Ukraine Mismatch: Fearless Putin vs Toothless Europe

As the West wastes time with endless discussions and threats of sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to gain ground in Ukraine.

Putin in Moscow last month
Putin in Moscow last month
Daniel Brössler


BRUSSELS — Now that the world is watching Moscow make its next power grab in eastern Ukraine, there is suddenly a lot of talk about Russia’s weaknesses. European politicians point out how much the annexation of Crimea has already hurt Russia economically and how much more suffering is yet to come. They also stress that Moscow in now totally isolated.

But such assessments aren’t much good right now. President Vladimir Putin isn’t concerned with the cost to Russia down the line. He’s interested only in the moment, and he is brutally exploiting every second of it.

Europeans weren’t prepared for the conflict in Ukraine, which is taking place on their own continent. So the EU pays lip service to international law, imposes modest sanctions on Russia, and threatens to impose harsher ones. Meanwhile, Putin puts armed forces in eastern Ukraine and knows the Europeans will waste time with endless discussions about how to react.

Time is the factor that works relentlessly against Ukraine and all those who want to rescue the country from Russia’s aggression. With the best intentions, Americans and Europeans worked to bring Russians and Ukrainians to the same table. And it was also in good faith that EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxemburg Monday urged caution so that impending talks Thursday between all parties in Geneva would not be jeopardized. Which also means that Putin can get on with his destructive work virtually unhindered until then.

Economically, Putin can’t take on the European Union. Halting energy deliveries to the West would be an ineffective, self-defeating weapon because Russia is totally dependent on this revenue. Putin has only two advantages in this situation, and they are not insignificant: his military might and his determination. Since the EU first warned against “further” escalation of the crisis, the Russian president has covered a fair amount of ground.

And the EU is doing relatively little to stop him. Travel sanctions and blocked bank accounts are merely symbolic and political. The threat of economic sanctions has already failed. The thinking was to more or less accept the annexation of Crimea but to make Putin fear dramatic financial consequences were he to continue his incursion into eastern Ukraine. It didn’t work.

The Europeans would be well advised to stop pointing out Russia’s weaknesses right now and start dealing with their own.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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