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Who scares you most: Putin, ISIS or Iran?

James Rubin served under President Clinton as Assistant Secretary of State from 1997 to 2000. At that time, as he reminded the audience, the world was a much simpler place for a diplomat like him than it is now. In his keynote speech at EIE’s Pan-European Congress in Rome, he talked us through the three most (de)pressing foreign policy issues of the day: Russia’s war in Ukraine, the devastation in the Middle East, and Iran’s nuclear project.  

“The world keeps getting more complicated,” James Rubin started his speech. “If you had asked people a few years ago what problems were likely to develop in the world, they would not have predicted a land war in Europe. Russia has invaded another country [Ukraine], and we’ve seen the West really being unable to do anything about it. An invasion of one European country by another European country really is something you would think you wouldn’t see anymore in the 21st century.

“Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 on the promise from Britain, the US and Russia that its borders would be sacrosanct,” Rubin reminded the audience. “Yet, not that many years later we have to face the consequences of Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade.

Rubin went on to strongly dismiss the line of thinking that the Russian invasion of Crimea shouldn’t matter that much because the country had always had a claim on the peninsula, drawing a parallel with the Cold War. “I think playing down the importance of Russia’s invasion is very short-sighted. When I started in this business many years ago the US and the Soviet Union were faced off against each other. At the time, lots of discussions were held about how you would prevent escalation of a conflict between two nuclear powers. Right now, we are in a very similar situation as we are climbing down the escalation ladder.

Deterring Putin

So will NATO be able to contain Putin’s Russia? “The heart of being part of an alliance like NATO is having the adversary to believe that a country’s allies come to its rescue when it is attacked. If the adversary doesn’t believe that will happen, they are more likely to use force. So the question is: does Putin believe the West would come to the rescue of the Baltics? That’s called deterrence. As a result of the rather limited response by the West it’s hard to believe Putin is 100% sure NATO countries would defend the Baltics if they are invaded. I think they probably would in the end, but I’m not sure Putin believes that. If Putin does attack, you’ll start this horrible process called the escalation ladder. That we are even talking about this very real possibility, one in 10 or two in 10, is really a dramatic thing.

“The truth is that the West has responded rather feebly to the Russian actions so far. The fact that Putin is determined to challenge the West is a very troubling sign. But the fact is that we know very little about what drives Putin. I’ve met him a couple of times when I was in government, but I can ascertain that it’s not easy to know what’s going on in his mind. It has taken us a long time to realise he views the world very differently than we do and that, in addition to enriching himself in a degree almost unimaginable, he will do everything he can to expand Russia’s power.

“So what would convince him not to take his aggression further and to bring some stability back to Ukraine? I don’t expect this conflict to be resolved any time soon. The sanctions in place are fairly substantial, though they could be stronger. If we do things that hurt Russia and Putin it might help. Right now, I consider it extremely unlikely this conflict is going to be resolved in the near term.

The Middle East: a foreign policy failure

“The other big issue is the war taking place in the Middle East. Barack Obama wanted our troops out, but I think he made a mistake. His determination was such that the White House claimed the troops had to be pulled out because the Iraqi government wouldn’t provide an agreement that would allow American troops to stay. But now that we have realised we have a danger in Iraq, believe it or not, there are 3000 American troops in Iraq now without such an agreement.

“The president imagined the Maliki government’s army was capable to protect Iraq. But then we saw, in one of the most dramatic battles of modern history, a few thousand modestly armed ISIS fighters coming into the cities in the Sunni part of Iraq, and what happened? The Iraqi army, which had been provided heavy equipment and artillery and trained by the United States for years and years, 10-15,000 soldiers, simply ran away! So US troops went back in to provide air support, enabling the Iraqi forces to drive ISIS back and regain some territory.

Part of the Bonhill Group.