After some of the worst violence so far of the current conflict in Ukraine, President Putin's suddenly conciliatory rhetoric has caught Washington and Kyiv off guard. But Robert Parry says that it is because Obama and Putin are working behind the scenes to deescalate the conflict, against the wishes of their hawks.
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 submit that Putin is a nationalist and an opportunist who will take whatever is presented him, such as Crimea and South Ossetia. But Putin's prime motivation is securing his place in history, as the man who ushered in a new era to replace the Pax Americana that followed the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR.
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.
Case in point -- Putin is negotiating massive gas pipeline deals with China and North Korea that would supply gas to an entire new sector of Asia. Another case in point -- Russia has publicly, on its Presidential website, trumpeted plans to exploit the Arctic's resources as the ice breaks up thanks to climate change.
Putin knows that he can't escalate the crisis in Ukraine beyond a certain point -- after all, if it were to turn into a nuclear confrontation, there would be no more history to write despite Russia's recent military exercises showcasing its ability to launch massive retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. The other consideration is that Putin and his allies in East Ukraine are divided -- Putin urged them to postpone elections while his allies in East Ukraine refused. A third consideration is that Poroshenko, the man who is likely to win the May 25th elections in Ukraine, is also open for direct dialogue with Russia (as reported in the Kyiv Post on April 25th), possibly to exploit the wedge between Russia and the pro-Russian forces occupying buildings in East Ukraine. He has said that there would be no negotiations with the "separatists."
Parry says that there were two people within the White House, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, who Obama regarded as unfireable. Therefore, he has shown a consistent pattern of bypassing them whenever feasible. For instance, he attempted to bypass them on Iran by secretly signing off on a plan to ship Iranian uranium out of the country with the help of Brazil and Turkey. Obama continued this policy of bypassing his State Department even after Hillary Clinton left. Another instance came when John Kerry all but declared war on Syria on August 30th, only for Obama and Putin to work behind the scenes to bypass Kerry and broker the deal to destroy most of Syria's chemical weapons. Obama and Putin also worked behind the scenes, according to Parry, to bypass Kerry on Iran, getting the current deal back on track after Kerry had nearly scuttled it by insisting on new language at the last possible minute.
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.And once again, says Parry, Obama and Putin are bypassing the State Department.
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.
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.Putin, as we have noted before, faces a conflict of his own. His key allies are nationalists like Dugin, who envision a long-term struggle to restore Russia's territory and place in the sun. He is highly influential in Putin's thinking. But his other allies are the gas and oil industries, who see an opportunity to make even more profits through China, North and South Korea, and the Arctic. Doing so requires that Putin forego any more gains in Ukraine for the time being. The US view of Putin is that like Obama, Putin has a hawk problem of his own, hence the sanctions that are more targeted towards individuals than entire economic sectors. The US is sending a subtle message of its own to Putin that he should not listen to those who would continue to escalate the conflict in Ukraine.
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.
Obama and Putin have a mutual interest, if Parry is correct, in deescalating the conflict in Ukraine. For Obama, it would be a chance to break the State Department, which he sees as operating out of his control too much. For Putin, it is an opportunity to solidify both his place in history and his political popularity by taking credit as the man who broke NATO expansionism and restored Russia's place in world politics.