As the U.S. faces a host of foreign policy challenges, five issues are driving the conversation this week in Washington:
Crisis in Crimea
• Background: For more than two months, Ukraine has been positioned on the edge of triggering a global security crisis. When the former Ukrainian President opted to sign a trade deal with Russia instead of one with the European Union, protesters took to the streets. The President fled the capital and a new government was established. One Ukrainian region, Crimea, which has been closely associated with Russia since Ukrainian independence, has since become the center of the crisis. Unmarked troops, that most experts attribute to Russia, took control of Crimea and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a plebiscite on Crimea re-joining Russia.
• What It Means: Fundamentally, the crisis in Ukraine undermines the global norm against taking control of another country's territory. Additionally, given Russian actions in Georgia in 2008, concerns exist about continued Russian desires to recreate the Soviet Union. It also endangers other strategic relationships between the U.S. and Russia including Iran and Syria, also on this list.
• What to Look for: The U.S. and Europe are likely to impose new sanctions against Russia and Russia may take further action in Europe, particularly in former Soviet republics with a large percentage of Russian minorities. Another major concern is the role this crisis will play in U.S./European-Russian relations of other matters.
Nuclear Talks with Iran
• Background: Since 2006, the P5+1 countries (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China & Germany) have been negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Last November, the countries reached a six-month first-step deal in which Iran promised to downblend its 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile, cease enrichment of uranium beyond 5 percent and open its facilities for daily inspections in exchange for limited sanctions relief and the promise of no new sanctions. A new round of talks ended last week with Iran's Foreign Minister stating that serious progress had been made.
• What It Means: Following the first-step deal achieved late last year, new hope is emerging that a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program can be negotiated. Time and diplomacy will tell, if and when, a true can be achieved.
• What to Look for: The diplomats will meet again in May but the domestic debate about what a final deal must included has already begun on the editorial pages of major newspapers. Follow the negotiations on Twitter; key handles are: U.S. Secretary of State @JohnKerry; U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Rose @Gottemoeller; British Foreign Secretary @WilliamJHague and Iranian Foreign Minister @JZarif.
Elections in Afghanistan
• Background: On Sunday, Afghans went to the polls to elect the nation's next president. Primarily results suggest that a runoff between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani will be necessary. The major issue in the election is the short, medium and long-term status of U.S. and NATO forces within Afghanistan. Karzai, the current president has refused to sign the bilateral security agreement or a status of forces agreement with the U.S. and has opted to leave that responsibility to his successor. However, all major candidates have endorsed signing an agreement with the U.S..
• What It Means: Afghanistan is undergoing a democratic transition of power with minimal violence from Taliban forces. This have led many experts to argue that U.S. and NATO forces cannot fix Afghanistan's problems but rather the Afghan people must determine the future of their country and it is time to end the war.
• What to Look for: The results of the runoff election will be critical to Afghanistan's future and may result in increased violence that commonly occurs during the voting process. Additionally, the role that election fraud plays in the election will be an important metric for the long-term "rule of law" in the fledgling nation.
Violence in the Central African Republic
• Background: For more than a year, violence has dissolved the weak government of Central African Republic. Two camps have emerged based on faith lines: Christians and Muslims.
As widespread and gruesome violence continues in this weak African nation, the images of Rwanda's Genocide in 1994 haunt the imagination of policymakers and peacekeepers.
• What It Means: Central African Republic has long been unstable and has seen its share of violence, war and destruction. The potential for the crisis to slip over into neighboring nation's is a serious danger.
• What to Look for: Can the global community cooperate to end another genocide in Africa or will it find the will and resources too late?
Syria's Civil War & Chemical Weapons
• Background: After three years of conflict, the civil war in Syria continues. Millions of refugees have fled the country, thousands have died and chemical weapons have been used.
The U.S. and Russia negotiated a framework to remove all of Syria's chemical weapons by the end of April but recent questions about Syria’s intentions and timeline regarding its declaration have been raised.
Despite a diplomatic solution to disarming Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, the civil war carries on without near-term hope of stopping. Meanwhile, violence may break out in neighboring countries due to the instability caused from the large refugee influx.
• What It Means: In Washington, Syria is broken into two issues: the civil war and chemical weapons.
The civil war continues to push millions of Syrians into neighboring countries where infrastructure and resources are limited, at best, but mostly nonexistent. In Lebanon, serious concerns have been raised about the potential for the crisis to trigger violence in the fragile peace that has recently been obtained.
Sixty-five percent of Syria's chemical weapons have been exported for destruction and the remainder is scheduled to be removed by the end of the month. Despite concerns about the declaration, the continued diplomatic engagement between the U.S., Russia, Syria and others over this issue offers some hope for global arms control efforts and a future peaceful Syria.
• What to Look for: The big date is April 30th that will decide if the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the UN and Syria can meet the revised deadline for shipping the chemicals out of Syria.
Secondly, the diplomatic tango related to concerns about the honesty of the declaration will have lasting implications of global arms control and any future Syrian peace talks.