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Russia military bases to span entire Arctic border by end of 2014

Russia will have military control of the entirety of its 6,200 km Arctic coastal zone by the end of 2014, just a year after Moscow announced its ambitious plan to build military presence in the region, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has announced. “We have set quite a pace in our foray into the Arctic,” Shoigu said during a military council meeting in Moscow. “By the end of the year we will already deploy most of our units in the region – from Murmansk to Chukotka.” Moscow announced its intentions to create a special force grouping in the strategic region in December last year, with Vladimir Putin saying that Russia needs to activate “all the levers for the protection of its security and national interests” in the “promising region.” The undertaking, which Shoigu labeled “fundamental,” is now in full flow. “Many of the sites in the region have to be repaired. In fact, a lot of them, such as airfields, logistics facilities, water intakes, power stations will have to be built from scratch, which is what we are doing right now.” Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is headquartered in Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula, has been assigned as the core of the new Joint Strategic Command, and also the main strike force. Two Borey-class nuclear submarines, which will form the spine of the refurbished fleet, have been armed this year, and a third one has just completed trials. In total, eight Borey vessels are expected to be built by the end of the decade, though some of them may be re-deployed with the Pacific fleet.Russia is also in the process of unsealing at least seven airstrips that were shut down following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Tiksi in Yakutia expected to house the bulk of the Arctic air force (Source: Russia Today).

UK should campaign for international ban on autonomous killer drones

Britain should lead the campaign for an international ban on development of autonomous “killer robots” but existing armed drone technology poses no “convincing ethical” problems, according to a policy commission headed by a former director of GCHQ. The University of Birmingham review headed by Sir David Omand, who was also the UK’s first security and intelligence coordinator, argues that under legal regulation unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide significant military and civilian benefits. The report, The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK, draws together expertise from leading lawyers, manufacturers and military experts to coordinate policy in the face of global proliferation of drones. The study dismisses fears that “the threshold for the use of force will be lowered by the availability of RPAs (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) to UK Armed Forces” but cautions that it depends on “parliament playing its proper oversight function”. Officials need to be careful, the commission warns, that intelligence cooperation with the US military – which conducts regular drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan – does not involve British troops or officials in illegal activity. “The government should confirm that guidance has been issued to staff, and safeguards put in place, to ensure that in sharing intelligence with the US government and military, the UK government does not inadvertently collude in RPA or other counter-terrorist actions contrary to international law,” the report recommends. But fully autonomous drones that select their own targets should be opposed, the report by the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security argues (Source: The Guardian).

Pope to visit Turkey as region’s Christians flee

Pope Francis will travel to Turkey next month, the Vatican said on Tuesday, his first visit to the predominantly Muslim country which has become a refuge for Christians fleeing persecution by Daesh militants in neighbouring Syria and in Iraq. During his three-day visit, the pope will meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He will also meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the Orthodox churches that make up the second-largest Christian church family after Roman Catholicism. “The Holy Father will visit Ankara and Istanbul from November 28 to 30,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement. Daesh militants have declared a “caliphate” in the territories they control and have killed or driven out large numbers of Christians, Shiites and others who do not subscribe to their hardline version of Islam. Many have fled to Turkey, along with tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds who left as Daesh forces seized dozens of their villages close to the border, where fighting continues. A US-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes on the militants near the Syrian border town of Kobani, which is being defended by Kurdish fighters. Turkey said earlier on Monday it would facilitate the passage of Iraqi Kurdish fighters to reinforce fellow Kurds in Kobani. On Monday, Francis told cardinals at the Vatican that Daesh had reached levels of terrorism “previously unimaginable”. “Many of our brothers are persecuted and were forced to leave their homes … It seems that awareness of the value of human life has been lost, that people do not count and can be sacrificed for other interests,” he said (Source: Gulf News).

Turkey aims to become a gas hub for Europe

Turkey could become a natural gas hub with its LNG terminals at the border of Greeceand Bulgaria, according to an official from BOTAŞ, Turkey’s state-run gas pipeline company. “The natural gas transmission pipelines of Turkey could be integrated with the EU ifGreece does not build a new LNG terminal,” Hızır Hakan Ünal, a gas transmission expert for BOTAŞ, said in a new report, titled “Third Party Access to Turkey’s Natural Gas Transmission System 2007-2013.” “Turkey may receive a visa to EU’s energy market by letting Greece and Bulgaria use its LNG terminals,” Ünal added. BOTAŞ will build a new natural gas pipeline in the northwestern Turkish district of Çorlu by April 2015. “After the completion of the construction of the pipeline, the natural gas capacity in Greece will also increase,” Ünal said, adding that in addition to current natural gas agreements, Turkey could be a link for natural gas transfer to Europe. “Turkey’s LNG terminals have third-party access, which means that European countries could use our LNG terminal for gasification,” he said. Turkey has two operational LNG terminals, in the Marmara district of Ereğli and in the Aegean district of Aliağa right now. Turkey currently imports 4 billion cubic meters of LNG from Algeria per year and 1.2 billion cubic meters of LNG from Nigeria via its LNG terminals. For Turkey, LNG is key to becoming one of the most important energy hubs between the Middle East and Europe, along with the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) that will bring Azerbaijani gas from Shah Deniz through Turkey and on to European markets (Source: Hurriyet Daily News).

Turkey challenges Egypt with new Islamic university

The Turkish-Egyptian political conflict escalated Sept. 24 after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech to the UN General Assembly. Erdogan criticized the current Egyptian regime, describing its rise as a coup d’état. Egyptians frowned upon the statement, viewing it as interference in Egyptian internal affairs. The Egyptian diplomatic corps, highly angered by the speech, responded through official statements, which for the first time deviated from the usual diplomatic wording and accused Erdogan of funding terrorist groups. Turkish-Egyptian tensions took on a new dimension, reaching the religious establishment of Al-Azhar, based in Cairo, after the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs announced its intention to build an Islamic university similar to Al-Azhar. According to Turkish officials, the university will replace Al-Azhar, whose role in the Islamic world has diminished. The move has awakened the ire of religious circles in Egypt. President of Al-Azhar University, Abdel Hay Azab, described the Turkish announcement as a mere “joke” in a phone interview with Al-Monitor. He said, “Al-Azhar enjoys great historical value. Its influential role remained in the Arab and Islamic world for more than a thousand years. Even if Turkey was to build a hundred educational facilities and equip them with the most lavish furniture and state-of-the-art technologies, it would not be able to pull the rug from under Al-Azhar, because great historical value is not about location but position.” “There are more than a hundred universities for religious studies in the world. Were any of them able to compete with Al-Azhar or threaten its position and role?” he asked (Source: Al-Monitor).

Germany's court rules against more disclosure in arms deals

Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court said Tuesday that while the government did not have to disclose information about planned defense exports, it did have an obligation to provide the Bundestag with details, on request, once specific arms deals had been approved. Decisions about such transactions are made by the Federal Security Council comprising senior cabinet members in closed door sessions led by Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Karlsruhe-based court ruled that “parliamentary control shall apply only to completed processes,” and that the government was under no obligation to reveal details about preliminary negotiations with arms companies in the leadup to doing business with them. The government remained particularly well protected in this early stage of the decision-making process, the court said, adding that the government was also under no obligation to justify decisions about export agreements to the parliament. Details about the cost of individual armaments may also remain confidential, according to the ruling. The court said there was usually a “diplomatic dimension” to arms export decisions, which could be affected should foreign policy dealings be made public too early. The court’s ruling resulted from complaints lodged by members of the German Greens party, Hans-Christian Ströbele, Katja Keul und Claudia Roth. Their challenge, which was ultimately unsuccessful, argued that it was unconstitutional to keep the Bundestag in the dark about planned arms deals because it prevented the parliament from doing its job of keeping the government in check. The Greens parliamentarians said German arms shipments to Algeria and a controversial deal to sell 200 Leopard battle tanks to Saudi Arabia in 2011 were examples of instances where the Bundestag had been given inadequate information (Source: Deutsche Welle).

High-stakes Russia-Ukraine-EU gas talks begin in Belgium

Russia, Ukraine and the EU began crunch gas talks on Tuesday to resolve a bitter price dispute and end fears that Moscow could halt crucial energy supplies to Europe this winter. The high-stakes meeting between Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, his Ukrainian counterpart Yuri Prodan and European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger began as planned, a commission spokeswoman said. “We had bilaterals with both sides and a trilateral meeting will start very soon,” spokeswoman Marlene Holzner said. “It’s not possible to say when the talks will end,” she added. Russia in mid-June cut supplies to Ukraine, demanding the new pro-Western government in Kiev pay steeply increased prices up front for any new deliveries after it ran up what Moscow says is an unpaid bill of $5.3 billion (4.1 billion euros). That supply cut heightened concerns that Europe, which gets about a third of its gas from Russia of which about a half transits via Ukraine, could be badly affected by the dispute this winter. But hopes for a deal improved after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin reached a preliminary deal at an EU summit last week in Milan. According to Poroshenko, the agreement due to be completed in Brussels will see Ukraine meet Russia’s demands and pay $385 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas for deliveries guaranteed through the end of March. The new price is 20 percent lower than the figure Moscow charged Ukraine after it cancelled a discount offered to former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych (Source: France24).

Sweden gets two new sightings, as hunt for undersea intruder goes on

Sweden’s military is working on two new observations that could be evidence of suspected “foreign underwater activity” near the country’s capital, a senior naval officer said on Tuesday. Swedish forces have been scouring the sea off Stockholm since Friday, after what the military called three credible reports of activity by foreign submarines or divers using an underwater vehicle. The vessels were unidentified, but during the 1980s the Swedish navy from time to time hunted suspected Soviet submarines in its waters. “Today, I can also report that there have been two further observations which were made by members of the public that are interesting enough to require further follow-up work,” Admiral Anders Grenstad told reporters. He would not give further details about what kind of new sightings had been made, but said they were being assessed and were not yet considered as credible as the three made earlier. Grenstad said the operation was aimed at gathering intelligence, not military action, and could continue for some time. “I want to stress again that this is not a U-boat hunting operation which has the aim of bringing down an opponent with military might,” he said. He also said Sweden had no information as to which country might be behind the suspected intrusion into Swedish waters. But during the 1980s and early ’90s, Sweden’s defense forces regularly played cat and mouse with suspected Soviet submarines in its territorial waters. In recent months, Swedish jets have been scrambled to meet Russian planes crossing into the country’s air space, a pattern repeated in the Baltics where NATO has responded (Source: Reuters).

Don't Mistake Russia for Iran

With sanctions beginning to bite, Russia is starting to play a new economic game. To alleviate the pain of Western restrictions on its financial and energy sectors, Russia is turning for help to non-Western partners. Last week alone, Russia and China signed over 40 agreements that provide Russian firms with lines of credit worth billions of dollars and establish strategic partnerships in the energy sector. The United States, in turn, is looking to step up its own game. Policymakers are considering giving global companies a choice: stop providing long-term financing and energy assistance to major Russian companies or be kicked out of the U.S. financial system. Such measures resemble the sanctions the United States placed on Iran a couple of years ago. But Iran was a different problem. And treating Russia the same way would be a mistake. Sanctions can be an effective tool for forcing engagement and negotiation. But the pace and implementation must be tailored to the target. In the case of Iran, the United States was able to tighten the screws by pressuring foreign firms to stop dealing with the country. That move created some angry blowback, but it generally worked. And partially as a result, Tehran is at the negotiating table. When it comes to Russia, though, the political pushback that would come from blacklisting dealings with the strategic Russian energy and banking sectors would be much more severe because Russia is a more important market. Further, more companies would likely be willing to forego access to U.S. markets in order to continue working with the Russians. And that would undermine the sanctions’ effectiveness. More generally, policymakers in the United States should be wary of continually relying on sanctions that penalize foreign firms by preventing their access to U.S. markets. Ultimately, such a strategy could backfire (Source: Foreign Affairs).

Sweden bathes in echoes of cold war drama as submarine hunt continues

Peering out at the narrow stretch of gunmetal grey sea separating the small harbour from an island at the southern tip of the vast Stockholm archipelago, Johannes gave a shrug. “I am 99% sure there is something out there,” he said. “But I’m 100% sure they won’t find it. One tiny submarine has got the entire Swedish navy tied up, all 200 sailors, with neither the resources nor the weapons to deal with it.” The 58-year-old Swedish naval commander, who asked not to be named, was having a day off on Tuesday, strolling along the sea wall in Nynäshamn, 25 miles (40km) south of Stockholm, while the fleet continued its search for a suspected Russian submarine. Thirty years ago Johannes commanded a sonar-equipped craft that regularly responded to alleged Russian submarine incursions for more than a decade – a period when Sweden was routinely gripped with cold war panic. “We knew they were there because we could see the traces they left on the sea floor,” he said. But apart from a Soviet craft that ran aground near Karlskrona in 1981, they never found a single submarine. Battleships, minesweepers, helicopters and more than 200 troops have scoured an area about 30km to 60km from the Swedish capital since Friday after reports of a “manmade object” in the water. Supreme Commander General Sverker Göranson told reporters on Tuesdaythere was “probable underwater activity” and that he was ready to use “armed force” to bring the vessel to the surface. Sweden’s armed forces did not respond to requests to comment on media headlines that the navy had “made contact” and was “ready to bomb the object” (Source: The Guardian).