Putin's Subtle Message to Obama: Let's Talk

Russian President Putin sought to cool the rhetoric over Ukraine with an appeal for a postponed referendum in the east and an order to pull back Russian troops, but another message was to President Obama – over the State Department’s head – that it’s time to talk

Official Washington's shock and disbelief at Russian President Vladimir Putin's calming words about Ukraine reveal more about the widening chasm between real-world nuances and the U.S. political/media elite's hysteria than any dramatic shift in course by Putin.

I'm told that what Putin is doing - in urging ethnic Russians in east Ukraine to put off a referendum on possible secession and agreeing to pull Russian troops back from the border - is part of a behind-the-scenes initiative coordinated with President Barack Obama to prevent the Ukraine crisis from spinning further out of control.

On the American side, this also appears to be the latest example of Obama's extraordinary way of conducting foreign policy, often at odds with his own State Department bureaucracy and relying on White House insiders and CIA analysts to counter the belligerence often exhibited by Obama's two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

Obama's unusual style arose from his fateful decision to appoint a "team of rivals" to top national security posts after winning the presidency in 2008. To close a rift in the Democratic Party, he gave the hawkish Clinton the job of Secretary of State; and to maintain some continuity during wartime, he left George W. Bush's Defense Secretary Robert Gates in place and kept Bush's high command, including neocon favorite Gen. David Petraeus.

But Obama soon learned that running the U.S. government wasn't like managing a college seminar in which smart people sit around and debate various points of view. When actual policy decisions were at stake, such as whether to escalate the Afghan War by dispatching a "surge" of 30,000 troops and adopting a new "counterinsurgency" strategy, Obama found that powerful adversaries could manipulate the process by limiting his options and leaking to their friends in the news media.

In summer 2009, Obama was mouse-trapped into the neocon-favored "surge" in Afghanistan. The policy was devised by neocon theorist Frederick Kagan, pushed by Defense Secretary Gates and supported by Clinton and Petraeus, according to Gates's memoir, Duty .

Obama was thoroughly outmaneuvered and ended up acquiescing to the plan although he reportedly regretted the decision almost immediately. (Kagan's "surge" accomplished little beyond getting about 1,000 more Americans and many Afghans killed, without changing the trajectory of the failed war.)

But the Afghan "surge" experience apparently convinced Obama that he needed to beef up his own team, which he assembled in part from the ranks of CIA analysts who were working in the early days for one Obama loyalist, CIA Director Leon Panetta. Obama shied away from the other alternative of firing the "team of rivals" fearing political repercussions.

As Gates wrote in Duty, "Clinton and I represented the only independent 'power center' [in the Obama administration's national security decision-making], not least because, for very different reasons, we were both seen as 'un-fireable.'" What was remarkable about Gates's observation is that traditionally the President of the United States is considered the only "power center" that matters on foreign policy.

The 'Un-fireables' Get Their Way

So, faced with these "un-fireables" at the Pentagon and State, Obama was forced to finesse his foreign policy whenever it was not fully in line with the preferences of Gates and Clinton. At some key moments, the "un-fireables" directly defied Obama's own desires, not only on Afghanistan but on the touchy issue of Iran's nuclear program.

For instance, in spring 2010, Secretary of State Clinton helped sink an agreement negotiated with Iran to ship most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country, even though President Obama had blessed the initiative undertaken by the leaders of Brazil and Turkey.

The Brazil-Turkey arrangement came under fierce attack by Clinton and was derided by leading U.S. news outlets, including editorial writers at the New York Times who mocked Brazil and Turkey as being "played by Tehran." The ridicule of Brazil and Turkey continued even after Brazil released Obama's private letter to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva encouraging Brazil and Turkey to work out the deal.

Despite the letter's release, Obama didn't publicly defend the swap and instead joined in scuttling the deal, another moment when Clinton and administration hardliners got their way. That set the world on the course for tightened economic sanctions against Iran and heightened tensions that brought the region close to another war, with Israel repeatedly threatening to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

The Iranian nuclear negotiations only got back on track after Clinton left the State Department at the start of Obama's second term. But Obama's relationship to his State Department remained strained under Secretary Kerry who has been known to complain about his infrequent access to the President.

Whether as an expression of annoyance at having to deal with White House underlings - or because he considers himself more steeped in world affairs than Obama - Kerry has continued to operate as something of a free agent getting wide latitude to pursue his ultimately doomed effort to seek an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But Kerry has also charged out front as the most bellicose voice of the administration on major crises.

On Aug. 30, 2013, Kerry gave an extraordinary speech, which sounded like a declaration of war against Syria, only to have Obama pull the rug out from under him several days later and then reach a chemical weapons compromise brokered with the Syrian government by Russia's President Putin.

Kerry also nearly scuttled the interim nuclear agreement with Iran in fall 2013 when he was sent to Geneva to sign the accord and instead tried to insert some new language. Finally, under White House orders, he returned to Geneva to finalize the interim deal, which also had been pushed along by Putin.

Stymied by Putin

So, on both Syria and Iran, Kerry found himself not only stymied by Obama and the President's ad hoc foreign policy team, but by the influence of the Russian president who had developed a surprisingly close odd-couple relationship with Obama. One outside analyst even compared the Obama-Putin relationship to the close collaboration between President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, albeit without the warm public appearances.

In other words, the fury toward Putin has been building inside the State Department, which is still dominated by neoconservative leftovers from the Bush years along with liberal "humanitarian" hawks who are also eager to unleash U.S. firepower against unsavory enemies. The pent-up frustration over Obama's failure to bomb Syria and possibly Iran was let loose over Ukraine, with Putin the primary target of the anger.

The Ukraine crisis started in 2013 with a reckless dangle from the European Union of a possible future membership for Ukraine, an association offer that was then followed by draconian austerity demands from the International Monetary Fund. But the easy villains in the U.S. narrative were Ukraine's elected President Viktor Yanukovych, who rejected the IMF's demands, and Russia's President Putin, who trumped the EU's offer with a $15 billion loan without the austerity.

As anger among western Ukrainians led to mass demonstrations at the Maidan in Kiev, the State Department's neocons, such as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland (who happens to be Frederick Kagan's sister-in-law), cheered on and encouraged the increasingly violent protests. The U.S. press corps shed any pretense of objectivity and took the side of the Maidan protesters.

So, when neo-Nazi militias, allied with the Maidan protests, launched a putsch on Feb. 22, the State Department and the U.S. press fully embraced the ouster of the democratically elected president in what was deemed a "pro-democracy" uprising.

The events that followed, including the appointment of Nuland's hand-picked politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk to be prime minister and his prompt enactment of the IMF austerity plan, were viewed through the U.S. narrative's lens of "white hat" good guys -- the coup regime in Kiev -- versus "black hat" bad guys, i.e., anyone who objected to the putsch.

Reactions from Ukrainians who felt disenfranchised by the overthrow of their elected president or worried about the IMF's austerity plan were dismissed as confused locals deceived by Moscow's "disinformation," which continued to cite the role of neo-Nazis and question the legitimacy of the post-coup regime.

In March, when the people of Crimea voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the U.S. media portrayed the vote as "rigged" or forced on the population by a Russian invasion.

To this day, the New York Times and other major publications insist that Putin had denied that Russian troops were in Crimea at the time of the secession and only later admitted that they were present, all the better to dispute his denials that Russian troops are now operating in eastern Ukraine. It doesn't seem to matter to the U.S. press that Putin and other Russian officials always said there were thousands of Russian troops in Crimea, operating under a longstanding agreement with Ukraine. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Twisting Putin's Words on Ukraine."]

The Putin Conspiracy Theory

The demonization of Putin in the U.S. news media was so total that virtually anything could be said or written about him and anyone who objected to the "group think" was immediately dismissed as a "Putin apologist" or a conveyor of "Russian propaganda."

Because of this endless vilification, Official Washington couldn't see straight when it came to what Putin actually wanted. Amid the waves of U.S. propaganda, the State Department and the mainstream U.S. media promoted wild speculation about Putin planning to seize large sections of Ukraine and even reach into Moldova, if not the Baltic states.

Yet, Putin faced challenges enough in accepting Crimea's request for annexation, including the expenditure of billions of dollars to upgrade the peninsula's decaying infrastructure and building a bridge or tunnel from the Russian mainland. Putin wasn't eager to take on the care and feeding of tens of millions of Ukrainians.

Putin's military threats appeared mostly designed to stay the hand of the coup regime in Kiev which kept announcing plans to crush the "terrorists" in eastern Ukrainians who had taken up arms against what they considered an illegitimate government.

If Ukraine adopted some federalist system to give the sections of the deeply divided country more self-rule, Putin and his diplomats indicated that the interests of the eastern Ukrainians would be served. I'm told that idea became the basis for private discussions between the Kremlin and the White House, including apparently direct one-on-one talks between Obama and Putin.

So, Putin's initiative on Wednesday, urging the eastern Ukrainians to forego a May 11 referendum on possible secession and his announced pullback of troops from the border, fits with his interests. Whichever way the referendum were to go it would have meant trouble for Putin, since a strong vote for joining Russia would have raised expectations to a dangerous level and a strong vote for staying in Ukraine would be a potential embarrassment.

The interests of the eastern Ukrainian protesters, however, appear to be different, since they rejected Putin's request to postpone the referendum scheduled for Sunday. To them, a strong vote for autonomy or for joining Russia might be seen as a blessing because it could force Putin's hand on a possible military intervention.

But Putin's conciliatory words appear to have another audience, as a signal to Obama that - despite all the acrimony over Ukraine - Russia is willing again to play its helpful role in reducing tensions in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere.

If so, it is now up to Obama to decide what to do about his fractured foreign policy apparatus, now that he has seen additional evidence about the risk of having a State Department operating outside presidential control.

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