-The second round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials is underway in Belarus. One of the main goals for the Ukrainian delegation will be to open humanitarian corridors for civilians to depart from areas where heavy fighting is underway. Russia’s demands were announced by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and differ little from Moscow’s main objectives for its Ukrainian operation. Ukraine must “demilitarize and denationalize”, recognize Crimea as part of Russia, and formally recognize the two Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent states. I would not expect to see much progress on that front today, however, the latest reports out of the negotiation site tend to suggest an agreement on humanitarian corridors seems to have been reached.
-A Russian amphibious landing is still expected near the Ukrainian port city of Odesa along the Black Sea. Reports of a Russian amphibious task force approaching the coast have continued, but there has been no confirmation of a landing having taken place in the last couple of hours.
-French President Emmanuel Macron has warned that the ‘worst is yet to come’ in Ukraine. Following a 90 minute telephone call with Vladimir Putin, Macron believes Russia intends to occupy all of Ukraine and prosecute this war until all of its objectives are attained.
Diplomacy may be afforded one final opportunity to prevent war from erupting in Ukraine. US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to meet for a summit meeting to discuss the ‘security and stability’ of Europe. Biden added that he will attend only if an invasion has not happened. The office of French President Emanuel Macron was swift to take credit for the summit idea as well as getting both the US and Russian leaders to agree. Macron has been attempting to shoehorn his way onto centerstage and keep France in the diplomatic limelight for weeks now. It serves his purposes to take credit for brokering a summit and helping to bring about an eleventh-hour peaceful solution to the crisis. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will discuss the summit when they meet on 24 February.
At this point in the crisis, open source intelligence ‘experts’ are tripping over themselves in an attempt to correctly identify from satellite photographs the extent of military deployments near the Ukrainian border. Their ‘analysis’ has flip-flopped severely in recent days. If anything, this crisis is highlighting the limits of OSINT analysts and pointing out their limited value in a fluid, fast-moving situation like this crisis. I realize this is not the first time I’ve broached the topic, yet I felt it was appropriate to mention this evening. It will likely be the last time I mention the OSINT sources who seem to be more interested in picking up followers on social media then they do with providing useful conclusions to the data.
Lebanon is coming to terms with the horrific explosion in Beirut earlier this week. Aid is pouring into the nation from every direction. Old allies, and even old enemies are joining in the effort. The explosion has focused international attention on Lebanon for the moment, and the world is beginning to see how mismanaged, and corrupt the Lebanese government has become. Granted, Lebanon has always had to deal with this to one extent or another, but in recent years the levels of graft, and negligence have skyrocketed. The Lebanese people are seeking a solution and are not confident one can be found within their government. This was evident on Thursday night as anti-government protests flared up outside of the parliament building in Beirut. Fires were set, stores vandalized, and clashes with security forces broke out. Last night could be an indication of larger unrest to come in the future unless the Lebanese government can convince the people that it is committed to being the solution instead of the problem.
France has wasted no time in coming to Lebanon’s side in support. Less than 24 hours after the explosion French aid was arriving in Beirut and French president Emanuel Macron arrived in the city yesterday. French ties to Lebanon run deep so Macron’s arrival, and France’s swift response come as no surprise. The role that Paris will take in the near future remains to be seen. Macron is calling for politicians in Lebanon to come together and bring about change. In short, Macron is demanding reform, as are many other regional, and Western governments.
Lebanon’s people simply want change. A petition calling for Lebanon to fall under French mandate received the signatures of 50,000 Lebanese. This is indicative of the festering mood in the country and the populace’s almost complete lack of confidence in their government. The people want change, and if it is to come from the outside so be it. A dangerous message. Doubly so in uncertain times like these.
All things must come to an end and that includes political eras. The Merkel Era is drawing to a close. Germany and Europe are anxiously peering ahead into an ambiguous future. Regrettably for them, the Merkel Era does not seem to be going gently into that good night. Instead of a quick death, it appears destined to linger for an extended period of time before dying off. Its current status is comparable to a patient entering hospice care. The end is inevitable, and family members have gathered around to say goodbye, though no one is certain when that will be. And, to quote Tom Petty, ‘the waiting is the hardest part.’
Germany is in a period of political stasis. Politicians, and political parties alike have been behaving out of character since Angela Merkel’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Nobody wants to join a coalition government chaired by the chancellor. Her efforts to build a coalition have been rebuffed and stonewalled by friend and foe alike. The Free Democrats (FDP) stepped away and are now pursuing their own path to power, while the Social Democrats (SPD) have been carping over the details so much they have made it readily apparent that they want nothing to do with a Merkel-built coalition. Eventually, a coalition will be formed and Merkel will be the head of it, but she might do more harm than good. Her political capital has been exhausted and the September elections made it clear that a significant number of Germans want to move away from Merkelism. She may not cede power for another year or two, but German politicians are already positioning themselves for the post-Merkel Era future.
The European Union is in an even more delicate position. The political crisis in Germany has stopped the EU agenda dead in its tracks. Efforts to figure out the shape institutional reforms cannot move ahead until the situation in Germany resolves itself. France’s president Emanuel Macron has his own set of ideas, and reforms which he would like to be considered. Unfortunately, the EU is reluctant to even begin discussing Macron’s ideas until the German situation resolves itself. In other words, the EU is not going to be making consequential decisions, or moving forward on major issues without Germany. With or without Angela Merkel in power, Germany continues to be central to all things Europe in the eyes of the EU. It’s unclear if this will remain true as the political fortunes of Emanuel Macron rise, but at present, most in the EU appear reluctant to rock the boat.
Even with the Merkel Era waning away, and the current German government adopting a caretaker status, Germany remains the undisputed Godfather of the continent.
A quiet panic is materializing in Brussels right now as German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains unable to end Germany’s political deadlock and form a coalition. Every day that goes by with conditions remaining unchanged diminishes Merkel’s political power both at home and across Europe. To be frank, Germany appears to be growing weary of Merkel. In all likelihood she will head the new government when it forms. However, this has more to do with a lack of challengers facing her than it does her political acumen. In Brussels and beyond, a growing number of European Union officials, and their supporters are feeling as if the European project is caving in. The EU is at a pivotal moment in its history with the supranational body on the verge of enacting major reforms. But without Germany there to support and guide the EU through the uncharted territory, concern is turning to panic rapidly.
The European Union is facing a tumultuous period of uncertainty. Brexit, the nagging Eurozone crisis, a continent-wide lack of unity, and the rise of right wing populist politicians and governments have combined to challenge the EU like never before. Brussels had been counting on Merkel emerging from the September elections ready to lead the reform efforts. After all, Germany has been the guiding force behind the European Union for years whether EU officials care to admit it or not. Those hopes have been dashed. Regardless of what happens in Berlin, Germany and its leader will emerge from this political crisis with its prestige and power bruised. For Germany, this issue will reverse itself eventually. For the EU, the bedrock that German support, and leadership is no longer a given.
In the wings is France and its leader Emanuel Macron. EU hopes for the future could very well be pinned on him, although he is no Angela Merkel, and France is not the economic, and political colossus that the Federal Republic of Germany is. Something to be remembered in the coming weeks.