Great Decisions 2015 Spring Updates


Russia and the near abroad

By Eugene Steinberg

The outlook for Ukraine is bleak. Throughout the winter, fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists has exploded and receded several times over. Separatists continue to hold a sizable chunk of Eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk and Lugansk. A fragile ceasefire signed in February has held the death toll at 6,100 persons (United Nations estimate), but neither side expects it to last.
As in previous lulls, both sides have taken advantage of the break to retrain and resupply and reach out to their allies. Some Western nations, reluctant to provide lethal aid, have increased their support for the Ukrainian government in other ways. In March and April, approximately 75 U.K. troops and 300 U.S. troops arrived in Western Ukraine to train government forces. Non-lethal aid from the U.S. currently totals around $75 million, and includes armored and unarmored Humvees, unarmed surveillance drones and more.
It is unlikely that such generosity could match the commitment of the Russian government. Unrelenting denial by Russian officials aside, an abundance of evidence continues to point to direct Russian involvement in Eastern Ukraine. This includes everything from supplying lethal heavy weaponry and tanks, to organizing military maneuvers and providing the professional military to do so.
In Russia itself, Putin and his Ukraine policy are as popular as ever. Foreign policy is one of Putin’s leading sources of popularity. The narrative promoted by Russian state media organizations—which frames the events as a righteous struggle against fascism in Ukraine and a confrontation with the United States on a more equal footing than in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union—has allowed many Russians to look past problems at home, including economic turmoil and the assassination of a key opposition leader.
The ruble, though up from its all-time low in February, is still doing poorly. Western sanctions continue to depress Russia’s economic outlook and oil, Russia’s most important export, hovers at all-time low prices.
Perhaps the country’s most shocking domestic development is the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in February. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin, has been a charismatic, albeit marginal, opposition figure in the Putin era. The disturbing details of his assassination, a drive-by shooting on a bridge literally within 200 meters of the Kremlin, stunned even those outside of Russia’s fledgling opposition movement.  Russian authorities would eventually charge two Chechens, who were allegedly offended by Nemtsov’s support of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. But in an atmosphere as tense and conspiratorial as the one in Moscow, many are skeptical.
Some dissenting voices accused Vladimir Putin of fomenting an atmosphere so hostile as to permit the assassination, while others accused the president of ordering the assassination outright. State media coverage of the murder did not last long after the arrest of the Chechens. Yet as the dissenting blogosphere bursts with competing conspiracy theories, two things seem clear. For those within the Russian mainstream, the world is becoming increasingly straightforward, and for those outside, increasingly bewildering.
Eugene Steinberg is a former contributing editor at the Foreign Policy Association. You can follow him on Twitter @EugSteinberg.

Recommended Readings

Editors, “Looking Back at Boris Nemtsov,” Meduza (Feb. 28, 2015). 

Gregory Feifer, “Out for Blood in Russia,” Foreign Affairs (Mar. 3, 2015).

Hannah Gais and Eugene Steinberg, “Nemtsov killing casts a shadow over Russia’s free press,” Al Jazeera America (Mar. 24, 2015).


Sectarianism in the Middle East

By Paul Mutter

U.S. policymakers face many difficult choices in pursuing rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is little chance that Iran and the Arab monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, can countenance each other’s respective aspirations. The U.S. is trying to make a deal with Iran while still tying itself to the demands of its other security partners in the region.

Iran’s ambitions are not new or “revolutionary”: before the overthrow of the last Shah, a number of modern Iranian leaders had hegemonic aspirations in the Gulf, expressed in terms of past imperial grandeurs. The revolution in 1979 unleashed a torrent of anti-Americanism, but it did not diminish Iranian leaders’ aspirations. Instead, it emboldened them, as they were now animated by true revolutionary zeal, and not the reactionary imaginations of “pan-Iranists” who called for a Greater Iran.

Such ideals hold little stock today among Iranians. Yet even though Supreme Leader Khomeini expressed himself in religious terms, he and his colleagues still yearned for greatness, to export their model of governance. Today, though, they must balance this with the realization that their rule cannot survive without better international relations and a lessening of economic sanctions.

Iranian leaders still fear that offensive action might topple them from power—they know full well Western powers could stoke discontent against the ruling class—but they also want be feared and treated as equals. Iranian influence is seen in much of the Arab world as Shia, “Persian” chauvinism, one only exceeded in its pretentions by the chauvinism of the Gulf States arrayed against this so-called Shia Crescent.

These Arab powers have many of the same underlying fears that Iran’s leaders do, though there are several notable differences. For one, the Arab states are not under the same sanctions as Iran. Yet the underlying economic and political contracts they have with their subjects are under strain from internal pressures, because of the simple fact that people cannot be bought off.

This is why the outcome of the current intervention in Yemen will prove decisive. Saudi leadership has sought to build up a consensus on Yemen among other predominantly Sunni nations. In drawing in as many of these countries as possible, including apparent outliers such as Sudan, Malaysia and Senegal, they wish to obscure that any political solution Riyadh finds acceptable will be unacceptable to many Yemenis. Iran, for its part, seems content to let the coalition bleed itself. The previous beneficiary of Saudi (and American) largesse, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was tossed aside in 2011 not because he suddenly discovered reform or sided with the Houthis (as he did after losing power), but because he had so badly bungled things that domestic unrest threatened to embolden al Qaeda. Riyadh fails to realize that its actions could deepen the quagmire that Saleh dug himself into with U.S. military assistance.

For now, the U.S. is content to distance itself from the Saudi campaign over Yemen while pursuing a grand bargain with Tehran. The coming months will tell if this remains doable, or if Washington will have to truly set down the rationale for its courting of Tehran while still upholding sanctions and arming the regime’s opponents.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at NYU pursuing an MA in International Affairs. He is a blogger for the Foreign Policy Association, and also writes for War Is Boring, The Arabist and Souciant Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @pdmastersnyu.

Recommended Readings

John Hannah, “Will the Fallout from the Iran Deal Make the Middle East Less Stable?” Foreign Policy (May 7, 2015).

Paul Mutter, “The U.S.-Iran Detente Could Backfire in the Middle East,” U.S. News and World Report (May 1, 2015). 

Karl Sharro, “The Confused Person’s Guide to Yemen,” The Atlantic (May 11, 2015).


U.S. Policy Toward Africa

By Daniel R. Donovan

In April 2, 2015, armed militants stormed the campus of Garissa University College campus in northeastern Kenya, killing 148 people and wounding many others. The four gunmen were killed by security officers when they were cornered in a dormitory.

The Somali terrorist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack—the deadliest on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. This is just the latest in a series of violent actions taken by al-Shabab against Kenya in retaliation for Kenya’s involvement in operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. In September 2013, gunmen entered the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people before police killed the four suspects.

These attacks signal an alarming rise in terrorism in Kenya and point to the security challenges that accompany bordering a failed state.

In retaliation, Kenya has given the UN three months to close the Dadaab refugee camp in the Garissa District of eastern Kenya. The camp, which opened in 1991 amidst the Somali civil war is the world’s largest with over 600,000 refugees, most of whom are from Somalia.

While closing Dadaab may seem extreme to outsiders, Kenyans have been living in fear of al-Shabab over the last few years. The fear is so great that when a transformer exploded at the University of Nairobi on April 12, 2015, it sent the students on campus into a frenzy. In the resulting stampede, one person died and over 150 people were injured. Some students jumped from windows five stories high to escape the perceived attack.

In response to the wave of terrorist attacks in Kenya, U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to visit Kenya—the country of his father—for the first time as president in July. In addition, Obama has asked Congress to approve $553 million in aid to Kenya this year. The Kenyan government has also solicited help from the U.S. in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

The threat of terrorism—especially from a group with ties to international terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda—is alarming in a country such as Kenya. The U.S. response needs to reflect the urgent need for help in ISR and security by Kenyan forces.

However, the root of the problem must also be addressed. Kenya is home to one of the most corrupt security forces in the world. Coupled with porous borders and a large recruiting pool of impoverished Kenyans, the country is ill-prepared to stand up to future al-Shabab attacks.

In order for a successful security plan to be implemented, the U.S. must combine military support with proper training on how to track and weed out domestic terrorist threats. The U.S. must also ensure that security officials are well-compensated and trained in resisting corrupt practices to prevent unwanted people from entering the country. Only with a comprehensive solution that involves training and support can Kenya successfully root out terrorism.

Daniel Donovan is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association and the executive director of the African Community Advancement Initiative. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRDonovan or @ACAinitiative.

Recommended Readings

Theo Sitther, “Less Guns, More Democracy,” U.S. News and World Report (Apr. 8, 2015).

Ian Bremmer, “These 5 Facts Explain Terrorism in Kenya,” Time (Apr. 10, 2015).

Terrorism in Kenya: Frightening Tourists Away,The Economist (Jul. 21, 2014).

Robyn Dixon, “Terrorism in Kenya: Frightening Tourists Away,” L.A. Times (Jan. 2, 2015).


Syria’s refugee crisis

By Hannah Gais

Excitement at the prospect of a possible nuclear deal with Iran picked up in the U.S. and Middle East after leaders from the P5+1 and Iran agreed upon a preliminary framework following a series of meetings in Switzerland.

Not all are so optimistic, however. A number of analysts have voiced strong concerns about certain aspects of the deal—the number of centrifuges allowed, the inspections not being thorough enough, and the deal’s “sunset” clause of 10 to 15 years. To some extent, all this pales in comparison to the question of what a deal would mean for the region, particularly for hotspots and proxy-war sites between Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria.

Iran and Syria—specifically Syria under President Bashar al-Assad—have been close strategic allies going back as far as the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, just one year after the Iranian revolution.

Since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Iran has provided the Syrian government and pro-Assad proxies, such as Hezbollah, with matériel, intelligence, training and troops. Although Iran denies this, sources within the government have verified the longstanding presence of Iranian forces, including members of the elite Quds force. Indeed, as one analyst told The Telegraph, “Without the Iranians [the Syrian army] would have collapsed by now.’”

The question facing lawmakers and negotiators now is two-fold. First, if Iran is willing to come to a deal with the West on its nuclear program, will it also ease up on its strategy of driving instability in the region? Second, is the West giving Iran a “free pass” on its current regional strategy?

With the war in Syria now entering its fourth year and the total number of registered refugees edging toward 4 million, both are important, not to mention pressing, questions. Iran has claimed its regional strategy isn’t one that’s set in stone—in other words, it’s open to discussion. Still, the White House has repeatedly expressed its skepticism about calls from Iranian officials for increased dialogue and cooperation—including those made by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif in The New York Times opinion pages in late April—dismissing them as disingenuous. If Iran chooses to pursue a more U.S.-friendly policy, there’s some possibility for discussion of regional issues, although officials from the U.S. and European Union were eager to draw the line at “working with.”

Because the U.S. is balancing keeping negotiations open with Iran while appeasing its allies in the Gulf, the West’s so-called Iran problem is one for which there are no easy answers. 

Hannah Gais is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association and managing editor of You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais.

Recommended Readings

Max Fisher, “This is the case against Obama’s Iran deal that everyone should hear,” Vox (Apr. 20, 2015).

Max Fisher, “The Iran nuclear deal, translated into plain English,” Vox (Apr. 2, 2015).

Will Fulton, Joseph Holliday, and Sam Wyer, “Iranian Strategy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War (May 2013).


Human trafficking

By Jordan Stutts

This year’s 13th U.N. Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, a conference meant to promote human rights through combating transnational crime, found itself stuck in the shadow of the reputation of its host country, Qatar. The small Middle Eastern nation has come under international scrutiny for using a migrant workforce to build an ambitious future full of high-rise apartments and a top-of-the-line sports complex for the 2022 World Cup. 

The meeting was opened by Prime Minister of Qatar, Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, who reiterated Qatar’s pledge to seek justice for victims of transnational crime, tip-toeing around criticism from the international community for the country’s use of forced migrant labor. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon drove this point home, telling the 13th U.N. Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in the country’s capital, Doha, that sustainable human rights could not be achieved without rule of law.

Yet, on the backdrop of recent figures estimating an additional 4,000 workers could lose their lives between now and the 2022 World Cup, Qatar’s support for the Doha Declaration, “a political document emphasizing important aspects of fighting transnational organized crime and strengthening criminal justice systems and crime prevention,” was not without a sense of irony.

Shortly after the conference ended, Qatar’s compliance with the Doha Declaration was tested after Nepalese laborers—the second largest migrant community in Qatar—demanded amnesty to travel home to aid families and bury loved ones in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake on April 25. Help came from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which sent a letter on behalf of Qatar’s Nepalese laborers requesting that Qatar allow free passage to assist their families in Nepal. (Qatar uses a kafala system, a type of sponsorship program for migrant laborers, which means that employers have total control over a worker’s movement in and out of the country.) There has been no response so far.

But the Nepalese aren’t the only ones struggling with the Qatari government. A recent report published in Nov. 2014 by The Guardian looked at North Korean workers in the country and the extent of government involvement.

The report said a laborer makes around $775 a month, but a recruitment representative interviewed for the story described how much the worker gets to keep as “a company secret.” Others said a worker keeps as little as 10 percent of his salary during his three years in Qatar, and the rest of the payment is seized by a chain of North Korean state-run bodies.

By hosting the conference in April, however, Qatar was able to make a statement to the international community about its pledge to end the practice. Still, it’s critical that Qatar remembers that although the Doha Declaration may stand as the most recent words spoken against the practice, forced labor is a problem only actions can fix.

Jordan Stutts is a contributing editor at the Foreign Policy Association and blogs for You can follow him on Twitter @jwstuttered.

Recommended Readings

Pete Pattisson, “North Koreans working as ‘state-sponsored slaves’ in Qatar,” Guardian (Nov. 7, 2014).

Tae-jun Kang, “Qatar Firm Fires Dozens of North Korean Workers,” The Diplomat (May 7, 2015).