December 01, 2023QiOSK
Russia offered a peace deal in exchange for Ukrainian neutrality in talks last April, an offer that Ukraine rejected on the grounds that Moscow could not be trusted to uphold the deal, according to Davyd Arakhamiia, a Ukrainian politician who led Kyiv’s delegation to the negotiations.
“They really hoped almost to the last moment that they would force us to sign such an agreement so that we would take neutrality,” Arakhamiia said in a recent interview. “It was the most important thing for them. They were prepared to end the war if we agreed to — as Finland once did — neutrality and committed that we would not join NATO.”
The wide-ranging interview belies the Biden administration’s claim that talks were “not about NATO” and that Ukraine’s relationship to the bloc was a “non-issue.” It also adds nuance to the debate around former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s alleged role in scuttling the negotiations.
According to Arakhamiia, Johnson met with officials in Kyiv and “said that we would not sign anything with [the Russians] at all, and let's just fight.” However, the Ukrainian official denied that his team was on the verge of signing a deal — a decision he says could only have come from a direct meeting between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia — and insisted that Johnson’s comments were meant as advice, not a command.
Another reason for rejecting Russia’s proposal, per Arakhamiia, was that such a move would require an amendment to Ukraine’s constitution, which stipulates that the country intends to join NATO. Ukrainian officials have also previously cited Russian atrocities in Bucha as a key motive for pulling out of talks.
Arakhamiia’s comments suggest that Ukraine’s relationship with NATO will be a major factor in any future peace negotiations but highlight the political difficulties that Kyiv would face if it decides to offer neutrality in exchange for an end to the war.
“We can’t go to the negotiating table right now. We’re in a very weak negotiating position,” Arakhamiia added. “Why would we sit down for talks right now? What, let’s just stay where we are? Do you think Ukrainian society would accept that?”
Meanwhile, the war has largely ground to a stalemate in its second year, which has seen an uptick in casualty rates on both sides. Fighting will likely slow on the frontlines as Ukraine’s brutal winter sets in. (Just this week, a snowstorm in southern Ukraine killed at least 5 people.)
These factors, combined with Russia’s manpower advantage and wavering Western support, have created the conditions for a renewed negotiating effort, according to Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute.
“The full engagement of the United States in the peace process from the outset will be necessary if negotiations are to have any chance of success,” Lieven wrote in RS this week. “Only a U.S. administration can bring sufficient pressure to bear on the Ukrainian government, while also offering reasonably credible security guarantees for the future.”
“And only a U.S. administration,” he continued, “can threaten Moscow that, for some time to come, massive U.S. military and economic aid to Ukraine will continue, while at the same time offering the Kremlin compromises on wider issues of vital importance to Russia.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken played down accusations that the West has a “sense of fatigue” in its support for Ukraine, arguing that “we must and we will continue to support Ukraine,” according to Reuters. The comments followed a NATO-Ukraine meeting in Belgium and were likely aimed at assuaging Ukrainian concerns that the war in Gaza will pull attention and resources from Kyiv’s fight with Moscow. Despite Blinken’s rosy take, it remains unclear whether the U.S. Congress will be able to pass a new Ukraine aid package over the opposition of many House Republicans.
— The U.S. believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin “won't make a peace or a meaningful peace before he sees the result of our election” in 2024, according to an anonymous senior official who spoke with reporters after the Brussels meeting.
— Polish truckers expanded their blockade of Ukrainian border crossings on Monday amid allegations that Ukrainian companies are undercutting their business and hauling goods within the European Union, according to Euronews. The protests, which have forced thousands of trucks into days-long waits at the border, are in part a result of the EU’s 2022 decision to cancel a permitting system that limited the number of Ukrainian trucks that could cross the border. While Polish truckers want to reinstate that system, Ukraine argues that Russia’s Black Sea blockade has made it impossible to adhere to the pre-war caps.
— Turkey will likely ratify Sweden’s bid to join NATO “within weeks,” according to the Swedish foreign minister. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long held up Sweden’s accession to NATO due to Stockholm’s relationship with Kurdish groups that Turkey considers to be terrorists as well as a series of protests in which far-right Swedish activists burned copies of the Quran, Islam’s holy book.
— Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended this week’s summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, leading some states to boycott the meeting, which is being hosted by NATO-member North Macedonia, according to AP News. Lavrov’s visit marks the first time that he has set foot in a NATO country since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian officials claimed that they have received “a lot of requests for bilateral meetings” on the sidelines of the summit, which brings together a wide swathe of European and Central Asian leaders.
U.S. State Department news:
The State Department did not hold a press briefing this week prior to publication.
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U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) looks on during a U.S. Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Hearing, September 23, 2020. Alex Edelman/Pool via REUTERS
November 29, 2023Middle East
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul's office says he will force a vote in the coming weeks on a bill he introduced this month that could remove all U.S. troops — approximately 900 — from Syria. Sources say a vote could come as early as next week.
"The American people have had enough of endless wars in the Middle East. Yet, 900 U.S. troops remain in Syria with no vital U.S. interest at stake, no definition of victory, no exit strategy, and no congressional authorization to be there," Paul said in a statement provided to RS.
"If we are going to deploy our young men and women in uniform to Syria to fight and potentially give their life for some supposed cause, shouldn’t we as their elected representatives at least debate the merits of sending them there? Shouldn’t we do our constitutional duty and debate if the mission we are sending them on is achievable?"
American forces have been targeted in recent years with rockets and drones by Shia militants who the Pentagon says are directly supported by Iran. Those attacks have increased over the last month and a half after the Oct. 7 Hamas invasion and hostage-taking in Israel. According to the Department of Defense, there have been 66 attacks on U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq since Oct. 17 , with 34 of them in Syria. At least 62 Americans have been injured in both countries.
Paul's resolution, introduced on Nov. 15, invokes the War Powers Resolution which says the Biden administration is required to remove the U.S. military from hostilities without a declaration of war from Congress. This resolution would remove the troops within 30 days of passage unless the president asks for and receives an authorization for war from the Congress.
Critics like Paul say the Syria operation is not covered by the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs). Nevertheless, the U.S. military has been engaged in kinetic warfare with a number of state and non-state actors there since Obama deployed troops during the Syrian civil war in 2015. Now, the forces remain in harm's way without a clear mission and a war not far from the border in Gaza. From my colleague Adam Weinstein:
The potential for one-upmanship between various Shi’a militias, each trying to prove they’re more hostile toward Americans than the others, is a concerning possibility. A deadly attack on U.S. troops could prompt the Biden administration to respond more forcefully, especially in an election year. What is the administration’s plan to manage escalation and prevent a larger regional war (with heavy U.S. involvement) if this were to occur?
He recommends phasing out the troop presence in the region. As does University of Texas professor Jason Brownlee, who wrote in these pages just this week. He says the oft-used justification that the troops are there to deter and thwart ISIS no longer cuts it:
ISIS has long since been defeated and Operation Inherent Resolve should be shuttered at the first opportunity. The August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan offers a vivid — if unexpected — precedent for making this timely and prudent shift. This further demonstrates that letting local actors handle Islamic State fighters — and whatever lands those jihadists claimed — will not empower America’s challengers, but can enable a nimbler U.S. foreign policy.
Paul has long fought against this continued deployment, and this isn't the first effort at withdrawal. In the House, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tried and failed in March this year by a vote of 321-103 to do the same. This is not just a Republican issue. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D.N.Y) has introduced bills and/or amendments in 2021, 2022 and 2023 that garnered bipartisan support, but ultimately failed.
It is not clear whether the increased tensions and attacks due to the Gaza war will make it harder to make the case for removing the troops, or easier. The Biden administration has been building up U.S. military assets in the region for deterrence, though there are critics who say that makes the tensions worse. Dan Caldwell, vice president of the Center for Renewing America and a U.S. Army veteran, called the situation a "national disgrace" in a recent American Conservative article.
"Policy inertia and political cowardice have condemned American service members in Iraq and Syria to serve as soft targets for those looking to punish the U.S. and as trip wires for a larger regional war," he said. "By withdrawing from Iraq and Syria, the U.S. would no longer have to worry about retaliation against vulnerable U.S. troops due to its support of Israel in its war against Hamas."
Dear RS readers: It has been an extraordinary year and our editing team has been working overtime to make sure that we are covering the current conflicts with quality, fresh analysis that doesn’t cleave to the mainstream orthodoxy or take official Washington and the commentariat at face value. Our staff reporters, experts, and outside writers offer top-notch, independent work, daily. Please consider making a tax-exempt, year-end contribution to Responsible Statecraft so that we can continue this quality coverage — which you will find nowhere else — into 2024. Happy Holidays!
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November 29, 2023QiOSK
If you have been paying even the tiniest bit of attention to the ins and outs of the Pentagon budget for the past two decades-plus, you would know that the Defense Department isn’t hurting financially. In fact, Congress has given the Pentagon so much money that it can’t even account for most of it.
Yet according to a Politico “exclusive” on Tuesday, DOD’s bank account is having a tumbleweed issue.
“The Defense Department has ordered an additional aircraft carrier strike group, air defenses, fighter jets and hundreds of troops to the Middle East since the surprise terrorist attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, in an effort to prevent the conflict from spiraling into a regional war,” the story begins.
However, apparently there’s a big problem: “Congressional dysfunction means the Pentagon has no money to pay for the buildup.”
Let’s leave aside that Politico’s framing takes for granted that this Middle East buildup will prevent a regional war, as there is considerable evidence to suggest that it could actually spark one. But the fact that military spending is near all-time highs or that the Defense Department recently failed its sixth financial audit in a row (and has never passed one) did not prompt Politico to ask whether DOD’s claim has any merit.
On the contrary, the story does not quote any critical voices and only presents comments from Pentagon officials complaining that DOD has no money and that the added deployments are hurting readiness.
It’s true that congressional dysfunction has meant that the military “like the rest of the federal government, is operating under a temporary funding measure that freezes spending at the previous year’s levels,” as Politico noted. But the Pentagon isn’t “taking it out of hide” to pay for the increased Middle East deployment, as DOD spokesman Chris Sherwood is quoted as saying.
“While it would be far preferable for Congress to fund all parts of the government on a timely basis, the Pentagon's claim that it is running short of funds to deploy forces to the Middle East doesn't hold water,” said Pentagon budget expert Bill Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute. “It has considerable flexibility within its $800 billion-plus budget to deal with short-term contingencies.”
There’s another less visible element to this particular story, which is that Politico’s national security and foreign policy coverage is underwritten, at least in part, by the weapons industry. Indeed, Politico’s “National Security Daily” featured the “exclusive” in yesterday’s edition juxtaposing the newsletter’s headline — “The Pentagon’s Middle East cash problem” — with an ad for Lockheed Martin:
“Congress should do its job and fund the Pentagon, but in an ideal world that provision of resources would be accompanied by a vigorous debate about what spending is needed to defend the U.S. and its allies versus what spending enables global military overreach that is not in long-term U.S. interests,” Hartung added. “That debate is simply not happening at the level required to ensure an effective, affordable defense posture.”
Instead, Politico appears only interested in advancing one side to this story at the expense of exploring whether throwing more money at the Pentagon carries any added benefit to U.S. interests.
Dear RS readers: It has been an extraordinary year and our editing team has been working overtime to make sure that we are covering the current conflicts with quality, fresh analysis that doesn’t cleave to the mainstream orthodoxy or take official Washington and the commentariat at face value. Our staff reporters, experts, and outside writers offer top-notch, independent work, daily. Please consider making a tax-exempt, year-end contributionto Responsible Statecraft so that we can continue this quality coverage — which you will find nowhere else — into 2024. Happy Holidays!
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