On Saturday the British government announced that their most recent intelligence points to a Russian plan to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a puppet regime controlled by Russia. Former Ukrainian parliament member Yevheniy Murayev, leader of a small pro-Russia political party was identified by the British Foreign Ministry as the likeliest candidate to lead the puppet government. Murayev wasted little time in distancing himself from both Russia and Western Europe on social media. On Thursday, the United States leveled similar accusations at Russia, claiming that Russian intelligence services were spearheading an effort to recruit Ukrainian politicians to take over the government and gain control of the nation’s infrastructure in the opening hours of a Russian invasion. If the coup attempt fails at the start of an invasion, then Moscow will still have enough pro-Russian politicians to form a core government to run the Ukraine after hostilities draw to a close. Whether or not Yevheniy Murayev is selected to become a twenty-first century Viduk Quisling remains to be seen. The US and British governments have warned that an overt Russian invasion is not the only act that will bring on severe economic sanctions. A coup, followed by the subsequent installment of a pro-Russian puppet regime in Kiev will also result in significant economic sanctions.
Ireland has been informed that a Russian naval exercise will occur in February 240 kilometers southwest of the Irish coast. A live-fire segment will be included in the exercise, which will take place in international waters but also inside of Ireland’s excusive economic zone. The Irish Foreign Ministry has raised the issue “ at senior level with the Russian authorities and will continue to do so in the week ahead.” The Russian naval units that will be involved in the exercise will most likely come from the Northern and Baltic fleets. It’s worth paying attention to how these exercises develop in the coming days and weeks as they could give fresh clues about what Russia’s intentions really are.
The South China Sea continues to approach a boil with two separate flashpoints within its geographical boundaries now providing fuel. With the Ukraine-Russia crisis grabbing attention, the South China Sea had once again become a chessboard for Beijing, with pieces being placed strategically, and in preparation for future coordinated actions, perhaps in multiple directions.
The first flashpoint is Whitsun Reef. A fleet of roughly 220 Chinese maritime militia and fishing vessels remain anchored at the reef which is situated within the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and continental shelf of the Philippines. The ships have been there since 21 March, ostensibly taking shelter due to sea conditions. It has been two weeks now and with the Chinese ships showing no sign of moving anytime soon, Manila is growing impatient. The Philippine government has warned China it will lodge a diplomatic protest for every day the ships remain in the vicinity of Whitsun Reef. An aide to the current president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has warned that China’s ‘territorial incursions’ run the risk of bringing ‘unwanted hostilities’ between the two nations. Unfortunately, given the military balance between China and the Philippines, this threat holds little water. But the tense situation does highlight the fact that Duterte’s efforts to cultivate a pro-Beijing position since he assumed office, at the expense of US-Filipino relations to an extent, have failed. Duterte has warmed up to Beijing in the hopes it would make his nation’s holdings in the South China Sea invulnerable to future Chinese ambitions.
It would appear that Duterte has miscalculated.
Flashpoint #2 is situated nearer to Taiwan. The sea space around the island is becoming crowded now as multiple US and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) warships have arrived in recent days. The USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group arrived in the South China Sea on 4 April to conduct routine operations. This came 24 hours after the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its battlegroup began running combat drills in the waters near Taiwan. In between all of this, the destroyer USS John McCain conducted its second transit of Taiwan Strait in recent months, placing Beijing on notice that the United States supports freedom of navigation in the region. China has become aggressive lately, probing Taiwan’s air defenses with multiple aircraft sorties into the island-nation’s air defense identification zone. There is growing worry among some analysts and defense officials that China’s activity in the area could be a precursor to military action against Taiwan in the future.
Author’s Note: Back to the Ukraine-Russia crisis tomorrow.
News of the decision by Greece and Turkey to resume exploratory talks in Istanbul later this month has been met with optimism by the European Union, NATO and individual nations around Europe. Earlier this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that Turkey was inviting Greece to attend the discussions being hosted in Turkey on 25 January. This will mark the 61st round of exploratory talks which came into being back in 2002. The last round was held in Athens back in March, 2016. Energy rights, economic exclusion zones, and maritime rights are expected to be the main topics for the upcoming round.
Since 2016 relations between Greece and Turkey have deteriorated. There has been no shortage of issues fueling the flames between these two rival states. Refugee treatment, energy exploration, and dueling economic exclusion zones have all played significant roles in bringing Greece and Turkey to the state they’re currently at. The EU expressed hope that the upcoming discussions between the two nations will bring about deeper talks and resolutions in the future. “We were discussing already how important it is for Turkey to behave constructively towards the EU member states because the EU has on numerous occasions stressed its solidarity with Greece, with Cyprus (the Greek Cypriot administration), and stressed also the need to solve all the bilateral issues,” European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano told a recent daily press briefing in Brussels.
Turkey has been softening its tone in recent days. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that his country is prepared to repair the damaged relations between Turkey and the EU. The decision to do this could come from the recent setbacks Turkey has endured on the foreign front. Russia has managed to push Turkey out of the post-war picture in the aftermath of the latest Azeri-Armenian conflict in October and November. Despite supporting Azerbaijan with military hardware and mercenaries, Turkish assistance in the peacekeeping process and beyond was politely declined, or in some instances minimized by Moscow. Add to that the continuing difficulties in Libya, blowback from increasingly aggressive energy exploration in the Eastern Med, and the economic exclusion zone issue, and it becomes clear why Turkey could be looking for a breather.
The Eastern Mediterranean has gone from lukewarm to a rapid simmer over the past week. In Lebanon the political winds of change appear to be descending upon Beirut following the massive explosion at Beirut’s port facility on 4 August. The incident reinvigorated protests, and heavy anti-government sentiment across the nation. This morning the Lebanese government saw the writing on the wall and resigned. In an address earlier today Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation, and his intent to “take a step back,” and “fight the battle for change alongside them.” Diab went on to denounce the political ruling class and lay blame for the explosion squarely on their shoulders. Diab’s cabinet resigned earlier in the day, and it appears now that at least some of them will remain on in a caretaker role until a new government is formed.
The dissolution of Lebanon’s government is drawing considerable attention from Western nations, as well as from some of Lebanon’s neighbors and longtime allies. Questions about the future are being asked, with no answers readily available. What shape will the new government take? Is the present mood in Lebanon one that will see the removal of Hezbollah and its influence from Lebanese government and society? How far is Hezbollah, and Iran willing to go in order to keep the nation afloat and in their corner? Three of many questions that will need to be considered as the situation plays out in the coming days and weeks.
The Greek-Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) deal is drawing a decidedly negative reaction from Turkey-as was anticipated. The deal is seen as a direct challenge to the EEZ established by Turkey and the Western-recognized government of Libya. On Monday, Turkey issued a Navtex international maritime alert to conduct ‘seismic research operations’ south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo over the next two weeks. The Turkish research ship Oruc Reis and two auxiliary vessels are presently underway to the area. Turkish naval forces are also presently conducting a two-day naval exercise off of Kasetellorizo and Rhodes. The exercise was announced on 6 August, the same day Greece and Egypt signed their EEZ agreement. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with his military chiefs today as both sides exchanged accusations of fueling regional tensions.
While all of this was going on today the lira continued its tailspin, reaching record lows against the dollar and euro. Despite Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes, Turkey’s foreign adventures do not seem to be having a positive effect on the economy. Turkey is dealing with serious economic, and domestic issues. The lira has a history of being influenced by domestic politics. If the economic outlook does not improve soon enough, Erdogan may be faced with the unpalatable choice of either having to request IMF assistance, or call snap elections. Either one will cost him a fortune in political capital and perhaps leave Erdogan and his government in a vulnerable spot at the wrong time.
A fleet of 260 Chinese fishing vessels approaching the exclusive economic zone around the Galapagos Islands is attracting a considerable amount of attention from Ecuador, as well as neighboring nations. Ecuador has increased surveillance of the Chinese fleet, and is conducting patrols to ensure that the Chinese ships do not enter the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the islands. This is not the first instance of Chinese fishing ships operating around, and inside of the Galapagos EEZ. In the past there were incidents, such as in 2017 when a Chinese ship was caught operating in the EEZ. Ecuadorian naval personnel boarded the boat and found 300 tons of marine wildlife taken from the Marine Reserve. The size of the Chinese fleet is the most significant concern for Ecuador because of the damage it can potentially do to the fragile marine ecosystem around the islands. Chinese ships come to the area around the Galapagos, however this fleet is the largest that has been seen in years, prompting Ecuador to sound the alarm even though the ships are in international waters for the moment.
The appearance of the Chinese fishing fleet is prompting Ecuador to examine ways to strengthen security for marine wildlife in the Galapagos. One potential measure is to extend the EEZ and combine it with the Ecuadorian mainland’s own economic zone. Quito is also working with other Pacific-facing nations in Latin America to establish a corridor of marine reserves and seal off a significant area of marine diversity.