The Cable

Russia Opposed Humanitarian Aid Corridors in Syria Before It Favored Them in Eastern Ukraine

Syria's bloody civil war has killed more than 160,000 civilians and left millions more in desperate need of food and other supplies. The current unrest in eastern Ukraine has killed a few dozen people, mostly Ukrainian soldiers, and caused no shortages of any vital goods. Russia has vehemently opposed efforts to make it easier to bring humanitarian goods into one country while enthusiastically promoting the idea in the other. Care to guess which country is which?

Moscow on Monday launched a quixotic effort at the U.N. Security Council to create humanitarian corridors that would allow relief aid into conflict zones in eastern Ukraine -- where low-level clashes between Ukraine's army and pro-Russian separatists have escalated in the days following Kiev's presidential elections -- and make it easier for civilians to flee the fighting. Those are exactly the type of measures that Moscow has bottled up when it comes to Syria, despite the exponentially higher civilian death toll there.

The Russian draft resolution, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy, "demands the immediate cessation of hostilities" in southern and eastern Ukraine and demands that "the parties establish humanitarian corridors in order to allow the civilian population who wish to do so to leave safely the areas of hostility and ensure the unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population" in the regions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said action by the 15-member council was necessary to avert further bloodshed in Ukraine's predominantly Russian-speaking eastern territory. "Our Western colleagues convinced us for a long time that the situation in Ukraine would calm down immediately after the presidential elections in Ukraine. Everything is the other way round," he told reporters in Moscow. "We want the [U.N.] Security Council to require that civilians be allowed to leave and humanitarian aid [be] delivered to the hostility zones."

Western diplomats and human rights activists immediately dismissed Moscow's gambit as a PR ploy aimed at distracting attention from its own efforts to water down a U.S.-backed draft resolution, currently under consideration at the United Nations, pressing the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and Syria's rebels to give U.N. aid workers unfettered access to the country. They noted that the initiative comes on a day when hundreds of separatists stormed a Ukrainian border guard outpost near the eastern city of Lugansk, sparking a fierce gunbattle that left at least five rebels dead.

"It is hypocritical of the Russian leadership to call for an end to violence and the creation of humanitarian corridors when at the same time armed irregular forces are entering Ukraine from Russia, weapons are being brought illegally from Russia into Ukraine, Russian-backed separatists are attacking new targets and holding [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] teams hostage, and Russia is doing nothing to stop these activities," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. "It would be more effective for them to end those activities."

Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch's U.N. representative, said Russia's case would be more convincing if it exhibited the same degree of concern for Syria's civilians, many of whom have been cut off from aid for more than a year. "Russia's stated concern for local residents allegedly trapped in the fighting in South-Eastern Ukraine would ring less hollow if Moscow was not opposing meaningful measures to improve access for urgent aid to 3.5 million Syrians, some of whom are being starved to death," he said.

The Russian push -- its first since assuming the monthly presidency of the UN. Security Council this week -- reflects Moscow's propensity for justifying its own actions by citing previous Western initiatives that it had strongly opposed.

Last March, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the West's approval of Kosovo's 2008 decision to secede from Serbia -- a move Moscow had fiercely opposed -- to justify Crimea's decision to secede from Ukraine.

"The Crimean authorities referred to the well-known Kosovo precedent -- a precedent our Western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country's central authorities," Putin said in a Kremlin press conference. If that wasn't enough, Putin cited a 2010 ruling by the International Court of Justice that "general international law contains no prohibition on declarations of independence." The ruling, Putin added, was "crystal clear, as they say."

In Putin's view, the United States and its European partners are hypocrites who incessantly scold Russia about its conduct in Syria and Ukraine while pursuing military solutions to their own problems around the globe. Washington's willingness to undertake a long string of military interventions without Security Council approval -- from the 1999 NATO air war over Kosovo to the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- drives home the point, Putin argues. "This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism," he said in March. "One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow."

Last week, meanwhile, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, sought to highlight what Moscow contends are deep-seated Western double standards.

Speaking to the BBC, Churkin noted that while the United States and Britain keep pushing for action against their rivals, they have shown little interest in talking about the misbehavior of their allies, including the recent Thai military coup d'etat.

"It's a question mark. In the U.N. we like to talk about preventative diplomacy," he said. "But in this case, for some reason the United Nations have not shown much interest over the month of the crisis in Thailand. The United Kingdom, or the United States, who have close relations with Thailand after all, have never brought the situation to the attention of the Security Council even though quite often they bring to the attention of the council minuscule details of the situation in various countries."

Lavrov, for his part, accused the West of callously ignoring the plight of the citizens of eastern Ukraine. "We are very concerned about what is going on," he said in Moscow today. "People die every day and civilians suffer increasingly. The army, combat aviation, and heavy weapons continue to be used against them. Residential quarters are under fire, and all these things can be watched virtually live.... Unfortunately, most Western media keep silent."

AFP/ Getty Images

The Cable

Obama, Bowing to Political Reality, Accepts the Resignation of Embattled VA Secretary Shinseki

This story has been updated. 

President Obama accepted the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki Friday morning after a brief meeting at the White House, bowing to the harsh reality that the retired four-star general had become so toxic a figure that growing numbers of Democrats were abandoning him after a scathing VA internal report found evidence of "systemic" problems throughout the VA system that kept veterans waiting too long for the medical help they desperately needed.

"With considerable regret," Obama said Friday morning, he accepted Shinseki's resignation, but did so while acknowledging that Shinseki is one of the most profoundly dedicated public servants there is. Still, he said, he agreed with Shinseki that he had become the kind of distraction that would undermine any effort to help solve the broad problems across the VA.

“He’s a good person who has done exemplary work on our behalf and under his leadership we have seen more progress on more fronts at the VA … than just about any other VA secretary,” Obama said.

Obama did what some thought he wouldn't do: remove Shinseki without naming his successor. Obama appointed the VA's deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, Sloan Gibson, to serve as acting secretary, but vowed to find someone to replace Shinseki.

Meanwhile, a probe into what went wrong and who might be culpable continues. Though Shinseki had started the process to fire individuals associated with the problems at the Phoenix healthcare facility that sparked the crisis at the VA, Obama said the Justice Department would continue its investigation to see if there had been any criminal wrongdoing.

Obama had stood by Shinseki for weeks as evidence of widespread failures across the VA system began to emerge, and said last week that he wouldn't make any changes at the sprawling department until several other probes concluded their work. The embattled VA secretary had similarly rejected calls to resign and vowed to stay on until the problems were fixed. Shinseki earlier announced that he was firing senior staffers at the medical center in Phoenix that has been the locus of the scandal and promised to hold the leadership of other facilities accountable if specific problems were identified in their centers.

Shinseki repeated that message this morning at an appearance at a conference for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. In recent days, he has asked Congress to give him greater power to fire underperforming employees and fill a host of vacant leadership positions.

"After Wednesday's release of an interim inspector general report, we now know that V.A. has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veterans' health facilities," he said. "That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and it is unacceptable to me."

Still, Shinseki's fate appeared to have been sealed by the publication this week of a report by the VA's own inspector general that found 1,700 veterans waiting to see a doctor at the Phoenix facility at the center of the current scandal who hadn't actually been scheduled for an appointment or placed on a waiting list, raising questions about how many more remained "forgotten or lost" in the system. It didn't say whether those delays were linked to the deaths of 23 veterans who passed away there while waiting for care, igniting the whistle-blower complaint that triggered the current investigations.

The general also said that the inspector general has expanded his review to 42 VA facilities, far more than the 26 initially designated. Earlier reports found that the VA manipulated record-keeping that covered up lengthy waiting periods for veterans, some of whom ended up dying in the process.

In the wake of the report, Democrats on Capitol Hill -- particularly those in difficult re-election fights-- began to abandon Shinseki in droves. Among them: Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), John Walsh (D-Mont.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jeff Merkley (D-Or.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Mary Landrieu (D-L.A.). Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the powerful chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also called for his head, as did an array of other Democratic congress members, including Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and the ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Michael Michaud.

“I have always respected General Shinseki’s service to our country and thank him for that service. His resignation is one step in the process to uncover the dysfunction at some VA facilities," Israel said in a statement. "We must get to the root of the problem so our veterans have top-notch care and swiftly. I am continuing to call for a criminal investigation and to hold those found responsible accountable. We must focus on solutions that will help our veterans who deserve a system that works.”

Shinseki's departure raises two immediate and very difficult questions for the White House. The first is who will replace him. Shinseki, though low-key and not prone to glad-handing on Capitol Hill, was a widely respected figure because of his decades of service in the Army, where he retired as a four-star general. Until this scandal, he had few critics on Capitol Hill and was seen as a competent, if uninspiring, leader for the department. His replacement will need to have a demonstrable record of management experience and, probably, a military background. Finding that type of official, particularly one with the political acumen to navigate what could be a grueling confirmation fight, will be extraordinarily hard.

The bigger challenge will be the one immediately facing the new secretary: how to fire the officials responsible for the current scandal -- which could easily number into the dozens -- while also making the wide-ranging and costly bureaucratic changes necessary to fix a problem that has been building for years, as millions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have returned home and the population of vets of the wars in Korea and Vietnam has continued to age and require increasingly expensive care.

The VA has struggled for years to find enough physicians -- particularly primary care doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists -- capable of treating the new generation of veterans. Many physicians have left the VA or refused to consider jobs there because their pay lags what is available in the private sector and their caseloads have increased without additional resources.

The New York Times, citing VA data, reported that the department was trying to find 400 new primary care physicians to bolster its current number of roughly 5,100. Other VA statistics cited by the newspaper showed that the number of primary care appointments had increased by 50 percent over the past three years while the numbers of such doctors had grown by only 9 percent.

The problems are just as acute, if not more so, when it comes to the hundreds of thousands of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, the signature invisible wound of the long wars. The disorder causes depression, sleeplessness, alcohol and drug abuse, and occasional flashes of fury. In a tragically large number of cases, it has also been linked to the military's skyrocketing suicide rate. More than 2,000 troops have taken their own lives since the start of the Afghan and Iraq wars, and those numbers show few signs of slowing. Since PTSD can take years, if not decades, to manifest, the VA system will be struggling to help troubled veterans receive the help they need for a long time to come. The question, as with medical care, is whether the troubled system will be up for the job.

Win McNamee; Getty Images News