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Ukraine Crisis Spurs Reversal in Germany-Russia Ties

Three days after the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin for at least the 30th time since the Ukraine crisis erupted. She had a blunt message, according to people briefed on the phone conversation: Call me if you have progress to report in defusing the conflict. That was July 20. The two leaders haven’t spoken since. The silence marks a breach in perhaps the most important relationship in European geopolitics, illustrating the daunting challenges facing the West in trying to calm the crisis in Ukraine. More broadly, the frayed relationship between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin shows the disintegration of a decadeslong effort by both Germany and Russia to bind the World War II adversaries to each other. Mr. Putin, in particular, appears to have given up, for now, on his yearslong project of nurturing Germany into the role of Russia’s closest European partner, illustrating the increasing degree of international isolation he seems prepared to accept. Ms. Merkel’s well of patience with Mr. Putin finally ran dry in the aftermath of the Flight 17 disaster, German officials say, as promises by the Russian president to lean on the rebels to improve the situation at the crash site failed to change things on the ground. Departing from past efforts to avoid a quick escalation of the West’s response, Ms. Merkel threw her weight behind sanctions targeting swaths of the Russian economy despite doubts in Berlin over their efficacy (Source: The Wall Street Journalhttp://on.wsj.com/1ocYpPR).

Russians hold key posts with Ukraine separatists

Russians appear to be calling the shots among the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Men from Moscow occupy many of the key positions in the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. No, Alexander Borodai didn’t flee. The “prime minister” of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic was in Moscow on business and will “return soon,” a representative of the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine told the news agency Interfax. Borodai became known to the world in the middle of July, when he negotiated access to the MH17 crash site and the transport of the victims’ remains out of separatist-controlled territory. Moscow is Borodai’s actual home. The 42-year-old worked there as a political consultant before he became the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Borodai is considered a close confidant of another Russian called Strelkov, but whose real name is Igor Girkin. He also has a Moscow address. The 43-year-old declared himself defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. In interviews, Girkin has said that he formerly was an agent with the FSB, Russia’s intelligence service, formerly the KGB. Borodai and Girkin are not the only Russians among the leadership of the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. At the beginning of July, Marat Bashirov became the new prime minister of the People’s Republic of Luhansk. The 50-year-old manager and lobbyist from Moscow is considered an expert in “strategic communications with state organs” (Source: Deutsche Wellehttp://dw.de/p/1Cmc8).

What a Russian Pivot East Might Mean For Japan

There is the counter-argument that Japan makes an excellent customer for potential Russian energy exports. Yes, Japan is a large and developed market with a huge appetite for energy imports, but it is also firmly placed in Washington’s orbit of influence, something Japan again affirmed on Monday. And Japan will not be a growth market for Russian energy for long: Tokyo is seeking multiple energy deals in Southeast Asia and Latin America to meet its new energy demands after shutting down its nuclear reactors. Additionally, Japan’s demographic problems mean that even if Russia were able to secure a substantial portion of Japanese energy demand, it could not depend on growth in Japan without significantly undercutting new (and cheaper) natural gas imports from places like the U.S. and Australia. While the resolution of their shared islands dispute and potential deals for natural gas are enticing for both countries, their larger strategic interests are still quite divergent. A normalizing Japanese military staunchly allied with the U.S. is not a partner Russia can trust over the long-term, if it seeks to shift its focus toward Eastern markets. Russia may also feel that it has already made its strategic decision in the region by signing its natural gas deal with China, which has a larger market and is also integrated with other Russian client states in Central Asia. Even with the low probability of this scenario unfolding following current events in Ukraine, the fact that Russia and Japan have reacted so quickly and negatively to each other is indicative of the underlying realities in East Asia. Given Japan’s current alliances, its own increased military posture, and its stance against China, it will be difficult to avoid tensions with Russia should it choose to even minimally increase its security profile in the region (Source: The Diplomathttp://goo.gl/fXuNgf).

Does This Soldier’s Instagram Account Prove Russia Is Covertly Operating In Ukraine?

A Russian soldier has posted pictures to Instagram that show him operating military equipment inside Ukraine, including manning a missile launcher system of the type used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Alexander Sotkin, 24, first posted a photo from a base in southern Russia, on June 23, a day after Russia began building up its forces there. Kiev accused Moscow of attacking its positions across the border with mortar fire and unguided Grad missiles. A week later, Sotkin, whose social media profiles say he is a communications specialist stationed near the Ukrainian border, posted a photo to Instagram from the village of Krasna Talychka in rebel-controlled territory in east Ukraine. It’s not entirely clear what Sotkin was doing in Ukraine, or how long he was there. He took this photo in Russia on July 3, seemingly while in an armored personnel carrier. But in the early hours of July 5, Sotkin posted another photograph from the village of Krasnyi Derkul on the Ukrainian side of the border. Ukraine accused rebels of firing mortars a border point there at that time. According to Sotkin’s photo map, the photos were taken about 9 miles from the base in Voloshino, Russia, where he appears to be stationed. On Sunday, Sotkin posted another photo in which he claimed to be working on a BUK missile launcher. Ukrainian and U.S. officials say rebels used a BUK to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 two weeks ago, killing all 298 on board. To operate a BUK, the rebels would have needed trained communications specialists like Sotkin to operate a sophisticated radar station, which can be stationed independently of the surface-to-air missile launcher (Source: Buzzfeedhttp://goo.gl/j4NpxT).

Ukrainian Separatists' Faults May Give Russia's Putin A Way Out

Russia may finally have a pretext for bailing out on Ukrainian separatists. But the pretext is not sanctions — it’s ethics. Still, the idea will be highly difficult for President Vladimir Putin to transmit, as there are few people who can take the moral high ground in the Russian establishment. Putin, by popular admission, is caught between a rock and a hard place over eastern Ukraine. His backing of separatists there has earned him record ratings at home, but is increasingly alienating the West — a luxury that Russia, whose stagnating economy is heavily reliant on foreign trade, can ill afford. But the Kremlin may denounce the separatists, despite their domestic popularity, if an international investigation proves that they shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet over rebel-controlled area earlier this month, prominent journalist Andrei Kolesnikov said Tuesday. “The children, the elderly people and adults slain for nothing are for him … a red line he would not cross,” Kolesnikov, known as “Putin’s favorite journalist,” said of the president in a surprisingly unequivocal op-ed on Kommersant FM radio that set pundits and bloggers in Russia abuzz. But, regardless of whatever face-saving rhetoric Moscow wants to shroud the crash in, it is in Russia’s interests to have sanctions lifted, and the verdict of an international investigation into the disaster might prove to be a handy way out. Of even more interest, however, is the medium used to vent the idea, and what it says about the Russian leadership (Source: The Moscow Timeshttp://goo.gl/qmd589).

The Problem With Russia's Missiles

The State Department’s annual “Compliance Report” is about to drop. According to Michael Gordon at the New York Times, the State Department will accuse the Russians of cheating on the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Let’s get this out of the way first: The decision to accuse Russia in print of violating the 1987 INF Treaty is not about Ukraine. Putin certainly hasn’t done himself any favors in recent months, of course, but American concerns about Russia’s compliance have been building for a long time. The White House may believe that Russia is on the verge of moving from testing the prohibited cruise missile to deploying it. Douglas Barrie and Henry Boyd of the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently noted a Russian article that appears to show an R-500 canister on a deployed Iskander. If Russia is indeed on the verge of deploying large numbers of R-500 cruise missiles, now is the time to start talking about it. It’s much easier to prevent something with arms control than to roll it back. The Obama administration apparently hopes that pressure now will persuade Russia to forego deployment of the new cruise missile. I wouldn’t hold my breath. Putting public pressure on Russia is the right strategy, but sometimes the right strategy still falls short. The Russians would like to have intermediate-range nuclear forces, but without taking the political hit for withdrawing from the treaty. Keeping things quiet lets Russia violate the treaty, but without paying any political or diplomatic costs. The Russians hate having to talk about this in public (Source: Foreign Policyhttp://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/07/29/the_problem_with_russia_s_missiles_r500_rs26_inf_treaty).

OSCE finally arrives in Russia

After weeks of requests, Russia finally has an OSCE monitoring team on its territory, observing two checkpoints on the border with Ukraine. Ukraine’s accusations that shell and rocket attacks have been launched across the border from Russia are echoed by Moscow. Though, of course, Russia insists it is the victim and Ukraine is the aggressor. On July 25, says Russia, 40 shells from Ukraine landed in Primiussky in the southern region of Rostov. Earlier in the month, a Russian civilian allegedly died after previous bout of shelling across the border. The OSCE mission has a mandate for three months, and will concentrate on the checkpoints of Gukovo and Donetsk [not to be confused with the Ukrainian city of the same name]. Initially, the team will be small; just four observers and a three administrative staff. Eventually, there will be as many as sixteen of them. The OSCE in Vienna told Al Jazeera that the recruitment process has begun. In addition to the reported incidences of shelling, this border is also the porous membrane through which Ukraine and the West alleges fighters and weaponry have been flowing to bolster the pro-Russian forces. The team will be watching the activity at the checkpoints and movement across the border. In fact, Ukraine’s delegation to the OSCE has criticised the limited scope of this mandate. Monitoring just two checkpoints will have only a “marginal” effect on the flows of “weapons, equipment, and mercenaries”, it says. It wants more vigorous measures to be taken by the OSCE. Basically it wants the whole border watched (Source: Al Jazeerahttp://goo.gl/7KSG5w).

British MPs Say NATO Alarmingly Unprepared for Russia Threat

NATO is not prepared for the threat of a Russian attack on one of its members, British lawmakers said Thursday, calling for more equipment and troops to be positioned in the Baltic States. Parliament’s Defense Select Committee said events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine had revealed “alarming deficiencies” in NATO’s preparedness and should be a “wake-up call.” The military alliance has stepped up exercises in eastern Europe since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Ukraine’s neighbor and NATO-member Poland has said it wants the alliance to permanently station troops in the region as a guarantee against Russian intervention. But most NATO members are reluctant because of the cost and the risk of further antagonizing the Kremlin. “NATO has been too complacent about the threat from Russia, and it is not well-prepared,” said Rory Stewart, chairman of the committee, made up of lawmakers from the ruling Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as well as from the opposition Labour Party. “The instability in Russia, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s world view and the failure of the West to respond actively in Ukraine means that we now have to address urgently the possibility, however small, of Russia repeating such tactics elsewhere. In particular, the NATO member states in the Baltic are vulnerable,” he said (Source: The Moscow Timeshttp://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/504345.html).

Germany’s summer of discontent on foreign policy

Berlin’s foreign policy machine works best when it can support, encourage, help, or reward. It struggles when it has to employ dissuasion, sanctions, or red lines. Public attitudes in Germany, as well as the country’s foreign policy resources and tools, lend themselves to co-operation, not conflict. This may be the main obstacle to redefining Germany’s international role and responsibilities, as President Joachim Gauck called for in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in January. This summer, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier could hardly be described as a happy man. On many fronts, Germany’s search for co-operative climates has been frustrated. All but one of the five special relationships in Germany’s foreign policy seem to be going sour, thus limiting Germany’s ability to affect foreign policy outcomes. The only relationship not producing troubling signs is Germany’s relationship with China – which is in itself a remarkable turn of events. Even so, the state of relations with China is mostly defined by Beijing. The way the relationship will develop depends on how the Chinese leadership chooses to deal with China’s immense internal challenges and with the conflicts of interest in its neighbourhood. Some spill-over may be taking place from China’s deeper economic ties with Germany to political transformation, which for years Germany has carefully put forward in its dialogue with China over legal reform and the rule of law (Source: European Council on Foreign Relations http://goo.gl/pvApyI).

Land for gas: secret German deal could end Ukraine crisis

Germany and Russia have been working on a secret plan to broker a peaceful solution to end international tensions over the Ukraine. The Independent can reveal that the peace plan, being worked on by both Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, hinges on two main ambitions: stabilising the borders of Ukraine and providing the financially troubled country with a strong economic boost, particularly a new energy agreement ensuring security of gas supplies. More controversially, if Ms Merkel’s deal were to be acceptable to the Russians, the international community would need to recognise Crimea’s independence and its annexation by Russia, a move that some members of the United Nations might find difficult to stomach. Sources close to the secret negotiations claim that the first part of the stabilisation plan requires Russia to withdraw its financial and military support for the various pro-separatist groups operating in eastern Ukraine. As part of any such agreement, the region would be allowed some devolved powers. At the same time, the Ukrainian President would agree not to apply to join Nato. In return, President Putin would not seek to block or interfere with the Ukraine’s new trade relations with the European Union under a pact signed a few weeks ago. Second, the Ukraine would be offered a new long-term agreement with Russia’s Gazprom, the giant gas supplier, for future gas supplies and pricing. At present, there is no gas deal in place; Ukraine’s gas supplies are running low and are likely to run out before this winter, which would spell economic and social ruin for the country (Source: The Independenthttp://goo.gl/wwq81j).