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New Push by Russia to Promote Syria Peace Talks Unlikely to Bear Fruit

Fresh Russian efforts to encourage Syrian peace talks are unlikely to make progress because Moscow rejects opposition and Western calls for the swift departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Moscow has long-supported Assad, including with arms supplies for Syria, but he has become a more important ally for Russia since the Arab Spring protests toppled leaders in the Middle East, some of whom had close ties with Moscow. With its influence in the Middle East weakened and relationship with the West under increasing strain over the conflict in Ukraine, Moscow is trying to restart Syria talks that collapsed in Geneva in February. Russia says the rise of Islamic State militants, who control large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, has made it urgent to unite all forces against them. But Western diplomats say Moscow is not offering any new solutions. Moscow has invited Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to visit this week after a similar trip by a former Syrian opposition chief earlier this month. “It is important that constructive Syrian opposition forces restart political dialogue with official [representatives of] Damascus in the face of dangerous challenges posed by international terrorism,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Monday, according to the Interfax news agency. Russia says cooperating with Damascus is indispensable for fighting “terrorists” on the ground. The U.S. refused to cooperate with Assad in a campaign of U.S.-led strikes on Islamic State and other groups that started in September (Source: The Moscow Times).

France Suspends Delivery of Warship to Russia

French President François Hollande suspended the delivery of a powerful warship to Russia, a move that risks deepening tensions with the Kremlin over its incursions into Ukraine. France had long threatened to delay the delivery of two Mistral-class carriers because of Moscow’s support of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. More than a week after France missed the deadline to deliver the first of the two ships, however, Mr. Hollande on Tuesday took the formal step of indefinitely suspending the handover. “The current situation in the east of Ukraine still doesn’t allow for the delivery,” Mr. Hollande’s office said in a statement. With the decision, Paris is seeking to strike a delicate balance: keeping the contract with Russia alive while reassuring its allies—particularly former Soviet states in Eastern Europe. On Tuesday, Mr. Hollande dispatched his defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to Warsaw, where he personally reassured his Polish counterpart, Tomasz Siemoniak, that France was suspending the Mistral delivery. The French defense minister also announced plans to deploy a unit of armed vehicles in the coming weeks to conduct exercises in Poland. “I informed Tomasz Siemoniak of France’s determination to remain at the side of Poland and our allies in facing the present threats to their security,” said Mr. Le Drian. In suspending the delivery, Mr. Hollande is thrusting France into what officials say is likely to become a protracted standoff with Moscow.  If Paris ultimately cancels the project, France will be forced to reimburse Russia for the ships at a time when Mr. Hollande’s government is cash-strapped (Source: The Wall Street Journal).

Why Germany's Angela Merkel is saying farewell to Ostpolitik

One thing we know for sure about Angela Merkel: she takes time to ponder her decisions and she weighs her words carefully. So the speech the German chancellor gave in Australia, a few days after Vladimir Putin stormed out of the G20, may go down as a major shift in European geopolitics. In a nutshell: Germany seems to be closing down Ostpolitik, the policy that has driven much of its diplomacy for decades. This has potentially huge repercussions that may shift the power games in Europe. Putin’s strong network of “Russland Versteher”, people who “understand” and side with Russia in Germany, will now be severely put to the test. Other European countries will be paying close attention to how this change in German-Russian relations unfolds. It is also a testimony to the importance of the German-US relationship, which the Obama administration is clearly relying on in its dealings with Russia’s revisionism of the post-Cold war order. It is worth listening to Merkel’s Sydney speech. In a few swift sentences, she cast the Putin regime not just as a nuisance in a nasty regional rivalry, but as a threat to the very heart of European wellbeing. Merkel is navigating a German-Russian relationship in which business weighs heavily. This is why her role in promoting sanctions has been essential in swaying Europe toward a more unified reaction to the Ukrainian crisis. Germany is Russia’s number one economic partner in Europe. Many expect Putin to describe any measure taken against Russia as submission to what he calls US “diktats”, well aware that the Snowden revelations have reignited anti-US sentiment in Germany (Source: The Guardian).

NATO's Rapid Response Strategy to Counter Russia Begins to Take Shape

American soldiers from the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division will rotate to locations throughout Poland and the Baltics until at least the end of 2015 to reassure U.S. allies on edge because of recent Russian incursions into Ukraine, according to the top commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told reporters at the Pentagon via teleconference that the rotations of about 300 soldiers at a time through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia could continue into 2016. The troops will be part of a rapid-response force announced by NATO in August to quickly react to possible Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. According to the New York Times, the alliance plans to create a force of some 4,000 troops capable of quickly deploying to Eastern Europe, where armaments and other supplies would be prepositioned. Hodges’s comments came on the same day that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that his country would hold a referendum at the end of the decade on whether to try to join the alliance. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned that NATO membership for Ukraine would be unacceptable to Moscow. We have worked out an intense plan for the next six years, so that the country meets the criteria to join the EU and to join NATO,” Poroshenko said in Kiev, according to Bloomberg. “And only then the Ukrainian people will decide on joining or not joining, in a referendum.” Hodges’s comments appear to provide concrete new details about how the NATO rapid-response team would operate (Source: Foreign Policy).

Turkey and Iraq turn over new leaf in relationship

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Baghdad last week, the first by a Turkish prime minister since 2011, has prepared the ground for improved relations between the two countries following a period of tension under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Davutoglu’s visit also comes shortly after the ice-breaking visit to Ankara by Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in early November. The two countries are trying to pick up from where they left off a year ago, when Davutoglu, who was foreign minister at the time, visited Baghdad in an attempt to improve ties. Relations, however, remained tense as Maliki continued to accuse Turkey of agitating the country’s minority Sunnis, and contributing to Iraq’s division by finalizing separate energy deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Ankara, in turn, accused Maliki of discriminating against Iraq’s Sunni minority and argued this had also spawned radical Sunni groups like the Islamic State (IS). Davutoglu repeated this accusation just before flying to Baghdad on Nov. 20. Pointing out that the central government had lost control of 35% to 40% of Iraqi territory to IS, he said this would not have happened if Sunni politicians had been included from the political process after the US withdrawal in 2011. “We told Maliki not to exclude Sunnis, to fulfill his promises to Kurds and keep Turkmen and different Shiite groups in the political system,” Davutoglu told the state broadcasting channel TRT (Source: Al-Monitor).

The West Needs a New Strategy for Pakistan

A new report by the German Marshall Fund and the Swedish Defense Research Agency argues that the United States and Europe should adopt a fresh approach to Pakistan as the decade-plus conflict in Afghanistan winds down. We now need a policy that focuses squarely on Pakistan rather than one in which that pivotal country is treated as an adjunct of a policy towards Afghanistan. As Western forces depart the region, violent extremism engulfs the Middle East, China and India assert their growing regional influence, and Pakistan’s internal instabilities mount, a new situation in the region requires a new approach. Broadly, the report’s co-authors — Dhruva Jaishankar, Andrew Small, John Rydqvist, and myself — argue that the Western allies need an economic strategy to invest in Pakistan’s potential as an emerging market alongside a security strategy that pays more attention to the country’s alarming nuclear weapons buildup. The transatlantic allies, which are Pakistan’s major donors and important trading partners, need to more robustly engage with civil society and civilian institutions in Pakistan as part of a long-term strategy to tilt the civil-military balance in a healthier direction. We also need a more coordinated approach to counter-terrorism cooperation that leverages a growing realization within Pakistan — including within the security services — that violent extremism is more of a threat to the Pakistani state itself than to its neighbors and the wider world. The report makes a set of policy recommendations for the transatlantic community in four key areas: economic development, civil-military relations and governance, nuclear proliferation, and counter-terrorism (Source: Foreign Policy).

Turkey offers ‘private company’ solution for Cyprus drilling tension

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has proposed a yet-to-be-founded private company continues oil and gas drilling activities in the Mediterranean until a resolution can be found for the decades-long Cyprus issue. Both the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Greek Cypriot administration have the right to conduct oil search activities, Çavuşoğlu said late on Nov. 24. He underlined, however, that Ankara is against unilateral searches by the Greek Cypriot side while peace talks between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots are on the table. The UN-led negotiations between the two sides on the divided island of Cyprus resumed after a two-year pause in February 2013. However, the Greek-Cypriot administration suspended talks over the divided island on Oct. 7, after Turkey sent a ship to the waters off the coast of Cyprus for oil and gas exploration. “When they drill, we send a ship,” Çavuşoğlu was quoted as saying by the state-run Anadolu Agency, while responding to questions from lawmakers before Parliament’s Planning and Budget Commission.  “If they stop it, we will also stop it. Now, we have new proposals. Moreover, we have made this offer: since the states want to be counter to each other until a resolution is reached, then let a private company be founded and perform searches,” Çavuşoğlu said. Turkish Foreign Ministry officials, approached by Hürriyet Daily News on Nov. 25, were not yet available to elaborate on Çavuşoğlu’s proposal. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Turkey “would never allow” Greek Cypriots to turn the gas into “their monopoly” (Source: Hurriyet Daily News).

Germany's Social Democrats and its 'Russia sympathizers'

“The annexation of Crimea must be retroactively arranged under international law so that it’s acceptable for everyone,” former Brandenburg State Premier Matthias Platzeck, a Social Democrat, recently said in an interview. Politicians from other parties were indignant, his own party surprised at the remark. They saw Platzeck’s statement as a demand to legalize the Russian annexation of the peninsula. In a TV talk show, Platzeck, chairman of the German-Russian Forum business lobby, later tried to explain, calling it a misunderstanding. “I tried to formulate an issue in one sentence,” he said. “I’ve said it slightly differently a dozen times before, and again a dozen times afterwards. This sentence was too compacted, it’s misleading.” Apparently satisfied with his explanation, the audience applauded. Perhaps the people agreed with Platzeck’s plea to pursue a more matter-of-fact approach despite resentment over Russia’s annexation. That’s how the “Frankfurter Rundschau” daily interpreted the incident, entitling an editorial comment “Russia sympathizers have the authority.” The caption reflects the presumption that many Germans understand the Russian position, at least partially. In that case, the country’s Social Democrats, for one, stand for a prevalent way of thinking in Germany. President Vladimir Putin’s approach to the Crimean issue is “completely understandable,” former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt declared earlier this year. Gerhard Schröder, also a former German chancellor, has declined to publicly comment on his personal friend Putin’s politics (Source: Deutsche Welle).

Germany's Merkel hits diplomatic dead-end with Putin

After nine months of non-stop German diplomacy to defuse the crisis in Ukraine, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided in mid-November that a change of tack was needed. Ahead of a summit of G20 leaders in Australia, Merkel resolved to confront Vladimir Putin alone, without the usual pack of interpreters and aides. Instead of challenging him on what she saw as a string of broken promises, she would ask the Russian president to spell out exactly what he wanted in Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites the Kremlin had started bombarding with propaganda. On Nov. 15 at 10 p.m., a world away from the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine, the two met on the eighth floor of the Brisbane Hilton. The meeting did not go as hoped. For nearly four hours, Merkel — joined around midnight by new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker — tried to get the former KGB agent, a fluent German speaker, to let down his guard and clearly state his intentions. But all the chancellor got from Putin, officials briefed on the conversation told Reuters, were the same denials and dodges she had been hearing for months. “He radiated coldness,” one official said of the encounter. “Putin has dug himself in and he can’t get out.” The meeting in Brisbane, and a separate one in Milan one month before — where Putin made promises about Russian behavior in eastern Ukraine that German officials say were broken within days — pushed frustration levels in Berlin to new heights. Merkel had hit a diplomatic dead-end with Putin (Source: Reuters).

Russia's treatment of Crimean Tatars echoes mistakes made by Soviets

The gravest ethnic and political conflict in Russia today is not to be found in Chechnya nor in the xenophobic capitals of Moscow and St Petersburg. Rather, it stalks the newly acquired peninsula of Crimea and is bound up with the fate of the Crimean Tatars. It became clear soon after the sudden annexation of Crimea in March that modern Russia does not possess either the institutions or the tools to integrate an ethnic group with a strong sense of its own identity and a traumatic history. The usual methods employed by the Kremlin – bribery, intimidation and displacement – will only aggravate the conflict. The Crimean Tatars are the ancient, native inhabitants of Crimea. They absorbed a great many of the peninsula’s different peoples and had their own state, the Crimean Khanate, for more than 300 years from the middle of the 15th to the end of the 18th centuries. Catherine the Great then annexed Crimea to the Russian empire but the Tatars hung on to their culture, language and religion – Sunni Islam. In 1944, Stalin ordered that all 191,000 of them, all 47,000 families, be exiled to Central Asia. In 1954, Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, but in March of this year Putin returned Crimea to Russia – despite the many pledges to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity inscribed in Russia’s international treaties and agreements. Along with Crimea came the Tatars, who were surprised to find that they were part of Russia (once more). The hostility of most Crimean Tatars towards the idea of union with Russia caused a serious conflict with the pro-Moscow authorities (Source: The Guardian).