Tag Archive | russia

‘Russiagate’ impeachment push reveals U.S. indifference to corruption and war crimes

Just a couple weeks past the symbolic 100-day marker of the Trump presidency, prominent Democrats are increasingly urging the president’s impeachment for alleged improprieties related to the so-called “Russiagate” controversy. More than two dozen Democratic members of congress — and a couple Republicans — have already alluded to the possibility of initiating impeachment proceedings, and following Donald Trump’s recent firing of FBI Director James Comey, those calls are intensifying.

Democratic Rep. Al Green of Texas last week became the first congressman to call for Trump’s impeachment from the floor of the House of Representatives.

“I rise today with a heavy heart,” Green said in a dramatic speech. “I rise today with a sense of responsibility and duty to the people who have elected me, a sense of duty to this country, a sense of duty to the Constitution of the United States of America. I rise today, Mr. Speaker, to call for the impeachment of the President of the United States of America for obstruction of justice.”

The congressman went on to describe the reasons he feels impeachment is necessary. Stating that “our democracy is at risk,” Green explained that when President Trump “fired the FBI director who was investigating the President for his connections to Russian involvement in the President’s election,” the president unlawfully obstructed justice into a federal investigation.

For the sake of the rule of law, the congressman stated that Congress must initiate impeachment proceedings to ensure the principle of no one being above the law is upheld. His calls have been echoed by senators and congressmen speaking out on television talk shows and Twitter, indicating a growing trend in Washington toward the real possibility of removing this president less than a year into his first term.

There are two things noteworthy about these developments. One is that the very basis for the impeachment calls rests on a number of assumptions that may very well lack any basis in fact. For all of the talk about Trump’s alleged “collusion” with the Russian government, what is left unsaid is that the “collusion” allegations relate to a fundamentally unproven assertion – that the Russian government actually interfered in Election 2016 as part of a plot to ensure that Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 presidential election.

This alleged “interference” amounted to a supposed clandestine plot to hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails and provide the contents to WikiLeaks in order to make Clinton look bad and expose the DNC’s unfair handicapping of the insurgent Bernie Sanders campaign during the Democratic primary elections. In other words, Russia allegedly “meddled” in the election by helping to expose how corrupt the U.S. electoral system is. (It should be noted that the veracity of the emails’ contents is not disputed.)

Although this conspiracy theory has been endlessly promoted in the U.S. media and is essentially accepted as a self-evident truth by Democratic partisans, it should not be forgotten that it lacks any proof whatsoever and that there are a number of alternative possibilities for how WikiLeaks obtained the incriminating emails from the DNC.

One such theory is that they were provided by former DNC staffer Seth Rich, who was mysteriously murdered in a so-called “botched robbery” on the streets of Washington, DC, on July 10, 2016. This is the possibility that WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange alluded to when he offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to a conviction in Rich’s killing.

Although WikiLeaks has a strict policy of not naming its sources, the reward for information about the Rich murder coupled with the fact that Assange has unequivocally stated that Russia was not the source of the leaks should raise at least a few doubts about the “official conspiracy theory,” i.e. the theory promoted by mainstream media, the U.S. intelligence community and the Democratic Party that Russia – in collusion with the Trump campaign – somehow “meddled” in the election.

(For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also unequivocally denied being the source of the DNC email leaks. “Read my lips – no,” he said when asked whether Russia had interfered in the U.S. election.)

It should also be noted that the closest thing to evidence to back up this official conspiracy theory amounts to a series of unproven assertions put forward by the U.S. intelligence community, which it should be recalled, has been known to tell a lie or two on occasion. In an “analytic assessment” published Jan. 6, the Director of National Intelligence concluded that the Kremlin had hacked the DNC emails in an effort to undermine Clinton’s campaign.

The official report however offers nothing approaching hard evidence of allegation of Russian interference, which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have called an “act of war.” Indeed, the report states upfront that its sources and methods for reaching its conclusions remain “highly classified,” noting that “the Intelligence Community rarely can publicly reveal the full extent of its knowledge or the precise bases for its assessments, as the release of such information would reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future.”

So, instead of offering proof, the report “covers the motivation and scope of Moscow’s intentions regarding US elections and Moscow’s use of cyber tools and media campaigns to influence US public opinion.” In other words, the intelligence community is offering its guesses as to why Moscow may have been motivated to engage in an “act of war” against the U.S. government without sharing a shred of proof that it actually did.

As former CIA analyst Ray McGovern describes it in a recent article,

The oft-cited, but evidence-free, CIA/FBI/NSA report of Jan. 6 – crafted by selected senior analysts, according to then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper – is of a piece with the “high-confidence,” but fraudulent, National Intelligence Estimate 15 years ago about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Basically, it’s propaganda designed to influence the American people of a predetermined conclusion – in this case that the Russian government is acting as a hostile power to interfere in “American democracy,” not unlike how the intelligence community 15 years ago worked to convince the American people that Iraq posed a grave threat with its non-existent weapons of mass destruction program.

Besides the complete lack of evidence to back up the official conspiracy theory of Russian interference in Election 2016, another thing striking about this line of attack against Trump is the fact that it ignores any number of other possibly impeachable offenses that have been committed by Trump since the day he took office.

These include violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which is intended to prevent corruption and conflict of interests by ensuring that nobody holding a position of trust with the United States government can receive payments from foreign governments, whether gifts or a salary or profits.

As Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, explained before Trump even took the oath of office,

If you have somebody who’s making profits from dealing with foreign governments or companies controlled by foreign governments, that person must dispense with those profits, cannot receive that money, while holding any position of trust with the United States government. That applies to every U.S. government employee, including the president. And so, what this means is that, for Donald Trump, if he’s going to hold onto these business enterprises, which present a whole range of other conflict of interest problems, to satisfy the Constitution, at a bare minimum, what he’s going to have to do is get the foreign government money and money from foreign government-controlled corporations out of his business enterprise. And this includes foreign diplomats staying at the hotels at government expense, foreign governments having big parties in his hotels and canceling reservations at the Four Seasons, going over to the Trump Hotel, to curry favor. All of that is unconstitutional.

Interestingly, however, Democrats have apparently eschewed this line of attack in favor of the “Russiagate” narrative, effectively letting Trump off the hook for a very real constitutional issue in favor of highly dubious and unproven accusations of “collusion” with an “adversarial power” in “undermining American democracy.”

Another area of concern that Democrats appear to be turning a blind eye to is regarding the mounting evidence of war crimes committed since Trump was sworn in as president last January.

The war crimes began within days of Trump’s inauguration, with Navy SEALs conducting a raid in Yemen on January 29 raid ending up with dozens of innocents killed and the loss of a $70 million MV-22 Osprey aircraft.

As Charles Pierson describes the deadly raid at CounterPunch,

Two deaths stand out.  One was the Trump Administration’s first combat fatality: 36- year old Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens.

The second was an 8-year old American citizen, Nawar Al-Awlaki.  Nawar’s father was the US-born cleric and Al-Qaeda recruiter and propagandist, Anwar Al-Awlaki.  Al-Awlaki was assassinated in a US drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011.  Shortly afterwards, Nawar’s 16-year old brother Abdulrahman was also killed by a US drone, probably inadvertently.

Thanks to the US, the Awlakis—father, son, and daughter—are together again.  It’s too bad the Awlakis can’t thank the Pentagon themselves.

Besides this incident, the routine use of flying robots (commonly known as “drones”) to rain death from above half-way around the world has shot up 432% under the Trump administration, continuing a trend started under the Bush-43 administration and intensified under President Obama to use unmanned aerial vehicles to indiscriminately kill terrorist suspects while also terrorizing civilian populations.

Indeed, Trump has killed enormous numbers of civilians in drone strikes, many of which have taken place far from any battlefield, in places such as Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. However, according to international humanitarian law, the legal use of military force are limited only to areas of “armed conflict.”

Because the United States is not involved in an armed conflict with Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, nor has any of these countries attacked the United States, Trump’s actions are violations of the United Nations Charter.

Other violations of the UN Charter include recent attacks on Syria, which were carried out both in violation of international law and without congressional authorization. Congressman Ted Lieu responded to news last week that the U.S. military bombed forces allied with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad with a tweet denouncing the attack as “frickin illegal.”

“Trump does not have Congressional authorization to attack Syria, a country that has not attacked U.S.,” Lieu pointed out.

While Lieu’s complaint was a welcome departure from the deafening silence that usually accompanies acts of U.S. military aggression, it should be kept in mind that voices such as his are the exception to the rule. And compared to the growing chorus of calls for impeachment over unfounded “Russiagate” allegations, the voices in the wilderness complaining of U.S. war crimes remain few and far between.

What this indicates is that while the U.S. ruling class – or what is commonly referred to as the “deep state” – has grown increasingly weary of Trump’s friendly moves toward Russia, what it doesn’t seem to mind is a policy of war crimes. Indeed, when Trump carries out acts of military aggression, he is generally lauded across the political spectrum for acting “presidential” and showing “leadership.”

In other words, what the deep state cannot abide is rapprochement, what it really wants is endless war.

U.S. hypocritically touts territorial integrity, sovereignty and international norms

obama hypocrisy

President Barack Obama issued one of his most hypocritical statements in weeks when he scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday for his alleged support of separatist rebels operating in eastern Ukraine.

“He’s got to make a decision,” Obama said of Putin. “Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire? Or does he recognize that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?”

Hearing the president of the United States lecture others about the importance of respecting countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity was a bit like listening to a serial rapist lecturing other men about the importance of respecting women’s rights.

Of course, as Obama was uttering these duplicitous platitudes – the hypocrisy of which went completely unchallenged by the journalists in attendance at the press conference – the United States was continuing to violate the sovereignty of multiple countries, including Syria and Pakistan.

On the same day that Obama insisted on Russia’s respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the U.S. launched nine air strikes in Syria, attacks that are unauthorized by the UN Security Council and against the stated wishes of the Syrian government, rendering them a blatant violation of international law.

Six of the air strikes were concentrated around Kobani near the Turkish border and three near the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, according to the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force. One of the air strikes apparently killed an entire family of seven, including five children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Pakistan, the U.S. has been carrying out drone strikes for years, in complete disregard of the repeated protests of the Pakistani government complaining about the violations of that country’s sovereignty. As recently as last month, Pakistan’s Foreign Office condemned a U.S. drone strike that killed at least five people in North Waziristan, reiterating its stance that such attacks are a violation of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“A drone strike on May 16, 2015 resulted in a number of casualties in the Mana area of North Waziristan agency,” said the Foreign Office in a statement.

“These (strikes) generate distrust among the local populace at a time when Operation Zarb-e-Azb is moving ahead decisively and the focus of the government is shifting towards rehabilitation of the civilian population. We reiterate our call for a cessation of such strikes,” the Foreign Office said.

But the U.S. can’t be bothered to acknowledge or apologize for its blatant violations of international law, or its routine, tragic killings of innocent people. It is now being sued in fact by the families of two Yemeni men killed in 2012, alleging they were innocent bystanders hit by missiles from a U.S. drone strike and calling for an acknowledgement of their unlawful deaths.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed June 7, the families of Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber said their deaths “violated the laws of war and norms of customary international law” and “provide a case study of the failures of the drone war.”

The strike on Aug. 29, 2012 “killed two innocent members of a prominent local family, Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber,” according to the complaint. “By this complaint, the estates of Salem and Waleed seek to hold accountable those responsible for their wrongful deaths.”

The lawsuit does not seek any monetary relief, but rather a declaratory judgement and an apology. As the complaint points out,

Rarely but occasionally, the U.S. government addresses the reality that its drones kill innocents, and expresses official regret. Only weeks ago the President addressed the nation about two other innocents killed by a U.S. drone: an Italian citizen and an American, who were mistakenly hit in a drone strike in Pakistan while being held hostage by al Qaeda. In his televised statement, the President explained that “the [victims’] families deserve to know the truth,” and claimed that his apology showed the U.S. is willing “to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

There is a simple question at the heart of this claim. The President has now admitted to killing innocent Americans and Italians with drones; why are the bereaved families of innocent Yemenis less entitled to the truth?

Even as the United States does occasionally concede that it sometimes kills innocent people, which is at least a tacit confirmation that its actions are not exactly in accordance with international law, it still can’t resist the temptation to point its bloody finger at others for doing the same thing.

Not only did President Obama just issue that hypocritical warning to Russia, but a number of “progressive” lawmakers have just published an op-ed in the journal Foreign Affairs expressing the urgent need to confront Russia and China over their alleged violations of international norms.

In “Principles for a Progressive Foreign Policy,” Democratic senators Chris Murphy, Brian Schatz, and Martin Heinrich warn that “traditional powers such as Russia and China are challenging international norms and pushing the boundaries of their influence.”

In response to these new challenges, as well as threats such as pandemic disease and global climate change, “the United States [must] think anew about the tools that it will use to lead the world, including reaching beyond the military budget to rediscover the power of non-kinetic statecraft.”

To their credit, these senators acknowledged that in order for the U.S. to have any credibility on the world stage, it “should practice what it preaches regarding civil and human rights, and defend its values internationally.”

“Actions abroad that are illegal under U.S. law and out of step with American values, such as torture, must be prohibited,” they continued. “Human rights and gender equality should not be viewed as secondary to security issues, but appropriately recognized as essential to long-term global stability.”

The senators are only partially right, and they left unsaid the most important thing – namely that violations must not only be “prohibited” but also prosecuted and punished. Torture of course is already “prohibited,” as is murder and violations of countries’ territorial integrity, so what the U.S. really needs to do is punish those who violate the law.

And please, stop hypocritically blaming others for doing the same thing.

U.S. whitewashes Odessa massacre, shifting blame to Russia

In a classic case of blaming the victim, the United States has been making a concerted effort this week to gloss over – if not rewrite – the facts surrounding last week’s tragic events in Odessa, Ukraine, trying to portray the “pro-Russian separatists” as responsible for their own deaths.

Despite the emergence of numerous YouTube videos, as well as photographic evidence that has been posted on blogs and circulated in chain emails, clearly showing that the fire in the Trade Union Building which killed dozens of anti-Kiev demonstrators was intentionally started by Western-backed pro-Kiev militants, the U.S. has been asserting — baselessly — that Russia was somehow responsible.

In rather ghoulish testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland stated that

Friday [May2] also saw the deadliest tragedy of this conflict: the death of more than 40 in Odesa following an afternoon of violent clashes reportedly instigated by pro-Russian separatists attacking an initially peaceful rally in favor of national unity – similar to many that have happened in Odessa since the start of the Maidan movement.

With no mention of the actual culprits who set the building on fire, she went on to reprimand the Russian Federation for failing to use its influence to promote stability in Ukraine. In other words, Russia, Russia, Russia.

“Today, Russia claims it has ‘no influence’ over the separatists and provocateurs rampaging in eastern and southern Ukraine,” she said. However,

as Secretary Kerry told this committee in April, we continue to have high confidence that Russia’s hand is behind this instability. They are providing material support. They are providing funding. They are providing weapons. They are providing coordination, and there are Russian agents on the ground in Ukraine involved in this.

This, amazingly, is all that Nuland had to say about the tragedy last week that claimed the lives of at least 42 people. (Unofficial estimates from eyewitnesses place the casualties far higher, with some claiming that as many as 300 people may have been killed.)

Although Nuland went out of her way to point out that last week’s violent clashes were “instigated by pro-Russian separatists,” she neglected to assign any blame for the actual atrocity that took place later in the day, in which pro-Kiev militants were clearly responsible for throwing Molotov cocktails into the Trade Union Building in Odessa where anti-Kiev individuals were seeking refuge from the violence on the streets.

While initial reports indicated that it was “unclear” how the fire started, the evidence that was captured on camera phones and disseminated via social media was enough to force even the Western media to grudgingly acknowledge that the atrocity at the Trade Union Building was in fact committed by the pro-Kiev side, the side Western governments have aligned with.

Typical was this report from the BBC, “How did Odessa’s fire happen?,” which took pains to explain that the anti-Kiev side may have instigated the street clashes earlier in the day, but that when it came to the fire at the Trade Union Building, it was pretty apparent who was responsible.

“Pictures clearly showed pro-Ukrainians throwing Molotov cocktails,” the BBC reported, although noting that some on the “pro-Russian” side may have also thrown firebombs from the building to the ground below – exactly how those might have started fires inside the building is not explained.

Nevertheless, it was clear that many people died at the hands of the pro-Kiev militants that day. As BBC noted,

One survivor told Russia Today: “We couldn’t go down, we were seeing people from other floors being brought down and then those rioters down there attacked them like a pack of wolves.”

But other eyewitness reports, for example in the Kyiv Post, said pro-Ukrainian activists rescued dozens of people from the burning building.

Some people got to ledges and were helped by ambulance ladders. Some fell.

Some people were reported to have shouted “die” as people fell.

Independent investigators and bloggers have spelled out the evidence more straightforwardly, placing the blame for the tragedy squarely with the pro-Kiev thugs of Right Sector. One viral blog post lays out gruesome photographic evidence that not only implicates the Western-backed neo-Nazis with starting the fire, but also purports to demonstrate that some of the pro-Ukrainian militants must have gotten inside the building to individually kill those who had sought refuge there.

This photograph, for example, seems to indicate a gunshot wound to the head. “Judging from clearly visible blood puddle, the murderer fired at point-blank so the bullet passed through the skull,” the blog alleges.

odessa 1

This photo graphically depicts an apparent victim of rape:

odessa 2

“Dead woman near the elevator with clothes absent below her waist,” the blog explains. “Most likely, she was raped, then doused with a flammable mixture and set aflame.”

This horrifying picture shows a pregnant woman who was strangled by an electric wire:

odessa 3

The following video supposedly captures the cries of this woman, starting at 0:20, who called for help while being murdered.

Despite the grave nature of the atrocity that was committed by the pro-Kiev militants in Odessa last week, the U.S. response has been muted, to say the least.

Besides Nuland’s victim-blaming testimony at the Senate this week, the White House has also gone on record tacitly absolving the actual culprits of their responsibility and shifting the culpability to Moscow.

“We remain extremely concerned by the deteriorating situation in both eastern and southern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militants who are armed have escalated their already violent behavior and taken over additional government buildings in yet more towns,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday.

Carney added that the “violence and mayhem” in Odessa was “unacceptable.”

“We’re going to continue to call on Russia to live up to its commitments in Geneva and to use its influence over these groups, these pro-Russian militant groups, to urge them to disarm and to instead engage in Ukraine’s political process,” Carney said.

For its part, Russia is emphatically making clear where the blame truly lies for this tragedy, refusing to allow the West to whitewash the facts.

“What happened in the city of Odessa on May 2 is a sheer act of fascism and we will not permit to sweep the facts under carpet as the ruling coalition tries to do so, concealing the investigation from the public,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday.

“We will seek for the truth, will seek for all evidence which was produced by eyewitnesses and which show that current Kiev authorities are hushing up consciously the scale of tragedy and will seek for all the truth to be investigated and made public,” Lavrov pledged.

The Russians were joined in this call for an investigation by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which issued a joint statement Thursday calling for the Ukrainian government to conduct an investigation into the violence in Odessa that “should be thorough, impartial, and capable of ensuring that those responsible are held accountable.”

The HRW-AI statement also criticized the police in Odessa for failing to take action to prevent the violence, with video footage showing police officers standing by while preparations are made by members of both groups for acts of violence.

This inaction may indicate that the authorities are failing to comply with Ukraine’s international human rights obligations to protect the right to life, the joint statement noted.

“International human rights and law enforcement standards underline that police have a responsibility to maintain public safety and protect all persons against illegal acts, and must maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons,” said HRW and AI. “In particular, police play a vital role in the protection of the right to life, liberty, and security of the person.”

“In the context of the events which took place in Odessa on May 2, it is not clear why the police failed to take adequate action, in compliance with these obligations, to prevent the serious injuries and loss of life,” the statement went on.

For these reasons, “it is essential that whatever precise form the investigations take, they are truly effective and independent and carried out by individuals of recognized competence, integrity, and independence,” said the human rights groups.

The U.S., on the other hand, appears intent on shielding the authorities from criticism. At a press briefing Monday, U.S. State Department press spokeswoman Marie Harf defended the role of government in Kiev and its fascist allies.

Harf praised the Kiev government in particular for its “great restraint” in dealing with the anti-fascist groups in the south and east of the country and attempted to blame the Odessa massacre on the victims and Russia. She implicitly justified the mass killing of civilians by declaring that the Kiev government has “a responsibility to maintain law and order for their own people.”

“Any loss of life is horrible,” she said, “and we understand that there will be an investigation. The prime minister has actually taken punitive action against some of the police folks who led the police forces in Odessa after this horrific incident. So – but again, that started because pro-Russian forces and separatists started basically mob action attacking protesters. So going forward we think that restraint is important, but so is keeping law and order.”

When a reporter followed up by asking, “it doesn’t matter how many people die; those people brought it upon themselves, it’s their fault. Is it what you are saying?” Harf backtracked a bit and said, “No, I’m not saying that at all. In no way am I saying that. I’m saying that the fact pattern of what happens here matters.”

But looking at the pattern of U.S. statements – admonishing the Russian Federation for any and all actions in Ukraine that could in any conceivable way be traced back to some alleged conspiracy directed by the Kremlin while simultaneously absolving neo-Nazi thugs and their allies in the Kiev regime – it appears that the United States is systematically engaging in a whitewash of atrocities.

It should be noted that even as details emerge about these  crimes, the authorities in Kiev are apparently raising “volunteer armies,” or what may be more accurately referred to as paramilitaries, consisting of the Euromaidan militants who helped topple the democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych in February.

As the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, Kiev’s interim government began shoring up security forces as some leaders made urgent calls for volunteers to take up arms against “pro-Russian separatists.”

“Andriy Tiron, battalion commander of the National Guard, told reporters in Kiev that demonstrators who helped oust the previous pro-Russian government were being urged to volunteer for military duty. But there was confusion about who would command them and what their duties would be,” the Post reported.

The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, however, reported that some 4,000 combatants supporting the Kiev authorities have already arrived in Odessa.

“Very alarming reports are coming in from our friends in Odessa,” Georgy Fyodorov, deputy head of the Russian Civic Chamber’s Committee for Coordination of Aid to Residents of Ukraine said Wednesday. “We have reports that armed militants of the Right Sector, fighters of the Dnipr and Kyiv-1 special task force battalions, and ultras of the FC Dnipro have been brought into the city and the overall number of the combatants propping up the Kiev regime exceeds 4,000 there now.”

If true, it’s worth noting that considering reports of the CIA advising the authorities in Kiev, there is a good chance that these policies are coming directly from Washington. This is worth keeping in mind in the event of any further atrocities committed in Ukraine.

Thankfully there are at least a few voices in Congress being raised questioning the wisdom of aligning the United States government with violent neo-Nazi extremists, as this clip of Victoria Nuland’s testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday makes clear:

Hopefully those sorts of hardball questions become the norm rather than the exception, as U.S. policy in Ukraine comes under greater scrutiny.

Crimea, Iraq and international law: A little perspective

iraq ukraine

The war of words between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin has continued this week, with Obama forcefully rejecting an argument from Putin that the referendum for Crimean secession from Ukraine to become part of Russia, was “fully consistent with the norms of international law and the UN Charter.”

In a statement, the White House said that the Crimean referendum “violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention.” Obama further emphasized that “that Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Vice President Joe Biden weighed in on Tuesday, saying that Russia’s treaty to annex Crimea was a “blatant violation of international law” and that Russian forces had carried out a “brazen military incursion” that “ratcheted up ethnic tensions.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea was “nothing more than a land grab,” Biden said.

For those looking for evidence of how the United States routinely twists international law and concepts of sovereignty depending on its geopolitical needs and whims at a given moment, the diplomatic spat over Crimea could hardly be better timed. Today, of course, is the 11th anniversary of the unprovoked, illegal war of aggression carried out by the United States against the sovereign nation of Iraq.

Joe Biden was instrumental in building up congressional support for that ill-fated war. As then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he oversaw hearings which systematically excluded individuals who were critical of claims regarding Iraq’s alleged possessions of weapons of mass destruction, including former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter.

When Biden voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq, he falsely claimed on the Senate floor, “[Saddam Hussein] possesses chemical and biological weapons and is seeking nuclear weapons.”

With congressional authorization in hand, on March 19, 2003 (already the 20th in Iraq), President George W. Bush launched a bombing campaign of Baghdad followed by an all-out military assault which ultimately led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 5,000 U.S. soldiers. Another 100,000 Americans have been wounded.

As staggering as those numbers may be, they don’t fully convey the magnitude of the crime which was committed by launching this war 11 years ago. The impact on international norms was equally profound, and continue to reverberate today. Russian President Putin himself cited the Iraq invasion in his address to parliament on March 18.

“Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun,” he said.

They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well. It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real intervention. Was there a UN Security Council resolution on this matter, allowing for these actions? Nothing of the sort. And then, they hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it too.

Regardless of what one might think of Putin’s policies — whether his domestic human rights record or his actions in Ukraine — the factual basis of his critique of U.S. foreign policy cannot be denied. While pundits and scholars may quibble over the lawfulness of theYugoslavia war, the Afghanistan invasion, or the bombing of Libya, what should be beyond dispute at this point is that the attack on Iraq was unequivocally criminal.

The violations of international law, which began even before the initial shock and awe bombing campaign, continued and intensified throughout the invasion, and the subsequent occupation and counterinsurgency campaign. To this date, no high-ranking officials have ever been held accountable for these actions.

Threats of Force

As early as January 2003 — three months before the U.S. actually launched its attack — the Pentagon was announcing its plans for the “shock and awe” bombing campaign.

“If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan,” CBS News reported on January 24, “one day in March the Air Force and Navy will launch between 300 and 400 cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. … [T]his is more than the number that were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War. On the second day, the plan calls for launching another 300 to 400 cruise missiles.”

A Pentagon official warned: “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”

The intention of announcing these plans so early — before the UN weapons inspectors had finished their job and before diplomacy in the Security Council had been allowed to take its course — appeared to be a form of psychological warfare against the Iraqi people. If that was not the intent, it was certainly the effect.

A group of psychologists published a report in January 2003 describing the looming war’s effect on children’s mental health.

”With war looming, Iraqi children are fearful, anxious and depressed,” they found. ”Many have nightmares. And 40 percent do not think that life is worth living.”

The explicit threats being made against Iraq in early 2003 were arguably a violation of the UN Charter, which states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Shock and Awe

A frightened young Iraqi girl in the early days U.S. bombing in 2003.

“Shock and awe” began with limited bombing on March 19, 2003 as U.S. forces unsuccessfully attempted to kill Saddam Hussein. Attacks continued against a small number of targets until March 21, 2003, when the main bombing campaign began. U.S.-led forces launched approximately 1,700 air sorties, with 504 using cruise missiles.

The attack was a violation of the UN Charter, which stipulates that “Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” The only exception to this is in the case of Security Council authorization, which the U.S. did not have.

Targeting Civilians

Desperate to kill Saddam Hussein, Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7.  A single B-1B bomber dropped four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs.  The four bunker-penetrating bombs destroyed the target building, the al Saa restaurant block and several surrounding structures, leaving a 60-foot crater and unknown casualties.

Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. One mother found her daughter’s torso and then her severed head. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.

The deliberate attack on a civilian target was in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s protection of non-combatants, which states:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.

Failure to Provide Security

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime on April 9, the U.S. action in Iraq took on the character of an occupation, and as the occupying power, the U.S. was bound by international law to provide security. But in the post-war chaos, in which looting of Iraq’s national antiquities was rampant, U.S. forces stood by as Iraq’s national museum was looted and countless historical treasures were lost.

Despite the fact that U.S. officials were warned even before the invasion that Iraq’s national museum would be a “prime target for looters” by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), set up to supervise the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, U.S. forces took no action to secure the building. In protest of the U.S. failure to prevent the resulting looting of historical artefacts dating back 10,000 years, three White House cultural advisers resigned.

“It didn’t have to happen”, Martin Sullivan – who chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property for eight years – told Reuters news agency. The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO called the loss and destruction “a disaster.”

Cluster Bombs

During the course of the war, according to a four-month investigation by USA Today, the U.S. dropped 10,800 cluster bombs on Iraq. “The bomblets packed inside these weapons wiped out Iraqi troop formations and silenced Iraqi artillery,” reported USA Today. “They also killed civilians. These unintentional deaths added to the hostility that has complicated the U.S. occupation.”

U.S. forces fired hundreds of cluster weapons into urban areas from late March to early April, killing dozens and possibly hundreds of Iraqi civilians. The attacks left behind thousands of unexploded bomblets that continued to kill and injure civilians weeks after the fighting stopped.

Because of the indiscriminate effect of these duds that keep killing long after the cessation of hostilities, the use of cluster munitions is banned by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which the United States has refused to sign.

Authorizing Torture

A victim of U.S. torture at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
A victim of U.S. torture at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

Possibly anticipating a drawn-out occupation and counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq, in a March 2003 memorandum Bush administration lawyers devised legal doctrines justifying certain torture techniques, offering legal rationales “that could render specific conduct, otherwise criminal, not unlawful.”

They argued that the president or anyone acting on the president’s orders are not bound by U.S. laws or international treaties prohibiting torture, asserting that the need for “obtaining intelligence vital to the protection of untold thousands of American citizens” supersedes any obligations the administration has under domestic or international law.

“In order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign,” the memo states, U.S. prohibitions against torture “must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.”

Over the course of the next year, disclosures emerged that torture had been used extensively in Iraq for “intelligence gathering.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh disclosed in The New Yorker in May 2004 that a 53-page classified Army report written by Gen. Antonio Taguba concluded that Abu Ghraib prison’s military police were urged on by intelligence officers seeking to break down the Iraqis before interrogation.

“Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,” wrote Taguba.

These actions, authorized at the highest levels, constituted serious breaches of international and domestic law, including the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of Prisoners of War, as well as the U.S. War Crimes Act and the Torture Statute.

Supporting Death Squads

As part of its counterinsurgency campaign, the United States also played a key role in training and overseeing U.S.-funded special police commandos who ran a network of torture centers in Iraq and engaged in a brutal sectarian civil war.

A 15-month investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic revealed how retired U.S. colonel James Steele, a veteran of American dirty wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and another special forces veteran, Colonel James Coffman, worked with Steele and reported directly to General David Petraeus, who had been sent into Iraq to organize the Iraqi security services.

As the Guardian reported last year:

The Pentagon sent a US veteran of the “dirty wars” in Central America to oversee sectarian police commando units in Iraq that set up secret detention and torture centres to get information from insurgents. These units conducted some of the worst acts of torture during the US occupation and accelerated the country’s descent into full-scale civil war. …

The allegations, made by US and Iraqi witnesses in the Guardian/BBC documentary, implicate US advisers for the first time in the human rights abuses committed by the commandos. It is also the first time that Petraeus – who last November was forced to resign as director of the CIA after a sex scandal – has been linked through an adviser to this abuse.

(The full hour-long documentary can be seen here.)

While there had long been allegations that the U.S. was involved in fueling the sectarian violence as a way to curtail the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation through classic divide-and-conquer techniques, the Guardian investigation is the first conclusive evidence that the U.S. was in fact involved in supporting the violence. At its height, the sectarian civil war between Shia and Sunni was claiming 3,000 victims a month.

Other Crimes

These are just a few of the more blatant examples U.S. violations of international law from the earliest days of the invasion of Iraq, for which no one has been held to account. There are of course, many others that we know about and others that we don’t.

There was the 2004 assault on Fallujah in which white phosphorus – banned under international law – was used against civilians. There was the 2005 Haditha massacre, in which 24 unarmed civilians were systematically murdered by U.S. marines.

And of course, there was the 2007 “Collateral Murder” massacre revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010 (for which the only person to be punished is the courageous whistleblower who brought it to light).

While each of the above-mentioned crimes should be dealt with individually, it is important to remember the words of American prosecutor Robert Jackson, who led the prosecutions of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. In his opening statement before the international military tribunal on Nazi war crimes, Jackson denounced aggressive war as “the greatest menace of our time.”

Jackson noted that “to start an aggressive war has the moral qualities of the worst of crimes.” The tribunal, he said, had decided that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime: it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of whole.”

When it comes to Iraq, the accumulated evil of the whole is difficult to fully comprehend. Even now, 11 years after the initial U.S. invasion, the country is reeling from daily suicide bombings and sectarian violence, and an ongoing refugee crisis. According to Refugees International, Iraqi internally displaced persons number roughly 2.8 million.

“Internally displaced Iraqis are extremely vulnerable and live in constant fear, with limited access to shelter, food, and basic services,” notes the NGO.

As Al Jazeera reporter Dahr Jamail, who was one of the few unembedded journalists to report extensively from Iraq during the 2003 Iraq invasion, describes it, the reality in Iraq is “utter devastation.” He said on Democracy Now after returning from a trip to Iraq last year:

It’s a situation where, overall, we can say that Iraq is a failed state. The economy is in a state of crisis, perpetual crisis, that began far back with the institution of the 100 Bremer orders during—under the Coalition Provisional Authority, the civil government set up to run Iraq during the first year of the occupation. And it’s been in crisis ever since.

The average Iraqi is just barely getting by. And how can they get by when there’s virtually no security across much large swaths of country to this day, where, you know, as we see in the headlines recently, even when there’s not these dramatic, spectacular days of dozens of people being killed by bombs across Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, on any given day there’s assassinations, there’s detentions, there’s abductions and people being disappeared and kidnapped?

There is also the tragic legacy of cancer and birth defects caused by the U.S. military’s extensive use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus in Iraq. Noting the birth defects in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, Jamail says:

They’re extremely hard to bear witness to. But it’s something that we all need to pay attention to … What this has generated is, from 2004 up to this day, we are seeing a rate of congenital malformations in the city of Fallujah that has surpassed even that in the wake of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that nuclear bombs were dropped on at the end of World War II.

Still pressing for justice 11 years after the launching of this criminal war, several organizations, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, and the Center for Consitutional Rights, have launched the “right to heal” campaign.  

The network of Iraqis and U.S. military veterans came together last year to hold the U.S. government accountable for the lasting effects of war and the rights of veterans and civilians to heal.

“The Iraq war is not over for Iraqi civilians and U.S. veterans who continue to struggle with various forms of trauma and injury,” says the Right to Heal website, “for Iraqis and veterans who suffer the effects of environmental poisoning due to certain U.S. munitions and burn pits of hazardous material; and for a growing generation of orphans and people displaced by war.”

The groups are working to highlight the lack of accountability for the ongoing human rights violations of Iraqis, Afghans, and U.S. military veterans, and on March 26 are holding a People’s Hearing on the Lasting Impact of the Iraq War.

Moderated by Phil Donahue, former host of The Phil Donahue Show and Co-Director of the film Body of War, the People’s Hearing will include Iraqi civil society leaders and U.S. military veterans who will testify to the lasting impact of the war and make the case that the U.S. government must be held to account for the serious damage it has caused.

Another effort for accountability is playing out in the courts.

On March 18, the Center for Constitutional Rights urged a federal appeals court to re-open a case brought by four Iraqi Abu Ghraib torture victims against private military contractor CACI Premier Technology, Inc. The men were subjected to sexual violence, electric shocks, forced nudity, broken bones, and deprivation of oxygen, food, and water.

U.S. military investigators concluded that several CACI interrogators directed U.S. soldiers to commit “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” of Abu Ghraib detainees in order to “soften” them up for interrogations, but a district court judge dismissed the case against CACI in June by narrowly interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Shell/Royal Dutch Petroleum to foreclose Alien Tort Statute (ATS) claims arising in Iraq.

Said Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Baher Azmy, “U.S. courts must at last provide a remedy for the victims of torture at Abu Ghraib. CACI indisputably played a key role in those atrocities, and it is time for them to be held accountable. The lower court’s ruling creates lawless spaces where corporations can commit torture and war crimes and then find safe haven in the United States. That’s a ruling that should not stand.”

What if there were international repercussions for U.S. aggression?

US-military-and-CIA-intervention

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether there was any justification for the Russian Federation to deploy troops to Ukraine’s autonomous region of Crimea in order to “defend our citizens and our compatriots” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday, the intense international condemnation of that action raises another question: why is there never any comparable response to U.S. acts of aggression? And, if there were threats of genuine international repercussions, would it modify U.S. behavior at all?

Since Russia sent troops into Crimea, the United States and United Kingdom announced boycotts of the Sochi Paralympic Games, European Union leaders called a special summit at which they are expected to suspend talks with Russia on economic cooperation and liberalized visa rules, the U.S. suspended trade negotiations and all military-to-military engagements with Russia, U.S. lawmakers discussed sanctions on Russia’s banks and freezing assets of Russian public institutions and private investors, the Group of Seven major industrialized nations canceled preparations for the G8 summit that had been scheduled to take place in Sochi in June, and there is even talk of expelling Russia from the G8 altogether.

The Obama administration continues to discuss further ways to isolate and punish Russia, with members of the White House’s National Security Council spending more than two hours in the Situation Room on Monday discussing the administration’s options for pursuing additional diplomatic and economic consequences for Moscow.

“I think the world is largely united in recognizing that the steps Russia has taken are a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, Ukraine’s territorial integrity; that they’re a violation of international law; they’re a violation of previous agreements that Russia has made with respect to how it treats and respects its neighbors,” Obama said.

In short, the international response to Russia’s intervention could hardly be stronger. But even if this uproar is fully warranted (and there are certainly some doubts whether that is the case), it begs the question of why there has been such little international outcry, relatively speaking, over the decade-plus old war on terror that has violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countless countries, including most prominently, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya. When it comes to the U.S.’s ongoing drone wars, there have been some grumblings from the international community over concepts such as transparency, distinction, proportionality and sovereignty, but nothing along the lines of the international response to Russia’s Ukraine incursion.

It should be remembered that while the world is transfixed on this so far bloodless incursion of Russian forces into Ukrainian territory, the United States military deployed military forces to more than 130 countries last year, in near total secrecy.

As a January 16 report by journalist Nick Turse explained,

In 2013, elite U.S. forces were deployed in 134 countries around the globe, according to Major Matthew Robert Bockholt of SOCOM Public Affairs.  This 123% increase during the Obama years demonstrates how, in addition to conventional wars and a CIA drone campaign, public diplomacy and extensive electronic spying, the U.S. has engaged in still another significant and growing form of overseas power projection.  Conducted largely in the shadows by America’s most elite troops, the vast majority of these missions take place far from prying eyes, media scrutiny, or any type of outside oversight, increasing the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.

So, the United States is operating in 134 countries around the world (more than half of the total number of UN Member States), and its actions elicit barely a whimper of complaint, but Russia sends forces to one country (arguably on a much firmer pretext and rationale), and the international community reacts as if World War III has just been declared.

The double standards are mind-boggling, and beg the question “why?”

Of course, we all know that the United States is the world’s economic and military powerhouse, but does that fully explain it? Perhaps the U.S. has just been throwing its weight around for so long – invading countries on a whim, disregarding international norms, violating territorial integrity and national sovereignty – that it all seems normal at this point. Or perhaps the U.S. and its allies actually fundamentally agree on the virtue of U.S. military action, and share the same view on Russia: namely that Russia is a negative force in world affairs that must be neutralized at any cost.

If this is the case, it seems that the international community as a whole is just as hypocritical as the United States is, and lacks any sort of guiding principle on what constitutes “normative behavior.” On the other hand, if nations are just afraid of standing up to the bully on the playground, one wonders what might happen if they ever do grow a spine. Perhaps U.S. lawlessness and military adventurism might finally be reined in.

U.S. pronouncements on international law carry little weight with Russia

Russian soldiers have taken up positions outside Ukrainian military barracks across Crimea.

Russian soldiers have taken up positions outside Ukrainian military barracks across Crimea.

As Washington responds with shock and outrage over the deployment of Russian troops to the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed that if violence spreads in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.

In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday, Putin reportedly said that Russian citizens and Russian-speakers in Ukraine faced an “unflagging” threat from ultranationalists, and that the measures Moscow has taken – mainly sending troops to serve as a buffer between Ukrainian military forces and the local population – were appropriate given the “extraordinary situation.”

This situation includes outbreaks of violence between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian loyalists, as well as official acts of the newly formed Ukrainian government that have been widely seen as discriminatory against the Russian-speaking population. Last week, pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators clashed in front of the parliament building in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea Region, leading to several hospitalizations and at least two deaths.

“Demonstrators slammed each other with flags and threw stones as leaders on both sides urged their followers to avoid provocations,” reported RT.

Further, Russia’s Federal Migration Service said it has seen a sharp spike in applications from Ukrainian citizens seeking refuge from outbreaks of violence following a U.S.-backed coup that toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. As RIA Novosti reports,

The head of the migration service’s citizenship department, Valentina Kazakova, said 143,000 people had applied for asylum in the last two weeks of February alone.

“People are afraid for the fate of those close to them and are asking not just for protection, but also to help them receive fast-tracked Russian citizenship,” Kazakova said. “A large number of applications are from members of Ukrainian law enforcement bodies and government officials fearing reprisals from radically disposed groups.”

Many people living in Crimea, a 10,000-square mile peninsula on the Black Sea with historical and linguistic ties to Russia, agree with Moscow’s assertion that Ukraine’s revolutionaries are violent, western-backed far-right ultranationalists who intend to roll back the rights of Russian-speakers and restrict Crimea’s links with Russia itself.

Unfortunately, the actions of the Ukrainian government following the ouster of President Yanukovych have largely confirmed these fears. Last week, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, began immediately moving to prohibit the official use of the Russian language in Ukraine and block broadcasts of Russian television and radio programs in the country.

The Verkhovna Rada’s repeal of the law on the “Principles of the State Language Policy,” which provided for the use of the Russian language in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, could lead to further division and unrest, warned the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Astrid Thors.

“The authorities have to consult widely to ensure that future language legislation accommodates the needs and positions of everyone in Ukrainian society, whether they are speakers of Ukrainian, Russian or other languages,” said Thors.

ukraine_map_region_language

In response to the blocking of Russian broadcasts, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in a letter to Oleksandr Turchinov, Acting President of Ukraine and Chair of the Verkhovna Rada, that “Banning broadcasts is one of the most extreme forms of interference in media freedom and should only be applied in exceptional circumstances.”

It is in this context of official suppression of Russian rights, as well as the sporadic violence leading to a dramatic spike in asylum seekers, that Putin sought authorization from the Russian Parliament to deploy military forces to Crimea. Putin said he proposed military action because of “the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation,” and the Parliament passed his proposal unanimously.

Although no shots have been fired by the Russian troops and a Ukrainian colonel was quoted as saying that the Ukrainian and Russian sides had “agreed not to point our weapons at one another,” the presence of Russian forces in Ukraine is being denounced in the strongest terms by U.S. officials, including President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Appearing on ABC News’ This Week on Sunday, Kerry said,

What has already happened is a brazen act of aggression, in violation of international law and violation of the UN Charter and violation of the Helsinki Final Act. In violation of the 1997 Ukraine-Russia basing agreement. Russia is engaged in a military act of aggression against another country, and it has huge risks, George. It’s a 19th century act in the 21st century. It really puts at question Russia’s capacity to be within the G-8.

If the United States had a truly free press, the outrage expressed by the U.S. Secretary of State over the Russian deployment of troops and its alleged violation of international law would lead any honest journalist to follow up with a question like, “Excuse me, Mr. Secretary, but how can you possibly feign such outrage with a straight face when we all know that the U.S. has repeatedly invaded foreign countries and habitually violated the UN Charter with impunity for years? What gives the United States the moral authority or credibility to be the arbiter of international law and the legitimate use of force?”

Instead, George Stephanopoulos followed up with, “I understand it’s a violation, sir. So what’s the penalty for what Russia has already done?”

To which Kerry responded:

Well, we are busy right now coordinating with our counterparts in many parts of the world. Yesterday, the president of the United States had an hour and a half conversation with President Putin. He pointed out importantly that we don’t want this to be a larger confrontation. We are not looking for a U.S.-Russia, East-West redux here. What we want is for Russia to work with us, with Ukraine. If they have legitimate concerns, George, about Russian speaking people in Ukraine, there are plenty of ways to deal with that without invading the country. They have the ability to work with the government, they could work with us, they could work with the UN. They could call for observers to be put in the country. There are all kinds of alternatives. But Russia has chosen this aggressive act, which really puts in question Russia’s role in the world and Russia’s willingness to be a modern nation and part of the G8.

Incidentally, the 90-minute phone call between Putin and Obama that Kerry referred to was initiated by the Russian president, who called Obama to explain why Russia was sending troops to the Crimean Peninsula. The Russian government released a statement on the phone call, which reads:

In response to the concern shown by Barack Obama regarding possible plans of the use of Russian armed forces on the territory of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin drew attention to the provocative criminal acts by ultra-nationalist elements, which are in fact encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev.

The Russian President stressed the existence of real threats to the lives and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory. Vladimir Putin stressed that in the case of further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population.

The White House’s readout of the phone call was quite different. According to an account posted on the White House website,

President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law, including Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter, and of its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine, and which is inconsistent with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act. The United States condemns Russia’s military intervention into Ukrainian territory. …

President Obama made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community. In the coming hours and days, the United States will urgently consult with allies and partners in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum. The United States will suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8. Going forward, Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.

It is clear from this statement that the United States is committing itself to a confrontational course that intends to rally the world in isolating the Russian government, including perhaps by expelling Russia from the G-8. But as the AP reported on Saturday,

Despite blunt warnings about costs and consequences, President Barack Obama and European leaders have limited options for retaliating against Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, the former Soviet republic now at the center of an emerging conflict between East and West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far dismissed the few specific threats from the United States, which include scrapping plans for Obama to attend an international summit in Russia this summer and cutting off trade talks sought by Moscow.

“There have been strong words from the U.S. and other counties and NATO,” said Keir Giles, a Russian military analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London. “But these are empty threats. There is really not a great deal that can be done to influence the situation.”

Perhaps what the U.S. hopes is that simply reminding Russia of its “obligations under international law” will somehow lead to changes in Russian policy; that Moscow will just bend to the will of Washington on this issue. The problem is, U.S. pronouncements about international law are largely empty rhetoric, and no one is more aware of this than the Russians.

It was just last summer that the Russian government was admonishing the Obama administration for its drive to war with Syria, largely basing its opposition to a possible U.S. bombing campaign on the grounds of international law.

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria,” Putin wrote in an op-ed published by The New York Times, “despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. … It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

Putin also chided the U.S.’s over-reliance on military force to settle its disputes, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the narrowly averted intervention in Syria:

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.

With all those military interventions in its recent past – all carried out in violation of the UN Charter – the U.S. is certainly in no position now to lecture Russia on international law, and Moscow knows this.

Then of course, there is also the matter of the U.S.’s drone wars – the ongoing remote-controlled bombing campaigns of countries including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Just last week, the UN Special Rapporteur on terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, published the second report of his year-long investigation into drone strikes, highlighting dozens of strikes where civilians have been killed.

The report identifies 30 attacks between 2006 and 2013 that show sufficient indications of civilian deaths to demand a “public explanation of the circumstances and the justification for the use of deadly force” under international law.

But somehow the U.S. manages to get a pass when it comes to these unpleasant realities, and is able to maintain a veneer of credibility when it rebukes others for violating international law. At least as far as Russia’s concerned though, these rebukes are not likely to work.

U.S. hand in Ukraine turmoil leaves policymakers in an awkward position

 Interior Ministry members are on fire, caused by molotov cocktails hurled by anti-government protesters, as they stand guard during clashes in Kiev February 18, 2014.REUTERS/Andrew Kravchenko/Pool

Interior Ministry members are on fire, caused by molotov cocktails hurled by anti-government protesters, as they stand guard during clashes in Kiev February 18, 2014.REUTERS/Andrew Kravchenko/Pool

Events are unfolding rapidly in the deeply divided nation of Ukraine, leaving the U.S. in the awkward position of having to deal with a worsening crisis that has largely been precipitated by its own actions and policy pronouncements over the past several months. According to some accounts, the U.S. government is now a bit unsure how to respond to the situation.

This weekend, the Ukrainian parliament voted President Viktor Yanukovych out of office hours after he fled the capital, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison, and the parliament handed presidential powers to speaker Oleksandr Turchinov, a top Tymoshenko ally.

President Yanukovych denounced the toppling of his government as a coup d’etat, while others hailed it as a revolution. Either way, the potential ramifications are severe, including a possible civil or even regional war.

Sporadic violence has already reportedly broken out in Russian-speaking Crimea and some eastern cities between supporters of the new, pro-EU order in Kyiv and those who prefer maintaining close relations with Moscow. The scuffles have revived fears of separatist movements that could tear the country apart, presenting U.S. policymakers with difficult prospects going forward.

“Western leaders, while welcoming the unexpected turn of events in Kiev, are worried about the country fracturing into a pro-Russian and pro-western conflict,” The Guardian reported Sunday.

As the LA Times put it, “The challenges that could soon face the White House include a Yugoslavia-style civil war, an expensive economic bailout and further damage to its strained but crucial relationship with Moscow.”

Incidentally, these problematic outcomes are precisely what Moscow has been warning of for the past three months, as violent demonstrations have rocked Ukraine following Yanukovych’s decision in November to forgo an association agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.

A statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry last week reminded Secretary of State John Kerry that President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly urged President Barack Obama to “use every opportunity to stop the illegal actions of radicals and return the situation to constitutional channels.”

Instead, the Obama administration has placed the entire onus for the ongoing violence on the Ukrainian authorities, tacitly absolving opposition fighters for any role they may have had in escalating tensions with police. At a Feb. 19 press conference in Mexico, Obama said,

We continue to stress to President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government that they have the primary responsibility to prevent the kind of terrible violence that we’ve seen, to withdraw riot police, to work with the opposition to restore security and human dignity, and move the country forward. And this includes progress towards a multi-party, technical government that can work with the international community on a support package and adopt reforms necessary for free and fair elections next year. Ukrainians are a proud and resilient people who have overcome extraordinary challenges in their history, and that’s a pride and strength that I hope they draw on now.

Obama’s remarks echoed sentiments that U.S. officials have consistently expressed since the earliest days of the anti-Yanukovych uprising in Kyiv, clearly indicating bipartisan American support for the demonstrators – from the White House, State Department and Congress. In mid-December, U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) – both members of the Foreign Relations Committee – even traveled to Ukraine to meet with opposition leaders, and addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Kyiv.

“We are here,” said McCain at a massive rally, “to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine [Ukraine’s] own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”

Murphy added, “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”

On Jan. 7, the Senate adopted a resolution that expressed support for “the sovereign right of the people of Ukraine to chart an independent and democratic future for their country” and “condemn[ed] the decision by Ukrainian authorities to use violence against peaceful demonstrators and call[ed] for those responsible to be brought to justice.”

U.S. policy remained unchanged even as information emerged about the deep influence of far-right ultranationalist extremists leading the anti-Yanukovych protests. Spearheading clashes with police has been Right Sector, a group with ties to far-right parties including the Patriots of Ukraine and Trident, which BBC Ukraine reported is largely comprised of nationalist football fans. The far-right parliamentary party Svoboda is also in the coalition of three opposition parties leading the protests, the Nation reported.

Despite one of the early outbreaks of violence in the Kyiv demonstrations being clearly instigated by protesters who tried to break through police lines with an earth excavating vehicle on Dec. 1, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 15 that the demonstrators in Ukraine have been overwhelmingly nonviolent and have provided inspiration to the whole world.

“The whole world has watched the peaceful protest of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on the Maidan in Kyiv and tens of thousands in other cities across Ukraine.” While she expressed some condemnation for “the actions of rioters outside a Kyiv court building on January 10,” the bulk of her outrage was reserved for the Ukrainian government.

“The use of violence and acts of repression carried out by government security forces and their surrogates have compelled us to make clear publicly and privately to the government of Ukraine that we will consider a broad range of tools at our disposal if those in positions of authority in Ukraine employ or encourage violence against their own citizens,” she said.

Privately, Nuland was working to manipulate events in Ukraine to the United States’ liking. In a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt that was surreptitiously recorded and leaked on YouTube, Nuland clearly had preferences for who she would like to take over the government once the U.S. policy goal of deposing Yanukovych had been realized.

“I don’t think Klitsch [opposition leader Vitali Klitschko] should go into the government,” she told Pyatt. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

She expressed her preference instead for Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a Ukrainian economist and lawyer. “I think—I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” she said. “He’s the guy—you know, what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside.”

Nuland also argued for sidelining the European Union in resolving the crisis, saying rather undiplomatically, “Fuck the EU.”

Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, explained the significance of what Nuland was saying in an appearance on Democracy Now last week.

“The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine,” Cohen said. “They’re not talking about democracy now; they’re talking about a coup now.”

After a new escalation of violence on a Jan. 19, the White House said in a statement that the blame for the bloodshed laid squarely with the Ukrainian authorities – despite the fact that the Ukrainian interior ministry reported 60 policemen injured in the day’s melee, while newswires reported 40 or so protesters hurt.

“The increasing tension in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” the White House said. “Instead, it has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law.”

The White House statement issued this weekend was more nuanced than some of its earlier pronouncements, but nevertheless contained unmistakable veiled messages about flawed U.S. assumptions regarding the elected Yanukovych government and the U.S. desire for regime change in Ukraine:

We have consistently advocated a de-escalation of violence, constitutional change, a coalition government, and early elections, and today’s developments could move us closer to that goal.  The unshakeable principle guiding events must be that the people of Ukraine determine their own future.  We welcome constructive work in the Rada and continue to urge the prompt formation of a broad, technocratic government of national unity.  We welcome former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s release from a prison hospital today, and we wish her a speedy recovery as she seeks the appropriate medical treatment that she has long needed and sought.

We continue to urge an end to violence by all sides and a focus on peaceful, democratic dialogue, working pursuant to Ukraine’s constitution and through its institutions of government.  Going forward, we will work with our allies, with Russia, and with appropriate European and international organizations to support a strong, prosperous, unified, and democratic Ukraine. Going forward, the Ukrainian people should know that the United States deeply values our long-standing ties with Ukraine and will support them as they pursue a path of democracy and economic development.

The statement is “deliberately cautious and even-handed,” said Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s too much uncertainty, about Yanukovych’s situation, about the Russian reaction, to take anything for granted.… We don’t know where the power lies.”

U.S. government proxies, however, such as the State Department-funded advocacy group Freedom House, have been much more outspoken in their reactions to recent events, with clearly drawn lines separating the “good guys” in Ukraine from the “bad guys.”

“The citizens of Ukraine are fighting a gruesome battle for their rights, standing up to armed riot police and a corrupt regime,” said Freedom House last Thursday. “The peaceful protest that followed President Viktor Yanukovich going back on his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union has since deteriorated into deadly clashes between thousands of Ukrainian citizens and law enforcement officials.”

What Freedom House – and its principle sponsor, the U.S. government – fail to acknowledge is that despite this rosey picture of righteous freedom fighters standing up against tyrannical and corrupt forces, the reality is of course far more complicated. Despite his flaws, Yanukovych was legitimately elected in 2010, in an election that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said “met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004.”

“The process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views,” said the OSCE.

Now that the Yanukovych government has been toppled, it is far from clear what precisely will come to replace it, but some analysts think that extreme far-right parties such as Svoboda may come out on top. Then of course, there is the question of whether the country will continue to be torn apart along regional and ideological lines.

Regardless of the outcome, the question should be asked, what exactly gives the U.S. the right to interfere in the internal affairs of a country like Ukraine? Even if Ukrainian security forces overreacted to the Euromaidan protests early on, does the U.S. somehow have legitimacy or moral authority on these matters?

It should be remembered that when American citizens angered by income inequality and corruption took to the streets and occupied downtown parks in U.S. cities in 2011 as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, they were treated in a similar fashion by U.S. police. Interestingly, though, President Obama didn’t use his bully pulpit at the time to tell American cops to stand down, instead remaining silent as police used brute force to quell the demonstrations across the country.

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