensions in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere.

If so, it is now up to Obama to decide what to do about his fractured foreign policy apparatus, now that he has seen additional evidence about the risk of having a State Department operating outside presidential control.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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16 comments on “Putin’s Subtle Message to Obama

  1. incontinent reader on said:

    Absolutely fascinating article and analysis. Let’s hope Obama can stay the course with his out of control team and get down to business with Putin. One worries that the team is continuing to work in the other direction, e.g., with Nuland’s testimony to Congress, Kerry’s joint press conference with Ashton two days or so ago, and now a visit by William Burns to Kazakhstan issuing what just sounded like a veiled warning to Putin.

  2. Only thing I would want to add, as a US citizen, to this excellent analysis, is a reminder that Obama is not a good guy or a victim. He’s a murderer, terrorist, and torturer. Taken alone, any of his crimes (such as cluster-bombing a farmer’s market in Yemen or scheming new ways to prevent the Chagossian people from ever being able to return to their home, Diego Garcia, which Obama uses as a murder and torture center) make him a wanted criminal. His combined crimes make him an egregious enemy of humankind.

    A group of African American women who met with him early in his time in office reported that he has “no moral center”.
    http://www.salon.com/2013/01/14/chomsky_obama_has_no_moral_center/

    Based on what he’s done, that’s a fact.

  3. Yaroslav on said:

    “Shock and disbelief”? What a surprise!
    Putin says “calming words” all the way.
    And now he has heared… I doubt.
    There are living people at Ukraine, not political pawns.

  4. Paul G. on said:

    Prior to this neo-con engineered fiasco, the US was collaborating with Russia on anti-terrorist and anti-drug activites and transport to Afganistan as well as space programs. All this is ruined(except for the space station, Russia is the only way up and down for astronauts) thanks to this adventure in a basket case nation. Now Russia is being pushed to economically and strategically link up with China rather than Europe.
    China is now laying claim to the entire South China sea including sea territory of Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, we’re talking lots of oil and fish here. They have moved an oil rig into Vietnamese claimed waters and have rammed several Vietnamese ships. There have also been several aggressive incidents against the Philippinos. Note the lack of attention paid to this compared to the Ukraine.
    So as is so typical, the US is pushing an opponent, which it should be collaborating with not threatening, into the hands of a much more dangerous nation. Russia has never trusted China and has much more in common with Europe. If it weren’t for neo-con. guided policy, it should be a natural ally of the US and Europe. Whatever one may think of Putin, he is no more corrupt than our bankster compromised President. Russia’s sometimes questionable elections are no worse than our “best government money can buy” electoral process, just less sophisticated.
    With red dragon’s latest aggression the US needs Russia as a counter force against China not an enabler. A wise President with guts ( I am not holding my breath on either of these two counts) would fire Kerry and Nuland , back off of the Ukraine and reestablish positive relations with Russia. A really spectacular move-really dreaming here- would be to offer Russia a path to NATO, which was an old idea floated by Molotov. As FDR once said, …”don’t bump them off, buy them off

    • Indeed. The U.S. policy towards Russia is incomprehensible. Russia is a democracy. Maybe a democracy with blemishes (throw the first stone!) but a democracy nevertheless. But we literally forced them into an alliance with China.

    • Miriam on said:

      Whole heartedly agree that Nuland and Kerry should be shown the EXIT…..but do not agree about expanding NATO…as a gift or form of buying any govt off…because in fact NATO alliance is out dated and already too large/mission expansion is an understatement. Perhaps its time to look at creating NEW alliance treaties…but shouldn’t all that come AFTER Global Zero accomplishes its mission…to reduce the vast number of US-Russian nukes to a merely nominally insane number, like 1000 each? First things first…reward the global community by making THAT a reality..no?

      • Paul G. on said:

        I actually agree whole heartedly. NATO is obsolete as it was designed to put the screws to the Soviet Union, “containment”. If it is going to exist though, it should be all inclusive of European nations, Russia included. That would actually negate the neo-cons attempt to start a neo-cold war.
        Probably few people realize that the oh so “aggressive”Soviet Union created the Warsaw Pact four years AFTER NATO was formed. The Eastern bloc countries were subjugated to form a buffer zone in case of another Western attack. Americans don’t understand what it is like to lose 22 million citizens in a war.

      • Yaroslav on said:

        Without anti-Russian campaign the existance of NATO itself becomes senseless.
        So war hawks are fervently needed in it…

    • Dee Cape Town on said:

      Paul G : Re “China is now laying claim to the entire South China sea including sea territory of Japan” – You Americans are very quick to see enemies and aggressors everywhere. Are you aware that US pushing Japan into a conflict over the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands and S.China seas is centred on building the final ‘Pearl’ in the necklace of military bases or ‘sea wall’ around China’s sea passages? Take a look at the US military and missile base stranglehold around China. Then do the same with broken treaty NATO bases around Russia. ie. Just as another missile base in Ukraine one probable objective, and the US neocon and dual citizen congressmen vicious rage over the democratic and constitutionally legal seceding of Crimea is about not managing to cut Russia off from the Sevastopol->Black Sea->Dardanelles->Med->Syria->Israel route.
      And perhaps you are not aware of who buys the lions share of US debt to keep you afloat? Apart from Israel and Saudi, the world is really not the aggressive, expansionist boogeyman. You are judging others on the long inculcated conduct of your own highly aggressive criminal – feared but reviled and not respected Regime, plus a great deal of US Ministry of Truth circa 1984 garbage.
      One other point to ponder : With the most heinous burning of people alive in Odessa a provocation designed to get Russia rushing in on a R2P ticket, they did not. Why? Nations that have actually experienced the horror of invasion with tanks and guns blazing DO NOT do so lightly to others, and certainly not when the ‘collateral damage’ and resultant war would be against cousins. That is a strength that Americans have yet to learn.

  5. Gregory Kruse on said:

    Having no more authority or influence on foreign policy than an absolute nobody, I offer my confluence with Mr. Parry’s and the commenter’s assessment on the subject of Russia. The US has long considered its population to be more sophisticated and intelligent than Russia’s, but one only has to listen for a short time to the inanities of our politics to realize that they don’t come any dumber than us.

  6. I think you are not supposed to use profanities on this website, so let me just say that I do not have very high opinion about John Kerry. But if it is indeed true that Obama is any better why does he (Obama) not get rid of Kerry? I was kind of wandering what Obama thought about the confederate flags and Celtic crosses in the Kiev city hall. Does anybody have insider information?

  7. Elena on said:

    Obama is a bloodthirsty aggressor and a liar. He, along with his troops attacked the Ukraine.
    I live in eastern Ukraine in Luhansk region . It is an hour’s drive from the Slovyansk .
    Slovyansk was attacked by hired american forces together with Nazis from Western Ukraine. People of Slovyansk keeping defenses , protect their lives and families , their family home and territory, fighting for their constitutional right to speak in Russian language and the right to hold a referendum.
    Our guys in Slovyansk almost unarmed . They are hoping for help from Russia. But at that moment from Russia there is no help . Our people are mined weapon in combat only.
    The Nazis and U.S.A. want to kill the inhabitants of Donbass , because people of Donbass do not want to obey the criminal authority of Ukraine. This illegal brutal bloody authority was set by America.
    In Odessa May 2, was killed by Ukrainian Nazis, U.S.A. and Israel mercenaries more than 200 citizens of Odessa.
    Slovyansk permanently under attack. The Ukrainian government forces killing civilians Slovyansk with planes, helicopters, tanks, mortars, gas, snipers. Die even women, children and elderly.
    Save our souls !
    Watch video “Children of Slovyansk come out on meeting on May 6 14″ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZ6qiqn-qr0

  8. elmerfudzie on said:

    This article like many others, avoids any comparison to issues that appeared during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Be it diplomats or generals, the what-if’s are always on that plate, often referred to as the grand chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s favorite phrase. Surely Putin must be anxiously pondering a few things, such as Obama’s policy backing the First-Strike Nuclear War strategy and I quote: “The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review established the Administration’s goal to set conditions that would allow the United States to safely adopt a policy of making deterrence of nuclear attack the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons. Although we cannot adopt such a policy today, the new guidance re-iterates the intention to work towards that goal over time.” So, no clear statement translates into an offensive first-strike strategic nuclear war fighting that is built into the Obama administration’s nuclear weapons policy. This extends of course, into various integrated non-nuclear strike options. Again, Putin must surely be asking himself, what do I do when the US/NATO alliance gets permission to install their weaponry so close to Russian soil? Didn’t the world almost explode apart when Nikita Khrushchev attempted to install IRBM’s fitted with nuclear warheads in Cuba? We provoked the Russians before but failed to learn anything from Russia’s objections and reaction to, to our nuclear weapon installations in Turkey and Italy.

  9. Michael Kenny on said:

    A wonderfully logical article. Unfortunately the facts are all wrong! Mr Parry just swallows the neocon propaganda line on Ukraine. Treaties are not negotiated as he claims and any journalist who thinks so just isn’t credible. The EU didn’t “dangle” an association agreement in front of Ukraine. The deal will have been negotiated over several years and by the signing stage, both sides are already agreed. Since Russia is negotiating a similar deal with the EU, it’s hard to see what objection he could have had to the Ukrainian deal, of which he will have been fully aware all through the negotiations. Thus, the idea that Russia and the EU engaged in some sort of “bidding” process reveals a total lack of understanding on Mr Parry’s part of how international relations are conducted. That seriously undermines his credibility. As for Crimea, a vote of 91% in any election is automatically suspicious and in this case the voter turnout was 125% (!). That, plus the refusal to allow the now habitual international observers undermines the legitimacy of the referendum. Mr Parry then repeats the “deeply divided Ukraine” mantra and tells us that if Ukraine adopted some federalist system, Putin and his diplomats indicated that the interests of the eastern Ukrainians would be served. Who gave Putin the right to speak for the people of eastern Ukraine? And since when does a foreign head of state have the right to dictate to another sovereign state what internal administrative arrangements it shall or shall not have? If the US government behaved like that, Mr Parry would be screaming! If it’s wrong for the US government, it’s wrong for Putin. Ifit’s right for Putin, it’s also right for the US government. Anything else in hypocrisy.

    • Greg on said:

      You’re reaction is so wrong in so many ways I don’t even know where to begin.

  10. Mark on said:

    I’ve been reading your articles for the past couple of days and I gotta say ‘Thank You’ for the objective, informative and conclusive reports on the World news today.
    It’s like a breath of fresh air after all the non-stop propaganda from NYT, CNN and alike, that portray Russia as a bloodthirsty imperialistic state.

    Looks to me that the Cold War never really ended…

    Meanwhile, in Ukraine – brother kills brother, people are being burned alive followed by a cheering crowd, and the ukrainian army (what’s left of it) launches artillery strikes on the city of Slavyansk.
    Not a word about that in the western news…