Trump & Putin Talk, But US-Russia Confrontation Lingers
James Carden, contributing writer at The Nation and executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord, analyzes the many areas threatening US-Russia relations, including Ukraine, Syria, and the ongoing Russiagate fixation within the US political and media elite
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. At their meeting on Friday, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin spoke of improving US-Russia ties, but now the White House says Russia must change its policy on Ukraine.
Voice of Rex T.: First and foremost, it is to restore Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and integrity. I’ve been very clear in my discussions with Russian leadership on more than one occasion that it is necessary for Russia to take the first steps to deescalate the situation in the east part of Ukraine, in particular by respecting the ceasefire by pulling back of the heavy weapons and allowing the OSCE Observers to carry out their responsibilities.
AARON MATE: Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, made those comments during a visit to Ukraine on Sunday. The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko followed that by announcing he wants to begin talks on joining NATO. Russia began meddling in Ukraine in part over fears it would join the U.S. led military alliance. If the U.S. insists on a Russian shift on Ukraine that could be a non-starter. I’m joined now by James Carden, contributing writer at The Nation and Executive Editor of The American Committee for East-West Accord. He has also served as an adviser on Russia policy at the State Department. James Carden, welcome.
JAMES CARDEN: Thank you very much.
AARON MATE: Thanks for joining us. Let’s start with Ukraine. Immediately following this historic meeting between Trump and Putin, Tillerson lays down the line that Russian behavior in Ukraine has to change. Can you talk about what’s at stake here for both sides of this?
JAMES CARDEN: There’s quite a bit at stake considering the fact that the war in the [inaudible 00:01:53] Donbass region continues to this day. It’s a war that is taken nearly 10,000 lives. It’s displaced over a million people and both parties to the Minsk Accord have a long way to go in implementing the agreement. Though I fear, that Minsk is probably a non-starter as far as Kiev goes and here’s why. According to the United Nations, the Ukrainian government has to hold a vote on decentralization for the East. It’s yet to do that yet. That vote was meant to be a pre-cursor to the agreement and I don’t think they’re going to hold that vote. Here’s why. If they hold that vote, I believe the far right militias will try to come to power and try to overthrow Petro Poroshenko. Petro Poroshenko doesn’t have a death wish. The country is currently rule by Ukrainian oligarchs in a tacit alliance with far right figures like the speaker of Rada, Andriy Parubiy who founded the neo-Nazi party right sector.
Tillerson is basically echoing the Obama Administration’s talking points and I think for a lot of foreign policy types who were hopeful that President Trump would take a more realist approach to foreign policy, they’re hopes have been disappointed and I think that Tillerson’s rhetoric and Tillerson’s appointment of former NATO Ambassador, Kurt Volker, the administration’s point man on Ukraine, are all very troubling signs.
AARON MATE: James, for those who aren’t familiar with the recent history of Ukraine, can you talk a bit more about that internal split that you’re talking about between the Donbass part of the country and the western part of Ukraine, where Kiev is and also what the U.S. role has been going back to the Obama administration as you mentioned.
JAMES CARDEN: Well, Ukraine is historically. It’s one country, but it really is two nations. There’s the Russian speaking East, which has traditionally looked towards Moscow and then there are the former Habsburg Provinces in the West, which are traditionally Ukrainian speaking. The county has a history of dual nationalities. The recent history of U.S. involvement in Ukraine, it does not inspire a lot of confidence.
When protests broke out in the winter of 2013, 2014, sitting U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and John McCain traveled to the Maidan to egg on the protests. The U.S. Ambassador at the time, Geoffrey Pyatt, and the Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, also traveled and to support the protests. Nuland rudely famously handed out cookies to the protestors, the U.S. has been deeply involved in the effort to wrench Ukrainian out of Moscow’s orbit. We see what has resolved it. The democratically-elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown on the night of February 21 and soon after, Russia-
AARON MATE: Hey, James, just to cut in. Before he was overthrown, he actually, along with Russia, had negotiated a deal with the U.S., right? To-
JAMES CARDEN: Deal?
AARON MATE: Yeah.
JAMES CARDEN: The U.S. wasn’t a party to the deal. It was a deal between the European Union; the representatives of the European Union and the Ukrainian Government. That deal didn’t last 24 hours before the protests really turned violent and Yanukovych had to flee. Soon after that, Russia annexed Crimea and then a full blown civil war started in and around April 6th, in the east.
AARON MATE: Just to set some context, some further context here, just right now we’re talking about Ukraine in the context of Russia gate here in the U.S., where the alleged Russian meddling through fake news and email hacks is deemed by many people a threat to U.S. National Security so it’s interesting to compare that with what happened in Ukraine whereas you talked about there was a heavy U.S. role in this protest movement against Yanukovych, leading to his ouster and now you have a country on Russia’s borders, which is talking about joining NATO. Can you talk about how that factors into Putin’s thinking here and what he’s doing inside Ukraine?
JAMES CARDEN: Yeah, sure. To quote the esteemed University of Chicago Political Scientist John Mearsheimer, “NATO expansion is the Taproot of the Ukrainian crisis.” What Mearsheimer means by that is that NATO’s expansion beginning in the 1990’s under Bill Clinton who saw the borders of the alliance move ever eastward right up to Russia’s western border. The Russians find that, I think for fairly understandable reasons, rather alarming.
AARON MATE: In part because they were promised by the first President Bush that would never happen.
JAMES CARDEN: That’s correct. What we need to keep in mind is the Ukraine crisis really was over the EU Association Agreement. The problem from the Russian perspective is that the EU Association Agreement had specific foreign policy and security protocols embedded in it. Basically setting the stage for Ukraine’s entry into NATO. I find it deeply troubling that Poroshenko and Tillerson are now broaching the subject of Ukrainian membership into NATO. That really, I think, spark a very serious reaction on the part of the Russians as possibly the worst possible thing that Ukraine could do at the moment.
AARON MATE: Why do you think it’s taken for granted across so much of a foreign policy establishment here that Ukraine falling into the Western orbit as opposed to being neutral would be a positive thing?
JAMES CARDEN: Well, it’s a good question. I mean I think there’s very little evidence that the alliance would be strengthened by Ukrainian membership. I think that there’s really little evidence that the alliance has been strengthened by the addition of Romania and Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania. I find the entire concept of expanding the alliance up to the borders of Russia. It seems to me to be quite a dangerous and destabilizing move, but our foreign policy establishment is very slow to learn lessons from past mistakes. We see that now with discussion regarding Syria, for instance. These people, I don’t know, were they asleep in 2003 when we went to war with Iraq?
I mean there were people in the think tank world here who continually write [inaudible 00:10:20] saying, for instance, that the Libya intervention in 2011 was a success. It seems to me that … I think they tend to believe their own myths and propaganda. They’re so ideologically tied to this narrative of American Democracy Promotion that it really crowds out any room for rational thinking.
AARON MATE: James, you mention Syria. Let’s talk about that for a second because that was another outcome of this Putin, Trump meeting. Tillerson said something interesting when he was talking about what Putin and Trump had agreed on. After the two sides reached a ceasefire in Southwestern Syria, which is come into effect. Tillerson said, “I think this is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.” Now perhaps he’s just talking about the U.S. in terms of the U.S. under President Trump, but just recently the U.S. and Russia have tried to work together in Syria. There was an agreement between Obama and Putin last year about targeting the Islamic State, but that collapsed. I’m wondering if you can talk about that context and what test do you think this new supposed partnership inside Syria is facing?
JAMES CARDEN: Yeah. I think it’s worth recalling exactly why the September agreement between Obama and Putin collapsed, right? The United States attacked and killed Syrian troops so that deal was essentially undone by the actions of the Pentagon.
AARON MATE: Well, but just to explain there, the Pentagon claimed that that airstrike was a mistake, but the theory around that by the Pentagon’s critics is that it was not a mistake. It was a deliberate effort to sabotage this US-Russia cooperation.
JAMES CARDEN: Right. Well, either way, it was undone. There’s no way to know whether or not it was an accident or if it was intentionally done. We have to leave that to historians, but the point is, I guess, is that it was undone. I think that the prospects for US-Russia cooperation in Syria are not very good and the reason for that is that the U.S. and Russia are diametrically opposed on the issue of Iran and Iranian influence in the region. While any cease fire agreement should be welcomed, I just don’t see how. I don’t see any long term prospects for success there due to … the widely divergent views on Assad and on Iran.
AARON MATE: That’s a very key point. Can the U.S. and Russia cooperate inside Syria if the U.S. is hellbent on confronting Iran, which by all indications from the Trump Administration that seems very likely. Is Iran possibly expendable to Moscow?
JAMES CARDEN: No. No, I don’t think so. I think the other thing that gets lost in conversation is that, especially among the foreign policy establishment that we were just talking about, is that the United States is in Syria illegally. We’re not there at the invitation of The Sovereign Syrian government. We’re not there on behalf of a UN mandate. And certainly operations against Assad are certainly not covered under the AUMF; the Authorization of Use of Military Force that was passed after 9/11. We’re … I just find it astounding that that never comes up. We actually have absolutely no right to be there and really we shouldn’t be there, but again, if we can find a way to work with the Russians against ISIS, fine. But again, I’m deeply pessimistic about America’s role in the Middle East generally and specifically in Syria.
AARON MATE: James, I don’t want to get too sidetracked on this point because it’s off topic, but I want to say one thing about the U.S. role. I mean what do you say though to those who would argue, well, look if the U.S. isn’t there, then they’re not there to provide vital support to the Kurds when they fight ISIS in taking back Kobani ’cause without them, the Kurds could have been slaughtered.
JAMES CARDEN: The Kurds can work with the Russians. We’re not the only game in town in the Middle East, but we have rather pressing issues closer to home. I don’t really see why the United States needs to play such a large role in Middle East affairs.
AARON MATE: Okay. Going back to Russia and its borders. On its Western border, you have right now thousands of NATO troops. Can you talk about that context as it hangs over the prospects for improved US-Russia relations?
JAMES CARDEN: Well, again, I mean lets … take a step further back and look at the context of this new cold war that were in with Russia. It’s essentially, I believe, a forefront war. You have the Baltic Theater, where, as you say, U.S. and NATO have thousands of troops on Russia’s border. There have been many close calls between Russian and NATO aircraft in the skies above the Baltic Sea.
The second front is as we spoke about Ukraine, where the Russians are supporting the Russian-speaking rebels in the east and the U.S. and NATO have a military base in western Ukraine from which they train Ukrainian soldiers to fight the Russian backed soldiers in the east. The third front is, as we were just talking about, Syria, and the fourth front, I believe it’s safe to say, is unfolding in cyberspace. We have, at any moment, an accident can happen and this cold war could turn hot. I think that we’re being distracted by the sideshow of Russia hacking and the left’s rather odd obsession with Vladimir Putin.
AARON MATE: On that front, that segways perfectly to a clip I want to play for you. Just talking about how Putin is discussed in the U.S. media. I want to play for you a clip. This is Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News.
Voice of Rich E: American presidents come and go, but Putin has outlasted them all. He’s perfected the art of controlling every detail to achieve his own goals. All you really see when you look Putin in the eye is exactly what he wants you to see. So far, he’s been winning every round in the long game he’s playing against the U.S., but what is that game? Foreign policy analyst like to say that Trump is playing checkers while Putin is playing chess.
AARON MATE: That’s Richard Engle, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News. This was in a special he did on Friday night about Putin and Russia. I find that clip so striking because Engle is talking about Putin winning every round of a long game against the U.S., but then in the next sentence he asks what is the long game? James, your thoughts.
JAMES CARDEN: I can’t put it any better than my Editor-in-Chief put it on Twitter when she was watching the Engle documentary the other night. I think she said something like it reminded her of Soviet propaganda. Any of this stuff coming out of. I assume this was on MSNBC?
AARON MATE: Yeah. It took the place of Rachel Maddow Show on Friday night and Maddow whose been a source of similar kind of stuff.
JAMES CARDEN: Right, as you’ve covered very well. Yeah, so MSNBC is. I mean, it’s not even worth watching anymore. I mean it’s just become an American version of. I would say R.T., but I think R.T. actually has higher editorial standards than MSNBC. I don’t know quite what it is anymore except … it gives space for these anti-Russian, anti-Putin hysterics.
This isn’t to say by the way that Vladimir Putin is my kind of politician and if he was an American politician here, I certainly wouldn’t vote for him. He’s far too nationalistic and he would probably cozy up to the American image’s right. I certainly wouldn’t be happy about an American politician raiding the treasury like he and his associates have done. The problem is that that’s an issue for the Russian people. They seem perfectly happy with Mr. Putin as president. I think he has something along the lines of 80% approval rating so if they’re okay with it, I’m okay with it. But the idea that he is a puppet master pulling the strings, it is just beyond ridiculous.
AARON MATE: Yeah, James, I mean the question is not why criticize Putin because as you point out there’s plenty to criticize him for. The question is why is there this unique obsession with him and demonization to the point where, as Richard Engle does, he’s talking about Putin playing chess and checkers and he’s talking about Putin’s body language and how Putin looks into people’s eyes and makes you see what he wants you to see as if he’s some super villain.
JAMES CARDEN: Yes.
AARON MATE: Out of the cartoon.
JAMES CARDEN: He’s a Svengali. It’s basically Russia coverage without facts, evidence or logic. This isn’t anything new, of course, but the intense demonization of this Russian leader is something that we didn’t even see when Joseph Stalin ruled the USSR. This is something sort of new and really, really pretty dangerous. I think that it has its sources in a certain pent-up frustration on the part of a lot of Democrats that their candidate lost fairly and squarely to this rather bizarre fellow who sits in the Oval Office today. They can’t get over it. This was, of course, something that the Clinton campaign actually. It was part of their post-election strategy. There’s a new book out called, “Shattered” by Amie Parnes and, I think, Jonathan Martin [crosstalk 00:22:08].
AARON MATE: Jonathan Allen. Yeah.
JAMES CARDEN: Jonathan Allen. They report that the morning after the election, the team met at the headquarters in Brooklyn and they said okay, let’s make Russia the cornerstone of our post-election strategy. That plays a big part of it. Of course, I have this very troubling feeling that this is all in order to set the stage for Hillary Clinton to return as the nominee in four years time because then she can say well, I didn’t really lose even though I outspent Donald Trump 2 to 1. I didn’t really lose because it was stolen from me. The Russians stole it from me. I think there are a lot of Democrats who are willing to believe that and they’re willing to absolve her for running a horrible, horrible campaign.
AARON MATE: Yeah, James, and on that point, Democratic partisans in the media might already be setting the stage for that return by warning of Russia sending over new spies to the U.S. in advance of 2018 and 2020, which if Clinton runs again and loses or if another Democrat runs again and loses, with a similar campaign, they could then go ahead and blame Russia again for that, too.
We have to leave it there though ’cause we’re way over time. James Carden, contributing writer at The Nation, Executive Editor for The American Committee for East-West Accord. He has also served as an advisor on Russia policy at the U.S. State Department. James, thank you.
JAMES CARDEN: Thank you.
AARON MATE: And thanks for joining us on The Real News.