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: Steve Roberts
Pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine announce plans to hold a Sunday referendum on autonomy despite a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to delay the vote. Syrian rebels evacuate the key city of Homs as part of a ceasefire deal. South Sudan’s government agrees to a one month suspension of attacks on rebels. A Thai court ousts the country’s prime minister after an abuse of power verdict. International pressure increases on the Nigerian government to find nearly three hundred abducted schoolgirls. And South Africa’s ruling party takes a clear lead in national elections. A panel of journalists joins guest host Steve Roberts for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Bruce Auster national security editor, NPR.
- Courtney Kube national security producer, NBC News.
- Yochi Dreazen deputy editor for News at Foreign Policy; author of the upcoming book "The Invisible Front."
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of the George Washington University, sitting in today for Diane, and she'll be back on Tuesday. Russian separatists in Ukraine vow to push forward with an autonomy referendum. In Syria, insurgents retreat from one key city and bomb a hotel in another. And in Thailand, opponents of the newly ousted Prime Minister take to the streets, demanding further action against her. Joining me this week for the international hour of our "Friday News Roundup," Bruce Auster is the National Security Editor at NPR. Courtney Kube is the National Security Producer at NBC, and Yochi Dreazen is the Deputy Editor for News at Foreign Policy Magazine.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSHe's author of the forthcoming book, "The Invisible Front." Congratulations on the book, Yochi.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThank you very much, Steve.
ROBERTSYou can join us, as always, at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. And, of course, send us a message through Facebook or Twitter. Bruce, some news out of the Ukraine this morning. Vladimir Putin in Crimea.
MR. BRUCE AUSTERThat's right. Today is the anniversary of -- it's victory day. So, this is the...
ROBERTSWhat does that mean?
AUSTERIt's the anniversary of the end of World War II, with the victory over the Nazis. For the Russians, an enormously important celebration. So, to mark it, Putin went to Crimea. Crimea, of course, just annexed, not that long ago, by Russia. So, really, a sort of triumphant return, as it were. He shows up there and it's really quite a, quite a moment of sort of celebrating Russian triumph, Russian power. All through the day, there have been sort of demonstrations, military parades, those sorts of things. So, it's the symbolism of Russia triumphant. Russia on the ascendance.
ROBERTSAnd the NATO spokesman, not particularly pleased about this, said from the Western point of view, Crimea's still Ukraine.
AUSTERThat's right. And, you know, this is -- this is, at some level, Crimea has become the story of the past, because the fact that Putin goes there symbolizes the fact that it's a fait accompli. I mean, Russia did manage to annex that and the debate, at this stage, has really moved on to what next. And what next is what's happening in eastern Ukraine, so even though Putin went to Crimea today, the real debate is about what happens in eastern Ukraine, and that's where the action is.
ROBERTSAnd Courtney, it's a murky situation, because there is this referendum that's supposed to held on Sunday in eastern Ukraine, kind of a rump referendum, but sponsored by Separatists. Putin asked them to hold off. They rejected his suggestion. What's your best read about what's really going on there?
MS. COURTNEY KUBEWell, initially, there might have been this perception that Putin was offering this rare conciliatory tone, that maybe he was saying, well, let's halt the violence, which has really escalated recently in the past few days and weeks. But it looks more likely now -- he also endorsed a presidential election in late May, and he endorsed a possible diplomatic solution from the OSCE. It's looking more likely that -- like, most things with Vladimir Putin, what you see is not necessarily what's the reality. Or what's the truth behind his actions. There are a couple of options.
MS. COURTNEY KUBEYou know, the -- it doesn't look like the referendum was gonna be as widely popular as he might have thought a few weeks ago, or even, you know, a week ago.
ROBERTSPolls show that most people still want a unitary Ukraine.
KUBEExactly. And so, he doesn't want to be someone who's backing something that's not gonna pass. The other option is, you know, the opposition -- they didn't go along with Putin's decision to cancel the referendum. Or to postpone it, is what he actually said. He didn't say cancel. He said postpone. They didn't go along with it, so does that sort of distance him from the opposition? Does that sort of strengthen his case that he's not the one who's pulling the strings. He's not the one who's behind this Separatist Movement in eastern Ukraine.
KUBEMaybe that gets him a little bit of leeway from potential sanctions coming down the road. The other option is, potentially, he saw the violence has gotten so bad. Is it potentially spiraling out of control? And maybe he was worried that this is gonna actually lead to something, if they have this referendum, if they vote to leave Ukraine. He might end up having to actually send troops in. And after what happened in Crimea, which was virtually a bloodless annexation, he certainly doesn't want to have anything going on in eastern Ukraine that would change that.
ROBERTSNow Yochi, is there one other element to this, the presence of massive numbers of Soviet troops on the border in eastern Ukraine. And Putin said that they would be pulled back, but NATO observers say, we see no sign of it. What's your reading on that dimension of the story?
DREAZENYeah, the NATO, both on the US side and the NATO side, immediately were on social media and Twitter, particularly, to say there's been no movement whatsoever. It's interesting. NATO has been creative in how it's been trying to counter what they see as Russian propaganda. They had this kind of remarkable moment, about 10 days ago, where instead of being able to use their own classified satellite imagery, they took unclassified satellite imagery from a private company to show the troop buildup of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border, to show the planes, the tanks, the helicopters.
DREAZENAnd there's talk they may do that again, because as far as they see it, there's been no movement. There's an interesting point, also, to something Bruce had said about the Soviet Day and Putin going triumphantly to Crimea. Early next month is the D-Day anniversary, the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing. And Putin said he's going to go. So, you're going to have this extraordinarily awkward moment of all the European leaders and Barack Obama, and then Putin, where every body language moment will be looked at, whether who shakes his hand longest. Who claps him on the back?
DREAZENThat will detract tremendously from what otherwise is this very historic celebration of good beating evil.
ROBERTSAnd Bruce, another key dimension here, ongoing dimension of this story, is economic sanctions. The sanctions that were imposed by the west, relatively mild on few companies, a few Russian oligarchs. But there's been some talk this week that maybe Putin's somewhat milder tone is a reflection of perhaps these sanctions are starting to bite. Or, that he's afraid of tougher sanctions against core Russian industries, like the energy industry.
AUSTERRight. This is the interesting question, because from the United States' point of view, militarily, this is not a winning hand. The Russians clearly dominate when it comes to the military forces on the ground. So you have to play on the ground that you strength in, and that's the economic ground. So, as you mentioned, there have been limited sanctions so far. The administration has put out some evidence that suggests that even that has had an impact so far. A big hit in the Russian stock market, things like that. So...
ROBERTSThe value of the ruble down.
AUSTERExactly. So, there have been -- there's been evidence that it's having an effect. So, the question then is what next? And what happened yesterday is that some top American officials told Congress that if Putin attempts to disrupt the upcoming elections, the United States will move...
ROBERTSWhich are set for late May.
AUSTERMay 25th. They will move toward more aggressive sanctions, including going after sectors of the economy. I think you mentioned, you know, the energy sector, technology, military. So, Putin has to be calculating, whether or not this is all worth it. And as to this whole question of the referendum, at some level, you know, he has to be careful what he wished for. Crimea was easy, eastern Ukraine is not. And sanctions are the penalty.
ROBERTSBut Courtney, the west is hardly united on this issue. Yes, there are American companies, particularly energy companies like Chevron, with a vast stake in the Soviet Union energy exploration contracts in the Arctic and places like that. But, the real problem is western Europe, in particular Germany, where German companies have openly lobbied against tougher sanctions because there's such a huge economic investment of German companies in Russia.
KUBEAnd the sanctions that Bruce mentioned, after, if Russia does disrupt the May 25th elections, presidential elections, it doesn't seem likely that Europe will sign on to any US sanctions. This morning, the EU Ambassadors agreed to -- agreed in principle, to some new sanctions against Russia, but these are specific ones that would target -- I think it was -- I haven't seen the actual list, but it's something like 15 individuals and five companies. And they're all ones that are particularly -- were benefiting from Crimea, were gaining from Crimea.
KUBEAnd they are supposed to be targeting energy. Now, it's obviously, it's a small slice. It's just Crimea, but it may have a little bit more of an impact than we've seen. The sanctions that the US and Canada passed last month really didn't have much of a bite to them, so…
ROBERTSAnd what's your reading, Yochi? Do you think that, in the end, will the west have the determination to move forward with tougher sanctions if Putin does not ameliorate his position, given the economic relationships between western Europe and Russia?
DREAZENI hate to answer anything with a dependent clause, but it depends on what you mean by tougher, and it depends by what you mean by failing to ameliorate. If Putin keeps troops on the border with Ukraine, continues to meddle in, the west will do nothing. If he sends troops over the border, you'll see a lot of talk. I agree with Courtney, the notion of Europe being willing to sacrifice its economy for a country that it frankly doesn't care that much about, is hard for me to believe. This is something where it's very easy for the White House to say, this is unacceptable, for Germany to say this is unacceptable.
DREAZENBut at the end of the day, what's been done? Even up until now, you have more of NATO training missions flying over the eastern parts of Poland. You have four or five F-16s, a couple of AWACS spy planes, and that's it. So, if you're Putin, you're looking at -- you have actually, literally, invaded and conquered Crimea. There's been no response. You've had troops now on the border of the rest of the country. 80,000 of them. No response. So, you're not seeing much resolve on the west, or much sign that there might be more resolve on the west.
ROBERTSBut at the same time, Bruce, there is a difference, because Ukraine, very explicitly, is not a member of NATO, but all you got to do is look on the map and see, very close, there are NATO members. The Baltic States, Poland, and other countries. Presumably, that would be a red line that, given the treaty obligations of NATO, that would be very different.
AUSTEROh, the treaty obligations are clear. I mean, there's no question that any NATO obligation -- I mean, that's a clear line. But I think it's also -- I mean, it's interesting, when you look at this from the point of view of the west, you can see all the flaws in the strategy, all the reasons why the west does not have a great hand. But it's interesting to flip it and look at it from the point of view of Putin. And what he wants. And remember where this started. What he wants is a Ukraine that leans toward Russia. And the question is, does he get that by crossing the border with troops?
AUSTERYou know, what he wants is, I think, an easy win. And Crimea was an easy win. Crimea, you could annex it, and there was no response. But already, we've seen, in the case of eastern Ukraine, that the Ukrainian government has put up a bit of a response. And the Russians are claiming there are 15,000 Ukrainian troops that are amassing.
ROBERTSAnd also, if Ukraine were to split apart, if you follow the Yugoslav model, for instance, you'd create a rump state in Ukraine, in western Ukraine, that would immediately join Europe and NATO.
AUSTERWell, that's right. And again, back to what he was trying to -- to what Putin wanted at the beginning. He wants a state that will lean towards Russia, but by moving ahead, especially with a troop action, he conceivably gets the opposite of what he wanted. And he pushes the rest of Ukraine further west.
ROBERTSThat's Bruce Auster of NPR. Courtney Kube of NBC is with me. And Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy. We'll be back with your calls and your comments and more of our foreign policy discussion. So, stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And this is the international hour of our Friday News Roundup. Bruce Auster of NPR is with me, Courtney Kube of NBC, Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy. Courtney, another trouble spot this week, several developments, Syria, the ongoing civil war there, rebels in the city of Homs where they had had a base for a long time withdrew. Certainly a defeat for the rebels but at the same time they managed to blow up a major hotel in the City of Aleppo, which is also a frontline. Bring us up to date of the situation on the ground as we know it in Syria.
KUBESo the rebels, after weeks of negotiating, they came to somewhat of a truce with the Syrian government where they agreed that the rebels who were in what was a small part of Homs in the old city now, they had lost a lot of the land that they had had there. They came to an agreement where the rebels could leave and that they would agree to allow several Syrian cities that are really Assad-backed -- the residents are really Assad backers -- they would allow aid in there. And they did a prisoner exchange as well, a prisoner release.
KUBEThis was Homs. You know, Homs was the capitol of the revolution a couple of years ago. It was the first place where we saw large protests. It was the first place where we saw the Syrian regime just bombard indiscriminately from the air which really brought the world's attention to Syria. So it was the symbolic capitol and beginning of their revolution.
KUBEYou know, practically was this a huge defeat, a strategic defeat for the rebels? Not really. They were low on food, they were low on ammunition. They needed to get out of there. They needed help. But symbolically for their morale, it was a humiliating defeat frankly for them to have to leave Homs.
KUBEBut, that being said, they've already vowed to continue fighting. They struck in Aleppo just north of Homs several days later -- a day later and they blew up another part of the old city in Aleppo. They leveled a hotel that had a lot of government fighters living in it. They destroyed several century-old buildings at the same time. So they've proven that this one setback in the longer war, this one battle that they've lost, does not mean the end of the war.
ROBERTSBut, Yochi, bringing the issue from a wider perspective, does this tell us that there's a stalemate on the ground? Does it tell us that the rebels are losing the possibility of ever deposing the Assad government? What does it tell us?
DREAZENI think there's no question that they've lost --whatever momentum they had is gone and at best you could say it's a stalemate. Everyone who observes it, especially from other embassies that have people on the ground, Turkey, Jordan, universally feel the rebels are losing. That's a question of how far back they get pushed and at what costs.
DREAZENNo one I've spoken to believes Assad will defeat all of them. The fighting will just stop. But they also don't see any sign of rebels being able to push back towards the center towards Damascus or towards other parts of the country they once menaced. You know, there are two other interesting things happening with Syria. One is that the U.S. finally is beginning to start sending in more powerful weapons. Antitank missiles are beginning to come in. MANPADS, shoulder-fired missiles, to take down helicopters or planes.
DREAZENWe had a story this week about how the CIA is trying to put in two specific kinds of technology, one a biometric scanner, the other a sort of GPS system to make sure these missiles can't be taken out of Syria, because they worry that these missiles if given to terror groups could be sent to airliners. Those are now potentially going to Syria as well.
DREAZENSo you have weapons flowing. The question is, it does appear like it is far too little and far too late as the city -- the fall of the city like Homs indicates. Because it was -- as Courtney mentioned, this is where the uprising began.
ROBERTSAnd there also was a move to place sanctions on the Russian bank that had been implicated in financing the Assad government. Is this also too little too late in your words?
DREAZENAnd this was -- Tempbank was the one that was sanctioned. It was interesting because this was the first Russian bank sanctioned for something tied to Syria. And I think it is very little. I think it's very much more likely tied to Ukraine. It's another way of saying to Russia, we have ways of hitting you.
DREAZENThere are also comments that I found very striking from the head of the FBI about a week ago or so saying that Syria risks now becoming what Afghanistan was in the '80s, a place where Jihadists from Europe, from other parts of the world fled to. They experienced fighting, perhaps actually take literal -- pick up weapons and leave with them and now flood back toward the west. So apart from the loss of a chance to depose Assad, you now have this wider threat potentially to Europe and to the United States.
ROBERTSWell, you point to the Afghanistan example. And that's exactly what happened, that anti-Soviet forces that were armed by the United States found those very same fighters using the same arms turned against them when they sent American troops into that country.
DREAZENExactly. And the shoulder-fired missile -- it's called a MANPAD, the acronym -- it is quite literally exactly the same weapon as was used by the Mujahedeen against the Soviets, which is why the CIA is so desperate to try to figure out some way of preventing them from being used by the kind of Mujahedeen descendents who might try to use them today.
ROBERTSBruce, let's talk about another issue that -- from Africa that has gained some currency in part because, you know, putting reporters on the ground in a place like Syria is still very difficult. Getting information out of Ukraine is difficult. But what we're seeing now is the explosive growth of social media, which provides a whole new way of viewing international issues that we didn't have even a few years ago. And this example of the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls in a worldwide Twitter campaign to shed light on their plight. "The Diane Rehm Show" did a show on this yesterday. Bring us up to day on that.
AUSTERRight. It's really a remarkable story and we're talking about the 276 girls who've been abducted. And it's interesting, I mean, you mention the campaign that -- the social media campaign to raise awareness and to try to help save the girls. But it's also interesting to think about the role of the media and how it brought all of this to our attention in the first place.
AUSTERBecause the abduction happened a month ago, it happened April 14th. But it wasn't until the beginning of this week when the leader of the group, Boko Haram, he -- a video was released in which he basically said, we have these girls and we are going to sell them, which is an appalling moment. And it galvanized people all over the world and led to this social media reaction.
AUSTERBut what's interesting is this group has been brutal for a long time. I mean, not that long ago dozens of boys at a school were killed, their throats slit. Nobody really paid attention. Just this week Boko Haram killed another 300 or so people, just came out and massacred people. Almost nobody paid attention. But because there was a video of the person saying, we will sell these girls, you've had this international reaction to the point now that, you know, the United States is sending resources to try to help find them.
ROBERTSAnd the role, Courtney, of Michelle Obama, she has talked about a first lady -- speaking in Africa earlier this year when she met with Laura Bush in Africa, she made a very interesting point. She said we can stand in front of things and eventually people will see what we're standing in front of. And she, this week, held up a handwritten sign with the hash tag that has become so popular, bring back our girls. And this is a very interesting decision on her part to become part of this campaign.
KUBEIt is because the U.S. and Nigeria don't really have great relations, specifically the military. I think once people started learning -- once the public, the world started learning about these girls being abducted, there was this idea that well, send in Special Forces. Send in the U.S. military. Let's drop them out of planes and let's get those girls and bring them back to their families.
KUBEThe Nigerian government is not going to allow that to happen. It took a lot just for the U.S. to negotiate to allow several advisors to go into Abuja. They don't have helicopters. They are not going to do any kind of raids. They're just going to be advising and hopefully sharing some intelligence, which the Nigerians have not been -- want to accept.
KUBESo for Michelle Obama, for the first lady, to be able to stand up there and say, we care about this issue, bring back our girls, that was a very forceful message to Nigerians' President Goodluck Jonathan saying, you know, we're going to -- we're not going to give up on this issue.
KUBEBoko Haram, as Bruce was saying, they're a horrible group. I mean, they are tied to al-Qaida. For the past four or five years they've been very vocal. They've been a menace, to say the least, in Nigeria, in Cameroon, in Chad. But in the last six or eight months they have really stepped up their attacks. They target soft targets throughout the country, particularly in the northeast in Borno in the northeastern states. They hit churches, schools.
KUBEThey indiscriminately slaughter entire villages. They raze them. They burn down their homes for no reason. So it's actually -- this is a horrible story but it's actually somewhat gratifying to see that the world is starting to learn about what these people -- what these innocent people in Nigeria have been going through.
ROBERTSAnd another spot in Africa, Yochi, that has seen a brutal civil war and a lot of violence is South Sudan, the world's newest country which broke off from Sudan three years ago with American help. There had been tribal rivalries there and terrible brutality which helped lead to the division in that country. But even in that country now there are rival factions and an attempt by -- Secretary Kerry was there recently trying to exert some influence. Bring us up to date on that story.
DREAZENI mean, that's a tragedy for a lot of different reasons. I mean, obviously the humanitarian component which is the first and foremost. It's also this sort of odd moment of a very rare American foreign policy success story in the first term of the creation of a state that became the newest member of the UN that was meant to and an even more brutal civil war in Sudan. Now you have this new country where it's basically falling to pieces, famine, rape, atrocities. There's videos of bodies near hospitals being stacked up like wood.
DREAZENAnd you had John Kerry go to basically say to the two fighters, one of whom is the current president, one of whom is the former vice-president, we will sanction both of you...
ROBERTSBut they represent different ethnic groups.
DREAZENThey do. It's an ethnic rivalry overlaid with pure politics, overlaid with personal animosity, each one controlling militias who are mostly ethnic. But basically saying, we will sanction both of you. You need to lay down your arms. You need to start -- come back to the peace table. There's some indication that they might but this has just been one of those countries where it's something that looks like a success. You turn your eyes away and you look at it again and it's something very different.
DREAZENBurma's another example. It's another country that was a huge success. We didn't pay much attention. The world looked elsewhere and suddenly Burma backslid. And to remind you of how quickly things turn, you know, stories like Syria we've talked about on this show for several years and it's been a tragedy for years. Then you have other ones where things look stable, things look fairly good. And then six months later they go to hell.
ROBERTSAnother country that has actually been known for a reasonably healthy democratic system in elections is Thailand, Bruce. But this week you had this -- the elected prime minister ousted by the courts and then talk about impeachment, the whole variety of charges against her. What's that story about?
AUSTERAt a basic level it's about a government that cannot somehow stabilize itself and become a functioning government. I mean, as you said, the court steps in and ousts the prime minister. What's interesting is this isn't new. This is the third time since 2008 that has happened. Most recently we've had six months of street protests. I mean, there are charges of corruption, of nepotism.
AUSTERAt some level what this is about is a dysfunctional government in a really important part of the world. And there's no end in sight. And so once again we're starting over with the court intervening in the way it did.
ROBERTSAnd, Courtney, are there larger geopolitical implications here, this instability in Thailand?
KUBEYeah, absolutely. I mean, from an international perspective, as Bruce was saying, this is the third time that the court has forced a prime minister there to step down. So that in and of itself, it just sort of degrades the credibility of the Thai judicial system. You don't often see a judicial coup especially from a democratically-elected leader.
KUBEYou know, from an international perspective, who's running the country right now? There were six months of protests and back in December the current prime minister, who was just ousted this week, she called for snap elections in February because there had been so much protest against her. While the opposition disrupted the elections they were declared invalid. So then they declared new elections for July.
KUBEWell, then this week the constitutional court found that she was, you know, an -- she was using abuse of her power and then -- and she was forced to resign. So who's running the country right now? I mean, she was an interim government anyway since December. And now they're facing -- they've installed an interim prime minister, the former commerce minister. But from the outside world who do you talk to when you're looking for the leader there?
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's turn to some of our callers and emailers and let's start with Jack in Gainesville, Fla., Yochi. He writes, "I don't understand why no one has compared and contrasted what is happening in Ukraine to what has happened in Syria. The similarities are striking and ironic."
DREAZENI have to say I'm not entirely sure that I see the similarities with the exception of Russian support in both cases for a government or for violence. But otherwise I don't see similarities. I mean, if it would be -- you were making apple-to-apple we would've had to have seen in Ukraine where peaceful protests brutally put down by government where the peaceful protestors then immersed into a rebel group. And hundreds of thousands of people died. You have not seen that in the slightest. So to my mind, the question seems actually to be the reverse, that thankfully in terms of the level of violence, the two are not at all comparable.
ROBERTSBut what possibilities are there? I read one quote this week from one official in Ukraine saying the civil war has already started. Is that true or is that overstated?
DREAZENI think at the moment it's overstated. The question is, if the Ukrainian government continues to try to send troops into the east, if the violence there continues where it is or spikes, and the question is ultimately what happens to cities like Slavyansk and Donetsk? Do they recognize in any way, shape or form the central government or do they go their own way? If they go their own way, even if there's no fighting, arguably you could say the civil war's happening because you have a country split into two.
ROBERTSYou want to add something?
AUSTERYeah, and you had mentioned earlier that there's been some new polling out on this. And the polling is actually very interesting. And it does suggest that the idea that, you know, there is this great, great divide within Ukraine, really the evidence does not bear that out. I mean, the numbers of people, even in the eastern part of the country, who would actually like to see that part of the country secede is very low, on the order of 14 to 18 percent, in that neighborhood.
AUSTERMost of the people are indicating that, yes, they're unhappy with the government in Kiev but that doesn't mean that the solution is to pull apart. And so that suggests that the dynamic isn't for, you know, sort of major civil war.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Matthew in Mishawaka, Ind. You wanted to talk to us about Ukraine as well. So welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MATTHEWThank you. I was just curious because no one seems to be addressing Putin's endgame on this. The Crimea -- if the annexation of the Crimea is the goal then Southern Ukraine is absolutely necessary for its long term solution. There is no way that the Russians can sustain Crimea economically or in any other way with their only link being a ferry crossing at the Kerch Straits.
MATTHEWThey need a land connection to the Ukraine -- or to Crimea rather, and they need to be able to do something to control things like natural gas supplies and such, which at the moment pass strictly through Ukraine.
ROBERTSThanks for your point. Courtney, to illustrate this map for people on the radio, Crimea is a peninsula on the southern part of Ukraine, can only be reached by land through Ukrainian territory. As the caller says, it's possible to reach it by ferry from Russian territory but by land you have to go through Ukraine.
KUBEYeah, I remember when this whole annexation of Crimea really started to gain traction several months ago. Someone I was speaking to in the Pentagon brought that up and said, our bigger concern is not so much that they annexed Crimea but that then they try and gain some sort of an overland route from Russia.
KUBEAnd then as soon as the protests started breaking out in Southeastern Russia -- which we saw another violent deadly clash today in Mariupol where upwards of 20 people were killed -- as soon as that broke out, Pentagon officials that I was speaking to said, this is exactly what we were worried about. Putin still has his troops massed along that border despite what he said this week. You know, they take out a battalion and they replace it with another battalion. That is not a withdrawal from the border.
ROBERTSThat's Courtney Kube of NBC. Also with me Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, Bruce Auster of NPR. We're going to be back with more of your emails and your questions for our foreign policy experts here on "The Diane Rehm Show." So please stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And you're listening to the domestic -- I mean the international, the foreign policy hour of our "Friday News Roundup." And I have three experts with me. Bruce Auster of NPR, Courtney Kube of NBC, Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy. Let me read an email that we received from one of our listeners. This is Phil in San Antonio, Texas. "Nigeria is a member of the British Commonwealth and thus the responsibility for assisting with this problem with the kidnapped girls falls to Great Britain and its fellow Commonwealth members. What is Britain doing to help?" Courtney.
KUBEThe British actually sent in a small advisory team today, just as the U.S. is sending a small team that was supposed to land today. But much like the U.S., Great Britain -- Nigeria does not want outside help on this issue for several reasons. Number one, you remember, they were even hesitant to acknowledge that this occurred. And then once they finally did, they said the girls had already been -- most of them had been rescued.
KUBEAnd they do not want international attention on this. They certainly do not want some sort of an outside force coming into Nigeria and rescuing these girls, because then that just makes them look even worse. So unfortunately for the girls and for their families, the chances of any kind of an outside rescue effort are looking almost zero at this point.
ROBERTSI mean it's easy to say, given the international outrage and the -- which is totally justifiable...
ROBERTS...to send in the Marines. But that's much harder to do than to say.
KUBEYeah, and there are several reasons. First off, I mean many of the girls have been split apart. Some of them have been taken across the border. Boko Haram moves across the border into Cameroon daily and freely, without any kind of obstruction. But beyond that, most of them, many of them were taken into this game reserve in Northeastern Nigeria, which is like a triple canopy jungle with caves and -- you know, say what you want about U.S. military, U.S. drones and surveillance assets, they can't see through caves.
KUBEThey cannot see through jungles. They haven't been tracking these girls. So the reality is the U.S. intelligence there is not very strong. They just don't have it. And they don't know where most of the girls are.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Julie in Portland, Maine. Am I correct, Julie? Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JULIEPortland, Mich., Steve.
ROBERTSPortland, Mich. Who knew there was a Portland, Mich.?
JULIEIt's pretty small, pretty rural.
ROBERTSWell, we're delighted to have you with us this morning. What's on your mind?
JULIEThank you, Steve. I just feel like we're being sanctioned by the U.S. corporation people who are refusing to hire us or refusing to pay us a living wage or taking away our bargaining rights. And I know this is your international hour, but I believe that that is a very important issue. And I feel sanctioned.
ROBERTSOkay. Thank you. The role of American corporations, Bruce, we were talking about earlier, that there are a lot of American companies with significant investments and assets in Russia today.
AUSTERThe whole crisis over Ukraine is one of the best examples we have seen in years in which foreign policy and geopolitics intersect with economics. I mean this thing is so complicated, in part because of the way the economy is intertwined and the role of the Europeans, their partial embrace of Putin. Their unwillingness to confront him because they have business deals. This complicates the whole effort to sanction Russia. You know, the only weapon that the United States really has is sanctions in this case. Certainly troops aren't a great option.
AUSTERThe president has all but ruled out the idea that troops would be engaged in this. So you have to play on economic territory. And because of these business relationships, it's very difficult. And it's interesting, even the United States, for all its sort of high-mindedness and the idea that we should be above that sort of thing, has its own engagements with Russia. The Pentagon buys Russian helicopters to provide to Afghan troops. So the Afghan military gets its helicopters from Russia, which the United States pays for. Even with the Ukraine crisis and this desire to sanction Russia, the U.S. doesn't want to give up that deal.
ROBERTSAnd, Courtney, really this growing interrelationship that Bruce is talking about of global economies cuts two ways. To us, on one hand, the Germans can exert leverage over the politicians saying, don't put on sanctions because it's going to hurt our market share. But Russia is vulnerable because there are a lot of global investors who have money in the Russian stock market, which they can then take out. So both sides have entanglements in the global economy that were not true in an earlier age.
KUBEAnd in the end, a lot of this comes down to oil and energy. It's oil and gas. Europe, they get their oil and gas from Russia. They do not want to have that disrupted. They certainly don't want to see their gas prices raising -- raised domestically. So I mean it seems like a very simple answer. But in the end, it's the energy market, and Europe does not want that disrupted.
ROBERTSAnd Yochi, this has been given, the truth of what Courtney's saying, there has been some talk saying one of the things the West has to do is develop alternative energy sources so that it lessens its dependency on Russia and therefore reduces the leverage of Putin or his successor over the West. What do you hear on that front? Is that serious talk?
DREAZENIt's serious talk, but it's not something that can be done remotely soon or remotely cheaply. You know, the U.S. obviously now is the biggest natural gas producer and one of the biggest exporters on the planet. So you hear people in Congress, even in the White House, say, let's just export our own natural gas and then Europe won't need to buy from Russia. The problem is, and we've written about this fairly extensively, is that we don't have remotely enough refineries or remotely enough capability to bring that natural gas to Russia -- I'm sorry, to Europe, excuse me, and we won't for years to come.
DREAZENSo it's a great idea. It's beginning to happen because there's so much money in it. But people who hope this is a quick fix, a cheap fix, an easy fix -- it's none of those three.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Nino in Chapel Hill, N.C. I gather you want to talk about a similar topic. So, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Nino.
NINOHi, Steve. Excellent show. It's always great to hear what the establishment has to say about foreign policy. Two quick points. Russia simply doesn't want NATO at its borders. And if you think that NATO is the instrument of spreading democracy throughout the world, you have to side with the West. If you stopped believing that a few decades ago, then you think differently. And a wider point, if you're living in the era of financial colonialism. In the years past, you needed troops -- great powers needed troops to overwhelm the country and take over their assets. Now, they overwhelm them with capital and pretty much do the same thing. Thank you.
ROBERTSThanks for your call. A reaction, Courtney?
KUBEWell, you know, Russia may not want NATO on its borders, but it's got NATO on its borders. So I don't know what they can really do about that. The idea that they're going to slowly take nations like Ukraine and keep them from ever joining NATO, I don't think that that's realistic at all.
ROBERTSBut what about this. If you look at the map, Bruce, clearly there is a borderland -- Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine -- that sits between what is now NATO and Russia. And while NATO has expanded into the Baltic States and obviously into former Soviet Union satellites, there still is a buffer between the two.
AUSTERRight. And the paradox of all of this is that it -- from the Russian point of view, NATO, you know, over the years as it expanded and it had sort of members, you know, member states like the Baltics, but then other states that sort of had relationships with NATO but weren't full members, from the Russian point of view, this was seen as provocative. And so it at some level aggravated the problem.
AUSTERBut the flip side is that the very states right now that are not members of NATO are the ones that feel most vulnerable, because that NATO guarantee is considered, you know, some people have called it the gold standard. It is the one commitment that, if ever there's doubt about the United States, there's no doubt that the United States will support and honor that commitment. And so it's those countries that are in between who are the ones who feel most vulnerable, because they don't have that protection.
ROBERTSYou know, it's interesting, Courtney, that as much changes in geopolitics, some things don't change. And the eternal struggle over the borderlands between East and West in Europe has been an issue for centuries and it's -- you look at the map, and it's still an eternal truth. And those countries are always the ones that are fought over.
KUBEYeah. And Bruce made an excellent point that, you know, no matter what Russia wants, no matter what Vladimir Putin wants, his actions right now are doing nothing but driving some of those countries towards NATO. So this may all have the reverse effect. And also to Nino's point about having large military forces, I mean that is actually an interesting development also in what we're seeing right now in Ukraine and in Russia, where there are 40,000 Russian troops massed along this border with Ukraine and they really aren't doing anything.
KUBEThere have been some cases where they've pulsed the border and whatnot. But so far, they have not crossed that border. But they really are having an impact in Eastern Ukraine, just their very presence. The concern about Russia meddling in the May 25 presidential election is largely that the troops will in some way just cause people not to vote or cause chaos just by their very presence.
KUBESo it's interesting.
ROBERTSAnd the threat of -- the threat that they pose.
DREAZENOne thing I just wanted to add is that, you know, we look at this obviously from what these countries want. These countries want to be in NATO. The problem is NATO doesn't want a lot of these countries. NATO -- I interviewed the NATO Secretary General when he was here a short time ago, left unsaid is that they don't Ukraine to be a member of NATO. They don't want Georgia to be a member of NATO, precisely because they don't want to have the same conflict with Russia that they would have.
DREAZENI mean, imagine right now, if Ukraine were a member of NATO, if Georgia in 2008 had been a member of NATO. The same tension you see in Europe where the EU does not want to have countries like Turkey. They don't want to have big impoverished countries that they see as a threat to the European Union economies and values. NATO members don't want to have other countries to worry about, especially those countries who can't defend themselves. So it is true, these moves push countries towards NATO orbit. It's not true that NATO would then want to embrace them and pull them in.
ROBERTSLet's turn to more callers who want to discuss the Ukraine situation. And, Jason, in Charlottesville, Va., welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JASONHi. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to offer some perspective I think is sorely missing in the media conversation about this. It seems like we get stuck in bunker as where we have to root for one side or the other, regardless of what seems to be right or wrong. Now, for me, I look at the situation with Yanukovych as he was a democratically elected politician. And he was elected by some 70 to 80 percent of the population. Now whether he might have been corrupt or not is another issue. Everybody says the other side is corrupt.
JASONNow, these protestors, as you might call them, did a coup d'état on a democratically elected leader. Can we blame the Eastern Ukrainians, not just separatists, Ukrainians who want to remove these people who disrupted their voices in the democratic process. And who is the U.S. to argue against what Russia is doing with their intervention, say, against the Sandinistas, who were democratically elected in South America? They supported the Contras by giving them weapons and conducting psychological warfare against the opposition.
JASONThe same thing in Iraq, the same thing all over South America...
JASON...and the world.
ROBERTSLet's focus on Ukraine. And we appreciate the call. It's an important point. And, Courtney, it's a point that Russia makes repeatedly, that Yanukovych of course was the president of Ukraine and was deposed by popular protest.
KUBEAnd I think both sides are really guilty of this, where you can look at very similar situations -- I know it's difficult to compare any two nations, because everything is always very different. They're individual cases. But, you know, you look at something like Syria and you look at where there are popular protests in the street and then the U.S. and much of the international community backed the popular protests against the Assad regime, which was once -- had a relatively decent relationship with the United States.
KUBEThen you look at something like Ukraine, where there are popular protests in the street. We had Victoria Nuland, our State Department official, handing out sandwiches to the protestors several months ago. So it's -- both sides are somewhat guilty of this. You look at Vladimir Putin, for instance. He's saying, well there's no way that we can have an election in Ukraine right now, because the Ukrainian military is fighting against the opposition. But then, in Syria, where the fighting is much worse, he's saying, absolutely, there should be a presidential election there to reelect President Assad. So...
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Yochi, this brings up a much larger question, as our caller raised in terms of other countries. It's one -- you know, you can say you believe in democracy. But then when a democratic election chooses a regime that is, in itself, undemocratic or hostile to your interests, it poses a very difficult problem.
DREAZENIt does. And arguably we see that the most pointedly is with Egypt.
DREAZENYou had a democratically elected government, President Morsi, there's no question about the validity of his election. The problem is, we thought he was a terrible president. Many of the Egyptian people came to see him in the same way. There was a coup. We still, to this day, the White House refuses to call it a coup, because it would mean an automatic aid shutoff. But that's exactly what you're describing. You had a democratically elected leader. We didn't like his government. We didn't particularly trust him. Protests erupted for a while.
DREAZENThe U.S. vacillated about, do they call on Morsi to step down? Do they in some way signal support to the Egyptian military? Ultimately, they didn't. But the government fell. The Egyptian military took power. They're not called a coup. Aid continues. Our relationship with that government is very strong. So -- but it's exactly the point you mentioned. If you have an election and you don't like the outcome, effectively you can sort of ignore it and wait for it to get better.
ROBERTSAnd also, Bruce, what we were also seeing -- we saw this in Iraq, as the caller mentioned, where we in some ways take the power of democratic institutions for granted in this country, they're so deeply rooted in our culture and our history, that both sides agree to play by the rules. But it -- we're learning in Iraq and other places, that countries that lack that tradition, it's much harder for a democratically elected government to bridge the underlying ethnic, religious, tribal rivalries in these countries. That just an election doesn't solve all problems.
AUSTERWell, exactly right. And we were talking earlier about the situation in South Sudan and that's precisely what happened. The sense was, you know, this new country is created back in 2011, and there's a sense of triumph that now the problem is solved. But the underlying ethnic divide still was there. You know, back to the Ukraine for a second, you know, the caller raises a point. Because remember, you know, part of the problem the United States has in the current situation and the argument that President Putin makes routinely is that the idea that the United States is meddling.
AUSTERThat the United States is behind all this. And there are things one can point to, including that intercepted phone call with the, you know, the American official and the American ambassador, in which they're seen to be sort of selecting who should be in the next Ukrainian government. You know, that, again, raises these sorts of issues about what's legitimate and what's not.
ROBERTSAnd so you do have this situation, Courtney, of Vladimir Putin, hardly anybody's idea of a democrat, arguing that it's the democratically elected government of Ukraine that should be in power. Yanukovych, as the caller mentioned, who -- whatever flaws he has -- was elected and it was a popular protest that deposed him. And that is an argument you hear from Putin almost every day.
KUBEAnd you could make the argument that he was elected once, ten years ago, and kicked out, and then reelected. So the people knew what they were getting in to when they reelected him, you know, recently. But, you know, it's interesting what Bruce was saying about South Sudan. You know, there was a real lapse in U.S. attention to Sudan. When South Sudan broke off from main Sudan, there was all this worry about the south part of the country not getting along with Khartoum and the ethnic tension between there.
KUBEBut they totally ignored the underlying ethnic tensions that already existed in the south. And they tried to install a new government there that had two different ethnicities and they thought that would bridge the gap and the country will come together. But sure enough, within a matter of months, there was this massive power struggle between these two men that turned into a -- what has now become effectively genocide.
ROBERTSThat's going to have to be the last word. Courtney Kube, who is the national security producer at NBC. Bruce Auster is the national security editor at NPR. Yochi Dreazen, who -- on this program many times when you were with The Wall Street Journal -- now, deputy editor for news at Foreign Policy and author of an upcoming book, "The Invisible Front." Thank you all for being with us this morning. And thank you, our listeners, for your comments and your calls, and spending an hour of your Friday morning with us. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And she will be back on Tuesday. Thanks a lot.
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