Secretary Clinton’s Mission to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus


By Nicholas Dima l July 23, 2010
 
Ukrainian President YanukovychAmending Missile Defense AgreementGeorgia’s President Saakashvili
AP Images Via the U.S. Department of State

Operating within the framework of President Obama’s “Reset Button” approach to US-Russia relations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s official visit to five countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – Ukraine, Poland, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – on a long Fourth of July weekend attempted to alter the impression in the region of American indecision, following 18 months of apparent White House neglect of U.S. strategic interests and the administration’s unsuccessful attempt to re-craft policy.

Secretary Clinton’s first official visit to these former Soviet republics and Eastern bloc countries became a dire necessity in light of the President’s abject failure in implementing his “community organizer” approach to foreign affairs, specifically with respect to sensitive issues surrounding Armenia-Turkey and Armenia-Azerbaijan relations causing a severe rise in anti-American sentiment in Azerbaijan, a now faltering but strategic U.S. ally. In Ukraine and Georgia, events had overtaken U.S. policy. While in Poland, the President retreated on U.S. missile defense commitments for Europe.

UKRAINE: NATO Accession Out of the Picture

Clinton’s first stopover in Kiev on July 1 was significant. A series of political events in Ukraine, since President Obama took office on January 20, 2009, have brought about a dramatic change in US-Ukraine relations. The election of Viktor Yanukovych in February has altered the political landscape for America and its allies in the region, particularly with respect to Moscow. The avowedly pro-Russia Yanukovych displaced both pro-Western candidates, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, during two heated rounds of voting. Yuschenko and Tymoshenko led the pro-democracy movement dubbed the Orange Revolution in 2004 defeating Moscow’s then-choice apparent, Viktor Yanukovych.

Relations between Moscow and Kiev, under Yuschenko’s administration, rapidly deteriorated and became so bad the two presidents were not even on talking terms. Yuschenko’s position to deprive Moscow of a renewed basing agreement for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea at Savastopol due to expire in 2017 was a serious irritant to then-Russian President Vladimir Putin. Subsequent natural gas cut-offs by Moscow through Ukraine’s transit pipelines leading to Europe in January 2006 and 2009 over large price increases placed added pressure on the pro-Western Yuschenko government during his years in office.

Upon her arrival in Kiev, Secretary Clinton was greeted with the news that Ukraine’s parliament, just the night before, had voted to pursue a “non-aligned” status effectively excluding Ukraine from future NATO membership consideration, as Yanukovych’s predecessor had ardently pursued. Although, the parliament did agree to continue Ukraine’s Partnership with NATO, the potential cooperation with the Western alliance is subject to hundreds of amendments. Immediately after his election, Yanukovych moved rapidly to secure Russian gas supplies in return for extending the Savastopol lease for 25 years, following numerous meetings in Moscow. Interestingly, as president, Yanukovych’s first official trip abroad was to Brussels, the European Union headquarters, declaring his government’s intent to pursue EU integration. The EU has become Ukraine’s largest trading partner, while Russia remains its single biggest trading partner.

In a joint press conference with President Yanukovych on July 2, Secretary Clinton sidestepped the NATO accession issue by acknowledging Ukraine’s participation in Afghanistan and to the previously scheduled US-Ukraine NATO military exercises, saying, “And we also support a relationship with Russia that is in Ukraine’s interest that helps to further what President Obama has called the resetting of relations with Russia.”

It remains to be seen whether freedom of the press along with these newer and fledgling democracies in the region, Ukraine and Georgia among them, will be sacrificed on the alter of President Obama’s so-called “reset” policy with the government rather than the Russian people.

POLAND: Missile Defense Shield Climb-Down

On August 20, 2008, Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski sat with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at a ceremony in Warsaw to sign the “Ballistic Missile Defense Agreement Concerning the Deployment of Ground-Based Ballistic Missile Defense Interceptors in the Territory of the Republic of Poland.” Nearly two years later on July 3, 2010, Foreign Minister Sikorski, this time, stood with Secretary of State Clinton in a ceremony in Krakow watching as their respective representatives signed an amendment to the Ballistic Missile Defense Agreement, effectively killing the missile defense shield.

Not long in office, President Barrack Obama sent a secret letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that “was hand-delivered in Moscow by top administration officials three weeks ago,” the New York Timesreported on March 2, 2009. Followed by a series of meetings between Clinton and her counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 6 in Geneva and Obama and Medvedev on April 2 in London, the Obama administration announced on September 17, 2009 that it would cancel the BMD program negotiated by the Bush administration.

This unilateral cancellation of the BMD missile shield, which was intended “to protect Europe and the United States against longer-range ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East, and…linked to other U.S. missile defense facilities in Europe and the United States,” came at considerable cost in Polish political capital in view of Polish public opinion, particularly in the face of strenuous Russian opposition to this ballistic missile defense system. In fact, in 2007, when President Bush proposed the idea, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of an arms race and threatened to aim nuclear weapons at European targets from Kaliningrad, the Russian Cold War-era enclave sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea; so much for Russian diplomacy. At the Krakow ceremony on July 3, Secretary Clinton stated, “Today, by signing an amendment to the ballistic missile defense agreement, we are reinforcing this commitment [to Poland’s security and sovereignty]. The amendment will allow us to move forward with Polish participation in hosting elements of the phased adaptive approach to missile defense in Europe. It will help protect the Polish people and all of Europe, our allies, and others from evolving threats like that posed by Iran.”

The BMD system, comprised of 10 land-based interceptor missiles, was to have been located in Poland and was supposed to be completed by 2013. The system, as well as a missile defense radar site in the Czech Republic, was replaced with a Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) to be completed in four phases by 2020. This project, consisting of a mobile defensive Patriot missile system, was also opposed by Moscow. At a press availability, Secretary Clinton directed her comments at Moscow, overly sensitive to any NATO deployment in the region, when she reassuringly stated, “With respect to Russia, this is purely a defensive system. It is not directed at Russia. It does not threaten Russia. It is a defensive system to protect our friends and allies and our deployed forces,” from any of Tehran’s missile threats.

Critics in Poland viewed this unilateral BMD cancellation by the United States as a climb-down and an appeasement to Moscow.

AZERBAIJAN-ARMENIA: The High Risk Gamble

The geopolitical importance of the Caucasus can be best understood when viewed as the land bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, where Russia, Iran and Turkey converge. This volatile area is delineated by the Greater Caucasus Mountains which serve as the southern protective wall between Russia and the region populated primarily by Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

During his campaign for president, Barack Obama established a strong record of Armenian Genocide recognition. On January 19, 2008, Obama pledged:

“As President, I will maintain our assistance to Armenia, which has been a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism and extremism. I will promote Armenian security by seeking an end to the Turkish and Azerbaijani blockades, and by working for a lasting and durable settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that is agreeable to all parties, and based upon America’s founding commitment to the principles of democracy and self-determination.”

Obama further noted, “As a U.S. Senator, I have stood with the Armenian-American community in calling for Turkey’s acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide.”

However, President Obama’s failure to successfully implement this “community organizer” approach to foreign affairs in the Caucasus region has become acutely evident in the collapse of his attempted Turkey-Armenia “reconciliation” in dealing with the decades-long issue over the Ottoman Turkish empire’s relocation and massacre of 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915 through 1923. The Armenian-American community is large, wealthy and politically active having been credited with delivering large blocs of votes in states critical to Obama’s 2008 election victory.

The Armenian National Committee of America, which was highly critical of Obama following his remarks before the Turkish Parliament and at his press conference with President Abdullah Gul, issued a statement on April 6, 2009. In part, the statement read: “In his remarks today in Ankara, President Obama missed a valuable opportunity to honor his public pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide.”

In pursuing this approach to U.S. foreign policy over an 18-month period in office, the White House slighted Azerbaijan, a Caspian strategic ally in the region, in a number of ways, including: 1) outright ignoring Baku throughout the Armenian-Turkish attempt at reconciliation; 2) excluding Baku from the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington on April 12-13, while inviting Azerbaijan’s nemesis, Armenia, to attend; and, 3) leaving the position of U.S. ambassador to Baku vacant.

Consequently, Azerbaijan began to reconsider its strategic relationship with Washington announcing on April 19 that it had accepted Iranian mediation of the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan following years of official mediation by the OSCE’s Minsk Group co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States. Simultaneously, Baku cancelled the scheduled US-Azerbaijan military exercises. The Obama administration has put at risk the proposed Nabucco natural gas pipeline from Baku located at the tip of the oil rich Caspian Sea Basin, which is to be routed through Georgia and Turkey, bypassing Russia. In the meantime, Ankara backed away from normalizing relations with Armenia, including opening their border and developing trade relations after 16 years, in the wake of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war over Ngorno-Karabakh.


Nagorno-Karabakh

It was with this backdrop on July 4 that Secretary of State Clinton met with President Aliyev of Azerbaijan in Baku and subsequently with President Sarkisyan in Yerevan, Armenia. These two countries of the Caucasus pose very different problems for the United States and in different ways both are important to Washington. Armenia, with a large Armenian-American community, has Western aspirations and affinities, while for historic and security reasons, has aligned itself with Moscow. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, with its enormous oil and gas reserves is economically and strategically important to the United States. Yet, the two countries are deeply split because of the ethnic Armenian landlocked enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh located in Azerbaijan. With Russian support during the 1992-94 war, Armenian forces occupied and practically annexed the territory. The issue surfaced quickly in Mrs. Clinton’s Baku meeting with President Aliyev when he demanded bluntly the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijan’s territory.

On the other hand, in his Yerevan speech, President Sarkisyan of Armenia approached with greater confidence the problem of the disputed region. He spoke of the right of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination as one of the most fundamental principles of international law; in his opinion, this principle has been at the basis of independence for most countries in the world. And he thanked America for the support it offered Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, thus tacitly implying that Washington is on Yerevan’s side. Not surprisingly, Sarkisyan’s reference to international law echoed Moscow’s new foreign policy position of “privileged interests” or “sphere of interests” as set forth by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on August 31, 2008, following the Russian invasion of the two Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These interests are backed by Moscow’s pledge to use force in countries and regions where Russia has “special historical relations.”

At a joint press availability with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Mammadyarov, Secretary Clinton responded diplomatically to these contentious issues by saying, “we are very committed to trying to bring the parties together to resolve the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and reach a durable peace settlement. We understand that there was a lot of activity over the past year, both with respect to Nagorno-Karabakh and on the Turkey-Armenia normalization track. And unfortunately, we haven’t seen the breakthrough that we want to see.” As President Obama continues to carry out his narrow “community organizer” brand of foreign policy in this region, the U.S. has the most to lose, while Russia has the most to gain, especially with American diplomacy in deep disarray in what is likely to become a zero-sum game.

GEORGIA: Another Strategic American Ally at Risk

The August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia has left lasting scars in the region not only on the state of Georgian sovereignty, where the two breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain Russian occupied, but on the balance of power, which has shifted dramatically in favor of Moscow. That shift actually occurred at the NATO summit held in Bucharest, Romania, April 2-4, 2008, and it became a reality on the morning of August 8, 2008, when Russian forces crossed into South Ossetia through the Roki Tunnel. In Bucharest, the Bush administration initiative was blocked primarily by Germany and France, fearing the negative reaction from Moscow. Consequently, Georgia and Ukraine were not invited into the Membership Action Plan (MAP), the next logical step toward NATO enlargement, which Russia vehemently opposed. Arguably, had the Atlantic Alliance moved more decisively in that direction, it is unlikely that Russia would have invaded Georgia.

Events in Georgia changed immediately after the Obama administration took office on January 20, 2009, beginning with the Russian news agencies reporting on January 26 of Moscow’s intent to construct a naval base on the Black Sea in Abkhazia, an air force base in Abkhazia and a military base in South Ossetia. Since the August 12, 2008 ceasefire, Russia has occupied both Georgian provinces.

Although Georgian troops participate with NATO and U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has yet to make good on the US-Georgian Strategic Partnership of January 9, 2009 regarding Defense and Security Cooperation. However, Secretary Clinton was firm in her position saying:

“We continue to call for Russia to abide by the August 2008 cease fire commitment signed by President Saakashvili and President Medvedev, including ending the occupation and withdrawing Russian troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their pre-conflict positions. We also stressed the need for humanitarian access to the territories.”

Secretary Clinton was unequivocal when she stated, “The United States is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” She stood by Georgia and its “Rose Revolution” suggesting the “reset” policy was working when responding to press questions in Tbilisi on July 5 while referring to Russia’s “invasion” and “occupation” of Georgian territory, language that had not been used during the Bush administration. She said she had told President Saakashvili that “President Obama and I and other American officials raise our concerns about the invasion and occupation with Russian counterparts on a consistent basis.”

President Bush and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice showed resolute support for Georgia in the wake of the 2008 Russian military invasion and that has continued in large part with the trip to Tbilisi in 2009 by Vice President Joe Biden, along with Secretary Clinton’s visit. Congressional support for Georgia is bipartisan, perhaps one reason Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has not been overthrown by pro-Russian forces.

Secretary of State Clinton’s mission to Poland, Ukraine and the Caucasus is intended to reassure America’s allies they are as important to Washington now as before President Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia. Arguably, America’s foreign policy with Russia would be far stronger if the “reset” was with the Russian people rather than with the Kremlin.


Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.