Putin’s proposal for Ukraine is another trap for Trump


Putin’s proposal for Ukraine is another trap for Trump


By Josh Rogin Global Opinions November 26 at 7:05 PM

After playing into Russia’s hands on Syria, the Trump administration now risks repeating the error in Ukraine, where diplomatic discussions over a Russian initiative are heating up. Moscow’s plan is to legitimize its invasion and control over parts of two eastern provinces by drawing President Trump into another bad deal.

Vladi­mir Putin’s pattern is familiar. He uses his military to escalate fighting on the ground and then approaches the West with a proposal sold as de-escalation. Appealing to European and U.S. desires for peace without Western intervention, the Russian president puts forward an alleged compromise. But in the details, Putin’s proposals are really designed to divide his adversaries and cement his gains.

Such was the case in September, when Putin introduced a proposal for “peacekeepers” inside eastern Ukraine, where Russia continues to fuel a violent separatist uprising that has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths and displaced more than 1.5 million people since 2014. Ukraine, European powers and the United States all decided to engage Moscow on the idea.

But as Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, told me at the recent Halifax International Security Forum, Putin’s plan really isn’t for “peacekeepers” at all. He is proposing that international troops deploy only to protect the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s special monitoring mission members in eastern Ukraine.

“The idea of a peacekeeping mission is a serious one,” Klimkin said. “But the Russian proposal of a protection mission doesn’t make any sense at all.”

For one thing, the original Russian proposal was to deploy these forces along the line of contact between the Ukraine military and separatist forces. As the Ukrainian government sees it, that is simply Putin’s way of fortifying the reality that Russia created on the ground.

Nevertheless, Ukraine’s international supporters are taking the proposal seriously. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Putin in September and persuaded him to yield on one point; Putin agreed the international force could be deployed not just along the contact line. That gave Western governments confidence a genuine negotiation with Moscow was possible.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke about the idea with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on Nov. 4. Kurt Volker, the Trump administration’s part-time special envoy for Ukraine, met with his Russian counterpart Vladislav Surkov on Nov. 13 and proposed a counterplan.

The U.S. idea, Volker told me, is to create a true U.N. peacekeeping force that would have not only free rein but also security authority throughout contested areas. The force must have access to the Ukraine-Russia border and not have any Russian personnel in it, he said.

Moscow rejected 26 out of 29 of the paragraphs in Volker’s proposal. But Volker said he intends to keep negotiating. He said the peacekeeping plan represents the best hope to return to Minsk II, a peace agreement that both Ukraine and Russia pledged to follow.

That process is stalled primarily because Russia won’t honor provisions mandating a cease-fire, the removal of its heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine and access to the border. Russia still won’t even acknowledge that it has forces on the ground in eastern Ukraine, much less remove them.

But the U.S. strategy is based on the assumption that Putin is looking for — or at least considering — a way out of his financial and military commitments in eastern Ukraine. If Putin’s long-term goal is to create a pro-Moscow Ukraine, his continued interference is having the opposite effect, Volker said.

“What we are trying to do is clarify the options,” Volker said. “If they want to dig in, they can, but it’s going to cost a lot. If they want to move on, it can be something we all agree on and we can find a way to make that work out.”

Ukraine has responsibilities under Minsk as well, including holding local elections in eastern Ukraine, giving the region special status and granting amnesty for the separatists. That can happen only if Putin holds up his end.

But if Putin’s goal is to stay in Ukraine and keep the country destabilized, prevent it from joining European institutions and maintain control over a buffer zone, he will never agree to a peacekeeping mission that meets Ukraine or Western conditions.

Most likely Putin is repeating his strategy in Syria, which was to engage in Kabuki diplomacy with the United States to buy time to consolidate battlefield gains he has no intention of giving up. Trump — and before him, President Barack Obama — went along with it, ensuring that the next phase of the conflict plays out on Russia’s terms.

Trump and Putin spoke Nov. 21 and “discussed how to implement a lasting peace in Ukraine,” according to the White House. Trump should pursue that peace, but not on Putin’s terms.


Yemen is on the brink of a horrible famine. Here’s how things got so bad


By Amanda Erickson November 19 at 5:00 AM    The Washigton Post

It’s been called the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world:” Nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s population is food insecure; millions are teetering on the edge of famine. The situation — described as critical for nearly two years — has grown even worse since early November, when Saudi Arabia enacted a near-complete blockade on its borders with Yemen, making it nearly impossible for anyone to import food, water and medical supplies from Saudi Arabia.

How did one of the poorest countries in the world get to that point? It’s a complicated story, one that involves warring regional superpowers, terrorism, oil and an impending climate catastrophe.

But in some ways, it’s also a simple one. Lots of people outside of Yemen are fighting for control and influence. And lots of the people within the country are paying the price.

How did the current political crisis start? 

Like many conflicts in the Middle East, Yemen’s struggle started with the Arab Spring. In November 2011, after protests, the country’s longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to hand power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi.

At the time, Saleh’s outster was seen as a victory for democracy. But over the next couple of years, Hadi struggled to lead effectively. The country was plagued with unemployment, food insecurity and corruption. Its people also faced attacks from the al-Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen. Hadi also struggled with a skeptical army (many top lieutenants had remained loyal to Saleh) and a separatist movement in the south.

The Houthi rebel group, which supports the country’s Shia minority, took advantage of Hadi’s weaknesses. The group staged a coup, taking control of the country’s north. Many Yemenis supported the Houthi, at least initially. They were frustrated by the government’s weakness. When the Houthi decided to take control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, thousands of civilians pitched in, setting up street camps and roadblocks.

By January 2016, the Houthi controlled Sanaa, and Hadi escaped to the port city of Aden.

How did Saudi Arabia get involved?

Yemen’s northern neighbor watched warily as the Houthi took over. Saudi Arabia is Sunni, and they were leery of allowing a Shiite group to gain control of a border country, particularly one allied with their enemy Iran. Quickly Saudi Arabia teamed up with eight other Sunni Arab states to try to beat the group back and restore Hadi to power. Over the next two years, the coalition launched an extensive airstrike campaign. Thousands of bombs have been dropped; many have hit and killed civilians. According to research data, out of about 750 of those attacks 231 hit military sites and 331 struck residential ares. Schools were hit in 39 attacks, the data showed.

According to one report from the United Nations, at least 10,000 Yemenis have been killed in the violence; 40,000 more have been injured.

The airstrikes haven’t resulted in much progress. Government forces were able to retake Aden, but only after a fierce, four-month battle that left hundreds dead. That victory gave the government a stronghold from which to take control of much of the south.

The Houthi still maintain control of much of the north. As the BBC explained, “Despite the air campaign and naval blockade continuing unabated, pro-government forces have been unable to dislodge the rebels from their northern strongholds, including Sanaa and its surrounding province.”

Adding to the strife, al Qaeda also controls some parts of Yemen, and the Islamic State is active there, targeting the government-controlled south.

What prompted the blockade?

In early November, Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile near Riyadh, its capital. Officials allege the weapon was fired by the Houthi and that it was provided to them by Iran. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called the launch a “direct military aggression” that could be “considered an act of war.” In retaliation, Saudi Arabia sealed all entry via land, air and sea in an effort, they say, to prevent Iran from providing any more weapons to its rebels.

Why is it a blockade so dangerous in Yemen?

In addition to this political crisis, Yemen is facing an environmental catastrophe. Nearly 90 percent of the country is classified as arid or desert. Water is scarce — Yemen has one of the lowest rates of per-capita water availability in the world, about two percent of the global average. Rapid depletion of groundwater resources means the water table has dropped quickly. Droughts and desertification have made an already challenging agricultural scene nearly impossible. Much of the little usable agricultural land is used to grow qat, a cash crop and mild stimulant chewed by about 70 percent of Yemeni men.

Before the civil war broke out, Yemen imported nearly 90 percent of its food, mostly by sea. Seven million Yemeni people rely entirely on imported food. Because of the fighting, importing food has become much more difficult. Many shipping companies simply won’t send supplies anymore. Even before the blockade, those who ship supplies could face massive delays and mandatory searches by coalition warships.

After an international outcry, the Saudis loosened the blockade on Yemeni ports — a bit. Saudi Arabia said it would allow aid to enter government-controlled ports in three cities. But aid groups and the United Nations say it’s not nearly enough.

What kind of humanitarian toll could the blockade take?

According to the United Nations, Yemen is in urgent need of medicines, vaccines and food. The supplies “are essential to staving off disease and starvation,” the organization said. “Without them, untold thousands of innocent victims, among them many children, will die.” A joint statement from the heads of the World Food Program, UNICEF and the World Health Organization called the situation in Yemen “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

They warn that 3.2 million people are at risk of famine, and 150,000 malnourished children could die in the next month. (Right now, according to Save the Children, 130 children are dying every day in Yemen.)

A least 17 million other people, including 11 million children, are in desperate need of humanitarian supplies. The shortage of medicine and clean water has also led to the spread of disease. The country is now in the throes of the fastest-growing cholera epidemic ever recorded. Nearly 900,000 people have been affected, according to U.N. figures.

Is peace possible?

Right now, it’s hard to imagine. The United Nations has organized three rounds of peace talks. All have collapsed, spurring in an escalation in fighting and civilian casualties. Hadi’s government is demanding that the rebels withdraw from all areas they control as a precondition for talks, making success unlikely.




Trump seeks to downplay past skepticism of Russian election meddling


By Kevin Liptak, CNN White House Producer

Updated 0624 GMT (1424 HKT) November 12, 2017

Hanoi, Vietnam (CNN) President Donald Trumpdownplayed on Sunday his past skepticism of Russia’s involvement in US election meddling, saying he sides with American intelligence agencies over Vladimir Putin when it comes to assigning culpability for the hack.

But he again stopped short of stating explicitly that Russia was behind the interference in the 2016 presidential election,which US intelligence has determined was conducted to help Trump.

Speaking at a news conference in the Vietnamese capital, Trump was clarifying remarks he made a day earlier which suggested Putin was being sincere in his denials that Moscow engaged in election meddling.

The President stressed he was not accepting Putin’s denials at face value, instead saying he merely believed Putin was being genuine.

“I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election,” Trump said. “As to whether I believe it or not, I am with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with the leadership.”

Trump has long declined to say definitively whether he believes Russia was behind the attempts to sway last year’s election. And he did not say conclusively on Sunday when asked directly whether Russia was responsible. But his nod toward American intelligence agencies, which he said were led by “very fine people,” put him closer to accepting what his own government has determined happened months ago.

The remarks came after Trump ignited further controversy over the Russia interference issue when he told reporters aboard Air Force One on Saturday that he believed Putin was being sincere when he denied involvement in the cyber-intrusion.

“I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said.

The remark prompted backlash in Washington, where intelligence officials are unanimous in their assessment that Russia sought to influence last year’s contest.

The CIA released an unusual statement saying the current director Mike Pompeo believes the agency’s determination that Russia was behind the election meddling.

Trump, however, insisted during his news conference on Sunday that his remarks were clear.

“I’m surprised there’s conflict on this,” he said. “I think it was very obvious to everybody.”

Trump said he didn’t want to engage in a public spat with his Russian counterpart over the issue of election meddling during talks this week in Vietnam.

“I’m not looking to stand and start arguing with somebody when there are reporters all around and cameras recording and seeing our conversation,” Trump said.

His meetings with Putin in Da Nang were held in private, however, and reporters did not see the two men engage in discussions.

Trump said it was imperative the US and Russia work together to solve problems like Syria and North Korea.

“What I believe is we have to get to work,” Trump said. “People don’t realize, Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned. They were sanctioned at a very high level. And that took place very recently. It’s now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken.”

Earlier Sunday, Trump unleashed a series of tweets as he nears the end of his epic 13-day diplomatic tour of Asia, going after “haters and fools” who question his ties to Russia and mocking the shape of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

The stream of invective came after days of relatively restrained tweeting as Trump darted between Asian capitals on his first presidential trip to the continent.

“When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump wrote at 7:18 a.m. local time in Hanoi.

He spent the night here after a state dinner, and held talks and a joint news conference with Vietnamese President President Tran Dai Quang on Sunday morning.

“There (sic) always playing politics – bad for our country,” he added. “I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!”

Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump

When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. There always playing politics – bad for our country. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!

9:18 AM – Nov 12, 2017 · Vietnam

In a second posting at 7:43 a.m., Trump wrote: “Does the Fake News Media remember when Crooked Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, was begging Russia to be our friend with the misspelled reset button? Obama tried also, but he had zero chemistry with Putin.”

Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump

Does the Fake News Media remember when Crooked Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, was begging Russia to be our friend with the misspelled reset button? Obama tried also, but he had zero chemistry with Putin.

9:43 AM – Nov 12, 2017 · Vietnam

He was referencing a 2009 episode in which Clinton, then secretary of state, presented her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, a small red button with the Russian word “peregruzka” printed on it.

“We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” she asked Lavrov, laughing.

“You got it wrong,” said Lavrov. The correct word for “reset” was “perezagruzka,” he explained. “Peregruzka” means “overcharged.”

Trump has long insisted that a better relationship with Russia could help solve vexing global problems, including ending the civil war in Syria and containing North Korea.

Trump has worked while in Asia to consolidate support behind his efforts to choke off support for Pyongyang, and delivered stern warnings to Kim during stops in Tokyo and Seoul.

But his message on Twitter Sunday delved further into the types of personal insults that colored his rhetoric about the dictator before arriving in Asia.

Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump

Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me “old,” when I would NEVER call him “short and fat?” Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!

9:48 AM – Nov 12, 2017 · Vietnam

“Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?'” Trump wrote at 7:48 a.m. “Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!”

He appeared to be responding to North Korea’s statement last week that Trump is a “dotard,” implying senility.

Asked at his news conference about the prospects of befriending Kim, Trump offered a coy response.

“Strange things happen in life,” he said. “That might be a strange thing that happens. But it is certainly a possibility.”

The flurry of tweets on Sunday came as Trump approaches the end of his Asia trip. He will depart midday for Manila, the Philippine capital, for a summit meeting of Southeast Asian leaders.

“Will be doing a joint press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam then heading for final destination of trip, the Phillipines,” Trump wrote, misspelling the name of his next stop.

Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump

Will be doing a joint press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam then heading for final destination of trip, the Phillipines.

8:35 AM – Nov 12, 2017

Trump had remained dutifully on script during his visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam, including on Twitter, where his postings have stuck to the talking points he’s delivered during his stops.

But after a formal meeting with Putin was stymied during his visit to an economic summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, Trump held forth with reporters about the damage the Russia investigations unfolding in Washington are having on Washington-Moscow ties.