1. Iranian deal: The product of uneasy cooperation
Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (extreme right) and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (second from right) gesture towards Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (extreme left) during a press conference following the conclusion of nuclear reduction talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna, July 14, 2015. Source: EPA
The gloom surrounding relations between Russia and the West lifted slightly this week as the news was dominated by an example of positive engagement: The P5+1 six-power international negotiating team and Iran reached a landmark agreement on its contentious nuclear program, believed by most observers to be a win-win outcome.
Joint efforts and efficient coordination among the P5+1 group have borne fruit. Today, voices are being heard to nominate U.S. State Secretary John Kerry along with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif for the Nobel Peace Prize, while plaudits are being given to the tenacity and patience of U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders for pulling it over the line.
Russia too has reason to see itself as no less praiseworthy. According to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the foundation of the agreement was President Vladimir Putin’s two-pillar compromise formula. Basically, it amounts to the concept of a phased process and reciprocal concessions. In concrete terms, Moscow’s stance addressed Tehran’s insistence to preserve its uranium enrichment technology, with most restrictions to expire in a decade or so and most crippling sanctions lifted in return for placing thousands of centrifuges under an international monitoring regime.
Essentially, Putin’s formula envisaged reaching a well-balanced deal rooted in meaningful concessions made in good faith on both sides. In the aftermath of the agreement, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini praised the “positive role” Russia has played in the marathon negotiations.
Moreover, in an interview with The New York Times, Barack Obama expressed his pleasant surprise that Moscow had been so forthcoming and cooperative, quote, “given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine.” Unexpectedly, Obama went as far as to admit that “we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”
True enough, it was a mammoth task to strike the comprehensive accord. Suffice to say that it took 12 years to hammer it out. So, is there a good reason to celebrate the end of the long haul? Here is a rather “balanced” viewpoint provided to Troika Report by Andrei Baklitsky, an expert with the PIR Center for Policy Studies in Russia, an independent think tank based in Moscow:
“I would not say it is an ‘end’ per se, it is a big step forward, paving the way to the final closure of the Iranian dossier. If we look at the text of the agreement, which is 159 pages long, some issues will be fully closed in 10 years and some even in 15 years. We are still at the initial stage, not even in the implementation phase. We are at the point when the agreement put together by the negotiators is sent to the capitals where it will be reviewed, in particular, in the Majlis [parliament] in Tehran and in the U.S. Congress. They have 60 days for this, and we are certain to see plenty of stones thrown at the negotiators.”
— Can we still consider the deal as a point of no return? Or could the process still be sent into reverse by unpredictable events?
“It seems, for the moment, that we are at the ‘point of no return’ because the agreement was fine-tuned during the last two weeks to make it pass any scrutiny; that is why it took so long. There were constant consultations with Obama in Washington and Rouhani in Tehran. It looks like the deal will hold. Part of the deal includes provisions for the resolution of future possible conflicts. But it does not mean that we won’t face tough times ahead.”
Talking of “tough times ahead,” it should be noted that the prospects of an Iran liberated from sanctions have already provoked the jealousy of those who may not be able to reap the benefits.
British daily The Telegraph expressed disappointment that Western arms companies such as British Aerospace and Lockheed Martin may be prevented from exporting to Iran while Russia and China are likely to be the two big beneficiaries.
It’s no secret that Iran is keen to upgrade its air force and contribute to its domestic missile production system. Should Moscow and Beijing capitalize on the lucrative moment, there would be quite a number of apprehensive regional players, in particular Israel, whose leader Benjamin Netanyahu called the deal a “stunning historic mistake.”
Besides, the ratification of the deal depends on the approval by the parliaments in the U.S. and Iran, and right-wing politicians on both sides will be hard to please.
In the context of the current standoff between the West and Russia, Obama’s praise has been diluted by the ensuing statement of the U.S. State Department that plans to deploy U.S. anti-ballistic missiles systems in Europe, allegedly to prevent an Iranian strike, remain intact and will be implemented.
Since Russia regards this military build-up as a means of undermining its counter-strike capability, relations could easily dip below zero again.
2. Globally speaking
Srebrenica: A critical test for ‘justice without borders’
A woman mourns among graves at the Potocari Memorial Center, near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 11, 2015. Ceremonies are being held in Potocari to mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Source: Reuters
As the world marked the 20th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Bosniak Muslims by Serb forces in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995, Russia has once again came to loggerheads with the West. Describing the Western approach as “selective justice,” Moscow has vetoed a UK-sponsored U.N. resolution that qualified the mass killings as genocide.
Moscow suggested an alternative motion it described as more “balanced” and not “politically motivated” but it was not endorsed. The controversy underlined that the concept of “justice without borders” continues to be challenged by the conflicting interests of global powers.
The UK government’s initiative was aimed at recognizing as an act of genocide the murder of an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces over a period of 11 days in July 1995 during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
During the UN Security Council meeting, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the “atrocious crimes” committed in and around Srebrenica – a key distinction that marked the divergence between Russia and the 10 Council member states that voted for the British resolution, for Churkin plainly avoided direct reference to the massacre and hinted at a broader context.
In that particular area — “in and around Srebrenica” — 43 Serbian villages were burned down and hundreds of their residents slaughtered three years earlier as local Muslims retaliated for the ethnic cleansing campaign being waged by Bosnian Serbs across the east of the country in 1992 and 1993.
After the veto, Russia was portrayed in the Western media as the villain, and was accused of trying to rewrite the history of the Bosnian War. How relevant are these accusations? And can the concept of “justice without borders” realistically serve as the foundation of international law?
Leading Russian experts approached by Troika Report failed to agree in their assessment of the events. Political analyst and public figure Sergei Stankevich, a senior expert with the Anatoly Sobchak Foundation, made this comment:
“We should not use so easily the notion of ‘genocide’; it is a serious legal category. One should be cautious to use it. What we saw during the Balkan war was ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This is a more correct description of the events. These crimes must be investigated and punished, but it must be equal treatment of all sides, and we should not make the Serbs guilty for everything. It would be selective justice.”
— Are you saying that Russia’s reservations in the UN are dictated by a reluctance to single out the Serbs as the only guilty party?
“I think Russia is not trying to be an advocate of the Serbs. Russia insists only on one thing: There should be no concentration on Serbs only, and all sides should be investigated for being involved in ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. If we take a multilateral approach, we shall be able to find justice and not stage a political trial.”
Stankevich’s call for caution with the word “genocide” is not shared by an expert fully familiar with the realities on the ground. Sergei Gryzunov, former head of the RIA Novosti Balkan bureau, an eye-witness of the war in the region, and a close friend of Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin, says that there is nothing to prove unequivocally the innocence of either side. Here is what he said to Troika Report:
“There were acts of true genocide committed by Bosnian Serbs against local Muslims. To be fair, no one was clean: neither the Croats living in Bosnia, nor the local Serbs and Muslims. All of them were implicated in committing crimes. In this respect, Srebrenica was an act of genocide.”
Meanwhile, Nikita Bondarev, an expert from the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, questioned the number of victims at Srebrenica. According to Bondarev, the figure of 8,000 victims is a vast exaggeration since international forensic experts have to date identified the human remains of just 3,500-4,000 dead.
The current dispute around the vote in the UN highlights the controversial nature of “justice without borders,” with the geopolitical interests of major powers as diverse as never before. The United States, for instance, defies the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court for fear of being charged with crimes against humanity during the military campaigns in Afghanistan (especially in view of innocent children killed in drone attacks), Iraq and Libya.
No less hesitant in accepting the idea of “justice without frontiers” are other nations, especially since they could be judged retrospectively. Japan might be apprehensive of the potential charges brought against it by Beijing for the massacre of 31 million ethnic Chinese during the Second World War. So far, these killings have not been defined as an act of genocide.
The case of Srebrenica, just like the whole drama of the Bosnian War, remains a divisive issue. As Russia slowly regains its time-honored role as patron of Serbia and attempts to broaden its appeal in the Balkan region as whole, clashes with the West over issues of “guilt” and apportioning blame for the tragedies of the 1990s seem to be inevitable.
3. Going Eastward
U.S. courts Vietnam: A new challenge for Moscow
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, in Washington D.C., U.S., July 7, 2015. Source: EPA
Almost half a century has elapsed since the last American GI returned back home from the jungle in Southeast Asia, and U.S. President Barack Obama has made history — marking the 20th anniversary of restoration of diplomatic ties — by welcoming to the White House the chief Vietnamese communist, party leader Nguyen Phu Trong.
The symbolic gesture of reconciliation comes amid intensified attempts by the U.S. to lure Vietnam into its sphere of influence in Asia at the expense of China and Russia.
It cannot have been easy for the U.S. administration to roll out the red carpet for Trong, since he is known to belong to the conservative wing in the Vietnamese leadership, which remains reluctant to embrace the former foe.
The revisionists among Washington’s foreign policy-makers have gained the upper hand for several reasons, with the number one consideration being the formation of a loose pro-American alliance of South East Asian nations. The second factor is the $35 billion turnover which has propelled Vietnam to the status of the United States’ largest trade partner in the region, with trade expected to reach $57 billion by 2020.
The third element is U.S. President Barack Obama’s intent to include Vietnam in the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-sponsored organization that would require all member states to align themselves with American standards and business practices.
In the case of Vietnam, it would demand that Hanoi curtail the dirigisme of the government in running the economy in return for access to the U.S. domestic market for locally manufactured shoes and clothing. Trong’s visit to Washington has not produced any tangible results in this respect, but the first step has been taken.
Does this mark a dramatic new trajectory in U.S. foreign policy, or is it aimed only at achieving a breakthrough in putting together the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Is there a secret agenda? Troika Report approached Dr. Dmitry Mosyakov, deputy director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and director of the Center for South East Asia, Australia and Oceania, and here is what he had to say:
“The symbolism of the U.S. president’s welcome to Vietnam’s Communist leader cannot be underestimated given the continuous U.S. accusations of human rights violations in Vietnam and previous statements that Washington did not accept the legitimacy of communist rule in this country. This is a clear signal of the formal legitimization by the United States of communist power in Vietnam.
“The United States’ strategic goal is to influence the foreign policy alignment of Vietnam, which since the early 1990s has had a free hand in choosing friends and allies while remaining essentially neutral. It falls within the framework of the U.S. strategy of encircling China with countries with various level of alignment with Washington. We see U.S. troops are to be once again stationed in the Philippines. We see Burma as target of intensive U.S. interest. The crown prize would be Vietnam, if it is forced to abandon its balanced foreign policy orientation.”
The American media used Barack Obama’s long-term strategy to justify Washington’s rationale in welcoming Comrade Trong to the White House. The underlying concept is the same as at the core of the general focus on Asia currently being witnessed in U.S. foreign policy, and that is “to balance China’s growing economic, military and political clout.”
Is there a Russian angle to Washington’s courting of Vietnam? The question was answered by Dr. Mosyakov:
“Definitely. Russo-Vietnamese relations are unique in some sense. They are based on trust and mutual sympathy, as well as on contemporary cooperation in key areas: nuclear power generation, oil and gas production, military procurement, infrastructure projects, tourism, etc. Recently, Vietnam and Russia established a free trade zone. Now, the U.S. is attempting to diminish this partnership and present the alliance with the U.S. as the best and only option.”
Whether or not Barack Obama will succeed in his ultimate goal to bring Vietnam on board remains conditional on at least three elements.
Firstly, Vietnam’s communist leadership should resign itself to the idea of the supreme expediency of “opening up its political system,” as demanded by the United States, in exchange for a steady flow of revenues from shoe and clothing exports.
Secondly, both access to the U.S. market and the hint of a “security umbrella” to be offered by Obama’s administration in the face of Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea must overweigh the benefits of trade and economic cooperation with the world’s leader in GDP growth.
Thirdly, Obama’s plan could work if China and Russia remain transfixed on the sidelines and are unable to match Washington’s offers with anything as substantial.
In any case, the extraordinary visit by Vietnam’s ideological head to the country where not so long ago it was fashionable among some ultra-conservatives to chant “Better dead than red” marks a watershed in U.S. foreign policy. By any count, it is a coup of its own, and shows the limitless nature of Washington’s flexibility.