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NATO to Re-Establish Contact With Russia's Military, Top Military General Says

NATO’s military leaders intend to re-establish contact with their Russian counterparts, after months of tension over the crisis in Ukraine, NATO’s top military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove said Thursday.

“We have talked an awful lot about how we re-establish comm [communication] and the fact that the communication with our senior military interlocutors in Russia is important,” Breedlove told a news conference.

He said he had spoken to General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, even after Russian troops moved in to Ukraine’s Crimea region last year.

“We are going to re-establish that, we have talked among several of us senior military leaders how we will do that … but yes, we are going to re-establish communication with Valery (Gerasimov),” he said (Source: The Moscow Times).

Bomb explodes near Turkish delegation in Somalia day before president's visit

A suicide car bomb exploded at the gate of a Mogadishu hotel where Turkish delegates were meeting on Thursday, a day ahead of a visit by their President Tayyip Erdogan to the Somali capital, police said. At least two police officers were killed but none of the Turkish delegates were wounded in the attack which was claimed by Islamist al Shabaab rebels, said officials.  Erdogan would go ahead with his trip, a source at his office in Ankara told Reuters. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said an investigation was under way to see if the delegation was deliberately targeted. Al Shabaab, which has carried out attacks across east Africa including a 2013 raid on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed 67, claimed responsibility for the assault but did not mention the Turkish delegation or Erdogan. “We attacked (the) hotel and killed several of the Somali police officers who were meeting there,” al Shabaab’s military operation spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, told Reuters.  A Reuters witness saw two police officers lying dead in front of the destroyed gate, and what appeared to be the mangled body of the suicide bomber. Erdogan became the first non-African leader to visit war-torn Somalia in nearly 20 years when he traveled there in 2011, as Turkey’s prime minister (Source: Yahoo! News).

Russia's Lawmakers Zero In on Foreign Undesirables

Russia’s parliament has given preliminary approval to a bill that would prohibit the activities of so-called “undesirable” foreign companies and organizations in Russia, should they be deemed to pose a threat to the state.

The bill, adopted in the first reading Monday, targets any foreign entity seen as “presenting a threat to the defense capability or security of the state, or to public order, or to the health of population,” according to the text of the bill released by the State Duma.

Those groups may be declared “undesirable on the territory of the Russian Federation,” the bill says, adding that the purpose of the move would be to protect, among other aspects, the “morality” of the nation.

Observers have noted that the bill could provide grounds for the prohibition of any foreign company or organization that officials see as unfriendly.

“If this bill is signed into law, this will be a sign that the state can put pressure on any organization it wants,” said Nikolai Petrov, a professor of political science at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “The bill is not about devising a list of organizations as such. It simply shows that the state will be able to make decisions about these organizations’ operations in Russia.”

Alexander Tarnavsky, one of the authors of the bill and a member of the party A Just Russia, told the TASS news agency that the proposed legislation aimed to “establish that there are foreign organizations that are unfriendly to Russia” (Source: The Moscow Times).

Europe Considers Surveillance Expansion After Deadly Attacks

In an atmosphere of fear after the deadly attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, officials in the European Union are proposing an array of anti-terror initiatives, including new surveillance laws that would give security agencies greater access to personal data. A key measure under consideration is a data-retention law which would replace one that the EU’s highest court struck down last year for infringing on fundamental rights. The push for extra surveillance comes as police authorities in Europe warn of imminent attacks by extremists. An anti-Islam march in Germany and a counter-rally for tolerance have been called off after alleged threats of violence, heavily armed police and special forces are guarding Jewish schools as well as news organizations across northern Europe, and the EU has raised its terror alert status to “yellow” – the third-highest level. Merkel has called for the EU to accelerate passage of a new law that would authorize the collection and storage of vast amounts of personal data, though she hasn’t released details of her plan. Last spring, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Data Retention Directive, approved in 2006, was invalid because it constituted “suspicionless mass surveillance” which the court considered disproportionate and in violation of fundamental rights. The directive had required all EU states to adopt national legislation mandating that communication companies store the private data of EU citizens for at least six months but no more than 24 months. Police and security agencies could request access to Internet Protocol addresses as well as the time every email, phone call or text message was sent or received; court approval was required for law enforcement authorities to access the data. Many observers thought the court ruling spelled the end for any kind of data-retention law in the EU—until the Charlie Hebdo attack (Source: The Intercept).

Russia and Iran sign military cooperation deal

Iran and Russia signed an agreement Tuesday to expand military ties in a visit to Tehran by the Russian defense minister. Sergei Shoigu, in remarks carried by Russian news agencies, said Moscow wants to develop a “long-term and multifaceted” military relationship with Iran. He said that the new agreement includes expanded counter-terrorism cooperation, exchanges of military personnel for training purposes and an understanding for each country’s navy to more frequently use the other’s ports. Iran’s Defense Minister Hussain Dehghan urged greater cooperation as a means of opposing American ambitions in the region. Moscow and Tehran have staunchly supported Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout Syria’s civil war, while Washington advocates regime change and supports rebel groups. “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the United States through cooperation, synergy and activating strategic potential capacities,” Dehghan said. “As two neighbors, Iran and Russia have common viewpoints toward political, regional and global issues.” Russia has maintained friendly ties with Iran and has built its first nuclear power plant. Last fall, it signed a deal to build two more reactors in Iran (Source: Gulf News).

Russian forces, equipment enter Ukraine, PM says

Russian military forces and equipment have entered Ukraine, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says, according to a report from Ukraine’s state-run media on Monday. “I have just spoken with the national defense and security council secretary. Ukrainian military intelligence confirm the fact military personnel and equipment have been transferred from Russia to Ukraine,” the prime minister is quoted as saying.  He continued: “Tanks, GRAD multiple rocket systems, BUK and SMERCH systems, radio electronic intelligence systems are not sold at local Donetsk street markets. Only the Russian army and Defense Ministry have them.” The prime minister’s spokeswoman, Olga Lappo, confirmed to CNN the quotes attributed to Yatsenyuk are accurate.  Russian officials could not be immediately reached for a response.  The report came a day after protesters gathered at Kiev’s Independence Square to march for peace, Yatsenyuk and Ukraine’s President were among those who attended the rally, which had as its slogan, “I am Volnovakha,” in memory of the 13 passengers who died near the city of Volnovakha after their bus was hit by artillery fire on January 13 (Source: CNN).

EU reaches out to Arab world to combat terrorism

Following Monday’s meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, the bloc’s foreign policy coordinator, Federica Mogherini (pictured above, right), said the EU planned to move quickly to implement measures to increase cooperation with countries in the Arab world, as well as Turkey. “We are looking at specific projects to launch in the coming weeks with some specific countries to increase the level of cooperation on counter-terrorism, and I would name Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and the Gulf countries,” Mogherini told a press conference. Following a meeting with visiting Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (above, left), Mogherini said that among other things, the EU planned to send “security attachés” to the blocs delegations in countries in the Muslim world to work to develop anti-terror strategies. For his part, Arabi expressed a willingness to cooperate to combat terrorism, although he did say there may be reservations from some governments, in part due to their frustration over EU criticism of the state of human rights in their countries. Another major thrust of the new EU initiative is to take steps to cut off the terrorist networks’ sources of funding. She said the EU would soon meet with experts on this aspect of counter-terrorism from several countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada and Switzerland (Source: Deutsche Welle).

Why was Turkey present in Paris but not on Hrant Dink’s march?

If I had not read Hayko Bağdat’s article last week in daily Taraf, I would not have realized that there are more similarities  than meet the eye between the Charlie Hebdo killings and the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Their common point is not limited to both incidents being attacks on freedom of expression. In his article, Bağdat recalled the first testimony of Ogün Samast, who shot Dink in front of his newspaper Agos in January 2007. Samast told the police that he first went up the stairs to meet Dink, but could not get in as he was told he had to make an appointment. “I then called Yasin Hayal [who is charged with being the instigator of the assassination]. I thought of going back to the newspaper and killing other Armenians. But Yasin said ‘there is no need,’” he said. In other words, Dink’s colleagues at Agos could have faced a similar tragedy to that of Charlie Hebdo, where 10 journalists and two policemen were killed on Jan. 7. As was the case with the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, which was followed by a march of solidarity by millions, a similar yet unexpected phenomenon took place in Turkey, as Dink’s funeral turned into a march attended by thousands carrying banners reading “We are all Hrant Dink; we are all Armenian.” Now, each year, the day of his murder is marked by a march.  Yesterday, on the eighth anniversary of Dink’s death, mourners marched to commemorate him. Unfortunately, the event was not attended by any officials. In contrast, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made the right move and attended the solidarity march in Paris on Jan. 11. In fact, French Ambassador to Turkey Laurent Bili told me that Davutoğlu proposed to make the trip to Paris to present his condolences in person, even before a decision was made to organize a march (Source: Hurriyet Daily News).

What to do about Russia's belligerence

Last year was difficult for nuclear disarmament. Russia’s move to annex Crimea, and the thinly veiled invasion in the Eastern Ukraine that followed, revived old worries about stability in Europe and fears of a return to the confrontation that the end of the Cold War seemed to have left firmly in the past. As these crises unfolded, the United States formally accused Russia of violating the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF (which played a key role in bringing the Cold War to an end) by testing a ground-launched cruise missile that could, if deployed, have most European countries within its range. Although news of the treaty violation appeared long before the current crisis put Ukraine on the map—and is a completely unrelated development—it is quite understandable that many people took it to mean that Russia fully intends to reassert itself as a country that the West has to reckon with militarily as well as politically.

The logic behind Russia’s actions seems to have escaped everyone outside of the Kremlin walls, but their effect was nonetheless quite real: nuclear weapons are back in the conversation about European security. The Ukrainian crisis, in fact, has had a rather strong nuclear dimension from the very beginning. Russia pointedly did not shy away from reminding the world that it is the only country that could turn the United States “into a radioactive ash” and President Vladimir Putin painted the entire crisis as part of the Western effort to tear out the nuclear teeth and claws of the Russian bear.

Although the West’s response to Russia’s actions was fairly resolute, measures that could have provoked a military escalation of the conflict were carefully avoided, as no one in the West wanted to test whether the Kremlin was willing to be the actual madman from the madman theory of nuclear deterrence that dates back to President Richard Nixon’s ploy to convince the North Vietnamese that he was just crazy enough to push the nuclear button. It helped that Ukraine is not a member of NATO and that the terms of the Budapest memorandum that gave Ukraine assurances of territorial integrity are somewhat vague. But a critical question remained unresolved: What if Russia would keep using its nuclear cover to meddle in other “near abroad” countries, such as Estonia, which has a large Russian-speaking population?

NATO insists that its Article V mutual defense guarantee is as strong as ever, but it is possible to imagine scenarios in which a Russian nuclear threat, even if implicit, would give pause to quite a few countries. Should Russia start deploying nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles that could hold European capitals at risk, that pause might become significantly longer.

As history is known to repeat itself, NATO has reached for solutions that seem to have worked in the past—strengthening the military structure of the alliance and boosting the role of nuclear weapons. Although NATO is not yet at the point of moving nuclear weapons into the territory of its Eastern members, in October 2014 Polish aircraft did participate in a nuclear exercise in Italy, and nuclear-capable bombers are now part of the NATO temporary rotational force in the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania. Discussing US concerns about the INF treaty, a Pentagon representative suggested that the United States could consider deployment of its own intermediate-range missiles in Europe should Russia refuse to comply with the treaty limits. As documented by Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, Europe is already in a cycle of military deployments that involve a lot of nuclear-capable, if not yet nuclear-weapon-carrying, systems.

Not only is this cycle dangerous, it is also unnecessary and counterproductive. The challenge to European security posed by Russia’s belligerence is not, in fact, military in nature. The main reason Russia was able to annex Crimea and create havoc in Eastern Ukraine was not a lack of military assistance to Ukraine or the vague language of the Budapest memorandum. Rather, Russia was able to take advantage of a weak state at a moment of severe political crisis and to exploit the discontent created by decades of bad government. It may be too late for Ukraine, but future crises of this kind would be most reliably averted by strengthening governance and making sure that citizens have effective, legitimate ways to deal with their grievances. The experience of Eastern Ukraine, in fact, showed just that: The “little green men”—armed men in uniform without insignia—failed to take hold in the regions where citizens had some trust in the local authorities.

The nuclear dimension of the crisis is even more important. Although it may seem intuitively clear that it would take nuclear weapons to confront a belligerent nuclear-armed power, one cannot help but notice that so far only Russia has benefited from the fact that the danger of nuclear escalation, however small, was always present in the background. The situation would be quite different if there were a strong international norm against bringing nuclear weapons into a dispute in Europe (and not just in Europe, but that is a subject for another column). Of course, such a norm is difficult to establish and impossible to enforce, but that does not mean that it is not a worthwhile goal. The Kremlin’s current confidence in its coercive power rests in no small part on the notion that nuclear weapons have a legitimate role in conflict management—and on the seemingly widespread acceptance of this role. Taking nuclear weapons out of Europe, literally as well as symbolically, would erode this power probably more than anything else (Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).

Obama and Cameron’s ‘solutions’ for cybersecurity will make the internet worse

The current state of the US and UK governments’ ass-backwards approach to cybersecurity was on full display this week – culminating with British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama meeting to discuss the issue at the White House on Friday. When it comes to cybersecurity, it seems the UK and US want to embrace every crazy idea except what we know actually works. The UK’s Cameron suggested earlier in the week he wants to outlaw certain forms of encryption, which could potentially lead to some of the world’s most popular messaging apps (like iMessage and WhatsApp) being banned in the UK. That speech had been ridiculed from all angles for the past few days, with various experts labeling it a nightmare for Internet security – on par with authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China – and economically devastating for the British information technology industry. Meanwhile, the White House has proposed a huge expansion of penalties under the highly-controversial law that was used to prosecute Reddit co-founder and privacy rights advocate Aaron Swartz. If passed, the administration’s proposal could further criminalize mundane Internet activity – for example, potentially allowing for a ten-year jail sentence for sharing your HBO GO password – all to supposedly target foreign hackers that the law would likely never reach. Less than 24 hours before Cameron-Obama the meeting, the Guardian published a secret report based on previously unreleased Snowden documents showing that the US government is fully aware that encryption is vital for security, and that the government risked leaving themselves vulnerable if they didn’t start implementing it on their own systems quicker (Source: The Guardian).