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March 19, 2018 10:09 am

It’s Time to Confront Putin and Russia

avatar by Julie Lenarz

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a November 2017 meeting in Sochi. Photo: Reuters / Mikhail Klimentyev.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament on Monday that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attempted murder of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

And that’s just the beginning.

Five years ago, in December, the first allegation of chemical weapons use surfaced in Syria. Seven people were killed in the Homs region by a poisonous nerve agent deployed by the Assad regime. Earlier in August, then-US President Barak Obama had articulated his red-line policy on Syria. His calculations on a military response, he said, would change drastically if America sees “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

What do these seemingly unconnected events have to do with each other? The answer is: a lot.

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The Middle East has always been the global playground of the world’s superpowers, where interests collide and the balance of power is perpetually in flux.

What happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East.

When President Obama failed to enforce his red line, the Assad regime was watching. But watching, too, were the Syrian regime’s patrons — Russia and Iran.

As the years went by, the red line policy turned from an empty mantra into a river of innocent civilian blood. UN inspectors confirmed in September 2017 that they had documented 33 chemical weapons attacks during Syria’s civil war. Twenty-seven were carried out by the regime.

That’s not the end of the story. The head of the CIA warned in January that an expansionist and cash-starved North Korea could sell its nuclear weapons know-how and technology to other countries, including Iran and Syria. Less than a month later, a leaked report authored by a panel of UN experts revealed that North Korea had indeed shipped supplies to Syria that could be used to produce chemical agents.

The Obama administration’s failure to uphold the international conventions against chemical weapons worked against Western interests and emboldened our enemies.

And so on March 4, Russia likely carried out an assassination attempt on a former Russian double agent and his daughter in the middle of the peaceful market town of Salisbury. This followed numerous other state-sponsored murders that have either been proven or strongly suspected to be carried out by Russia.

What happened in Salisbury was a vile act of aggression by a foreign country, but not all that surprising. Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been a gambler — and when someone like him smells weakness, they take their chances.

Behind the Kremlin’s Cold War rhetoric, inflaming of nationalist sentiments and throwing of Russia’s weight around the world stage lies the belief that attack is the best form of defense. We saw how brutal Russia was willing to be in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.

The Russian government cannot be dealt with in the same way that liberal democracies deal with each other. Unless a credible account can be given as to how a military-grade nerve agent like Novichok was obtained and deployed without Russian involvement, enforcing “extensive measures” against Putin and his inner circle should be a no-brainer.

Let’s face it. Rapprochement with Russia has failed miserably. The Obama “reset policy” with Russia collapsed under its own weight. The Obama administration’s attempt to withdraw from the Middle East ended in chaos — and with an emboldened Kremlin. Attempts to find a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis resulted in Russia stationing 40,000 military boots on the ground in Eastern Ukraine.

All of this is evidence of the fact that Russia is not fearful of using extreme measures to pursue its political goals. The more that we give, the bolder they get. The primary goal of every government is to make our citizens and allies secure, and to make our adversaries think twice.

The only language Russia understands is strength. So let’s be strong.

Julie Lenarz is a senior fellow at The Israel Project and director of the Human Security Centre in London.

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