After Geneva: Putin’s double game, and what to do about it

(Developing—check back for updates)

Geneva agreement delays further sanctions; Russian non-compliance and new conditions; tacit acceptance of Crimean annexation; 40,000 combat-ready troops on border continue to threaten invasion; Western response

For recent commentary, see

(1) Andreas Umland (Kommentar), “KRIM-ANNEXION: Wie Putin den Westen austrickste,” Die Zeit, 18. April 2014 (1949 Uhr).

“Wladimir Putin hat sein Ziel erreicht: Die Genfer Erklärung imnpliziert, dass die Krim nicht mehr zur Ukraine gehört. Der Westen lässt Russland wieder einmal gewähren.”

(2) David J. Kramer, “Action, not words, needed for Ukraine,” The Washington Post, April 21, 2014 (10:29 AM).

The response of the EU, the U.S., and NATO to Russian aggression in the Ukraine continues to be one of pacifism and an unwillingness to confront Putin which is so great that it amounts to appeasement.  For example, there was no mention of the invasion and annexation of the Crimea in the communiqué which was issued at the end of the four-party meeting between Russia, the EU, the U.S. and the Ukraine in Geneva on April 17, 2014.

The West has adopted no sanctions which can seriously be considered as aimed at forcing Russia to undo the annexation and return the Crimea to the Ukraine restoring the situation to the status quo ante prior to the invasion.

The West has adopted no serious sanctions against Russia for threatening an invasion of the eastern Ukraine with 40,000 combat-ready troops on the border fully equipped for an invasion.

The West has adopted no serious sanctions against Russia for having invaded the eastern Ukraine with special operations forces and others under their control, which have seized and continue to occupy public buildings through the use of armed force.

The next stage of sanctions which the West is threatening to adopt if Putin expands his invasion of the eastern Ukraine with regular military forces appears to be limited to the addition of more individuals and companies to the list of those targeted by individual sanctions.

On the military front, NATO and the U.S. have announced some token deployments of troops (e.g., 150 U.S. troops) to Poland and one or more of the Baltic nations which are members of NATO.

What the West has Forgotten

The West has forgotten the history of the Soviet Union, and Russia. Europe and the U.S. seem to have no memory of the methods, lies and subterfuge which were essential elements of Soviet diplomacy after World War II, as they took over one Eastern European country after another with lies, subterfuge, and where necessary assassinations of democratic opponents. The West has both forgotten this history and failed to recognize the fact that the new Russian leaders and apparatchiks have resumed the use of such methods in the conduct of Russian foreign policy.

Hitler, Goebbels, and Soviet leaders since Stalin have understood that the public has a very short memory, that the “Big Lie” must be endlessly repeated, and that non-official sources of news and information must be ruthlessly suppressed. Every assertion by the enemy that is at variance with the official propaganda and narrative of the party or the state must be vigorously, endlessly disputed, so as to create confusion in the minds of the public and to effectively suppress the real news about what is going on.

The greatest enemy of official propaganda, both Hitler and Soviet dictators have always known, is the truth.

It is not difficult to see and understand the implementation of this strategy by the current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his apparatchiks such as foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

Among the constantly repeated lies the Russians are propagating, and which are repeated again and again, is the assertion that the Kiev government, which was elected by a vote of parliament after President Viktor Yanukovych fled first Kiev and then the country, assumed power as a result of a “military coup”.  Yet there was no military coup, and indeed the military had nothing to do with Yanukovych abandoning the government and fleeing Kiev.

Another lie, constantly repeated, has been that the Kiev government is controlled by neo-Nazis and fascists. Even if in fact the Rightist sector is represented in the government, to a limited degree, it is very far from the truth to say they control the government, when the President and the Prime Minister come from the party most closely associated with Iulia Timoshenko.

The point is that, nurtured by 25 years of illusions that Russia might become like a Western country, Europe and the U.S. are having a very difficult time disabusing themselves of these illusions despite growing and incontrovertible evidence that they are false.

This evidence includes:

(1) Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008 and the fact that it still has troops occupying several Russian-speaking enclaves in that country;

(2) The harsh repression of fundamental human rights in Russia, including the right to a free press and freedom of expression, the right to engage in peaceful demonstrations, and the right to a fair trial; and

(3) Russia has become an authoritarian dictatorship where alternative versions of reality are no longer permitted to be transmitted through the press or the media. In a highly revealing move, Russia stopped transmissions by the Voice of America on local frequencies only weeks before the Crimean invasion.

Alternative versions of reality which question official facts cannot be permitted. The greatest enemy of Russian propaganda is the truth. That is why the truth must be suppressed and factual reports from outside the area whose media Russia controls must be vigorously contested and contradicted at every step of the way.

The greatest enemy is the truth, because if the truth is allowed to penetrate the bubble of propaganda, the whole bubble will burst.

It is in this context that we must understand Sergey Lavrov’s assertions that the U.S., the EU and the U.S. are violating the “agreement” reached in Geneva on April 17, 2014, or engaged in actions which violate international law, or his assertions that the government in Kiev is violating the Ukrainian constitution. This propaganda, which is dutifully and endlessly repeated in the Russian television and press, and by U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin in the Security Council whenever that body meets, is an integral part of a strategy which is based on (1) the “big lie” that Russian-speakers in the Crimea or the eastern Ukraine are under threat or being attacked; and (2) the “need” or asserted “right” of Russia to respond by the use of military force to protect those threatened Russian-speakers, or cultural nationals. Hitler used the term “Volksdeutsche” in referring to cultural nationals as he claimed the same right Putin claims to intervene on their behalf.

It is in this context that the armed clash which occurred at a checkpoint in the eastern Ukraine on Sunday, resulting in the death of at least one person, must be considered. Russian camera crews were suspiciously on the scene very quickly, and it is far from clear that Ukrainian “Rightest Sector” supporters were behind it, as was immediately asserted in the Russian media. Students of history will recall that Adolf Hitler staged a fake attack on German soldiers by Polish forces, to provide a pretext for his invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

The Rightest sector forces in Ukraine deny that they were behind the attack. It is entirely possible, if not probable given the unusual circumstances such as the presence of Russian television crews, that the operation was executed by Russian special forces in an effort to continue building a case for Russian military intervention in the eastern Ukraine.

In the light of Vladimir Putin’s uncompromising speech on April 17, delivered as his foreign minister was agreeing in Geneva for the militia and “protesters” to withdraw from the buildings they had seized in a number of localities in the eastern Ukraine, their subsequent refusal to do so, and the attack on the checkpoint on Sunday, such an intervention may indeed be likely, if not imminent.

As for the Geneva agreement, it served the obvious purpose of throwing a monkey-wrench into Western plans to adopt stronger sanctions against Russia for  (1) its military seizure and annexation of the Crimea; (2) its attacks in the eastern Ukraine by Russian armed forces and others under their control, who seized and continue to occupy a number of public administration buildings; and (3) its massing of 40,000-50,000 combat-ready troops on the Ukrainian border, in an obvious threat of invasion if Kiev does not accede to its demands regarding internal constitutional arrangements and other matters within its domestic jurisdiction.

The vagueness of the agreement in Geneva also leaves open to Russia the argument that the refusal of the militia and “protestors” in the government buildings seized in the eastern Ukraine is beyond their control, since Russia has no military or other forces in the eastern Ukraine, and exerts no control over the pro-Russian “demonstrators”.

Furthermore, in analyzing the conduct of Russia vis-à-vis any agreement, such as the April 17 agreement in Geneva, one must bear in mind that Russia was working very closely with Bashar al-Assad when he signed an Arab League peace agreement in November 2011, the agreements pursuant to Security Council resolutions 2042 and 2043 (2012) under which al-Assad agreed to ceasefire provisions and observers to verify compliance, and the June 30, 2012 Geneva I agreement which established a process (clearly illusory) for a ceasefire and resolution of the conflict.

Al-Assad complied with none of these agreements, while blocking Western sanctions initiatives and gaining valuable time through signing them. It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with this history, and Russia’s diplomatic and military role in supporting the al-Assad regime, to see similar behavior now from Russia in relation to the Ukraine.

The Significance of the April 17 Geneva Agreement

At Geneva on April 17, Russia achieved a tacit recognition that its invasion of the Crimea should not be the subject of further dispute, while derailing efforts then underway to adopt stronger sanctions against Russia for the behavior described above.

What the West achieved was an agreement for an expanded team of OSCE observers to deploy to the region.  They also “achieved” the illusion of progress on the ground with withdrawal of militia and “demonstrators” from public buildings they have seized and still occupy in the eastern Ukraine, and a further undertaking not to continue such seizures.

If the U.S. and the EU quickly adopt really serious sanctions, e.g., for the invasion and annexation of the Crimea, and expand military moves in eastern countries of the NATO alliance, and the OSCE observers are robustly backed by the West, it is possible that the Geneva agreement of April 17 may play a useful role in defusing tensions in the eastern Ukraine.

However, it must be recognized that Putin and Russia represent a powerful military force that is moving, with great momentum, which will not be stopped or slowed until it encounters an equally strong opposing force. That force may consist of real economic sanctions that are implemented, and military moves by NATO that should make Russia think twice.

This would be a good time, for example, to launch a vigorous discussion within NATO about the need to permanently move the deployment of U.S. and other NATO troops forward to Poland, Romania, and Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. U.S. troops were stationed during the Cold War within hundreds of kilometers of East Germany and Czechoslovakia, where opposing Warsaw Pact forces were stationed. Given the changes in geopolitical realities revealed by the Russian invasion of the Crimea, a strong case can now be made that to deter future Russian military aggression against member states, NATO forces should be forward-deployed to where they might have a significant military impact in deterring or halting any such action.

Real, permanent economic sanctions should now be imposed against Russia for its invasion and annexation of the Crimea. As suggested previously, a good start would be to impose a total ban on financial transactions with, or doing any other business with, companies in the Crimea, or with other companies doing business with such companies. These sanctions should have the goal of eventually reversing the effects of the invasion and annexation of the Crimea, and should not be lifted until those conditions are met. They are limited and proportional measures of collective self-defense, which Kiev has or will formally request from NATO, the U.S. the EU countries, and other countries.

The U.S. should adopt these sanctions immediately, because it can, while the EU should adopt these measures or the closest approximation they can reach, as soon as they can. Other NATO allies or U.S. allies, such as Canada and Australia, should adopt such measures as quickly as they can.

Can we expect such concentrated attention and concerted action from Barack Obama and Europe’s leaders?

It does not appear likely on the record they have established to date for pacifism and appeasement. If Germany is not willing to sacrifice one half of one percent of its GDP in order to impose sanctions that might help to uphold the postwar military, political and economic order, appeasement may carry the day.

But at some point, hopefully soon, they will see behind Putin’s mask, and understand that he and Russia are a force, moving with great momentum, that will not be stopped until it encounters a countervailing force of equal strength. To reach that point, we can only hope that they experience a sudden infusion of insight and political courage.

Is the effort to uphold the U.N. Charter and the prohibition of the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state worth what it will cost, even when we are talking about a country that is not a member of NATO or any other military alliance with the United States?

Ask the war veterans who fought in the Korean War to repel North Korean aggression.

Ask the 500,000 veterans who fought in the 1990-91 Gulf War to repel the Iraqi invasion and attempted annexation of part of Kuwait.

Ask any serious student of diplomatic history or international law.

The Trenchant Observer

Der Scharfsinniger Beobachter
L’Observateur Incisif
El Observador Incisivo

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.