KY Standard: Russian journalists learn from Americans

Five Russian journalists who visited Bardstown Thursday contrasted the freedom of the American press with the constraints under which they must work in their country. – Kentucky Standard

Boris Johnson says ‘game has changed’ as G7 leaders discuss new sanctions against Russia

Written by Laura Hughes, Political Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.
Read the original article on The Daily Telegraph


meeting of G-7 foreign ministers are discussing new sanctions on Syrian and Russian military figures, Boris Johnson has confirmed.

The Foreign Secretary said the “game has changed” ahead of a meeting with his counterparts in Italy, where ministers  will demand that Vladimir Putin remove his troops from Syria and drop his backing for the Syrian president.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a bilateral meeting during a G7 for foreign ministers in Lucca
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a bilateral meeting during a G7 for foreign ministers CREDIT: MAX ROSSI /REUTERS 

The attack was authorised after  87 people, including children, were killed in a suspected sarin nerve agent strike on Khan Sheikhoun.

Speaking outside the summit, Mr Johnson said: The United States have already imposed some extra sanctions themselves, and we will be discussing the possibility of further sanctions certainly on some of the Syrian military figures and indeed on some of the Russian military figures who have been involved in coordinating the Syrian military efforts and of course who are thereby contaminated by the appalling behaviour of the Assad regime.

He added: “It is the Americans who have changed the game by using those cruise missiles which never happened in the last five years, so the game has now been changed and I think it’s important that that message should be heard from the Americans to the Russians.”

In this image released by the US Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea
In this image released by the US Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea CREDIT: FORD WILLIAMS/AFP

Asked why he believed sanctions would now work , he told reporters: “I think the Russians need a way out and a way forward and if I think about the position of Vladimir Putin now he is toxifying the reputation of Russia by his continual association with a guy who has flagrantly poisoned his own people, and I think the world can see this.

“The evidence by the way is overwhelming, he should look at the evidence for what happened the other day.

“It is absolutely conclusive, so what we’re trying to do is to give Rex Tillerson the clearest possible mandate from us as the West, the UK, all our allies here to say to the Russians this is your choice: stick with that guy, stick with that tyrant or work with us to find a better solution.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin CREDIT: REUTERS/PAVEL GOLOVKIN

Discussing America’s response to the attack, something described by Assad’s allies as having crossed a “red line”, Mr Johnson suggested that the US could launch fresh strikes in the fight to weaken President Bashar Assad’s regime.

He told The Sun: “Crucially – they could do so again.

“We cannot miss this moment. It is time for (Russian president Vladimir) Putin to face the truth about the tyrant he is still propping up.”

Theresa May spoke to Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, on Sunday night and said that Russia must help secure a “political settlement” in Syria.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “They spoke to discuss events in Syria following the chemical weapons attacks. They agreed on their support for the US action, that it was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syria regime.

“They discussed the importance of Russia using its influence to bring about a political settlement in Syria and to work with the international community to ensure that the shocking events of last week are never repeated.

Syrian children receive treatment following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun
Syrian children receive treatment following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun CREDIT: AFP/MOHAMED AL-BAKOUR

“They noted the Foreign Secretary is working closely with his Canadian counterpart.”

 On the prospect of further sanctions for Russia, the spokesman said: “We are in discussions with our partners on how we can bring further pressure on the regime and those who are backing it, which includes the Russians.”

 The possibility of an attack came after the Russian embassy in the UK suggested that British and American attempts to deliver an ultimatum to the Kremlin this week could result in a “real war”

Both Russia and Iran have threatened military retaliation against the US, 
accusing Mr Trump of crossing “red lines” by ordering a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base.

The two military allies of Syria said the US bombardment had violated international law and, in a statement, added: “From now on we will respond with force.”

Mr Johnson is understood to be working on a proposal from the G7 group of nations which will demand that Mr Putin withdraws his support of Assad.

Mr Johnson cancelled plans to visit Moscow this week to work on the proposal – which The Daily Telegraph 
understands will include a tacit offer to Russia to rejoin the G7 if it complies.

On Sunday Russia mocked Mr Johnson, saying his refusal to visit was “deplorable” and, in a series of jibes on Twitter, questioned whether he would make a fit wartime lieutenant to the American president.

Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, warned Russia it is responsible for the deaths caused by the Syrian chemical weapons attack “by proxy”.

Trump Briefed About Syrian Military Strike In Situation Room Washington, D.C
Trump Briefed About Syrian Military Strike In Situation Room Washington, D.C CREDIT: USA / BARCROFT IMAGES

Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, echoed the comments, telling Face The Nation on CBS, the Russians “have played now for some time the role of providing cover for Bashar Assad’s behaviour”.

He also said on Monday that America was ready to take action to defend innocent people.

“We want to be with those who know how to respond to those hurting innocent people in any part of the world,” he  said at a memorial for the 560 victims of a Nazi World War II massacre in the Tuscan town of Sant’Anna di Stazzema.

“This place will be an inspiration for our action.”

Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image 
Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria is seen in this DigitalGlobe satellite image  CREDIT:DIGITALGLOBE

Former head of MI6 Sir John Sawers supported the intervention in Syria but expressed serious concerns about Mr Trump’s ability to manage the complex diplomatic challenges in the Middle East and North Korea.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:”Whilst the tensions this morning and this week around the world are higher, the enforcement of international norms actually is in the long-term interests of the West and the world generally, to rule out the use of chemical weapons in any circumstances.”

Asked if he was scared of Mr Trump, the former diplomat and spymaster said: “He is not someone who fills me with confidence.

He doesn’t have the background and the experience and the instincts of being an effective US president.

“But it is in our interests that we have a US administration which upholds the international system, that supports its allies and supports international norms.” He said the last week had shown “sensible grown-ups within the administration taking charge and the rather ideological figures around Trump himself being marginalised”.

Erdogan-Putin: Ready to settle scores with the US and the West

Huffington Post
Raghida Dergham

When the tsar Vladimir Putin meets with the sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan next week in Moscow in the latter’s first foreign visit following the failed coup attempt, the Russian president will feel like a vindicated peacock before a cowering turkey. But they are both apprehensive men, concerned for their repressive authorities and powers. They are both afraid of the quagmires lurking for them: Erdogan in his vendettas in Turkey and Putin in his Syrian adventures. Aleppo will be present at the summit. The battle for the city is a fateful one and its outcome will be contingent in part upon the putative deal between the two enemies, now turned friends of necessity. The battle for Aleppo also has implications for Iran and her militias, the regime in Damascus, and Gulf capitals and their options after Erdogan’s about face on Russia amid continued American reluctance to offer serious support for Syrian rebels to survive the battle. Aleppo, a major Sunni city, is of invaluable importance for all players in Syria. But capturing it is no easy feat and may well become a predicament that exhausts the might of both Russia and Iran. Perhaps the goal is to turn gains on the ground into bargaining chips for the negotiating table and it is possible that these gains have been made easier by Erdogan’s coming concessions to Putin in Syria. However, there are tensions between the US and Russia at present, resulting from Moscow’s alleged meddling in US presidential elections and Moscow’s circumvention of john Kerry’s ambiguous understandings with his Russian counterpart Lavrov on the Syrian issue. Washington is also apprehensive about Moscow’s cooptation of the new Erdogan and sees it as a loss of a major card in the equation with Russia: Namely, Turkey’s membership of NATO which Washington wanted to use in negotiations on Syria. Today some equations may have changed yet some strategies remain the same and Aleppo is in the heart of all of them.

In February, I quoted in this column high level Russian sources as stressing Moscow’s insistence on the importance of winning in Aleppo, no matter the cost in favor of the regime axis. That is, Russia will not ease its airstrikes and support for the pro-regime ground offensive until victory is secured in Aleppo and the rebel supply lines to Turkey are cut off. Moscow believes that a full regime victory in Aleppo will boost its morale and allow it to resume the Russian-led fight against Islamic groups there Moscow designates as terrorists.

It was clear from the start of the year that Aleppo will be a vital milestone for Russian strategy, and that Russia will not stop its bombardment there for anything, be it the Russian-midwifed Vienna process, European reaction over more waves of refugees, or US reaction to the Russian ploy Washington is now sensing.

Some have strongly claimed that Iran is the key power behind the Aleppo offensive rather than Russia and that it was Tehran that persuaded Moscow of fighting the battle to advance its strategic objectives.

What is new here is the Turkish U-turn and its impact on Syria in general and the battle for Aleppo in general. There is even talk of a new tripartite axis as a result of Erdogan’s new course which started with him apologizing to Putin before the failed coup, and which is culminating with the visit to Moscow.

Indeed, in addition to this landmark visit, the Turkish FM has met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif this week in what appears to be the precursors of the emergence of a Turkish Russian Iranian axis. Erdogan has changed the equation in Syria: in that he could concede Syria in return for consolidating his power in Turkey. He is also prepared to settle scores with the US and Europe through the Russian gateway.

In other words, Erdogan is prepared to offer Putin his ‘revengeful services’, mostly through Syria: by cutting off supply routes to the Syrian rebels; by joining the Russian-Iranian axis in Aleppo; and by reaching a deal on keeping in power Bashar al-Assad, who Turkey had long insisted — but no more — must step down.

Furthermore, Turkey can use the refugee card to destabilize Europe, especially if Turkey’s doors are opened without restrictions or checks on who is a refugee and who could be a terrorist claiming to be one. Turkey could escalate against the US and end cooperating with the coalition it leads against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And there are many more ways Erdogan will not hesitate to deploy to secure his hold over power

Yet Erdogan, despite his heavy handed response to the coup and his assault on the constitution, the army, journalists, and judges, is a worried man. He is now facing a real coup of his own making. In truth, it may be too late now for him to save himself from inevitable revenge.

Yet until the summit takes place, all stakeholders impacted by Erdogan’s about turn must revisit their strategies especially in Iraq and Syria. This concerns the Gulf countries first and foremost; for if a Russian Turkish Iranian axis emerges in Syria, the matter will have grave consequences for them.

Some believe the fate of Assad is merely a bargaining chip for Russia. That the fate of Erdogan is fragile and his regional ambitions over. Or that Iran and her militias can never recover from the battle of Aleppo no matter the outcome. Regardless, however, what is happening in Aleppo and Syria is a fateful fork in the road for the country and all parties involved.

To be sure the cost of the war is too high even for the Russian army, now for the first time fighting against a major Sunni Arab force an open war on the latter’s own turf. This investment will be costly especially if the battle becomes protracted urban showdown.
Iran will also pay a heavy price in Aleppo if perceived as a Shia Persian force invading a major Sunni Arab city amid massacres with cover from its sectarian militias. The cost is too high whether an inconclusive victory or a protracted quagmire are the outcome.

Naturally Russia’s weight far surpasses Iran’s in the battle for Aleppo. But they have different goals there. Iran wants total victory, a goal linked to its expansionist strategy in Iraq Syria and Lebanon. But Russia may want different things: It may seek to shore up the regime with a limited victory as a negotiating tactic to impose its vision for a solution in Syria. With Erdogan’s U-turn, Russia may be in a position to impose a strategic blockade in Syria with implications for relations with the US.

These are all questions that are the key to understanding what is about to happen in Syria especially Aleppo. Erdogan’s visit to Moscow will shed some light but it is the duty of Gulf leaders to radically take stock of the Turkish developments and consider their options to avoid becoming de facto partners in the plots being woven at their expense, that is unless they want to be deliberately absent from their historic responsibility vis a vis Aleppo and Syria.

Why Russia doesn’t want Aleppo to fall

Yury Barmin

War-torn Aleppo has come into the spotlight again this week with rebels’ breaking through a weekslong siege by Syrian forces in a matter of days.

The initial success of President Bashar al-Assad’s siege, which clearly emboldened him, could have led to the fall of the second-largest city in Syria and has become a significant victory for the pro-Damascus forces.

This would have had major repercussions not only on the ground but also would have driven the monthslong diplomatic process to a complete standstill. The retaking of Aleppo by the Syrian government would essentially mean that Assad no longer needs to sit at the negotiating table with the opposition unless the opposition acknowledges its defeat.

US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia that if its recent safe-passage humanitarian operation in Aleppo is a “ruse” and that the city is in fact going to be depopulated only to be seized, it will damage US-Russia cooperation in Syria. The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee echoed Kerry’s view, saying humanitarian corridors are a way to sugarcoat Moscow’s real intentions.

Despite the Assad government’s claiming that thousands of civilians fled the eastern part of the city using the safe passage, according to other accounts, the number is barely above 100. With 250,000 civilians trapped inside the city, it is virtually impossible to accommodate all residents in government-controlled areas on such short notice. Having lived alongside the rebels for four years, locals fear being persecuted by the Syrian authorities if they flee and fear being labeled traitors by the opposition at the same time.

Moscow, however, is perfectly aware that the fall of Aleppo would bode ill for the US- and Russia-led diplomatic process and that the vast majority of civilians would not voluntarily leave the city for the unknown with no guarantees of safety. According to some sources, Russian aircraft did not participate in the siege of Aleppo, which could mean that the Kremlin has a different plan for Aleppo and that its retaking is not in the cards at the moment.

In Russia’s calculation, a besieged Aleppo could be far more valuable than an Assad-controlled one, both strategically and diplomatically. As long as a zero-sum fight for the city continues, Moscow plays a key role in the negotiations. All other issues, including Assad’s future in Syria, are pushed to the back burner because Aleppo is perceived as a stronghold of the opposition and its fall would symbolize the victory of Damascus, or, according to some experts, the end of the opposition movement against Assad altogether.

The official rhetoric from Washington, Brussels and Moscow seems to center around the need to alleviate the hardships of civilians in Aleppo and reduce the fighting; this draws international attention away from other contentious issues. The spotlight on Aleppo and a sense of urgency in dealing with the crisis clearly work in Moscow’s favor because the Kremlin is again calling the shots in Syria.

Time may be running out to deal with the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Aleppo. According to the Syrian-American Medical Society, in the event of a successful siege, fuel for bakeries would run out within weeks, and energy for hospitals within three to four months. The fate of local residents, who are no less than prisoners in the besieged city, will become the strongest argument if a new round of negotiations on Aleppo is going to take place.

The situation around the city is one of the major reasons why the so-called cessation of hostilities failed in the first place. Decision-makers in Moscow understand that the Syrian forces cannot go on forever repelling rebel attempts to break the siege, which is why negotiating another cessation of hostilities in Aleppo on its own terms would be a better option for Moscow than taking control over the entire city, because the fall of Aleppo would rid Russia of the strongest lever it has had in Syria against the United States and the opposition.

Freezing the conflict in Aleppo in its current form is a tactic out of Russia’s traditional operational playbook. Frozen conflicts have been successfully instrumentalized by Moscow in the post-Soviet Union space and have proved their effectiveness when it comes to manipulating the political process. Long-term examples of this can be found in Moldova and the South Caucasus, and more recently in Ukraine.

The United State figures prominently in Russia’s Aleppo equation for two reasons. First, the Kremlin feels that it negotiates with the United States from a position of strength in Syria; senior US officials have said several times that the White House has armed Kerry with very few instruments to match Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s flexibility at the negotiating table. It is hugely important for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be speaking on par with the United States as well as be setting his own agenda, something that has rarely happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, the publicity advanced by the Russian media surrounding the Syria campaign makes it appear that Washington’s campaign to diplomatically isolate Moscow has failed. A meeting on Aleppo that may soon take place in Geneva, in Russia’s view, serves to do just that, presenting Moscow as a peacemaker helping settle another crisis.

Making peace with the West, country by country


Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Russia has taken a number of cautious steps aimed at normalizing its relationship with the West; both Moscow and Washington seem to be ready for  military cooperation in Syria; Moscow and Ankara are busy patching up their relationship; and Moscow and Helsinki have just discussed mutual security. One important feature of these recent hints at normalization in Russia-West relations is that Russia is emphasizing its dialogue with specific countries, not with blocs like the European Union or NATO.

Ahead of the NATO summit that opened in Warsaw on Friday, Russia intensified its contacts with specific capitals rather than collective bodies. Moscow put forth a set of proposals for Washington aimed at preventing confrontation in the case of a close encounter at sea or in the sky, according to Russia’s permanent representative to NATO Alexander Grushko. “We are talking about minimal distances between ships and aircraft, about what frequencies to use to establish contact, and other measures that help us understand each other’s maneuvers,” Grushko said.

Media reports suggest that the U.S. and Russia are discussing the possible coordination of military efforts in Syria. The U.S. would help Moscow with its targeting of militant jihadist groups as long as Moscow makes sure the Assad regime grounds its air force. Washington put forth this proposal last week and is waiting for a response. However, Russia is expecting the Syrian army to take Aleppo and the proposal is thus unlikely to yield an immediate result or a substantive response for many days or even weeks, a U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal.

In another bilateral story, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto discussed mutual security during Putin’s recent visit to Finland. Following up on a debate in Finland and Sweden about the prospects of both countries joining NATO, Putin noted that Russia would respond forcefully to such a development. If Finnish armed forces become part of NATO’s military infrastructure, Putin said, “NATO would be at the borders of the Russian Federation. Do you think we will keep it as it is: our troops at 1,500 (kilometers, 900 miles) away?”

On the other hand, Putin agreed to work to build trust in the region and specifically promised to address the issue of military planes flying over the Baltic with identification devices switched off. The next day, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu gave an order to develop a system of trust-building measures to make flying over the Baltic safer, the defense ministry said last Saturday.

Russian-Turkish relations are changing from freezing cold to moderately warm at breakneck speed. As soon as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his regrets over the downing of a Russian warplane, his Russian counterpart rushed to rebuild broken ties. Russian and Turkish Foreign Ministers met early this week to discuss the coordination of each country’s anti-terrorist operations in Syria. Russia and Turkey are far from agreeing on which specific groups to call terrorists, but Russia does need Turkish support to ensure the success of the expected assault on Aleppo by Assad’s forces. And there is no question that Russia and Turkey both need each other’s business. Russian tourists are eagerly waiting for charter flights to Turkey to resume and Turkish farmers and exporters are expecting their fruits and vegetables to return to Russian supermarket shelves.

Moscow seems to be working hard to rebuild its ties with its immediate neighbors and the U.S., but the main direction is bilateral, not multilateral.

Underlying these reassuring stories is the reality of Russia’s deepening economic crisis. As we pointed out earlier in this blog, Russia’s defense spending, which had been increasing for the past 15 years, will not grow. It remains at 3.8 percent of the gross domestic product this year, just like in 2015, but it is declining in real terms.  Early this week, the Russian government proposed to freeze the overall federal public expenditure, in nominal terms, at the level of 15.78 trillion rubles a year (246 billion U.S. dollars). A spending freeze that could not have happened without a Kremlin go-ahead will mean that 36 of 43 state programs, (roughly half of the budget) will decline in nominal value. The Kremlin prioritizes retirement costs, management of public finances, and other social expenditure over any further military expansion.

Moscow seems to be working hard to rebuild its ties with its immediate neighbors and the U.S., but the main direction is bilateral, not multilateral. The European Union is seen in Moscow as a bloc in decline, an entity permanently weakened by Brexit and previous acts of defiance by separate members. The relationship with NATO is yet to be redefined and currently stands at a freezing point. “We do not see NATO as a partner in solving the problems that concern both us and Europeans. We use other formats, like the Normandy Four or the International Syria Support Group, for resolving conflicts and countering mutually relevant challenges,” Ambassador Grushko said in the interview cited above.

Russia is economically weak and there is no sign of any new sources of growth emerging. Russia is militarily weak in relation to NATO and there is no way this disparity will be bridged any time soon. But Russia has clear strengths on each of the bilateral vectors it emphasizes. Russia is now aiming to demonstrate to the West that it can be a partner in building mutual trust, but with an important caveat: separate deals are welcome with specific countries, rather than with the Transatlantic Alliance as a whole.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

NATO examines itself, again.

Stephen Sestanovich

The North Atlantic alliance has over the years experienced identity crises of two different kinds. The first stems from worry that the organization has outlived its usefulness. This form of self-doubt appeared most recently at NATO’s Lisbon summit in 2010, and again at its Chicago meeting in 2012. With memories of the Cold War receding and the “reset” with Russia still going strong (then-President Dmitri Medvedev actually came to Lisbon), the 2010 communiqué found Europe stable, successful, and at peace. Who needed an alliance?

A second kind of identity crisis is all about efficacy. It takes hold when threats are real, but NATO seems too diverse, too divided, and too disorganized to achieve its goals. Anxiety of this type was in evidence at the Wales summit of 2014. Russia had seized Crimea and sent military personnel to support separatism in eastern Ukraine, so no one doubted that NATO was necessary. The only question was whether it could fashion an effective response.

At the upcoming Warsaw summit, which begins on July 8, some will say the alliance has put identity crises behind it. The meeting is a chance for NATO leaders to review the pledges made at Wales and to endorse new plans for implementing them. Given the alliance’s record of the last two years, members have every reason to pat themselves on the back.

“Britain’s vote to leave the European Union—certain to be the main topic of corridor conversation in Warsaw—will only complicate Western decision-making.”

Yet amid justified self-congratulation, doubts and divisions will surface at this summit. Some may even detect a third type of identity crisis, one that makes NATO seem, more than anything else, irrelevant to today’s big concerns.  The alliance, after all, has been on the sidelines of efforts to cope with refugees or to roll back the self-proclaimed Islamic State. NATO’s mission in Afghanistan remains troubled (and to many, futile). Britain’s vote to leave the European Union—certain to be the main topic of corridor conversation in Warsaw—will only complicate Western decision-making.

Concerns about relevance will be unavoidable when the leaders of the alliance gather, but these should not derail summit participants from highly relevant problems that they need to, and can, address.  NATO is not fully united in responding to the core European security concerns that brought it into being almost seventy years ago. The alliance needs better solutions to the problem of burden-sharing, and a more sustainable strategy for managing tensions with Russia.

A Record of Achievement

The debate on these issues at Warsaw will reflect the very real successes of the past two years. At their 2014 meeting, alliance leaders sought to reassure member states that NATO security guarantees meant something. To be able to protect threatened allies, especially those in Eastern Europe, in a crisis, the summit adopted a Readiness Action Plan. Its key measures were to triple the size of the NATO Response Force (NRF) to forty thousand troops and to create a “spearhead” unit within the NRF capable of deploying five thousand troops anywhere within the alliance in two to three days. Across NATO, rebuilding strength was the new imperative. The Pentagon’s European Command (EUCOM), which had sent home the last of its heavy-armored vehicles in 2013, began bringing them back in 2015.

Since the Wales summit, NATO efforts to enhance deterrence have focused on creating a credible forward presence in “frontline” states. (As Alexander Vershbow, the former U.S. diplomat who serves as deputy secretary-general of the alliance, puts it, it’s not enough to be able to reinforce. “We need to be there,” he says.) The Warsaw summit is expected to give final approval to the rotational deployment of four multi-national battalions to Poland and the Baltic states. Eight new regional headquarters have also been created in NATO’s east, to oversee the activities of the new forces and to prepare for the deployment of larger ones in an emergency.

Larger, more visible exercises from the Baltic to the Black Seas have been a further part of implementing the Readiness Action Plan. Last year, NATO held a total of three hundred separate exercises. Anakonda-16 in Poland brought together forces from twenty-three nations (including five non-NATO allies, Ukraine among them) in June 2016.  With thirty-one thousand participants, it was the largest-ever alliance exercise in Eastern Europe.

Burden Sharing

All these efforts will be justly hailed at the Warsaw summit. Even so, the meeting will face a nagging question: Is Europe pulling its weight? U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration wants to quadruple funding for the U.S. European Reassurance Initiative, from $800 million to $3.4 billion in 2017. Yet for many Americans—foreign-policymakers included—the “reassurance” project seems increasingly one-sided. The president has called NATO allies “free riders,” and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said the alliance may become “obsolete.” In U.S. public commentary on NATO—and on the Warsaw summit—burden-sharing is once more a contentious topic.

Annoyance with Europe is easy to understand. In 2015, the median level of defense spending by non-U.S. NATO members was 1.18 percent of GDP, compared to 3.62 percent for the United States. To address this imbalance, the Wales summit set 2 percent of GDP as a target level for the military budgets of member-states. (In 2014 only four of them met this goal.) The leaders of the alliance further agreed at Wales that at least 20 percent of defense budgets should be dedicated to new equipment, so that increased spending actually increases capability. (In 2015, twenty members of the alliance failed to meet this standard.)

NATO is forced to focus on this issue now because European members of the alliance for years let economic growth outpace their contributions to the common defense. The end of the Cold War made it easy—and seemingly safe—to ignore military needs.  The global economic crisis of 2008, and sluggish growth thereafter, put further pressure on budgets. In France defense spending dropped more than 4 percent between 2010 and 2015; in Germany, more than 5 percent; in Britain, more than 6 percent; in Italy, by more than a third.  (Although Poland and the three Baltic states increased their budgets by an average of 40 percent in this period, they were lonely exceptions.)

The Ukraine crisis of 2014 began to reverse this trend, but the turnaround has been slow.  Alliance-wide, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, has estimated, the increase in spending will be only 1.5 percent. The impact of past cuts, particularly in troop numbers, remains severe. Since the Cold War, Germany has cut back its army by half. Others have gone further: the ground forces of European NATO as a whole are down 60 percent from the 1990s. No surprise, then, that some of the most important policy reversals have involved increased manpower. Poland now plans to double its army; Germany recently said it would add 11,400 military and civilian personnel.

The challenge for NATO leaders in Warsaw is to sustain pressure for more meaningful contributions, while recognizing the domestic realities of each member state. The alliance has struggled with this problem since its founding, but the imbalance has rarely been quite as stark as it is now. New benchmarks and new mechanisms urgently need discussion. (One recent suggestion is that NATO member parliaments formally endorse the 2 percent pledge.) To head off defeatism and back-biting, the alliance needs credible evidence that members accept the responsibilities of collective defense.)

Managing Tension

Whenever NATO rearms, it has to expect pushback from Moscow. Russia can test the alliance’s commitment to firmer new policies in various ways—through military countermeasures of its own, loud warnings that NATO is pushing Europe toward war, and offers and inducements that try to peel off the more nervous (or cynical) Western governments.

In the past two years, such efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates have had meager results. Efforts to divide the West have so far produced no give on sanctions and no readiness to let Moscow interpret the Minsk 2 agreement—the plan that is supposed to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine—by its own lights. Despite Europe’s surprising firmness on Ukraine, a new phase of Russian diplomacy is now at hand, and its aim is to slow down or reverse the alliance’s new military initiatives.

Russian officials regularly denounce Western exercises as excessive and provocative. “No threats in this part of the world whatsoever” justify what NATO is doing, according to foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. (This, even though many recent Russian exercises have been three times as big.) Putin has charged that NATO missile defense facilities in Romania and Poland threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent. (To this oft-made claim, he recently added a wild scenario in which the U.S. secretly replaces defensive interceptors with offensive cruise missiles. “I know how this is done,” he insisted.) Putin has also decried NATO’s “aggressive rhetoric and aggressive actions,” while declaring Russia “ready for dialogue.”

NATO governments know, of course, that it is Russia that increased its defense spending 100 percent over the past decade; that pulled out of the Europe-wide treaty on conventional forces (possibly violating the treaty on intermediate range missiles as well); that recently announced a three division build-up of forces on its western border; that has included simulated nuclear weapons use against NATO in its exercises; and that used force against Ukraine.

All the same, Moscow’s strategic combination of sharp elbows and appeals to reason seems to have made headway in some parts of Europe. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has warned of a renewed, Cold War-style division of Europe, proposed to invite Russia to rejoin the G8, and chided other Western governments for “warmongering.” The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, traveled to St. Petersburg in mid-June to meet with Putin and underscore Europe’s hope “to build bridges.”  At the same meeting the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, underscored his country’s interest in reviving trade.

Though criticized by many, such statements and meetings do not necessarily signal an unraveling of Western policy. As Ronald Reagan himself demonstrated, negotiations and ambitious arms control proposals can help legitimize a tough policy, showing doubters that every effort is being made to find alternatives to confrontation. NATO has made recent use of the same principle, holding the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in two years—and expressing regret afterward that the discussion showed how far apart the two sides remained. (An effort to convene a second meeting before the Warsaw summit apparently failed; it may be held later in July.) Meetings alone, however, have less value than a positive agenda—a set of initiatives that describe what the alliance wants Russia to do.  In the Reagan era, the so-called “zero option,” which required the dismantling of Soviet missiles aimed at Europe, played such a role. Other than the demand to get out of Ukraine, the West has no such initiatives on the table today.

Efforts to open separate channels to Russia do not by themselves show that policy is unraveling, but they do show the potential for it. At the Warsaw summit and after, one of NATO’s key challenges will be to make sure that diplomatic outreach to Moscow sustains support for alliance initiatives instead of undermining it. Well-managed dialogue should increase pressure on Russian to change course.

Back to Basics

“At the Warsaw summit and after, one of NATO’s key challenges will be to make sure that diplomatic outreach to Moscow sustains support for alliance initiatives instead of undermining it.”

NATO has reinvigorated itself in the past two years, and the Warsaw summit will celebrate this success. The alliance has bolstered the security of its own members and of Europe as a whole. But, in doing so, it has also re-discovered many of the problems that it faced in the past. In the ups and downs of the Cold War, NATO was rarely free of discord over how to share the burdens of collective defense. And it was rarely free of debate about how to keep tensions with Moscow from boiling over. These are the challenges the alliance will face at the Warsaw summit, and in all likelihood for years to come. For NATO, getting back to basics means coming to grips with its own internal divisions and with a tough, resourceful adversary.

China’s Pivot to Putin’s Friends

Alexander Gabuev

When Gennady Timchenko — a Russian oligarch and close friend of President Vladimir Putin — was appointed chair of the Russian-Chinese Business Council, an association of more than 100 Russian and Chinese corporate players involved in bilateral trade, the longtime businessman cemented his role as the Kremlin’s point-person on China.

That same year, during Putin’s May 2014 visit to Shanghai to sign a massive $400 billion gas deal, the Russian president introduced Timchenko to Chinese President Xi Jinping as “our man for China.” Since then, Timchenko has been at the forefront of Moscow’s push to shore up economic ties with China, primarily centered on energy deals.

But more than two years after the watershed energy deal, the Kremlin’s so-called “pivot to China” has stalled. Chinese firms have been reluctant about investing in new Russian energy deals following the fall in commodity prices in 2015 and China’s own economic slowdown has seen GDP growth drop from 10.3 percent in 2010 to 6.9 percent in 2015. This has led to growing disillusionment among the Russian elite who had hoped that China might replace Europe as its top energy customer, leaving the Kremlin’s turn to Asia hanging in the balance.

It’s against this bleak backdrop that Putin will travel to Beijing on June 25 for a three-day visit to meet with Xi and discuss the future of Beijing and Moscow’s relationship, where they are expected to talk about bilateral trade, how to deal with an erratic North Korea, and “One Belt, One Road” — a massive infrastructure project championed by Xi to revive to the old Silk Road trade route.

But beyond the pomp of Putin’s visit, a different aspect of the Russia-China relationship is unfolding on the sidelines. Timchenko and a small set of elites from Putin’s inner circle have been the recipients of a series of multibillion-dollar sweetheart deals from Beijing designed to keep Putin’s clique both happy and looking east. China doesn’t look ready to invest heavily in Russia anytime soon — Russian-Chinese bilateral trade plunged from $95.3 billion in 2014 by 28.6 percent to $63.6 billion in 2015, just 1.5 percent of China’s international trade that year. But Beijing has realized that winning allies among the small group of Putin’s friends is a good way to influence the Russian president’s judgment — and keep a secure source of cheap hydrocarbons and sophisticated weapons close-by.

Timchenko — with an estimated net worth of $13.4 billion largely made in the energy sector and one of the few men believed to have Putin’s ear — is a key player in this strategy deployed by Beijing. While Chinese companies have approached investing in Russia with a cold attitude, such as the stalled Udokan copper mine and Vankor oil field projects, Timchenko has been linked to energy deals in Russia with Beijing on very favorable terms.

One such deal involved SIBUR, the dominant player in Russia’s lucrative petrochemical sector and a company co-owned by Timchenko, and Sinopec, a Chinese state-owned company and the country’s largest oil refiner. In December 2015, SIBUR sold 10 percent of its shares for $1.3 billion to Sinopec, earning Timchenko and other shareholders a welcome payday. Investing in SIBUR was particularly strategic by Beijing when considering that the company’s shareholders include Leonid Mikhelson, whom Forbes called Russia’s richest man, and Kirill Shamalov, who is Putin’s son-in-law.

Timchenko and Mikhelson have also been involved in facilitating other China deals in Russia. In March 2016, the two oligarchs sold a 9.9 percent stake in Yamal LNG, a natural gas project in the Russian Arctic, to China’s Silk Road Fund, a $40 billion fund established in December 2014 to finance One Belt One Road, for $1.2 billion. Moreover, in April 2016, both oligarchs took out $12.1 billion in long-term loans for Yamal LNG from China’s two political banks, the Export-Import Bank of China and the China Development Bank, at very favorable interest rates.

Such complimentary deals raised eyebrows among Russia watchers. Sinopec and the China Development Bank have been at the heart of an anti-corruption campaign Xi launched in 2013 to clean up the image of Chinese firms, and have recently been very conservative about their overseas investments. This is even truer for minority stakes in energy projects, particularly after the collapse of oil prices. Moreover, Timchenko and Yamal LNG were included on the U.S. sanctions lists in March 2014 following the annexation of Crimea, making them risky business partners for a bank, as BNP Paribais, which was fined in July 2014 for violating U.S. sanctions on Cuba, Iran, and Sudan, can attest.

And while Beijing has pursued Putin’s inner circle to cement Russia’s turn to the east, Putin and Xi’s relationship has blossomed too. It’s well-known that Putin, a former KGB operative, attaches great importance to individual diplomacy, preferring to rely on a friendly personal relationship with other leaders to build stronger country-to-country ties. But with figures like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi no longer in office, and once-close links to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan destroyed by the ripple effects of the wars in Ukraine and Syria, Xi remains the only world leader of a major country that Putin can call a friend. Putin is arguably also the foreign leader with whom the Chinese President gets along with best. According to Russian and Chinese officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the two 63-year-old leaders’ became friends on Oct. 7, 2013, as they met on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Bali. It was Putin’s 61st birthday and the last meeting of the day for both leaders, which quickly turned into a private birthday party with celebratory toasts by Putin, Xi, and a few close aides.

But how far favorable business deals and birthday toasts can go in masking unfulfilled promises of win-win economic cooperation remains to be seen. Despite volumes of crude oil deliveries from Russia to China increasing by 33.7 percent, few benefits have been delivered. Russia has only managed to attract $560 million in foreign direct investment from China, less than 0.5 percent of China’s total outbound direct investment in 2015 and much less than the $4 billion in Chinese investment Russia received in 2013, before the Ukraine crisis. The biggest bright spot is that loans from China to Russia totaled $18 billion in 2015, making China the largest source of external financing that year, according to the Russian Central Bank. But even that is still a far cry from $261 billion that Russia was able to attract from the European Union and the United States in 2013, up until the Ukraine crisis.

Moscow is also divided on anchoring itself so firmly to China. The Kremlin has long seen Central Asia as its backyard, but China’s growing economic clout has dwarfed Russia’s in recent years. Beijing’s One Belt, One Road is undermining Russian influence in the region and edged out a Moscow-led economic project, the Eurasian Union, in the process. Beijing is certainly a much-needed partner for Moscow, but China is also a powerful competitor.

Despite this far from rosy picture of cooperation, Beijing’s cost-effective strategy of winning over the Russian president’s friends appears to be working, as Putin is believed to be discussing a long proposed free trade zone between Russia and China with Xi during his visit. The proposal has long been met with resistance in the Kremlin, but given Russia’s dire need for investment to mitigate its economic pain, Putin is looking more bullish on China than in the past. Whether Beijing can actually bring the Russian economy any financial relief is still uncertain, but in the meantime, Putin’s friends like Timchenko appear to be the major winners from the Kremlin’s “pivot to China.”

The Slow Death of the Syria Cease-Fire Brings a Hybrid War With Russia Closer

World Post

Alastair Crooke

BEIRUT — Gradually, the mist of ambiguity and confusion hanging over Syria is lifting a little. The landscape is sharpening into focus. With this improved visibility, we can view a little more clearly the course of action being prepared by Iran, Russia and the Syrian government.

Russia is emerging from an internal debate over whether the U.S. is truly interested in an entente or only in bloodying Russia’s nose. And what do we see? Skepticism. Russia is skeptical that NATO’s new missile shield in Poland and Romania, plus military exercises right up near its border, are purely defensive actions.

Iran, meanwhile, is studying the entrails of the nuclear agreement. As one well-informed commentator put it to me, Iran is “coldly lethal” at the gloating in the U.S. at having “put one over” Iran. Because, while Iran has duly taken actions that preclude it from weaponizing its nuclear program, it will not now gain the financial normalization that it had expected under the agreement.

It’s not a question of slow implementation — I’ve heard directly from banks in Europe that they’ve been visited by U.S. Treasury officials and warned in clear terms that any substantive trade cooperation with Iran is closed off. Iran is not being integrated into the financial system. U.S. sanctions remain in place, the Europeans have been told, and the U.S. will implement fines against those who contravene these sanctions. Financial institutions are fearful, particularly given the size of the fines that have been imposed — almost $9 billion for the French bank BNP a year ago.

In principle, sanctions have been lifted. But in practice, even though its sales of crude are reaching pre-sanctions levels, Iran has found that, financially, it remains substantially hobbled. America apparently achieved a double success: It circumscribed Iran’s nuclear program, and the U.S. Treasury has hollowed out the nuclear agreement’s financial quid pro quo, thus limiting Iran’s potential financial empowerment, which America’s Gulf allies so feared.

Some Iranian leaders feel cheated; some are livid. Others simply opine that the U.S. should never have been trusted in the first place.

And Damascus? It never believed that the recent cease-fire would be a genuine cessation of hostilities, and many ordinary Syrians now concur with their government, seeing it as just another American ruse. They are urging their government to get on with it — to liberate Aleppo. “Just do it” is the message for the Syrian government that I’ve heard on the streets. A sense of the West being deceitful is exacerbated by reports of American, German, French and possibly Belgian special forces establishing themselves in northern Syria.

All this infringement of Syrian sovereignty does not really seem temporary but rather the opposite: there are shades of Afghanistan, with all the “temporary” NATO bases. In any case, it is no exaggeration to say that skepticism about Western motives is in the air — especially after Ashton Carter, the U.S. defense secretary, raised the possibility of NATO entering the fray.

As Pat Lang, a former U.S. defense intelligence officer, wrote last week:

The Russians evidently thought they could make an honest deal with [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry [and President] Obama. Well, they were wrong. The U.S. supported jihadis associated with [Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria wing] … merely ‘pocketed’ the truce as an opportunity to re-fit, re-supply and re-position forces. The U.S. must have been complicit in this ruse. Perhaps the Russians have learned from this experience.

Lang goes on to note that during the “truce,” “the Turks, presumably with the agreement of the U.S., brought 6,000 men north out of [Syria via the] Turkish border … They trucked them around, and brought them through Hatay Province in Turkey to be sent back into Aleppo Province and to the city of Aleppo itself.” Reports in Russian media indicate that Nusra jihadists, who have continued to shell Syrian government forces during the “truce,” are being commanded directly by Turkish military advisers. And meanwhile, the U.S. supplied the opposition with about 3,000 tons of weapons during the cease-fire, according to I.H.S. Jane’s, a security research firm.

In brief, the cease-fire has failed. It was not observed. The U.S. made no real effortto separate the moderates from Nusra around Aleppo (as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has affirmed). Instead, the U.S. reportedly sought Nusra’s exemption from any Russian or Syrian attack. It reminds one of that old joke: “Oh Lord, preserve me from sin — but not just yet!” Or in other words, “preserve us from these dreadful jihadist terrorists, but not just yet, for Nusra is too useful a tool to lose.”

The cease-fire did not hasten any political solution, and Russia’s allies — Iran and Hezbollah — have already paid and will continue to pay a heavy price in terms of casualties for halting their momentum toward Aleppo. The opposition now has renewed vigor — and weapons.

It is hard to see the cease-fire holding value for Moscow much longer. The original Russian intention was to try to compel American cooperation, firstly in the war against jihadism and, more generally, to compel the U.S. and Europe to acknowledge that their own security interests intersect directly with those of Moscow and that this intersection plainly calls for partnership rather than confrontation.

The present situation in Syria neither facilitates this bigger objective nor the secondary one of defeating radical jihadism. Rather, it has led to calls in Russia for a less conciliatory approach to the U.S. and for the Kremlin to acknowledge that far from preparing for partnership, NATO is gearing up for a hybrid war against Russia.

It is also hard to see the cease-fire holding any continuing value for Tehran either. While the Iran nuclear agreement seemed to hold out the promise of bringing Iran back into the global financial system, such expectations seem now to be withering on the vine. As a result, Iran is likely to feel released from self-imposed limitations of their engagement in Syria and in other parts of the Middle East. Damascus, meanwhile, only very reluctantly agreed to leave its citizens in Aleppo in some semi-frozen limbo. Iran and Hezbollah were equally dubious.

All this suggests renewed military escalation this summer. Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably not wish to act before the European summit at the end of June. And neither would he wish Russia to figure largely as an issue in the U.S. presidential election. Yet he cannot ignore the pressures from those within Russia who insist that America is planning a hybrid war for which Russia is unprepared.

The Russia commentator Eric Zuesse encapsulated some of these concerns, writing that “actions speak louder than words.” Earlier this month, he notes, the U.S. refused to discuss with Russia its missile defense program:

Russia’s concern is that, if the ‘Ballistic Missile Defense’ or ‘Anti Ballistic Missile’ system, that the U.S. is now just starting to install on and near Russia’s borders, works, then the U.S. will be able to launch a surprise nuclear attack against Russia, and this system, which has been in development for decades and is technically called the ‘Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System,’ will annihilate the missiles that Russia launches in retaliation, which will then leave the Russian population with no retaliation at all.

Zuesse goes on to argue that the U.S. seems to be pursuing a new nuclear strategy, one that was put forward in 2006 in a Foreign Affairsarticle headlined “The Rise of Nuclear Primacy,” and scrapping the earlier policy of “mutually assured destruction.” The new strategy, Zuesse writes, argues “for a much bolder U.S. strategic policy against Russia, based upon what it argued was America’s technological superiority against Russia’s weaponry — and a possibly limited time-window in which to take advantage of it — before Russia catches up and the opportunity to do so is gone.”

So, what is going on here? Does the U.S. administration not see that pulling Russia into a debilitating Syrian quagmire by playing clever with a cease-fire that allows the insurgency to get the wind back in its sails is almost certain to lead to Russia and Iran increasing their military engagement? There is talk both in Russia and Iran of the need for a military surge to try to break the back of the conflict. Does the U.S. see that ultimately such a strategy might further entangle it — just as much as Russia and Iran — in the conflict? Does it understand Saudi Arabia’s intent to double down in Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political interest in continuing the Syrian crisis? Does it judge these very real dangers accurately?

No, I think not: the political calculus is different. More likely, the explanation relates to the presidential election campaign in the U.S. The Democratic Party, in brief, is striving to steal the Republican Party’s clothes. The latter holds the mantle of being credited as the safer pair of hands of the two, as far as America’s security is concerned. This has been a longstanding potential weakness for the Democrats, only too readily exploited by its electoral opponents. Now, perhaps the opportunity is there to steal this mantle from the Republicans.

All this hawkishness — the American shrug of the shoulders at making Iran feel cheated over the nuclear agreement; at Russia, Iran and Damascus seething that the Syria cease-fire was no more than a clever trap to halt their military momentum; at the psychological impact of NATO exercising on Russia’s borders; at the possible consequences to Obama’s refusal to discuss the ballistic defense system — all this is more likely about showing Democrat toughness and savvy in contrast to Donald Trump.

In short, the Democrats see the opportunity to cast themselves as tough and reliable and to transform foreign policy into an asset rather than their Achilles’ heel.

But if all this bullheadedness is nothing more than the Democratic Party espying an apparent weakness in the Trump campaign, is this foreign policy posturing meaningful? The answer is that it is not meaningless; it carries grave risks. Ostensibly this posture may appear clever in a domestic campaigning context, where Russia is widely viewed in a negative light. But externally, if the Syrian cease-fire comes to be viewed as nothing more than a cynical ploy by the U.S. to drag Russia deeper into the Syrian quagmire in order to cut Putin down to size, then what will likely follow is escalation. Hot months ahead in Syria. Russia will gradually reenter the conflict, and Iran and Iraq will likely increase their involvement as well.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after airstrikes in Idlib, Syria on June 12. (Abdurrahman Sayid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

There are those in the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf who would welcome such a heightened crisis, hoping that it would become so compellingly serious that no incoming U.S. president, of either hue, could avoid the call to do something upon taking office. In this way, the U.S. could find itself dragged into the maw of another unwinnable Middle Eastern war.

We should try to understand the wider dangers better, too. Baiting Russia, under the problematic rubric of countering Russian “aggression,” is very much in fashion now. But in Russia, there is an influential and substantial faction that has come to believe that the West is planning a devastating hybrid military and economic war against it. If this is not so, why is the West so intent on pushing Russia tight up into a corner? Simply to teach it deference? Psychologists warn us against such strategies, and Russia finally is reconfiguring its army (and more hesitantly, its economy) precisely to fight for its corner.

As another noted Russia commentator, John Helmer, noted on his blog on May 30, the new NATO missile installations in Eastern Europe “are hostile acts, just short of casus belli — a cause of war.” According to Reuters, Putin warned that Romania might soon “be in the cross hairs” — the new NATO missile installations there will force Russia “to carry out certain measures to ensure our security.”

“It will be the same case with Poland,” Putin added.

Did you hear that sound? That was the ratchet of war, which has just clicked up a slot or two.

SCO heralds winds of change in South Asian security


MK Bhadrakumar
May 27th, 2016
[Original Article]

Membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization will provide India and Pakistan a rare opportunity of co-habitation to kick-start a normalization process that eluded them for six decades. As a vista of unprecedented scale of interaction in security cooperation opens up, the two neighbors are likely to improve their ties

The foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) who met at Tashkent Tuesday recommended to the summit meeting of the grouping slated to be held on June 23 in the Uzbek capital the signing of a memorandum of understanding granting membership to India and Pakistan.

For all purposes, the process of inducting the two South Asian countries as SCO members has touched the finish line.It was in September 2014 that India formally applied for full membership. The SCO had granted ‘observer’ status to India and Pakistan ten years ago in 2005.

To be sure, Asian security and regional power dynamics is poised for a historic makeover. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. They bring in a staggering 1500 million population under SCO’s canopy.

With their induction, SCO territory reaches the waters of the Indian Ocean and the grouping stance akimbo as a compelling presence on the edges of the Persian Gulf. Suffice it to say, the SCO’s transformation as a security organization takes a big leap forward.

The SCO will take up Iran’s membership question as soon as the formalities of India and Pakistan’s induction are completed. Conceivably, by the end of the decade, Iran will also have joined the SCO as full member.

Traditionally, China focused on SCO’s activities in the economic sphere, but lately, it shares Russia’s interest in the grouping’s profile as a security organization. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the Tashkent meeting, “The SCO has become a paradigm of global and regional cooperation with great vitality and significant influence, and serves as a model of efficient cooperation by paying equal attention simultaneously to economic development and security cooperation.”

No doubt, growing tensions between China and the US play a part here. Wang can take immense satisfaction that the meeting in Tashkent adopted a communique voicing support for the Chinese stance in the South China Sea dispute.

Taking a swipe at Washington (and Tokyo), the SCO foreign ministers strongly opposed “outsiders’ interference” and attempts to “internationalize” the dispute.

This is the first time that SCO lined up to support China in its hour of need. There is poignancy insofar as China is the recipient here. The SCO support takes away some of the sting of the G-7 barbs voiced at the summit meeting in Japan. In geostrategic terms, SCO support has much greater relevance than G-7 beating distant drums.

The point is, SCO stance is a consensus that India too eventually comes to share. The draft memoranda adopted at Tashkent on Tuesday – with informal consultation and concurrence of the Indian government – commits New Delhi to mandatorily join the relevant conventions and internal documents that exist within the SCO framework.

In relation to South China Sea dispute, India too has been drifting away from the US-Indian Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean issued last year in New Delhi in January during the state visit by President Barack Obama.

The joint communique issued after the annual trilateral Russian-Indian-Chinese foreign-minister level meeting in Moscow two months ago decided to hold joint focused discussions later this year in regard of South China Sea situation.

Again, India held back from responding to recent American urgings for the two navies to undertake “joint patrols” in South China Sea, although Pentagon officials voiced confidence that India would join the bandwagon.

Equally, SCO’s rapid transformation as a security organization can be seen against the backdrop of the New Cold War stand-off between Russia and the US. The guarantee that India, Pakistan and Iran will definitely refuse to countenance deployment of US missile defense systems can only work to Russia’s advantage in maintaining the global strategic balance.

Russia and China are conscious of the imperative need to offer to Iran an enduring matrix (through SCO membership) that strengthens its wherewithal to retain its “strategic autonomy” vis-à-vis the West.

Indeed, Iran’s SCO membership also helps preserve the strategic balance in the Middle East where traditional US military presence is being steadily augmented with 3 NATO powers lately setting up military bases – France in the UAE, Britain in Bahrain and Turkey in Oman – and NATO too inserting as a provider of security and expanding its footprints through various partnership formats, including in Iraq.

In a fundamental sense, therefore, Russian-Chinese entente is injecting new verve and dynamism into SCO. At Tuesday’s ministerial in Tashkent, Wang underscored that China and Russia “maintain close strategic cooperation in international and regional issues, and have become important components of international stability”.

Now, that is a powerful articulation of the co-relation of forces in regional politics. Wang added that the SCO’s development and strengthening constitute “an important force for preserving peace”.

China is also pushing for acceleration of the “linking” of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and Beijing’s One Belt One Road project, as agreed upon last year in May by the presidents of Russia and China.

The big question for the moment, however, concerns another security front: What does the induction of India and Pakistan as full members of the SCO portend for the regional grouping’s new-found “pro-activism” or the two regional powers’ mutual relationship?

India-Pakistan relations are in doldrums and the prospects of meaningful dialogue between them remain uncertain. Will they carry their intractable, acrimonious differences and disputes into the SCO tent and impede the grouping’s functioning?

Or will they use the rare opportunity of co-habitation the SCO tent provides – and the vista of steady, institutionalized interactions that it opens up away from publicity – to kick-start a meaningful normalization process that eluded them so far in their tortuous 60-year history?

Cynics despair that India and Pakistan are simply incapable of the maturity expected from responsible nuclear powers. However, a good case can also be made with a contrarian prognosis.

If the “hereditary enmity” between France and Germany could be overcome and transformed into a “special relationship” by 1963, the idea of European Community had sowed the germane seeds.

The heart of the matter is that SCO compels India and Pakistan to cogitate, listen, while sitting around a table – or have a quiet word on the sidelines.

Apart from annual summit meetings, SCO mechanisms envisage frequent consultations at different levels involving heads of governments, foreign ministers, national security advisors, chiefs of intelligence and armed forces, security czars dealing with internal security, and so on.

SCO conducts joint military exercises to finesse and coordinate their operational strategies and share intelligence. To be sure, a vista of unprecedented scale of interaction in security cooperation will open up. It should not be surprising at all if, modestly put, the climate of India-Pakistan relations improves in a positive way.

Then, there are SCO’s regional projects for enhancing connectivity, strengthening energy security or fostering infrastructure development. It is entirely conceivable that India may at some point take a fresh look at China’s One Belt, One Road projects.

Much, clearly, lies in the womb of time, but the high probability is that India and Pakistan’s SCO membership will transform regional security in South Asia. Indeed, China and Russia are stakeholders in promoting such a process.

Here’s How to Make Ukraine’s Reforms Irreversible

April 23, 2016 BY HANNA HOPKO

Original article can be found here:

Atlantic Council




We live in a time of transformations: today, we decide which Ukraine our children will live in tomorrow. But a new Ukraine will be hard to achieve unless citizens with no connections to the old system take action and begin controlling the government and thinking long-term.

In 2013, Ukrainians protested to demonstrate that there was no way back to the Soviet Union; they stopped the Kremlin’s plan to drag Ukraine into the Customs Union. The Maidan proved that Ukraine is a European state with a thousand-year history, not a vassal of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian empire.

In 2014, Ukrainians fought for dignity. They ousted the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych and took the first steps to demolish the old power monopoly. But ultimately power was seized by those who had already squandered their chance to build a strong state immediately after the Orange Revolution. The Maidan activists lacked political experience, time, and the ambition to create a political force of their own; as a result, the post-Maidan parliament was formed by ad-hoc political projects that co-opted civil society activists as “new faces” that could connect the old-turned-new parties with the electorate. But new political brands did not bring new procedures, approaches, and rules to the political game. Business as usual prevailed.

In 2015, we laid the foundation for reforms to ensure that the country’s changes were irreversible and political revanchism impossible. We accomplished a lot: the international community declared Russia an aggressor state, the Rada adopted decommunization laws, and some bills targeting oligarchs (like the law on the gas market) were adopted. The database of real estate owners became open, the law on public broadcasting was adopted, and Russian propaganda was prohibited in Ukraine.

But without strong institutions and new professional cadres, the system is hard to change. We failed to implement judicial reforms, only imitated changes for the offices of the Prosecutor General and the Interior Ministry, and the reforms to Ukraine’s tax and customs administrations were largely cosmetic. Institutional reforms did begin at the parliament, but archaic Cabinet of Ministers regulations prolonged the red tape and impeded reforms. It remains to be seen whether the law on civil service will produce any tangible results.

Additionally, the ongoing struggle among Ukraine’s elites complicates the already difficult task of reform as Ukraine tries to gain full independence from Russia in the energy, military, information, and economic sectors.

The year 2016 will be like crossing the Rubicon. Will Ukraine get a visa-free regime with the EU? Will it be able to convince its partners to extend sanctions on Russia? Will there be progress in regaining Ukraine’s control over the Donbas and the Ukrainian-Russian border? Will stability be preserved?

To achieve those goals, Ukraine needs a team of mature politicians for whom the interests of the state stand above all. But the last two years have demonstrated that a national team is still a dream for the future. Professional and honest politicians who are keen on implementing reforms are not yet a majority even within their political parties. They cannot win over tight-knit corrupt businessmen and the oligarchs’ various nominees, all of whom continue their behind-the-scenes deals.

Recently I chatted with some fellow politicians during a break in a TV program at one of the national channels. They attempted to convince me that as the new parliamentary coalition is unstable and trust in the current parliament has been exhausted, the time is ripe for snap parliamentary elections. Only elections, they argued, will help new leaders ensure elite turnover.

Their personal interest is clear, but who can guarantee that a newly-elected parliament would be a better one? We can’t be certain of its higher professionalism, as there are no real political parties, the oligarchs continue to control the TV channels, populists are on the rise, and people’s apathy is growing due to disappointment and mistrust.

Ukraine’s new cabinet was formed on April 14, but this is not a government of reformers. Instead, it is one of loyalists, members of a narrow circle of trusted cadres who keep a monopoly on power.

As people’s dissatisfaction grows, the crisis is likely to deepen. It is high time to change these approaches and stop living by the old rules. Yes, politics requires compromises, but not a total eclipse of principles and values. Ukrainians want to see real changes, not pseudo-reforms that only increase frustration and heighten the protest mood among voters.

Putin thinks the Ukrainian political class still lacks defenders of the national interest and that he turned many into Russia allies. He anticipates that his agents will rock the boat and stir up anger through the skillful application of patriotic and populist rhetoric, and hopes that disunity and the inclination to find three hetmans among two Ukrainians will cause them to fail.

The current political crisis demonstrates that Ukrainians do not need Putin in order to quarrel with each other and waste this historical moment. Is it Putin’s fault that our political leaders perceive Ukraine to be their private company? Is it Putin’s fault that the Prosecutor General has not opened a single criminal case against his subordinates, the so-called “diamond prosecutors”? Did our heroes and patriots give their lives at the Maidan and in eastern Ukraine for this?

Ukrainians must get engaged; they must speak up and start controlling the government with an understanding that even under the best-case scenario, real changes and results will only be seen by their children. We should not succumb to sweet populist promises that pensions in Ukraine will grow to 500 euro the day after they come to power. It only takes five percent of a population to constitute a critical mass capable of changing a society. The challenge before us is to find and bring them together, and then to harness their energy and political will. That’s how an active minority wakes up a passive majority, and that’s what we’ve decided to do in Ukraine.

Together with a team of activists—many from the Euromaidan—as well as experts, entrepreneurs, and analysts, liberal reformers in parliament have begun developing a horizontal network of new leaders who will ensure civic support for reforms. In just two months, we have identified numerous regional activists who have joined the “Switch On” initiative and started searching for specific approaches to regional problems, such as the lack of competition in business, lack of transparency in the allocation of land by local councils, and lack of information about local budgets. Together with Rada deputies, these activists make unexpected visits to governors’ and mayors’ offices, to the cabinets of local deputies, and to the managers of communal enterprises to start face-to-face dialogues on how to turn the reform process around.

Only horizontal ties between us, rather than the old vertical patron-client connections with the oligarchs and other political “bosses,” can ensure the development of Ukraine’s civil society. We need a critical mass of active communities to guarantee the victory of a revolution of justice and effective implementation of the laws. We need to involve citizens to develop a mature political force, not just another one-day political brand to win the next elections. Let’s speak up!

Hanna Hopko is a member of Ukraine’s parliament and chair of its foreign affairs committee.


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