US-Russian tensions over Ukraine threaten cooperation on Syria, Iran

(By Deutsche Welle) US-Russian relations have reached one of their lowest points since the end of the Cold War. The question is, as Moscow and Washington face off over Ukraine, can they continue to cooperate on Syria and Iran?

Barack Obama was going to be the president who salvaged Washington’s deteriorating relationship with Russia. Ties between the two countries had frayed during the Bush administration over Moscow’s intervention in Georgia and US plans to deploy a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe.

In 2009, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red “reset” button. The gesture symbolized the Obama White House’s desire to clear the slate and build a more cooperative relationship with the Kremlin.

Fast forward five years and Washington is now threatening Moscow with economic sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine. It’s the most serious confrontation between the two powers in the past two decades, according to Jeffrey Mankoff, an expert on Russian foreign policy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

“There’s not going to be a walking back from the confrontation that’s been unleashed by this crisis, at least as long as Russia is what it is, which is to say an increasingly authoritarian and revisionist power,” Mankoff told DW.

But from the Syrian civil war to Iran’s nuclear program, the US needs Russian cooperation to resolve a host of international problems. In Washington, the Republican opposition believes that President Obama’s unwillingness to adopt a more aggressive posture has only emboldened Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran.

“We are almost rudderless as far as our foreign policy is concerned,” Senator John McCain told DW at the Munich Security Conference in February.

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China seeks strategic advantage in Afghanistan

(By Deutsche Welle) China has staked its economic future on deeper integration with Central Asia. But as the US withdraws from Afghanistan, Beijing is concerned that a renewed civil war there could thwart regional development.

As the US prepares to scale back its military presence in Afghanistan this year, China has begun to contemplate a geopolitical “march westwards”. Beijing hopes to trigger an economic boom in its restive western Xinjiang province by re-vitalizing the ancient Silk Road, which runs through its Central and South Asian neighbors.

Beijing has largely taken a low-profile and cautious approach toward the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. But there is growing concern among the Chinese leadership that NATO could leave behind a security vacuum in Afghanistan, which would potentially jeopardize China’s economic investments in the broader region.

“If they remain in a civil war, we can’t make any money there,” Jin Canrong, an expert on China’s foreign policy at Rinmin University in Beijing, told DW. “China’s stance is very simple: China would like to see a capable central government and wants to see a stable Afghanistan, open to the world market.”

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Putin’s power play jeopardizes Eurasian Union plans

(By Deutsche Welle) President Vladimir Putin aims to create an Eurasian Union where the Soviet Union once reigned. But Moscow’s intervention in Crimea could make former Soviet republics think twice about deeper integration with Russia.

During his annual address to the Russian parliament back in 2005, President Putin publicly lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union, calling it “a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” The former KGB man laid out his solution to this “disaster” in a 2011 newspaper editorial, in which he called for the creation of an Eurasian Union.

“First, none of this entails any kind of revival of the Soviet Union,” Putin wrote in the daily Izvestia. “It would be naïve to revive or emulate something that has been consigned to history. But these times call for a close integration based on new values and a new political and economic foundation.”

“We suggest a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world and serving as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region,” he continued.

Neighboring Belarus and Kazakhstan have signed up to join Russia in this integration project. In 2010, the three ex-Soviet republics formed a common customs union. Meanwhile, they have agreed to make the Eurasian Economic Union a reality by January 1, 2015.

“According to Putin, it has to be a political alliance, not only the customs union, with supranational institutions that will be hosted by Moscow and apparently dominated by Russia,” Lilia Shevtsova, a Russia expert with Carnegie Moscow, told DW.

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Bound by treaty: Russia, Ukraine and Crimea

(By Deutsche Welle) The EU and the US have accused Russia of violating international law by intervening in Crimea. DW examines the agreements that are supposed to govern relations between Moscow and Kyiv.

As successor states to the Soviet Union, both Ukraine and Russia are signatories to the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Adopted in Helsinki in 1975, the document sought to promote détente during an era of Cold War geopolitical tensions in Europe.

With the end of the East-West confrontation, the CSCE evolved into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest security forum. The OSCE has 57 member states, including Russia and Ukraine.

The Final Act obligates its signatories to “refrain…from the threat or use of force” against each other. According to the act, participating states “regard as inviolable one another’s frontiers” and “will refrain now and in the future from assaulting those frontiers.” They “will respect the territorial integrity of each of the participating states” and “will likewise refrain from making each other’s territory the object of military occupation.”

In addition, the participating states agree to “refrain from any intervention, direct or indirect, in the internal or external affairs” of another participating state.

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Will US budget cuts lead to splendid isolation?

(By Deutsche Welle) With defense cuts looming in the US, Secretary of State John Kerry has warned against growing isolationist sentiment. But experts say that Washington is simply adopting a more restrained foreign policy.

US President Barack Obama published his budget on Tuesday, a week after Secretary of State Kerry had warned that cuts in military spending potentially signaled a “new isolationism” among the American public and its elected representatives.

“This not a budget we want,” Kerry told reporters last Wednesday. “It’s not a budget that does what we need. It was the best the president could get. It’s not what he wanted.”

“Look at our efforts to get the president’s military force decision on Syria backed up on (Capitol Hill),” the secretary of state said. “Look at the House of Representatives with respect to the military and the budget.”

“All of those diminish our ability to do things,” Kerry said, adding that the US was “acting like a poor nation.”

But according to Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, accusations of “isolationism” are little more than a political tactic used to delegitimize critics.

“This is standard American politics,” Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and former army colonel, told DW. “There seems to be a belief in Washington that if you can portray your critics as isolationists, that doing so will then strengthen one’s own claim to wisdom. The United States is not an isolationist country – quite frankly it’s never been. Certainly it’s not today.”

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US, Russia maneuver to influence Ukraine’s political future

(By Deutsche Welle) With the US Congress reportedly preparing sanctions against Ukrainian leaders, Moscow has warned Washington to get out of the crisis in Kyiv. Has Ukraine become a proxy battleground between Russia and the West?

As the political crisis in Ukraine has escalated, EU and US efforts to support the opposition have gathered momentum. Washington is reportedly putting together a package of diplomatic carrots and sticks. US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has said that Kyiv could receive US aid money, but only after it has implemented political reforms.

Meanwhile, the US Congress and the White House are reportedly discussing targeted financial sanctions against the Ukrainian public figures allegedly responsible for violence. In a resolution which passed in a 381-2 vote, the House of Representatives on Monday expressed support for the “democratic wishes of the people” in Ukraine.

According to Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine, sanctions should also target President Viktor Yanukovych’s inner-circle, which includes government officials and business people.

“Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest oligarch, has been fairly close to Mr. Yanukovych,” Pifer told DW. “I think it would be useful if Mr. Akhmetov was using his influence with the president to encourage him to negotiate in a serious way to find a solution.

“If there was some threat that there might be financial or travel sanctions on Mr. Akhmetov, that could be a useful lever,” he said.

So far, the EU has been reluctant to impose sanctions out of concern that punitive measures will only push Yanukovych further toward Moscow. In neighboring Belarus, for example, Western sanctions have done little to persuade strongman Alexander Lukashenko to reform his authoritarian regime.

But Andrew Wilson, an expert on Ukraine with the European Council on Foreign Relations, disagrees with the analogy.

“There aren’t oligarchs in the same sense. You have a much more personal presidential system [in Belarus],” Wilson said. “Whereas in Ukraine you do have oligarchs, and you can hurt their interests.”

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China urges ‘de-Americanized’ new world order

(By Deutsche Welle) In the response to the debt ceiling battle in the US, Beijing has called for the world to become more independent of Washington. But the emerging global powers have no vision for what a post-American order should be.

In an editorial published by China’s state news agency Xinhua, Beijing has lambasted US global leadership, calling for emerging economies to forge a new world order that is less dependent on the volatilities of American domestic politics.

China, the largest single-holder of American Treasury securities, has a particularly strong national interest in how the US reacts in the wake of the resolution of the shutdown and the decision to raise the debt ceiling, albeit temporarily. A US default could have devalued the billions of Treasuries that Beijing holds.

The Chinese government has used the opportunity to question the legitimacy of US global leadership, saying that “it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.”

“Such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated, and a new world order should be put in place, according to which all nations, big or small, poor or rich, can have their key interests respected and protected on an equal footing,” Xinhua author Liu Chang wrote.

But according to foreign policy expert Charles Kupchan, China’s response to the political crisis in Washington is largely a rhetorical one.

“China is taking advantage of the troubles in Washington to advance its desire to create an international order that diminishes the influence of the United States,” Kupchan, with the Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

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