Russia has announced a conclusion to the military exercises underway in close proximity to the Ukraine. Units will soon begin returning to their primary installations in other parts of the country, deescalating the situation immeasurably. This move will allay fears in Ukraine, Europe and the United States of a Russian military operation in eastern Ukraine. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made the announcement earlier today, stating that the goals of the exercise have been met and Russian troops “demonstrated the ability to ensure reliable defense of the country.”
Yet in true Russian fashion, this move comes with some significant caveats attached.
A large number of Russian units will be departing the areas near the Ukrainian border, true. However, many of these units are leaving their heavy equipment behind. Heavy equipment in military terms translates to tanks, self-propelled artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, etc. With a sizable amount of heavy equipment remaining, it gives Russian troops the ability to rapidly deploy from other parts of the country and marry up to the equipment of their parent units. Similar to what the United States Army established with REFORGER and POMCUS sites in the Cold War. A very effective move on Russia’s part, and one that does not fully remove the threat facing Ukraine from the east and south.
There has been no information released about the Black Sea and whether the naval exercises there will also be coming to an end.
Naturally, the initial reaction from Ukraine and the West has been to hail the move as an indication of Vladimir Putin backing down in the face of a unified West. However, in the coming days and weeks this perception is likely to wear away. Vladimir Putin is a disingenuous, calculating individual. There’s generally a purpose behind every one of his major decisions. It is safe to assume there is one behind this one. As time goes on, it will become clear what the purpose is.
As China’s transgressions have consumed more headlines and attention on the international stage, Europe’s hands are tied somewhat. With the close economic relationship between Beijing and the EU, applying major economic sanctions is next to impossible without attracting significant blowback. The Union appears to have found a compromise, however.
Today, EU leaders have agreed to levy limited sanctions on China over its human rights abuses. The measures will be formally agreed upon and set later in March when EU foreign ministers meet. These sanctions will be the first imposed on Chinese officials since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. They will include travel bans and asset freezes, but not actions that will be felt by the entire Chinese economy. And this is where the problem is for Europe. Sanctions are a form of punishment, applied to drive home a point and entice a nation-state to change its position on a particular issue. Weak sanctions like these, however, generally encourage continued noncompliance. When it comes to China, Europe consistently wants to have its cake and eat it too. This means confronting China on human rights violations and other issues while simultaneously pursuing deeper economic ties with Beijing.
In the last six months, considerable backlash has taken shape in Europe against China concerning its crackdown in Hong Kong, as well as the human rights violations continuing to take place in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea has also begun raising eyebrows across the Continent. There is a mixture of alarm and frustration in the capitals of EU nations not only over Beijing’s actions recently, but also concerning the lack of a cohesive EU policy concerning the People’s Republic of China. Whereas China is pressing forward with a strategy centered on driving a wedge between Europe and the United States, the EU has failed to create a strategy to counter that. Instead, Brussels has dithered, unable or unwilling to place an appropriate title upon China. Instead, it has chosen a variety of more generic labels to describe China. Economic competitor and systemic rival are but two.
In the midst of the mixed messages doled out by the EU, Germany, and Great Britain are planning naval deployments to the Western Pacific later in the year while France has already sent two warships to the region in what can realistically be described as modern-day gunboat diplomacy. In February, a French frigate conducted a joint naval exercise with US and Japanese forces off the coast of Japan. Also last month, France revealed it had sent an attack submarine to patrol the South China Sea. The deployment, and public admittance of it by Paris, serves as a clear warning to China that the European powers will be a part of the naval calculus should China provoke a confrontation in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the Western Pacific in the coming months and years.
The past week has seen scandals and government impasse cause two European governments to fall. Another continental nation’s government teeters on the brink of failure, which is more of a political tradition in that country rather than an extraordinarily rare event. The resignation of a large part of a fourth nation’s government appears to be a fait accompli intended to bring about largescale political reforms that will allow the ruling party to remain in power almost indefinitely. By all measures, this has been an extraordinary week in European politics, made even more so by the fact that reporting on all of the above-mentioned political events has been minimal in Europe and around the world. Yet the consequences have the potential to be rather significant.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch government resigned collectively on Friday following a scandal over childcare benefits that saw thousands of Dutch families wrongly accused of fraud by tax officials. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government accepted full responsibility for the scandal and tendered their resignations. Parliamentary elections were already scheduled for March, 2021. The government’s resignation, coupled with the fact the nation is now under a national lockdown due to COVID-19, and the growing need for a post-pandemic economic plan are helping to add a strong note of urgency to the upcoming elections.
Estonia’s government also fell in recent days. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas resigned after a key government adviser was accused of impropriety in the Porto Franco property development. Many other government officials resigned in the wake of this, hoping that their departures will allow the storm to blow over and give their parties time to regroup before the next election. The Estonian president has tasked the head of the main opposition party to form a new government within 14 days. Like the Netherlands, Estonia is facing a deteriorating COVID-19 situation, as well as pandemic-caused economic despair. The political future of Estonia is now precarious, to say the least.
The Italian government is always one heartbeat away from collapse. This time, it is former Premier Matteo Renzi pulling the strings. Renzi has removed his support from Italy’s shaky coalition government, causing two ministers from his Italia Viva party to resign from the government. The heart of the dispute is how the current government intends to spend its share of the European recovery funds. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte plans to appoint a council of technocrats to manage the funds. Renzi opposes this move. The political maneuvering at present runs the risk of toppling Italy’s government at a time when the country is dealing with its worst recession since the end of World War II, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Russia is the fourth nation on the list that is playing governmental musical chairs. We will talk more about Vladimir Putin’s latest domestic maneuvering later this week as more details come to light.
The political turmoil in three European democracies has arrived at a difficult time. These scandals and political self-interest only weakens the collective image of the EU as its vaccine rollout strategy suffers delays and setbacks. Add to the equation are populations tired of lockdowns and curfews, and another wave of anti-EU political change could become reality by the summer of 2021.
In May, the United States informed the nations that are parties to the Treaty on Open Skies that it will be withdrawing from treaty. The six-month notification period has come to an end and now the US is officially removed from Open Skies. This marks the second Cold War era treaty with Russia that the US has withdrawn from. The reason given for leaving Open Skies is essentially the same as it was for the INF Treaty: Russian non-compliance.
The Treaty on Open Skies came about in 1992 and has 34 signatories, most being former NATO or Warsaw Pact member-states. The agreement centers on the idea of allowing countries to openly surveil each other is thought to prevent misunderstandings that could heighten tensions and potentially a conflict. Almost since the beginning, Russia has been accused of interfering with US Open Skies flights. The trend has continued off and on throughout the years. But in recent years especially, Russia has been accused of blocking US surveillance flights around certain regions including the Georgian border, and Kaliningrad. Moscow even denied the US permission to conduct Open Skies flights over Russian military exercises, something expressly allowed by the treaty.
There have long been loud voices of protest coming from the Pentagon, and US military services about the disparities between US and Russian observance of Open Skies rules. Over the summer, the US Department of Defense even issued a statement on the matter. “It has become abundantly clear that it is no longer in the United States’ best interest to remain a party to this treaty when Russia does not uphold its commitments.”
To be fair, Open Skies is not similar to the INF Treaty. In fact, they were two entirely different creatures. Nevertheless, there are a considerable number of experts…..and of course self-declared ‘experts’ on social media…..calling the move dangerous and stating their belief that an incoming Biden administration should rejoin the treaty as quickly as possible.
Europe is facing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases continue to surge in many nations across the continent. Outbreaks are being reported in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and areas of Spain and Italy among others. Governments have been deliberately selective with placing restrictions, and lockdowns on the general public, but the time may be nearing when more immoderate measures are put into play. Ireland is the only EU nation to reimpose a six-week long nationwide lockdown starting Thursday. Nonessential retail businesses will close, and residents are expected to stay within three miles of their homes, except for work and other essential activities. Police will set up road checkpoints to deter unnecessary travel.
On the continent, select regions in Spain and Italy are returning to lockdown conditions. A two week lockdown begins in the Spanish region of Navarre on Thursday. The measures being imposed on Navarre are more restrictive than those which have been placed on Madrid by Spain’s central government. In Italy, the southern region of Campania will be conducting an 11 PM- 5 AM curfew similar to one currently in place in the north. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said that this time around, unlike the March lockdown, he is giving towns and regions more freedom to decide what measures to put into place. In effect, Conte is giving towns and regions across Italy the ability to decide their own fate.
With a second wave of the pandemic now ramping up, travel restrictions which had been relaxed over the summer are starting to be reintroduced in some cases. Denmark has closed its borders again to a number of European nations that it considers to be high-risk. France is suggesting voluntary quarantines for people arriving from Britain and Spain. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the governments are trying to discourage non-essential travel across the shared border of the two nations.
All of these measures are relatively fair, and cannot be considered extreme. If case numbers do start to surge dramatically though, restrictions will become tighter and for the second time in a year the European Union could see its member-states closing its borders to essentially the rest of the continent.