Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Kyiv, Ukraine, on 5 February to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, and members of Ukraine’s parliament. Media reports indicate the Obama Administration may be reconsidering its position on providing Ukraine with lethal assistance, which is likely to be a topic of discussion while Secretary Kerry is in Ukraine. After his visit to Kyiv, the Secretary will travel to Munich, Germany, to participate in the 51st Munich Security Conference.
Ukraine’s military conceded last Thursday that its forces had been overrun by pro-Russian separatists in a town in their battle to hold onto Vuhlehirsk, a strategically valuable railway hub. The day before, Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and said that “as long as Russia continues its blatant disregard of its obligations under the Minsk agreements, the costs for Russia will continue to rise.” President Barack Obama also spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel regarding developments in Ukraine and agreed on the need to hold Russia accountable for its actions. On Thursday, the EU agreed to continue existing sanctions against Russia for six-months. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control published three General Licenses to Executive Order 13685 on Friday. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger said that Ukraine should be an independent state but cautioned, “I’m uneasy about beginning a process of military engagement without knowing where it will lead us and what we’ll do to sustain it.”
NATO Annual Report
Last Friday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg released his annual report on 2014. Secretary-General Stoltenberg noted 2014 “was a black year for European security,” citing the Paris terrorist attacks and the rise of violent extremism, as well as stating to the Alliance’s East, Russia “has used military force to annex Crimea, destabilize eastern Ukraine, and intimidate its neighbours.” He observed that it is “vital” that NATO members invest more in the Alliance’s defense, with members needing to spend 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product on defense within a decade.
Cuba & Western Hemisphere Affairs
After a recent round of rapprochement negotiations, this Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will convene a hearing entitled, “Understanding the Impact of U.S. Policy Changes on Human Rights and Democracy in Cuba.” Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and Assistant Secretar of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tomasz Malinowski are expected to testify. On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will also hold a hearing on Cuba entitled, “Assessing the Administration’s Sudden Shift,” with U.S. Government officials scheduled to testify.
More broadly, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere will also hold a hearing Tuesday, titled, “The Strategic Importance of the Western Hemisphere: Defining U.S. Interests in the Region.”
In an Op-Ed published by The New York Times last Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden announced the President’s FY 2016 Budget Request – due to be released Monday, 2 February – will include $1 billion aimed at assisting countries in Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Assistance would focus on security challenges – stemming transnational criminal networks – good governance, and improving the business climate in these countries to attract foreign direct investments.
Early last week, Vice President Biden hosted the first-ever Caribbean Energy Security Summit in Washington, which culminated in a joint statement being released by the nations participating. The White House also released a fact sheet on U.S. efforts to foster a cleaner and most sustainable energy future in the Caribbean.
Despite President Obama’s objections, the Senate Banking Committee voted 18-4 last Thursday to advance legislation (S. 269) that would strengthen sanctions against Iran if the P5+1 Talks with Iran fail to reach an agreement by 30 June. Only four Democrats on the Committee voted against the bill. While several amendments in the Committee markup were rejected, the Committee did amend the bill to say Israel has the right to defend itself and that Congress should get a vote on the final deal negotiated with Iran. In voting for the bill, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) said he would not support the bill advancing before the 24 March deadline, whereby a framework deal with Iran is expected. Thus, the bill is not expected to head to the Senate floor for consideration before the end of March.
Last Tuesday, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama curtailed their trip to India in order to lead a U.S. delegation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to offer condolences on the passing of the King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last Tuesday, retired U.S. Generals James Mattis and John Keane, along with retired Admiral William Fallon expressed concern over the lack of a clear strategy from the White House and argued for removal of the sequester in order to effectively address threats such as the Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS). Gen. Mattis expressed concern about the unclear U.S. strategy in Syria, saying the time to support moderate rebels fighting ISIL and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had “passed.” Meanwhile, Secretary Kerry said over the weekend that ISIL had been“forced to acknowledge its own defeat” in the town of Kobani, Syria.
Middle East Peace
This Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa will hold a hearing entitled, “The Palestinian Authority’s International Criminal Court Gambit: A True Partner for Peace?”
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) Commander Gen. David Rodriguez spoke at a think tank event last week in Washington about AFRICOM’s opportunities and challenges. He mentioned Nigeria has risen in security priority, citing the increased violent attacks by U.S. foreign terrorist-designated Boko Haram who has accelerated its attacks to neighboring countries. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa Chairman Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) opened a hearing last week saying that Boko Haram is becoming part of the global jihadist movement, threatening Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. He expressed concerned about the terrorist group’s efforts to form a caliphate and their similarities with the ISIL and al-Qaeda.
At the end of a two-day African Union (AU) Summit, the AU agreed to deploy 7,500 African troops to bolster regional efforts to combat Boko Haram. AU leaders are expected to meet in Cameroon this week to formulate a comprehensive strategy against Boko Haram.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Friday that he would insist trade agreements contain strong intellectual property rights protections, rules against currency manipulation and a strong investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. Market access – Japan and Canada specifically cited – was also a concern for Sen. Hatch with respect to the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Regarding the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP), Sen. Hatch called for negotiators to strive for complete elimination of tariffs and said no sectors should be excluded from the negotiations (referencing audiovisual and financial services). The Senator also expressed optimism about reaching agreement with Senate Finance Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) on a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) agreement.
Washington will likely focus on the following upcoming matters:
- 2 February: President Obama expected to release his FY 2016 Budget Request
- 2-6 February: 8th Round of TTIP discussions in Brussels
- 6-8 February: 51st Munich Security Conference
- 18 February: White House to host Summit on Countering Violent Extremism
- 24 March: Framework deal with Iran due