The Cable

Republicans Double Down Against Prisoner Swap After Bergdahl Briefing

In a closed-door briefing with top senators Wednesday evening, the Obama administration sought to quell the growing anger over the deal to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. But far from pacifying GOP critics, Republicans said they are even more skeptical and still upset about not being told the deal was imminent.

"I learned nothing," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after the briefing. He said he expected that the five senior Taliban officials released in exchange for Bergdahl would re-enter the battlefield. "I guarantee you that a year from now - if not before - they will be back in Afghanistan."

Lawmakers heard from Anthony Blinken, the deputy national security advisor, Bob Work, the No. 2 official at the Pentagon, and Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others. They showed the lawmakers a "proof-of-life" video from December that the administration relied upon to determine that Bergdahl's health was declining. (The Taliban provided the video to the administration before finalizing the deal).

Bergdahl "did not look well," remarked Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). "I think it was a very hard decision. If I had been challenged in the moment, I may have made the same decision."

But a number of Republicans and even one Democrat said the video verified nothing. "That did not sell me at all," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.). "That was from five months ago, he was impaired ... That was not the person who was released here. He was not in that type of dire situation when released."

Other briefed GOP senators with bitter parting remarks included New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, Georgia's Saxby Chambliss, and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham. "I don't feel assured that these five Taliban detainees -- who are high-level -- will not get back in the fight against the United States and our allies," said Ayotte.

Although criticism from Capitol Hill Democrats is growing, most remain in sync with the White House. On Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada chastised Republicans for their rapidly evolving views on the importance of rescuing Bergdahl from the Taliban.

In a floor speech, he noted that "just a couple weeks ago," Ayotte called on the Pentagon to "do all it can to find Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and bring him home." He also cited legislation sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, declaring "no member of the armed forces who was missing in action should be left behind." 

Reid countered: "Opponents of President Obama have seized upon the release of an American prisoner of war - that's what he was - using a moment of celebration for our nation as a chance to play political games."

However, given that numerous of Bergdahl's brothers-in-arms say he went AWOL, Americans don't know what to think. City officials in Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, canceled his homecoming celebration Wednesday, saying they couldn't control the large number of Bergdahl protestors.

Getty Images

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