Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.
Guest Host: Susan Page
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian foreign minister hold talks in London on the Ukraine crisis, before the anticipated vote on a referendum in Crimea on Sunday. The head of the U.N. urges the U.S. and Russia to salvage Syrian peace talks. UNICEF reports that Syria is one of the most dangerous places on earth for children. And the search for the missing Malaysian airliner shifts West into the Indian Ocean after new data hints the plane was airborne hours after it lost contact. A panel of journalists join guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Martin Walker chief international affairs columnist for UPI; senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Global Business Policy Council; and author - his latest novel is "The Resistance Man."
- Michele Kelemen diplomatic correspondent, NPR.
- Yochi Dreazen deputy editor for News at Foreign Policy; author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front."
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Russian troops mass at the Ukraine border and Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his Russian counterpart as the U.S. and its allies push for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Nearing the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising, the UN Secretary General urges the U.S. and Russia to salvage peace talks. And the search for that missing Malaysian airliner expands to include the Indian Ocean.
MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me for this week's top international stories on "The Friday News Roundup," Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, Michele Kelemen of NPR and Martin Walker of UPI. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThanks, Susan.
MR. MARTIN WALKERGood morning.
MS. MICHELE KELEMENNice to be here.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to watch us, for one thing. Video of this hour is streaming live on the web, on drshow.org. You can also call in with your questions and comments. Our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well Yochi, there's no story that has been more mystifying this week than this Malaysian airliner that's disappeared. What is the latest?
DREAZENThe latest is a report from Reuters that suggests that the plane hadn't just been sort of flying off on its own, but it might have actually been flying towards a remote string of islands in the Indian Ocean called the Andaman Islands. There's no evidence that it landed there and there's no evidence that it crashed there, but there, at least, seems to be this hint now that someone who knows how to fly the plane had diverted from the path it was on towards a fairly well established flight route, taking it to a very specific part of the Indian Ocean.
DREAZENAnd again, there's no sign yet that it crashed there. There's no sign that it landed there, but there's beginning to be thought that maybe, just maybe this new theory is that it went there for a reason, and may have landed on one of these very remote, very distant islands.
PAGEMay have landed. Maybe all those people are not dead in a crash, as we've been worrying all week. Do we know anything about the Andaman Islands? Why would somebody want to go there?
WALKERWell, the Andaman Islands is a place run by India. It has some very sophisticated military radar there. And we've heard nothing, so far, from the Indians about what that military radar saw. What we have heard is mainly civilian information, apart from some details from the Chinese. And most of that civilian information suggests two things. One is that the communication systems of the plane, of which there were two, were turned off at different times, which rather argues against there having been a single catastrophic event.
WALKERAnd the second thing is that apparently they were -- the plane was picked up over Penang on Malaysian military radar. Now, Penang would suggest it had certainly been heading west towards the Indian Ocean. And it looks as though it was on a fairly conventional flight route from southeast Asia towards the Middle East, which supports the Andaman Islands theory. The difficulty that we've got here is that the -- this area of the Indian Ocean is pretty strategically charged. You've got a Chinese quasi-military base in Burma. You've got Indian bases all over. You've got tension between the Indians and Chinese.
WALKERThe Indians are not at all happy about talking about their military facilities, their radar capabilities and so on. So, we really are in a situation of waiting to see just how much more information comes out.
PAGEMichele, obviously we've got more questions than answers with this whole story. And we don't want to speculate in an irresponsible way, but for what possible reason would someone take a jet and take it to the Andaman Islands?
KELEMENI think it's way too early to tell in any of this. I mean, mainly, this is gonna be a case study in how not to do crisis management, because there's been so much false information out there. There's been, you know, the Malaysian government has come under a lot of pressure for not answering any of these questions. I mean, the fact that any of this is coming out so many days after this plane went missing is phenomenal.
PAGEYochi, what are the possible reasons? If this is what happened, why might it have happened?
DREAZENI mean, if it was done intentionally, and I echo Michele's point that it is so dangerous to speculate about things we don't know. But, the possibilities are basically, you have the initial theory that it was some sort of catastrophic mechanical failure. You have the terrorism theory that it may have been brought down either destroyed or potentially brought down, in this case, landed. But there, the question is, as you've raised, why did no group take responsibility?
DREAZENAnd if there are 240 people, some of whom from wealthy governments, some of whom must have money of their own, on an island somewhere, why has there been no hostage statement? Why has there been no ransom demand? Nothing about this makes sense. Like, no theory has facts that would, other than a plane crash, which, it happens, tragically. But the other two theories -- there's one reason to say maybe, but there are five or six other reasons to say that makes no sense.
WALKERThere is one extra aspect, which is, I think, we've made not at all be related. But there is a political crisis underway, at the moment, in Malaysia. And this has been extremely convenient in diverting peoples' attention from it. The Malaysian government, which is largely speaking, a Malay organization, which is very unpopular with many of the Indian-Chinese minorities, has been moving very firmly against the political leadership of the main opposition party, which was looking to be doing rather well in the forthcoming elections. So, the (word?) who was initially accused of sodomy, convicted, then that was reversed.
WALKERThe government now has gone to the appeal court. The appeal court has reinstated that conviction, which means he won't be able to run in the next elections. They've also moved against the leader of the -- one of the other three parties in the opposition coalition to try and stop him from running for office again. So, for the Malaysian government, despite the embarrassment, there has been some advantage in the huge diversion of interest from the domestic politics.
PAGEBut Michele, as you mentioned, a lot of criticism for the way they have handled this, for information, for misinformation for the way the search was organized.
KELEMENThat's right. And it seems like that could backfire, and it plays into the hands of the opposition, in many ways. Because this government has had so much control over the years. They have forced the opposition in a corner in so many ways that if they can't handle this basic crisis, it does leave it open to a lot more opposition internally. And it will also be interesting to see whether -- how relations with China and with other countries are gonna be impacted by this.
PAGEAnd beyond the geopolitical concerns, of course, concerns for all those people who are aboard the plane, and maybe a flicker of hope that their lives have not been lost. Well, another huge story this week, on the international stage, and that is happening in Ukraine. The German Prime Minister said Europe stands at a crossroads. We have the Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with his Russian counterpart in London today. What are they trying to do, Yochi?
DREAZENThey're trying to find any way of figuring out what happens after the referendum Sunday. There's no doubt the referendum will happen.
PAGEThe referendum in Crimea.
DREAZENI'm sorry. This is the referendum in Crimea, about whether to join Russian. No question the referendum will happen. No question that it will pass and that the Crimea will vote to join Russia. Whether the election is fair, it almost doesn't matter. The outcome is pre-ordained, pre-determined. And the question is what happens then. Does Russia annex it formally? If so, do they stop with the Crimea, or do they move to eastern Ukraine? So, the discussions in London are what happens after the referendum?
DREAZENIdeally, from the US perspective, the referendum would happen. Russia would pause, and eventually, Crimea would stay as part of the Ukraine. But at a minimum, they want to have the discussion about, can you hold off, can you, Russia, hold off on absorbing the Crimea if it votes to join up with you?
PAGEWell, what if the best case doesn't happen? What if Russia moves to immediately annex Crimea after this Sunday referendum? What happens then, Michele?
KELEMENI think either way, it's the US and Europe are gonna have to move ahead with these targeted sanctions that they keep promising. Secretary of State Kerry said that there's gonna be some -- a series of serious steps on Monday. They're gonna have to stand up to this. Because even if the Russians go for this other option, which they've done before in, say, Transnistria and Moldova, you know, they have this very vague -- put this region in illegal limbo like that. They can't deny the fact that there are Russian troops occupying Crimea.
WALKERThey have denied it, though.
KELEMENThey have denied it. They call them self defense forces in Crimea. So, they have this completely different version of events than what the west has been presenting, but the US and Europe are gonna have to move ahead, one way or another, with these sanctions.
WALKERWell, the question is really, how far do they move ahead? Targeted visa bans, targeted sanctions to block individuals from traveling is one thing, but Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has said, is that these sanctions will be intended to inflict quote massive harm. Now, that's pretty serious stuff. One of the key advisors to Putin is the former Finance Minister, a chap called Kudrin. And he has warned that these sanctions, he believes, will lead to zero growth in Russia, and the economy's growing at about 1.5, 2.2 percent at the moment.
WALKERSo, that would hurt. But he also suggests that it would have a huge impact upon capital flight. Now, that's been running at about 60 billion a year for each of the last two years. It soared in January to over 17 billion. We think it's gone up again in February, and Kudrin is now saying it could be as much as 200 billion a year. Now, that would really, really hurt. And if this is also going to include controls upon Russian banks, preventing them from (word?) loans with European banks and so on, that could be really a very powerful impact upon Russia, indeed.
WALKERBut, against that, if the Russians feel that they're getting that much hostility, then it's gonna cost the British, the French, the Americans, the Germans, every country which has got equipment inside Afghanistan, a lot of money. Because that -- if that equipment won't be coming out via Russia, it will have to triangle out through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan and that will be a mess.
PAGEYochi, is there a united Western response to Russia?
DREAZENNo. You had John Kerry, a week ago, say the West is united behind Europe, especially is united behind us on sanctions. It took less than a day for the Germans and British to both say, well, not so much. Merkel initially said she wanted diplomacy. Obviously, her language has changed, because diplomacy has done absolutely nothing. We have a bunch of pieces this week about the counter-impact of sanctions, one of which is Russia could pull out of any of the cooperation it's given to the US on Iranian sanctions, on sanctions potentially against Syria.
DREAZENRussia has cooperated with the U.S. on money laundering. It could pull out of that, as well. So they're the second order impact on U.S. interest, well beyond sort of the immediate ones in Russia. When Merkel was talking, what she didn't mention as explicitly as she should have is that this is an historic question for NATO. NATO had been brought into Afghanistan where it did not want to go. It was brought into Libya where it did not want to go. Those were not core to its mission. But the core of NATO, the only reason it was stood up, was to stand up to Russian aggression.
DREAZENThat was the only reason it was put into place. And if the NATO countries and if the NATO organization cannot stop this, that says, basically, NATO is irrelevant.
PAGEThat's Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy. He's the author of an upcoming book, "The Invisible Front," published in October. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about what's happening in Syria, we'll take your calls and questions. Our phone lines are open. 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Martin Walker, chief international affairs columnist for UPI. He's also a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Global Business Policy Council. He's also an author. His latest novel is "The Resistance Man" out just this week. Congratulations on that.
PAGEWith us also, Michele Kelemen, diplomatic correspondent for NPR. She's just back from traveling to Kiev and elsewhere with Secretary of State John Kerry. And Yochi Dreazen, deputy editor for News at Foreign Policy. We've gotten a lot of emails about the plane, the missing Malaysian plane. And let me just raise two of them. One is an email from Guy who writes, "Regarding the Malaysian plane, please ask the panelists why the pilots have the ability to turn off the transponders, especially after 9/11." Does anyone know?
WALKERWell, they don't have the ability to turn off the transponders. They have the ability to turn off communication systems. That's the conventional communication systems, which in fact did happen, but at different times. The transponders is rather baffling. Why on earth that is not still firing away because it certainly ought to be.
PAGEDoes that mean that either there was some catastrophe or that someone with a lot of skills was trying to turn it off? I mean, how do we interpret this?
WALKERWell, or it could just be a mechanical failure. It'd be most unusual but yes, either somebody knew what they were doing and turned it off or there was a mechanical failure or there has been sabotage at the very beginning of this process.
DREAZENAnd just given the physical location of where the transponder's usually situated, it's not something that from the inside of the plane you'd be able to go turn off while the plane's in flight. So as Martin said, it would have to have been done before the plane took off, which is unlikely because it was sending information until the plane disappeared.
PAGEWhere are the transponders usually located?
DREAZENI want to refer to this because there are people listening who doubtlessly know more. On some of the planes that I do know a bit about, the transponders are either in the cockpit but beyond sort of where the pilots sit or in the fuselage. But there'll be listeners who know more. I don't want to sound like an idiot.
PAGEBetty is writing us from Cincinnati, and she writes, "Regarding the Malaysian plane, I am sure that many passengers had cell phones and other electronic devices. Do you know if any investigators have tried to get a GPS location from passenger phones or devices?" Anybody know?
WALKERWell, this is over the mid ocean and the range of cell phones probably wouldn't be relevant, particularly of up to 35,000'.
PAGELet's talk about Syria. The UN Secretary General appealed to Russia and the United States to help revive stalled Syrian peace talks. What did he say, Michele?
KELEMENWell, they're trying to get these Geneva talks back up and running but, you know, the man who's been leading this Lakhdar Brahimi addressed the UN Security Council yesterday. He came out saying, you know, he hopes there'll be another round of these but he's not so sure. And the other thing he's very worried about are these moves by Syria to plan for new elections. I mean, it looks like Assad is going to try to be reelected here. And if they move that way he says the opposition's going to have no interest whatsoever in these negotiations.
WALKERYeah, actually the parliament has just passed a new electorate law. In fact, Syria should be going ahead. What's interesting is that one of the main leaders of the opposition Ahmad Jarba has just been saying in Istanbul today that it's quite clear that the Syrian government has been sabotaging the peace talks, the peace process. As a result he is calling in the promises that he claims were made by the U.S., the UK, Saudi Arabia that if that happened, if the Syrians did sabotage the peace process, then they would consider supplying heavy arms to the rebels. And they're saying it's time now for that promise to be made good.
DREAZENLakhdar Brahimi is someone I've had the chance to interview on a bunch of occasions here and overseas who's a fascinating guy. And typically as we, from covering them, and you've been covering them, all know there's a meeting. The readout is it was productive, it was bland diplomatic language. Brahimi, the last time he really spoke about this, said I have had no success in access to Homs where there's a besieged city, no success in Aleppo, no success in getting back disappeared military-aged men.
DREAZENWent through this list of his own failures and he ended the press conference by saying, God help us. So if this is what a diplomat is saying who in a world where diplomats always try to put the positive gloss, it gives you a sense of just how meaningless so far these talks have been. And unfortunately how little progress they've made on almost any front.
KELEMENI mean, they can't even decide what they're talking about. The idea was to be talking about setting up a transitional government but the Syrians have always insisted that this be negotiations about how to fight terrorism in the country. And what they call terrorism is basically all of the opposition.
PAGEHow long has it been since President Obama said that Assad had to go, and there he is.
WALKERWell, look for the first time the -- President's Obama's rhetoric has gone rather further than the reality that followed it up.
PAGEIt's been an area where I think President Obama has gotten particularly criticized handling the crisis in Syria. Yochi, is that fair criticism? Of course it's a difficult situation for anyone to manage but how would you assess the job the administration has done in this?
DREAZENYou know, the criticism is that there's been conflicting rhetoric that first was Assad had to go and his time was limited. Then Syria's use of chemical weapons, the famous phrase would be a redline, the preparation for a strike, then at the last minute going to congress. Then at the last minute signing onto a chemical weapons deal, which, as we should highlight, there's been very little progress made in actually getting the chemical weapons out of Syria.
DREAZENSo the deal had been a Russian broker deal under which Assad was supposed to have turned over his entire chemical weapons stockpile. He has not. It's still barely in the 10 percent range. The major criticism that he gets, but I do think is a bit fair, is that two years ago when the opposition was still secular before it took on al-Qaida elements who do use suicide bombings, who arguably are terrorists and they were winning, that that was a time to funnel weapons of some sort to the secular moderate opposition. Because then Assad had incentives to negotiate because he was losing.
DREAZENTwo years on, Al-Nusra, the al-Qaida elements within the Syrian opposition, are dominant. At best gloss for the opposition they've -- they're at a standstill and Assad, to a degree, is winning. So he has almost no incentive to negotiate. So to my mind that is a critique that has the most relevance, and in some ways the one that hits the closest to a failure by the White House.
KELEMENAnd the one thing -- when Secretary Kerry became Secretary of State, the one thing he said at the very beginning was that he wanted to find a way to change Assad's calculus. And we've seen that they haven't been able to do that in any way.
WALKERWell, what's changed the calculus I think is the Ukraine because the prospect of Russian support for any western moves on Syria now I think is becoming vanishing to the point of being infinitesimal.
PAGEThe world's attention has shifted and also I wonder if he's seeing the success of making it really hard for journalists to report from Syria. Because you contrast that with the demonstrations in Kiev where we were all watching and the pictures were so incredible. And it's been difficult for the reporters who have tried to cover Syria.
DREAZENAnd difficult and unfortunately fatal. I mean, there have been friends of probably most of ours and colleagues of many of ours, both western, British, Arab, American who have died by the dozens. So it's not just that there's a policy to make it difficult, but it was just a legitimately very dangerous place.
WALKERAnd it's not just Syria. I mean, let's not forget the way in which the -- one of the backgrounds to this crisis in Ukraine has been the contrast between the openness of the reporting and the coverage in Kiev and Maidan Square and the extraordinary propaganda effort being waged by the Kremlin, by the Russian government, closing down, particularly inside Russia, any prospect of internal criticism.
WALKERRAN (word?) which was although an official agency, was nonetheless a voice for some very outstanding liberal Russian columnists and journalists. That's now been taken over by a Kremlin (word?) one of the most independent radio stations has also fallen. I mean, quite simply the Russian people are being given only the Kremlin's propaganda version now.
PAGEUNICEF came out this week saying Syria is now one of the most dangerous places on earth for children. Michele, what did UNICEF conclude?
KELEMENWell, I mean, the numbers that they give are staggering. It seems like 10,000 children have been killed, millions out of school. I mean, this war has gone on now for three years. Schools, hospitals have been destroyed. There are upwards of 2, maybe -- close to 3 million probably who have fled the country and many more millions who are displaced inside who don't have access to basic health care, to schools, etcetera. So, I mean, the numbers have just been phenomenal and hard to really imagine.
PAGEThis is a new era of social media and the internet and ability to see things. There was a UN photo that was taken I think at the end of January, but got a huge amount of attention this week that shows Palestinian refugees in Damascus. Why the -- what -- tell us about this photo which, if you want to look at, is posted on the drshow.org website. Tell us about this picture, Yochi.
DREAZENSo the photo is very striking. It shows a crowd of Palestinians in an area called the Yarmouk Camp, which is a refugee camp just outside of Damascus in a fairly narrow street or ally. Hundreds of them jammed in trying to get food. And the look of desperation, the number of people jammed into close quarters, the look of just fear and terror is why it went viral. It's -- as of this morning it's been viewed or Tweeted about 10 million times as part of a campaign. The goal is that once it gets to 23 million, so to the population of Syria, there'll be other protests around the country that are timed to the 23 million mark of it being re-Tweeted.
DREAZENIt has been very controversial. There have been people especially on Twitter saying this photo was faked in part because two previous photos that had also gone viral allegedly about Syria were faked. There was a photo that showed a little boy lying in what was said to be next to the graves of his parents. It turned out to have been a Saudi art student's project in Saudi Arabia. It was not a dead child. It was not even in Syria and it was just an art project.
DREAZENThere was another photo that showed what appeared to be a Syrian refugee crossing into Jordan by himself. It turned out that his parents were 10' away and just not in that particular framer. So there is reason to think photos like this can be faked. In this particular case, there's no reason at all. All evidence suggests it's real. There's video of that same ally that shows the same kind of scene.
PAGEThere was an interesting quote that I just want to highlight briefly because it gets back to Michele's point. The UN official who lives in Jerusalem put the photo out, was interviewed this morning in the New York Times and asked about why do people think the photo's fake. And he said, because we live in an age where the idea of this level of suffering is beyond imagination, that the people don't want to believe it can be true. So they say, ah it can't be real so they can turn away from it.
DREAZENAnd the tragedy that you referenced of tens of thousands of children who have dysentery and cholera, a million displaced, 10,000 dead, it seems that here we are sitting in Washington and listeners sitting around the country, it's hard to imagine.
WALKERAnd 5 million dead in the Congolese civil wars which has got very little coverage, so one of the tragedies, I think, of the way we organize modern journalism is how partial we are in what we decide our crises and our issues to be covered.
PAGEOne other development this week in Syria were that Syrian insurgents released 13 nuns as part of a hostage swap. Tell us about that story, Martin.
WALKERWell, it was a hostage swap. And that's one of several areas where -- in Syria where you have had other local ceasefires or on-the-ground arrangements between loyalist forces and rebels. This one, it was one of the rebel groups who had taken hostage this particular nunnery. And when they were released, there was videos taken of the process.
WALKERAnd before the actual release happened, the Mother Superior of the nunnery was on video joking and smiling with the leaders of the rebels and, in fact, then making a statement saying what a noble fellow he was and how well they'd been treated and so on. And this then has got the Syrian government saying, well, this is absolutely shameful. Clearly, this woman is in the pay of -- or has been bribed somehow or has been got at to do this. And they were saying just as they've been accused of faking photographs, they were accusing this of being a concocted video report.
WALKERAnd, in fact, the real irony here is that this was a Greek Orthodox nunnery. And one of the core constituencies of Assad and the Syrian government has been not just his own Alawite tribe but also the Syrian Christians.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, we -- Yochi mentioned that maybe we'd have a caller who would know more about transponders than he did. I mean, I think we have a pilot calling with perhaps some thoughts on that. Doug, hi, you're calling us from Melbourne, Fla. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
DOUGWell, thank you very much. I enjoy the show and the discussion has been very interesting.
PAGEGood. And you're a pilot yourself?
DOUGI am. I'm a pilot for a major airline and I fly Boeings.
PAGEAnd so tell us about this issue of the transponders.
DOUGWell, what I wanted to mention, I just wanted to just correct some misinformation. The pilots do in fact have control of the transponder in the cockpit, both the code that it's sending out and whether or not the transponder's actually on or off. There are different reasons for the pilots to have control of it, both on the ground and in the air. They can involve emergencies, fires and such but the pilots do have full control both with normal switches and with circuit breakers.
PAGEAnd so, Doug, as a pilot for a major airline, do you have any theory about what has happened to this Malaysian jet?
DOUGI've got to tell you, I don't. I'm as baffled by the whole thing as everybody.
PAGEYeah, we are too. Well, Doug, thank you very much for your call and the information.
DOUGWell, thanks for taking my call.
PAGEYeah, let's go to Birmingham, Ala. and talk to Jason. Jason, you're on the air.
JASONThank you. I was just going to say that the United States of America has, in the eyes of many people around the world, been illegally occupying the vast portion of the Republic of Cuba. We have a base there against the wishes of the people. We built the prison camp where we're importing some of those dangerous criminals in the world to their shores, again, against the wishes of the people.
JASONAnd so it's hypocritical to a lot of people that we would be so outraged by a nation occupying against the will of the people a part of their nation. And of course Russia has a deep and long history tie to Crimea and we had no such ties to Cuba, yet we're still there on their island today without their permission.
JASONAnd the other thing I was going to say is the American people need to understand, Russia TV is reporting that sanctions -- if we economically attack this nation of Russia, they will see this and rightfully so as an act of war. We wouldn't tolerate that happening to us by any other nation over our illegal actions in Cuba or Iraq. And we -- why would we expect that they're going to? This is something that I think inside the beltway intellectuals have decided is a good idea because it's in the interest of Wall Street, but it's not at all in the interest of the American people.
PAGEJason, thank you so much for your call. Let's talk first about the issue of Cuba. Is there a kind of parallel situation here?
WALKERWell, it may be -- the occupation of Guantanamo may be against the wishes of many of the Cuban people but it's not illegal. There is a legal treaty which authorizes the U.S. to have that particular base. After all, don't forget the U.S. has been involved here since 1898 when they took Cuba from Spain and liberated the country.
KELEMENI mean, there are questions, of course, about our moral authority to talk to Russia like this, you know. I mean, the Russians -- usually they don't bring up Cuba but they do bring up, for instance, Kosovo which voted to succeed from Serbia. But, you know -- and the question about sanctions, I mean, there are actually U.S. businesses that are nervous about these sanctions as well, that they are going to be cut out of the market. So that's another question.
PAGEWell, is it -- imposing sanctions, is that an act of war, Yochi?
DREAZENIt has not, for the most part, been interpreted that way. And I -- Russian TV has actually, to my knowledge, not referred to it that way. They've said they'd retaliate. They have not said it would be an act of war. The language Russia typically brings up is not Cuba. They typically bring up Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
DREAZENAnd their argument is, you're saying we can't intervene to protect our own people in Crimea but you intervene without UN authorization in Iraq. You stay in Afghanistan. You, the U.S., used military force in Libya, wherever you think you need or want to do it. So don't tell us where we can't do it. When, as they see it and they portray it, it's protecting the rights and lives of people who are either Russian citizens or at least speak Russian and are affiliated or want to be affiliated with Russia.
KELEMENAnd I'd also like to state, if we're talking about international law, bring up this that the Russians, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine had the third largest nuclear arsenal. And Ukraine agreed to give that up but it got promises from the U.S., UK and Russia of non interference. So this is undermining a lot of international law, what the Russians are doing in Crimea now.
PAGEAnd possibly with repercussions when we deal with a place like North Korea in urging them to give up their nuclear forces. Well, we're going to take another short break. We'll come back. We'll go back to the phones, 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're in the second hour, the international hour, of our weekly "Friday News Roundup." With me in the studio: Michele Kelemen from NPR; Yochi Dreazen from Foreign Policy; Martin Walker from UPI. We've been taking your calls. Let's take another one. David is calling us from Dallas. Hi, David.
DAVIDGood morning. My question is about the airliner and we talked about the different theories. It seems to me that post-911, an obvious theory of why someone would want to take an airplane would be to use it later as a weapon. And the way the plane disappeared demonstrates that, if you know what you're doing and you turn off the transponders, you can fly long distances and not be intercepted at least. We don't know if there was any actual tracking, maybe on the military side. But no fighters went up Malaysia or perhaps Indonesia or other air space this plane went over.
DAVIDSo my concern is that the plane is sitting somewhere and going to be reused as a weapon by whoever took it.
PAGEAll right, David. Thanks for your call. Anyone on the panel want to respond?
WALKERWell, what on earth have they -- the plane long ago have run out of fuel. So, if it's landed, what have they done with all of these passengers? I mean it's -- this -- we're into this area of extraordinary speculation where any idea you hear being talked about these days -- we have people saying it's -- there was one theory that it was an episode of "Lost," or something and that they were all going to be appearing on TV in an island. I just fear that the kind of psychological impact of all the families of the people who probably have been lost must be a whiplash of up and down.
PAGEYes, it must be terribly difficult. Let's go to Ahmed, calling us from Cleveland. Ahmed, thank you for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
AHMEDYes. When Bill Clinton was president, the United States, or the Pentagon purchased about 40 sophisticated war planes from Ukraine. I wonder if this had -- made Ukraine vulnerable to Russia military insurgent into part of Ukraine? And, secondly, Putin traveled to Saudi Arabia and Israel. No previous Russian leader did that. Was he trying -- is he trying to make himself an international figure or something?
PAGEAll right, Ahmed. Thanks for your call. Let me ask you, Ahmed -- you seem to have just a bit of an accent -- where are you from?
AHMEDI'm from Syria. I should be asking question about Syria instead of Ukraine. Let me tell you this, Assad moved his troops about seven, eight years ago from Syria. No way he would have done that unless Putin told him to do that, to please Bush. And then Putin was able to work with Bush. I don't know why Obama can't work with Putin.
PAGEAhmed, thanks very much for your call. You know, one of the great things about doing a radio talk show in the United States is that you get callers from around the world, even if they're in Dallas. Ahmed raised several points on different topics. Yochi, take your pick.
DREAZENLet me take, if I could, the center one. Because I am not aware that Ukraine sold war planes to the U.S. I find it very hard to believe, given technological difficulties. They did sell tanks, but not to the U.S. And there's now the feeling that if they had only not sold those tanks, maybe they could better stand up to the Russians. But to the point about Putin visiting the Mid-East, there's no question that he sees a part of his primary mission as Russia's leader, as restoring Russia to being a preeminent world power, to be restoring himself to being a preeminent world leader.
DREAZENHe looks back and a lot of people around him look back at the '90s and say, Russia was impoverished under Boris Yeltsin. Russia was dismissed, it was ignored, it was a weak country. And now it's being back as a world power. And, especially in the Middle East where he wants to be a player, he wants to say, it isn't just the United States that wants a peace process. It is not just the United States that maintains ties with Israel and the Arab countries and plays one off the other; it's Russia as well. So I think the caller was spot-on.
KELEMENHe also seems to be willing to deal with the diplomatic isolation up to now on this front. I mean, I was listening to a U.N. Security Council meeting yesterday and everyone around the room was criticizing Russia for invading Crimea. It was calling for the support for territorial integrity -- everyone but China, that is, on the invasion side. And the Russian ambassador just came back and said, you all have an idyllic view of what's happening in Ukraine. That's not what our view is. And our view is that this government is radicals and neo-Nazis.
KELEMENSo they are trying to get -- to spin this in a different direction. They haven't had success in that so far. The Ukrainian prime minister came out saying, you know, what needs to happen now is truth, truth, truth. And that's what they're trying to do on the international stage, is to isolate Russia diplomatically.
WALKERWell, I think the fact is here that Putin is a carnivore in a world of vegetarians, particularly in Europe. And he's got away with it before. He got away with it in Georgia, despite all of the threats and warnings and so on. He's still occupying two of the key provinces in Georgia. He was pretty sure that there would be divisions between the Europeans and the Americans if he moved on the Ukraine. In fact, I'm quite impressed by the way the Europeans have become much tougher in their rhetoric and seem to be lining up with the Americans.
WALKERBut let's be quite clear about this, Putin is not going to stop here. What's next in line, I'm not sure. It could be Belarus. It could be Kazakhstan, Northern Kazakhstan, where there are a lot of ethnic Russians. It could even be some of the Baltic States. And, do we have a red line there, even though they're members of NATO? Would the U.S. Congress vote to fight to defend Estonia? Would it vote to fight to defend Poland? I mean, Putin, these are calculations that Putin is making, which is why I think Hilary Clinton was right the first time when she said there are echoes here of the 1930s.
PAGEAren't we obliged to defend Poland, for instance?
WALKERNo. No, we're not obliged to. Article 5 requires meeting of North Atlantic Security Council if the territorial integrity of a member state of NATO is infringed. It's always been interpreted to say, well that would obviously be a prelude to war. But it's by no means required by the treaty that war would automatically follow.
PAGEDid you also see this, Yochi, as the potential for just the first step in a broadening and extremely dangerous development in Europe?
DREAZENI do. I agree with Martin on most of what he said. I do think that if Putin moved on Poland or Estonia -- but particularly Poland -- that there is very little chance the U.S. would not militarily respond. Poland is a close ally. Poland is a NATO nation. Poland is seen as a Western success story. It's shepherding from being a post-Communist state to a somewhat flourishing Western-Allied state. There are red lines, after which force would be used. I interviewed about a week ago the prime minister of Georgia, who is 31 years old, which of course made me feel like my life had failed completely.
DREAZENBut he said that the day before the Russian Olympics started in Sochi, the bulldozers that had been building a fence around the two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- the Georgia provinces that Russia invaded and occupied -- the bulldozers stopped the day before the Olympics started. And at the day after the Olympics stopped, the bulldozers start up again, and that they've basically given up on getting these provinces back. So it is not the first time he's done it. It will not be the last time. If Crimea joins up with Russia, it will not leave. When he takes territory, he holds it.
DREAZENBut, all of that said, there is a red line. At some point, if he moves against a sovereign NATO member, a strong country, a country that the U.S. has very close ties to, there will be a military response.
PAGEAnd when you say a military response, what kind of military response would there be?
DREAZENI mean, at a minimum, bolstering the Polish -- if Poland were to fight back, at a minimum bolstering Polish troops. It's hard for me to imagine Putin actually invading Poland. But if it was something where he had forces massed on the borders of Poland, you would see U.S. war planes, U.S. troops, other NATO allies being moved to the border. Again, it's very, very hard for me to imagine an actual invasion of Poland. It's not as hard to imagine him having troops on the border to intimidate the Polish government.
WALKERWe have seen -- we have seen U.S. war planes moving into Eastern Europe. But what, so far, has been the response for Ukraine? The U.S. has been sending MREs -- they have been sending food rations to the Ukrainians, but not weapons, not any other kind of support whatsoever. And, of course, Georgia has never been given the full military program with the MAP, the full military protocol agreement that they were looking for. The fact is that Putin has got away with it before and he's seen that the West's reactions have been, as I said, vegetarian.
PAGEI feel like this is the story we have all read about on the prelude to World War II. Michelle.
KELEMENWell, I don't know about that but, you know, when you look at NATO expansion, for instance, it's the one thing that the Russians definitely always wanted to stop. Who's going to want Georgia when you have to little statelets that are occupied by somebody else. And that seems to be what they're trying to do with Ukraine -- make Ukraine unattractive to a European Union, unattractive to NATO. And that's the challenge for the Europeans to see if they will stand up for that. And I don't see, you know, the Russians sending troops into Poland or whatever.
KELEMENBut what they're doing is much more -- I wouldn't say subtle -- but, you know, stirring up trouble in Easter Ukraine, putting troops along the border there. And then what...
WALKERTwo weeks ago, we wouldn't have seen them moving troops into Crimea either.
KELEMENRight. But -- and it did take everybody by surprise. But that's going to be the challenge for the West, to see, you know, where the red lines are.
PAGEThe BBC and the Wall Street Journal are now reporting that Russia's Lavrov, who has been meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, is saying that Russia will respect the will of the Crimean people and that the crisis isn't Russia's fault. That's not really news, since we're pretty sure that the Crimean people, largely ethnic Russian, are going to approve this referendum on Sunday.
DREAZENRight. And that's -- and that suggests that Russia will then gladly welcome them back into the arms of Russia in a more formalized way.
KELEMENAnd, you know, the choice they've been given is, you know, there's these posters that have a picture of Crimea with the Nazi Swastika on it or a picture with the Russian flag on it. That's the choice that the voters are given. Stay in Ukraine under what the Russians have been calling a neo-Nazi government, or come to Russia.
WALKERAs Joseph Stalin said, in an election, it doesn't matter who votes, what matters is who counts it.
PAGEHere's an email from Kathleen, who's writing us from North Carolina. "Could you ask the panelists their views on whether NATO should begin to move some troops toward the East, closer to the Ukrainian border? Would that be a good signal in response to Russian military uptick, on other parts of the Ukrainian border?"
WALKERI think there are two important things that the U.S. could do to signal a resolve at this point. One, would be to authorize the export of U.S. gas toward -- to Europeans, particularly to Eastern Europeans, if required. The second thing would be to start really beefing up the antimissile defenses that, so far, have been fairly basically put in place in Eastern Europe. I'm not sure that the troops would be available. Let's not forget that the current Pentagon plans have downsized the U.S. Army.
DREAZENWell, let me just jump in there. The troops are available. I mean, the troops that have -- the current troop levels in Afghanistan are tiny. The troop level cuts are into the future. They have not yet, for the most part, started. The Air Force has enormous Air Force assets. We could move significant numbers of troops, warships and airplanes if we wanted to. The issue is, we don't want to. The U.S. does not want this to escalate. They don't want to have 20,000 American troops and 20,000 Russian troops, they don't want to have 20 U.S. war planes and 20 Russian war planes.
DREAZENAny U.S. action would be met by, at a minimum, an equal Russian reaction, if not an excessive Russian reaction. They could do more. The question is, will they do more, knowing that the Russians will respond?
KELEMENAnd they've shown that what they really want is a diplomatic outcome. The problem has always been that Secretary Kerry can talk and talk and talk and talk to Lavrov, but if the Russian's see the conflict completely differently, how do you reach any kind of agreement and without sort of stronger backing?
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's talk about developments in Israel. Israel has passed a law to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military. This is a change of a long-standing policy. Yochi?
DREAZENThe history of the policy's actually very interesting. It went into place -- Israel's (word?) right after the Holocaust. The ultra-Orthodox community was tiny. And the argument was, if that community was serving, it could theoretically be wiped out. And so it was given the exemption when it was a very small community. Flash forward, this is a community that has routinely 10, 12 children per family. So the community has exploded in terms of population size.
DREAZENAnd there has been fury, literal fury -- I've been in Israel to witness it -- by even other Orthodox families who do serve, to say, these are a community that for the most part don't work, they don't pay taxes, they don't serve in the military. They get a tremendous amount of social welfare in response. So this had been building for decades. This particular bill is being hammered by both sides. On the left, they say it doesn't go far enough, because it exempts still a large number of the ultra-Orthodox from service. And on the ultra-Orthodox community, they say, no way.
DREAZENWe're not going to show up. We're not going to do it. So the passage of it is historic. Enforcement, if it happens, will be historic. But this is something that still manages to anger almost everybody.
WALKERIt's -- the shoe is going to have to wait quite some time to drop. This law has about a three-year delay. And in that meantime, there's going to be an election. Now, when the vote took place in the Knesset -- I think it was 67 to 1 -- but there are 120 seats in the Knesset. Basically the opposition boycotted that vote. And I would imagine, in the run-up to the next Israeli election, the bidding for the votes and support of the Orthodox is going to be very, very intense. And that will probably lead to further delays or to repeal.
PAGELet's talk to Roy, calling us from Annapolis, Md. Hi, Roy.
ROYHi. First time caller. Thanks for taking my call. I had a real comment, real quick, about Russia. And then I'll go to the Syrian question that I had. I do think that Putin is a playground bully. And he's thrown down on the U.S. and we're not responded effectively. And so, consequently, he believes that he can do that again and again. So I think that, you know, NATO is the issue here. And really, with Russia, if you look at it, they're base in the Black Sea is the reason that Crimea is so important to them. So I think that, you know, if we look at it from the military standpoint for Russia, that's what they're interested in defending.
ROYAnd I think they want to maintain a diplomatic solution, because they have been invited to the international community and they want to stay a part of it. But, you know, we also have to deal with him as the bully he is. Now, on the Syrian question, why hasn't the international community shut off all the financing and the arms flow to Syria to shut this thing down. I mean, Russia is not in the good graces of the world anymore. We should be able to do this very easily now.
PAGEAll right, Roy. Thanks very much for your call. Thanks for listening. Thanks for calling. Michele, what do you think?
KELEMENWell, I mean, the Russian's have been blocking everything in the U.N. Security Council up to now, although they did agree on a humanitarian resolution during the Sochi Olympics. I think the U.S. timed that to try to appeal to their Olympic, you know, sensibilities. But, you know, getting some kind of an arms control -- an arms blockage on the Syrian government, by law would require some sort of action in the U.N. Security Council. Now, there are other ways to try to stop flows from coming in. It just -- it depends on how strong the U.S. really wants to go that route.
WALKERPlus they're being armed by Iran.
KELEMENRight. And the flights are going over Iraq.
WALKERAnd it's not just a matter of Russians. But the first point that the caller made about this being -- Putin being a playground bully -- yes, he's absolutely right. As Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said, this is now a critical choice for Europe. Are we going back to the 19th century, when countries could, by force, take over parts of other countries? Or are we actually moving into a different kind of world where this sort of thing doesn't happen? It's up to us.
PAGEBut the idea that we can deal with this by making it clear to Putin that he'll be an outsider, you know, moves to the idea of booting Russia out of the G8, so you go back to being a G7. It doesn't seem to be persuading Russia to change its approach here.
DREAZENNo. It doesn't, because...
WALKERNo, vegetarians don't do that.
DREAZEN...you know, Putin had beforehand already told the Oligarchs to bring -- allowed their money back to Russia. This had been a major push of his. Russian Oligarchs have tens of billions of dollars, much of it in London and much of it in other world markets. There are targets they could hit. But, again, rhetoric from Germany is one thing. Seeing what Germany's actually willing to do, when it has tremendous business interests in Russia and vice versa, they have given no indication that they're willing to take harsh action. And I'm skeptical that the rhetoric will ultimately amount to much.
PAGEYochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy. We've also been joined this hour by Michele Kelemen of NPR, Martin Walker of UPI. Thank you all for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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