Editor’s Note: Simon Tisdall is assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist of the Guardian. He was previously foreign editor of the Guardian and the Observer and served as White House corespondent and U.S. editor in Washington D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
U.S. President Barack Obama has charged Vladimir Putin of breaching international law, writes Simon Tisdall
Tisdall: It is Obama, following in Bush's footsteps, who has repeatedly and cynically flouted international law
This is the biggest foreign test of Obama's presidency, he writes
In many ways, Putin is an unredeemed Cold War throwback, he says
All the self-righteous huffing and puffing in Washington over Ukraine jars on European and especially Russian ears after the multiple U.S.-led invasions and interventions in other people’s countries of recent years. It’s difficult to say what is more astonishing: the double standards exhibited by the White House, or the apparent total lack of self-awareness of U.S. officials.
Secretary of State John Kerry risked utter ridicule when he declared it unacceptable to invade another country on a “completely trumped-up pretext,” or just because you don’t like its current leadership. Iraq in 2003 springs instantly to mind. This is exactly what George W. Bush and Tony Blair did when they “trumped up” the supposed threat posed by the hated Saddam Hussein’s fabled weapons of mass destruction.
Like Saddam, the Taliban leadership in place in Afghanistan in 2001 was deeply objectionable. But instead of just going after Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda training camps after the 9/11 attacks, Bush (again abetted by Blair) opted for full-scale regime change. The lamentable consequences of that decision are still being felt 13 years later, not least by Afghan civilians who have been dying in ever greater numbers as the final Nato withdrawal approaches.
U.S. President Barack Obama, a former law professor who should know better, has charged Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, with violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in breach of international law.
But it is Obama, following in Bush’s footsteps, who has repeatedly and cynically flouted international law by launching or backing myriad armed attacks on foreign soil, in Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan to name a few, without U.N. security council authorization. It is Obama’s administration which continues to undermine international law by refusing to join or recognize the International Criminal Court, the most important instrument of international justice to have been developed since 1945.
And it is Obama’s State Department, principally in the person of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, that fatally overplayed its hand in the run-up to last month’s second Ukraine revolution. Nuland’s infamous “f**k the EU” comment revealed the extent to which Washington was recklessly maneuvering to undermine Ukraine’s elected pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, by backing the Kiev street protesters’ demands.
The EU had wanted to take things more gradually, for fear of provoking the very Russian reaction to which the U.S. now so strongly objects. When the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, acting for the EU, negotiated a compromise agreement on February 22 that envisaged early elections, the crisis appeared to have been defused. Russia did not like the deal, but seemed ready to go along.
But within 24 hours, the opposition had torn up the agreement. It forced Yanukovych from power and sacked the government. To alarm in Moscow, where nightmarish World War II memories linger, Ukrainian neo-fascists were among those who seized control. They are now part of the new government in Kiev.
The U.S. almost immediately gave its blessing to what the Kremlin later described as a “coup d’etat” while the EU, knowing this was what Washington wanted, just looked on. Little wonder the Russians were furious at what they saw as a western double cross.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, reflected these worries when he voiced “most serious concern” over Ukraine in phone calls to the French, German and Polish foreign ministers. “The opposition not only has failed to fulfil a single one of its obligations but is already presenting new demands all the time, following the lead of armed extremists and pogromists whose actions pose a direct threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitutional order,” Lavrov said. But it was already too late.
Obama and Kerry seem to have calmed down a little since the crisis first broke. The self-righteous hyperbole about international rights is less evident, though it has not disappeared entirely. Obama has heard the many voices in the U.S. and beyond terming this the worst east-west crisis since the end of the Cold War – and as the biggest foreign test of his presidency.
So now he’s doing what he does best: talking. In his latest phone call to Putin, on Thursday this week, Obama put forward a plan to resolve the stand-off diplomatically. It includes direct talks between Moscow and Kiev, the return of Russian troops to their bases, and the deployment of international observers to ensure the rights of all ethnic groups, including Crimean Russians, are respected.
But don’t hold your breath. Putin is in no hurry to back off or back down.
He has his tail up after a fortnight in which he exposed the hypocrisy and hollowness of much of western policy and politicians. His behavior, especially in Crimea, has been dangerous, wrong-headed and irresponsible in the extreme. In many ways, Putin is an unredeemed Cold War throwback. He is definitely not the sort of chap one would invite round for dinner, as a former British diplomat commented. The crisis could still explode in his and everyone else’s face. But it was not unprovoked.
And the Russian leader has an eye for precedent. Similar battles over so-called “frozen conflicts” and the rights of isolated ethnic groups loom elsewhere on Russia’s periphery, in Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and maybe Belarus and the Baltic states too. Putin is putting down a marker, even as he plays Obama and Kerry for fools.
Whatever they think in Washington, and whatever the financial markets say, it’s working for him personally. Latest opinion polls in Russia show Putin’s popularity soaring. One of these days western leaders will drop the pious cant, learn to stop under-estimating him, and recognize Russia’s leader-for-life as the canny, very dangerous, utterly unscrupulous opponent he is.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Simon Tisdall.