Putin-Obama trust col­lapse

Three years ago, the two pres­i­dents sug­gested they could work to­gether, so what hap­pened?

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Ray McGovern Ray McGovern (rrm­c­gov­ern@gmail.com) was an Army of­fi­cer and then a CIA an­a­lyst for 27 years, dur­ing which he was chief of the Soviet For­eign Pol­icy Branch and later a pres­i­den­tial briefer dur­ing Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan’s first term.

How did the “grow­ing trust” that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin once said marked his “work­ing and per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Obama” change into to­day’s deep dis­trust and saber-rat­tling?

Their re­la­tion­ship reached its zenith af­ter Mr. Putin per­suaded Syria to give up its chem­i­cal weapons for ver­i­fied de­struc­tion, en­abling Mr. Obama at the last minute to call off, with some grace, plans to at­tack Syria in late sum­mer 2013. But at an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence in the Rus­sian Black Sea re­sort of Sochi last week, Mr. Putin spoke of the “fever­ish” state of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and lamented: “My per­sonal agree­ments with the Pres­i­dent of the United States have not pro­duced re­sults.” He com­plained about “peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton ready to do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to pre­vent these agree­ments from be­ing im­ple­mented in prac­tice” and, re­fer­ring to Syria, de­cried the lack of a “com­mon front against ter­ror­ism af­ter such lengthy ne­go­ti­a­tions, enor­mous ef­fort, and dif­fi­cult com­pro­mises.”

A month ear­lier, Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov, who chooses his words care­fully, told Rus­sian TV view­ers, “My good friend John Kerry ... is un­der fierce crit­i­cism from the U.S. mil­i­tary ma­chine. De­spite [Mr. Kerry’s] as­sur­ances that the U.S. com­man­der in chief, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, sup­ported him in his con­tacts with Rus­sia (he con­firmed that dur­ing his meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin) ap­par­ently the mil­i­tary does not re­ally lis­ten to the com­man­der in chief.”

Do not chalk this up to para­noia. The U.S.-led coali­tion air strikes on known Syr­ian army po­si­tions killing scores of troops just five days into the Septem­ber cease-fire — not to men­tion state­ments at the time by the most se­nior U.S. gen­er­als — were ev­i­dence enough to con­vince the Rus­sians that the Pen­tagon was in­tent on scut­tling mean­ing­ful co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia.

Re­la­tions be­tween the U.S. and Rus­sian pres­i­dents have now reached a nadir, and Mr. Putin has or­dered his own de­fense min­istry to throw down the gaunt­let. On Oct. 6, min­istry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Rus­sia is pre­pared to shoot down uniden­ti­fied air­craft — in­clud­ing any stealth air­craft — over Syria, and warned omi­nously that Rus­sian air de­fense will not have time to iden­tify the ori­gin of the air­craft.

It seems pos­si­ble that the U.S. air force will chal­lenge that claim in due course — Pres­i­dent Barack Obama shakes hands with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin dur­ing a bi­lat­eral meet­ing on the side­lines of the G8 sum­mit in North­ern Ire­land, on June 17, 2013. per­haps even with­out seek­ing prior per­mis­sion from the White House. Last week, Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Di­rec­tor and for­mer Air Force Gen­eral James Clap­per com­mented offhand­edly, “I wouldn’t put it past them to shoot down an Amer­i­can air­craft ... if they felt it was threat­en­ing their forces on the ground.”

In­ject­ing ad­di­tional volatil­ity into the equa­tion, ma­jor news out­lets are play­ing down or ig­nor­ing Rus­sia’s warn­ings. Thus, Amer­i­cans who de­pend on the cor­po­rate me­dia can be ex­pected to be suit­ably shocked by what that same me­dia will no doubt cast as naked ag­gres­sion out of the blue if Rus­sian air de­fenses down a U.S. or coali­tion air­craft.

Mean­while in Europe, as NATO de­fense min­is­ters met in Brus­sels on Wed­nes­day, De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter told re­porters the U.S. is con­tribut­ing “a per­sis­tent ro­ta­tional ar­mored brigade com­bat team” as a “ma­jor sign of the U.S. com­mit­ment to strength­en­ing de­ter­rence here.”

“This was a de­ci­sion made by the al­liance lead­ers in War­saw,” he ex­plained, re­fer­ring to NATO’s July sum­mit meet­ing in the Pol­ish cap­i­tal. “The United States will lead a bat­tal­ion in Poland and de­ploy an en­tire bat­tle-ready bat­tal­ion task force of ap­prox­i­mately 900 sol­diers from the 2nd Cav­alry Reg­i­ment, which is based in Ger­many.”

On Thurs­day, at the Val­dai Con­fer­ence in the Rus­sian Black Sea re­sort of Sochi, Pres­i­dent Putin ac­cused the West of pro­mot­ing the “myth” of a “Rus­sian mil­i­tary threat,” call­ing this a “prof­itable busi­ness that can be used to pump new money into de­fense bud­gets ... ex­pand NATOand­bring its in­fra­struc­ture, mil­i­tary units, and arms closer to our bor­ders.”

Myth or not, Ger­man For­eign Min­is­ter Frank-Wal­ter Stein­meier was cor­rect to point out last spring that mil­i­tary pos­tur­ing on Rus­sia’s bor­ders will bring less re­gional se­cu­rity. Mr. Stein­meier warned against “saber-rat­tling,” adding that, “We are well ad­vised not to cre­ate pre­texts to re­new an old con­fronta­tion.”

Speak­ing of such pre­texts, it is high time to ac­knowl­edge that the marked in­crease in East-West ten­sions over the past two and a half years orig­i­nally stemmed from the Western-spon­sored coup d’état in Kiev on Feb. 22, 2014, and Rus­sia’s re­ac­tion in an­nex­ing Crimea. Amer­i­cans mal­nour­ished on the diet served up by “main­stream” me­dia are bliss­fully un­aware that two weeks be­fore the coup, YouTube pub­lished a record­ing of an in­ter­cepted con­ver­sa­tion be­tween U.S. As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of State Vic­to­ria Nu­land and the U.S. am­bas­sador in Kiev, dur­ing which “Yats” (for Arseniy Yat­senyuk) was iden­ti­fied as Wash­ing­ton’s choice to be­come the new prime min­is­ter of the coup gov­ern­ment in Kiev.

This unique set of cir­cum­stances prompted Ge­orge Fried­man, pres­i­dent of the think-tank STRATFOR, to la­bel the putsch in Kiev on Feb. 22, 2014, “re­ally the most bla­tant coup in his­tory.”

It’s time for Western politi­cians and me­dia to learn their les­son and pay at­ten­tion to the state­ments com­ing out of Rus­sia. Ask your­selves: Why all this hype now?

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

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