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International FRIDAY, MARCH 21, 2014

Putin tests Obama’s foreign policy WASHINGTON: For President Barack Obama, Russia’s aggressive annexation of Crimea is testing central tenets of his foreign policy philosophy: his belief in the power of direct diplomacy, his preference for using economic sanctions as punishment and his inclination to proceed cautiously in order to avoid creating larger long-term problems. The question facing the White House now is whether actions that have done little to stop Russia from claiming Crimea are tough enough to stop further escalations by Moscow. And if they continue to prove insufficient, what else is Obama willing to do to change Vladimir Putin’s calculus? The menu of additional options appears limited. The White House says a military response is not being considered, and officials have so far resisted calls to supply Ukraine’s fledgling government with military equipment. Instead, the US is likely to focus on financial assistance to Ukraine and deepening economic sanctions against Russian officials whom the White House deems responsible for the crisis. White House spokesman Jay Carney vowed Wednesday that “more action will be taken.” He indicated that financial penalties could spread to the Russian arms sector, wealthy oligarchs and additional Kremlin officials.

And Vice President Joe Biden, trying to soothe concerns in nations on Russia’s borders, said in Lithuania that the US will respond to any aggression against its NATO allies. He declared, “We’re in this together with you.” But thus far, sanctions levied by both the US and the European Union have done little to deter Russian President Putin. Nor have Obama’s direct appeals to Putin in four lengthy phone calls or his efforts to isolate Russia internationally by rallying allies to suspend preparations for the economic summit Putin was scheduled to host this summer. “We have gotten ourselves backed into a pretty bad corner,” says Rosa Brooks, an international law professor at Georgetown University who served in the Pentagon during Obama’s first term. “Putin quite correctly calculated that there’s really not much we can do.” Almost every punishment or warning from the US has been followed by defiance from the Russian leader. Hours after the US and EU imposed their first round of asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials, Putin formally recognized Crimea’s independence from Ukraine. The following day, he signed a treaty making Crimea Russian territory. “If you push a spring too hard, at some point it will spring back,” the Russian

leader said in a fiery speech Tuesday. “You always need to remember this.” The crisis in Crimea has become a flashpoint in a new dispute between East and West. Russia moved troops into the peninsula after Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president fled the capital of Kiev amid rallies protesting his decision to abandon plans for deepening ties with Europe. On Sunday, voters in Crimea overwhelmingly cast ballots in favor of joining Russia. On Wednesday, Russian forces seized military installations across Crimea. The White House has decried Russia’s maneuvers as a violation of international law and does not recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Putin’s actions have opened Obama to fresh criticism from Republicans, who argue that the secondterm president, already politically weakened at home, now looks wobbly on the world stage. Republican Sens John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have called on Obama to provide military assistance to Ukraine in the form of small arms and ammunition, as well as non-lethal assistance to the government in Kiev. “The West must impose real costs on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. By failing to do so, we only invite further aggression elsewhere,” the two senators said in a statement.

Other lawmakers, including Virginia Rep Eric Cantor have called on the US and its international partners to revoke Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight. Cantor, the No 2 Republican in the House, also urged the administration to increase energy exports to weaken what he called Russia’s “stranglehold” on oil and gas supplies to Ukraine and much of Europe. Administration officials privately acknowledge there is little chance Putin will give up Crimea, a strategically important peninsula that has long housed a Russian military base. Instead, the most pressing US concerns are now cooling tensions in Crimea, where both Ukraine and Russia have troops, and preventing Putin from pushing into areas of eastern Ukraine that have similarly pro-Russian populations. Secretary of State John Kerry said any further Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine would be a “major breach.” But he declined to give specifics on how the US would respond. Even as the US and Europe talk tough, there are practical concerns on both sides of the Atlantic that are likely to factor into future decisions about punishing Russia. European nations, including powerful Germany, have deep economic ties to Russia and fear Putin could retaliate financially if the EU ordered tougher sanctions. —AP

Yaalon disappointed over US ‘weakness’ Israeli Defense Minister Yaalon in hot water

GOLAN HEIGHTS: Israeli soldiers deployed on the border with Syria observe Syrian territory from Israeli side of the border near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. — AFP

Israel-Syria faceoff unlikely to escalate JERUSALEM: Israel’s air strikes on Syria after a bomb targeted Israeli troops on the occupied Golan Heights was unlikely to spiral into full-scale confrontation, with each side preoccupied elsewhere, commentators said yesterday. Israeli warplanes attacked Syrian army positions early on Wednesday and the Jewish state issued a stark warning to Damascus just hours after a bomb wounded four Israeli soldiers on the Golan, one severely. Over the past year, Israel has reportedly carried out a series of raids on Syrian and Hezbollah targets but has not officially acknowledged them. In a rare departure, the Israel military issued a public statement acknowledging Wednesday’s strikes on Syrian army facilities. Damascus, meanwhile, said one soldier had been killed and seven more wounded in an act of “aggression” that endangered regional stability. But most commentators agreed that neither Israel nor the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad were seeking a faceoff as each was dealing with threats on other fronts. Assad has been tied up fighting a three-year civil war against rebels seeking his ouster, while Israel is occupied with the threats of rockets from Gaza in the south, powerful Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah on its northern flank and the perceived threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. “Assad has no desire to get into a direct confrontation with Israel, which could bring about his end,” Syria expert Eyal Zisser told the Jerusalem Post. Although the targets in Wednesday’s raids were Syrian army, it appeared that the bomb was planted by militants from Damascus ally Hezbollah, pundits said. Syria has long provided arms and other aid to Hezbollah, and served as a conduit for Iranian military aid to the movement, which battled Israel to a bloody stalemate in a 2006 war. —AFP

JERUSALEM: Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is in hot water again with the United States for caustic criticism of his country’s main ally that has put more strain on already testy relations with the Obama administration. And the hawkish former general, widely popular in Israel for being an apparent straight-shooter who does not shy from speaking bluntly on issues of war and peace, seems reluctant to beat a full retreat from his tough words toward Washington. Issuing statements voicing regret at any offence he might have caused, Yaalon has not backed away from the substance of a scathing personal attack in January on US Secretary of State John Kerry. In further criticism, Yaalon displayed deep disappointment with US President Barack Obama’s handling of burning world issues, and he has not retracted his accusation that the world’s strongest superpower is projecting weakness abroad. “Bogie does not take well to being corrected,” an exadviser, using Yaalon’s nickname, told Reuters. Asked what Yaalon might be up to by criticizing the United States, he said: “God knows. I hope he does.” In a show of US displeasure, Kerry - derided by Yaalon in January as “messianic” and “obsessive” in his pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace - phoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday to complain about one of the strongest attacks ever by an Israeli defense minister on a top US official. Netanyahu, whose own relationship with Obama has been fraught with friction over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and peace efforts with the Palestinians, has shown little inclination, at least publicly, to rein in Yaalon. An Israeli official said the 63-year-old Yaalon, who was appointed to his post a year ago, was displaying his inexperience at top-flight government. “This is his first time in the major leagues and he has now screwed up twice,” the official said of Yaalon, a member of Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party and, according to recent opinion polls, the most popular minister in his cabinet.

US ‘weakness’ The official saw no hidden domestic strategy in Yaalon’s comments, but thought it was a case of him speaking his mind, when he would have been better served saying nothing. At a closed-door lecture at Tel Aviv University on Monday, Yaalon, a former armed forces chief, said Israel could not rely on the United States to take the lead in confronting Iran over its nuclear activities. He also pointed to Ukraine’s crisis as an example of Washington “showing weakness”. Yaalon’s office later issued a statement saying no criticism or offence was intended towards Washington in his remarks on Monday, although it offered no apology. “The strategic ties between our countries have a supreme importance, as do our personal ties and mutual interests,” it said. While condemning Yaalon’s remarks as unconstructive, inaccurate and confusing, US officials signaled the discord would not have a long-term effect on relations with Israel. White House spokesman Jay Carney noted “an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security, and State Department spokeswomen Jen Psaki spoke of an “enduring partnership”. Yaalon has a record of breaking ranks over what he perceives as unreasonable risks. As armed forces chief of staff, his tenure was cut short after he opposed Israel’s plan to withdraw settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Some Israeli commentators noted that Yaalon voiced his criticism in private settings - an off-the-record briefing to journalists and the university lecture - and questioned whether he had been naive in thinking his remarks would not be leaked. A commentary in Israel’s best-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, openly questioned Yaalon’s intelligence. “Let’s call this for what it is: either the defense minister knows something that we don’t or, how shall we put this delicately, he is simply a fool,” columnist Sima Kadmon wrote. “That is the only way to explain the behavior of the most important cabinet minister, whose remarks about the US administration are liable to be catastrophic for the most significant ... relationship that the State of Israel has today.”— Reuters

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