Exclusive: Last year, Russian President Putin and U.S. President Obama became a geopolitical odd couple as they worked to cool off hotspots such as Syria and Iran. But U.S. hawks succeeded in killing that collaboration via the crisis in Ukraine, ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern explains.
By Ray McGovern
“Putin will not talk to Obama under pressure,” American journalist Josh Rogin was told late last week by a close associate of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. If Russia’s President will no longer call or accept calls from President Obama, this strikes me as the most important casualty so far from U.S.-provoked “regime change” in Ukraine. Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin apparently had conversations on Ukraine almost every week in March; their last talk took place on April 14.
U.S. “pressure” including token economic and travel sanctions against some Russian companies and friends of Putin is likely to continue. But it is not likely to become more extensive if key European countries “man up” and tell Washington what was obvious from the start; namely, that Russia holds very high cards in this area and that the Europeans will not damage their own flagging economies by approving stronger economic sanctions that would inflict real “punishment” on Russia.
As for Russia’s leaders, the U.S. emphasis on economic sanctions bespeaks a punitive, belligerent attitude not conducive to real cooperation of the kind that is desperately needed on a crisis like Ukraine and that has proved so useful in averting escalations in other international hotspots, such as Syria and Iran.
It was rapport and trust between Presidents Obama and Putin, together with the adroit diplomatic efforts of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that produced the agreement announced on Sept. 9, 2013, under which Syria agreed to surrender its chemical weapons for destruction. Two days later, the New York Times published an op-ed by Vladimir Putin pegged to the tumultuous events of the previous two weeks regarding Syria.
Putin began by saying that Syria was what “prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.” Putin argued against a U.S. attack on Syria, a position which was still being advocated passionately by Secretary of State John Kerry and many neocons.
Regarding the sarin attack of Aug. 21, 2013, Putin wrote: “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons. …
“I welcome the president’s [Obama’s] interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations.
“If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”
Putin closed his Sept. 11, 2013, op-ed saying, “My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust.”
Syria: the Crucible
The real story here is that the trust between Obama and Putin headed off what would have been a devastating U.S. military intervention in Syria and succeeded in getting Syria’s chemical weapons destroyed. (The process is scheduled to be completed by early summer.)
Just days before Putin’s op-ed, President Obama at the last minute cancelled the war urged on him primarily by Kerry, the still-influential neoconservatives, and the “tough” White House women and men, all lusting for a U.S. attack on Syria and almost all (with the notable exception of Kerry) bereft of any sense of what war is like.
The evidence suggests that Obama, a reluctant warrior on Syria, belatedly learned that he had been misled about what U.S. military and intelligence officials actually knew and did not know regarding who was responsible for the chemical attacks of Aug. 21 near Damascus.
It seemed his Secretary of State was lying on Aug. 30 when he thundered during a State Department speech that “we know” the Syrian government was responsible. The fact that Kerry made that claim 35 times that afternoon did not make it true.
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group that I co-founded consisting of former intelligence analysts and other ex-government officials, learned from insiders and former colleagues that Kerry was being untruthful. On Sept. 6, we warned President Obama in a Memorandum titled “Is Syria a Trap?”
It is also a safe bet that Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Obama the truth; i.e., that “we” did not know, at that point, who was responsible for the sarin attack and that British intelligence had examined a sample of the sarin used, and it did not match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s arsenal.
Moreover, there was other evidence (in addition to what we were being told by our former co-workers) as well as pretty compelling logic suggesting that opponents of the Syrian government staged the attack and blamed it on the Syrian government shortly after the arrival in Damascus of UN inspectors. The aim was reportedly to trip President Obama’s “red line” and mousetrap him into committing U.S. forces to attacking Syria.
It is altogether likely that Putin took advantage of the “growing trust” in his relationship with Obama to share with him the evidence behind Russia’s belief that the Syrian opposition was responsible for what Putin later referred to in his op-ed as the “poison gas” attack in Syria.
I would wager that Putin also told the President that Russia Foreign Minister Lavrov was on the verge of getting the Syrians to allow their chemical weapons to be destroyed removing the neocons’ ostensible casus belli and that Lavrov had not shared this with Kerry, lest he, intentionally or inadvertently, screw up the emerging deal.
If Putin did share this with the President and there was in fact a modicum of trust between the two, there was a way out for Obama. By getting the Syrian chemical arsenal destroyed, he could attenuate charges that he was indecisive and cowardly in changing his mind and not “manning up” to another war.
Rather, Obama could be let down relatively easily, despite thoroughly disappointing the neocons, Israel, Saudi Arabia and others wanting to see the U.S. involved militarily in Syria. Obama apparently decided to trust Putin and may even have been convinced by the logic of blindsiding Kerry. In the end, Putin and Lavrov delivered.
Disdain for ‘Liar’ Kerry
It is rare that a head of state will call the head diplomat of a rival state a “liar.” But that’s what Putin did six days after Obama overruled Kerry and stopped the attack on Syria. On Sept. 5, 2013, as Obama arrived in St. Petersburg for the G-20 summit, Putin referred openly to Kerry’s congressional testimony on Syria a few days earlier and remarked:
“This was very unpleasant and surprising for me. We talk to them [the Americans], and we assume they are decent people, but he is lying and he knows that he is lying. This is sad.”
It was even sadder a few days later when Kerry, having been kept out of the Putin/Lavrov-Obama loop, referred dismissively to the likelihood that Syria would ever agree to give up its chemical weapons for destruction. Speaking in London on Sept. 9, Kerry continued his effort to drum up international support for military action against Syria.
When asked what would stop the U.S. from attacking Syria, Kerry commented dismissively that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could give up every one of his chemical weapons, but “he isn’t about to do it; it can’t be done, obviously.” I can visualize Lavrov taking a perverse pleasure in announcing a few hours later that Syria was about to announce agreement to do precisely that.
This is the same London press conference at which Kerry argued that an attack on Syria would be an “unbelievably small, limited” effort aimed at punishing the Syrian regime without getting the U.S. military involved in a long conflict.
Kerry also assumed his former role as prosecutor and protested (a bit too much) that the case accusing the Syrian government of responsibility for the chemical attacks of Aug. 21 was airtight. (It was a most revealing performance)
It’s hard to know what Obama really thinks of Kerry. The Russians, however, are not likely to regard Kerry as a serious person and that goes in spades if they have watched the video of that London press conference on Sept. 9, 2013. [For the latest on the evidence regarding Syria, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Was Turkey Behind Syria-Sarin Attack?”]
Why Not Fire Kerry?
All this raises the question of why Obama shouldn’t fire Kerry. But has Obama fired anyone from the national security bureaucracy besides Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who certainly asked for it with his insubordination toward the President? Torturers? National Intelligence Directors who lie under oath? National Security Agency Directors who swear to have used bulk collection to thwart 54 terrorist attacks when actually there was just one case of a taxi driver caught trying to send $8,500 to a terrorist group in Somalia? CIA Directors who defy Congress?
There was the case of CIA Director David Petraeus being urged to step down after a sex scandal, but Obama has a pattern of shying away from confrontations with the bigwigs of the national security apparatus. The impression given is that he doesn’t have the courage to stand up to them.
That is bad enough domestically, but it is poison when dealing with foreign leaders. Those periodic Obama-Putin telephone calls now ended have also been credited with helping defuse the crisis with Iran over its nuclear program. The “trust” held out promise for other major steps toward a more peaceful world.
But the cooperation between Obama and Putin proved useless over Ukraine where Kerry’s State Department particularly neocon Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland was literally cheering on “regime change” as a direct challenge to Russian influence on its border.
Amid the corresponding public demonization of Putin from the State Department and the mainstream U.S. news media, Putin seems to have recognized that Obama wouldn’t buck Official Washington’s conventional wisdom and wouldn’t defend the “working and personal relationship … marked with growing trust” that Putin had cited last September.
Still, I had hope that Putin and Lavrov could salvage something from that “trust” relationship, despite their growing disdain for the bellicose Kerry. I found some reason for encouragement from Putin’s answer to a question at a March 4 press conference:
Question: Following the U.S. Secretary of State’s harsh statement, the Federation Council suggested that we recall our ambassador to the United States. Do you support this idea?
Putin: The U.S. Secretary of State is certainly an important person, but he is not the ultimate authority that determines the United States’ foreign policy. … This [recalling the ambassador] would be an extreme measure. If necessary, it will be used. But I really don’t want to use it, because I think Russia is not the only one interested in cooperation with its partners on an international level and in such areas as economy, politics and foreign security; our partners are just as interested in this cooperation. It is very easy to destroy these instruments of cooperation and it would be very difficult to rebuild them.
On April 10, as I taped an interview on RT with Sophie Shevardnadze, granddaughter of former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, I found myself reaching back to Putin’s New York Times op-ed of Sept. 11, 2013, and the conciliatory tone of Putin’s answer on March 4 for some tangible substance on which to pin some hope. Sadly, that president-to-president trust appears to be a thing of the past.
This does not mean it could not be re-established and, hopefully, Putin and Obama will soon be reminded of the utility of their frequent conversations. After all, there is ample opportunity for all manner of provocateurs and saboteurs to create havoc in today’s Ukraine. There needs to be a way to communicate at senior levels to avert a dangerous escalation.
Some Russian officials seem to be looking for ways to dialogue with U.S. counterparts lest things get out of hand. The Interfax news agency reported Friday that in a telephone call, Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov warned U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Ukraine had a “substantial group of forces” near the Russian border, including troops intent on conducting sabotage.
Or We Could Send in the Clowns …
On the senior political level, though, who’s left to talk to? How about Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Susan Rice, who is keeping a close watch on developments in Ukraine? According to the Associated Press, she found the anti-Semitic leaflets distributed in eastern Ukraine “utterly sickening,” and when she showed them to the President, he bluntly expressed his disgust.
And not only that: Rice has reported that John Kerry has forcefully conveyed that view to his Russian counterpart (as well as the media, of course). I find myself wondering if Rice has taken the time to tell Obama and Kerry that the leaflets appear to have been clumsy forgeries distributed as black propaganda to discredit ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who are resisting control from the “regime change” government in Kiev.
And how about those photos front-paged by the New York Times ostensibly showing Russian “special operations personnel” in eastern Ukraine? Kerry saw fit to repeat that particular claim last week even though it already had been debunked in several major U.S. publications and had been “corrected” by his own State Department. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Retracts Russian Photo Scoop.”]
Still, despite those propaganda embarrassments, the anti-Putin “group think” across Official Washington remains strong. Indeed, there is a unanimity that smacks of a totalitarian system. All the “smart” people are coming up with new ideas for how to escalate the tensions over Ukraine into a full-blown cold war.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was State Department Director of Policy Planning for two years under Secretary Hillary Clinton, is now head of the New America Foundation, which describes itself as an “idea incubator.” Slaughter ties Ukraine and Syria together in a most imaginative way. Ready for this?
In an April 23 think piece titled “Stopping Russia Starts in Syria,” Slaughter suggests that the U.S. must “change Putin’s calculations, and Syria is the place to do it.” She argues: “A US strike against the Syrian government now would change the entire dynamic. It would either force the regime back to the negotiating table with a genuine intention of reaching a settlement, or at least make it clear that Assad will not have a free hand in re-establishing his rule.
“The US, together with as many countries as will cooperate, could use force to eliminate Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft as a first step toward enforcing Resolution 2139. ‘Aerial bombardment’ would still likely continue via helicopter, but such a strike would announce immediately that the game has changed.
“After the strike, the US, France, and Britain should ask for the Security Council’s approval of the action taken, as they did after NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Equally important, shots fired by the US in Syria will echo loudly in Russia.”
Army Col. Patrick Lang (ret.) commented on this military slaughter being recommended by Anne-Marie Slaughter in his blog: “Her preposterous ‘proposal’ should be seen as satire of actual strategic thought. I am tempted to compare this to Dean Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal…’ but that would be giving her far too much credit.
“She also believes that this ferocity on our part would frighten the Russians. The Russians are damned tough people. They will not be cowed. They will simply be irritated and angered.”
Col. Lang is right, of course. The clowns and “idea incubators” are either ignorant of Russia’s long history or are arrogant about the limitless reach of American military might (or both).
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He holds two degrees in Russian, was a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).