Ukraine Update 29 March, 2022 (Late Afternoon)

  • Russia’s intention to withdraw forces from the Kiev region indicates a strategic shift in priorities away from efforts to encircle the Ukrainian capital and towards the continued fighting in the Donbas. By all indications, Russia has begrudgingly accepted that operations around Kiev have reached a dead end. Now, in order to salvage something from this conflict, Vladimir Putin is looking to eastern Ukraine.
  • With the first in-person meeting between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators having taken place today in Turkey, talks between Moscow and Kiev are entering a new phase. Russia is becoming more pragmatic about the war in Ukraine but has shown no desire for a swift conclusion. The decision by Moscow to ‘sharply reduce’ military operations around Kiev and Chernihiv has been presented as a gesture “to increase mutual trust for future negotiations.”  In reality, it is more likely the creation of an opportunity to reconsolidate and resupply.
  • According to the New York Post, Ukraine has struck a Russian military base inside of Russia for the first time since the early days of the war. The strike reportedly was made against a base near Belgorod, a Russian city roughly 25 miles northeast of the Russian-Ukrainian border.

Ukraine Update 28 March, 2022

  • US President Joe Biden did some damage control on his own behalf over comments he made over the weekend suggesting Russian President Vladimir Putin should be removed from power. Biden said today that he stood by the statement, yet it was a personal expression of his outrage and not an official change in US policy. “I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward this man,” Biden told reporters today, effectively rejecting suggestions he misspoke. Right, Joe. 😊 Administration officials have been trying to put out fires created by the comments. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the United States does not  “have a strategy of regime change in Russia or anywhere else, for that matter.”
  • The Group of Seven (G7) member nations have rejected Russia’s demand to pay for natural gas exports in rubles. G7 energy ministers and secretaries met via videoconference and affirmed that doing so would be a breach of  existing contracts. Last week, Vladimir Putin announced that ‘unfriendly’ nations will now be required to pay for natural gas in Russian currency. Putin’s announcement raised gas prices even higher amid worries this could be a precursor to a shutdown of pipelines providing natural gas supplies to many European nations.
  • The next round of Ukraine-Russia peace talks will take place in Istanbul on 29 March, 2022. The Turkish government will be the host.
  • There have been conflicting reports on which side controlled Irpin, a town located north of Kiev. Initial reports of Ukrainian forces liberating the town made the rounds through much of Monday. In his nightly address  President Volodymyr Zelenskiy clarified the situation. “The occupiers are pushed away from Irpin, However, it is too early to talk about security in this part of our region.”  Translation: Russian forces have retreated from Irpin, but a counterattack is expected within the next 12 hours or so.

Elections in Turkey Bring About a Setback for Erdogan

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suffered a major setback at the polls. The results of Sunday’s municipal balloting indicate the candidate of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has won the mayoral election in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. The mayoral race in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest and most famous city, appears as if it will be won by the opposition candidate. It has yet to be officially decided, but as of this morning, CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu was ahead by a thin margin.

For Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) the results were a major blow. Although AKP candidates won 51% of the municipal elections across the nation, it wasn’t enough for him to declare the results a victory. If the Istanbul race is officially called for Imamoglu, it will be a catastrophe for Erdogan and AKP.

Going into Sunday, the elections were regarded as a barometer for Erdogan’s. He’d campaigned endlessly, calling the vote a matter of “national survival.” In a sense, his words ring true. The Turkish economy has been mired in a recession and the lira has required constant propping up. The nation is also engaged militarily in Syria and despite growing involvement there, and the returns have been less than Erdogan was hoping for.

The election results could be a turning point for the opposition which has been relegated to the shadows in recent years. With Erdogan and his party controlling much of the nation’s media outlets, CHP and other parties opposing Erdogan have not had the ability to spread their message far and wide. With Ankara, and perhaps Istanbul about to be led by CHP candidates, that could be about to change.

Of course, economic performance motivates people to vote more often than not. Right now, with Turkey’s economy looking shaky, it bodes well for the opposition, and less so for Erdogan and AKP.

Istanbul Intrigue

A Saudi flag flutters atop Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul

Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi’s disappearance on 2 October resembles the plot line of a spy novel. Kashoggi, a frequent critic of the Saudi government, as well as the de facto head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Saudi Arabian branch, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain papers needed to get married. His fiancée waited outside, and when he did not leave by the time the consulate closed, she reported him missing. The Saudis claim that Kashoggi did leave the consulate through a back entrance. The Turkish government, however, argued that he was still inside, later amending their position to the belief that Kashoggi was tortured and later killed inside the building. The Turks later claimed that a 15-man team was brought in from Saudi Arabia to handle the operation.

Predictably, Kashoggi’s disappearance has bloomed into a major international incident. The Saudis and Turks are sticking to their stories. Investigations are underway, and supposedly both countries are cooperating with a joint investigation. The global outcry from media, and human rights organizations is reaching a fevered pitch. The future of Turkish-Saudi relations, already strained before this incident took place, could very well rest on the fate of Kashoggi.

This episode has also placed the United States in an awkward position. Both Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are American allies. The Turks have been sharing the alleged video evidence in their possession with US officials, and this morning Andrew Brunson, the American pastor who was arrested on treason and sedition charges in October of 2016, was released from Turkish custody. This latest move is most likely a calculated one made by the Turkish government to bring US support to its position, and version of events. Saudi Arabia is another close US ally in the region. Washington has been pressing Riyadh for answers both publicly, and in private. The Trump administration has not ruled out economic sanctions against the Saudis if they are found to be responsible for Kashoggi’s kidnapping, though punitive measures are unlikely.

Monday 17 April, 2017 Update: Turkey Votes ‘Yes’ On Constitutional Referendum

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On Sunday as the Christian world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Turks across the world were voting on a historical constitutional referendum which, if passed, would grant Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a host of new powers. By late last night it became clear the ‘Yes’ vote would carry the day, propelling Erdoğan to a close, yet potentially decisive victory. If the referendum is implemented entirely, Turkey’s government will shift from a parliamentary democracy to one that is dominated by a strong executive president. The president will no longer be held accountable by Turkey’s parliament, control the judiciary, have broad budgetary power, and the ability to shape the executive branch of government as he sees fit. This morning, many are wondering just what the results of the vote will mean for Turkey’s future.

Before that question is considered, the results of the referendum have to be certified and digested. The vote count was close with the ‘Yes’ camp receiving 51%. Opposition leaders are calling for large number of potentially problematic ballots to be reviewed, and there are widespread reports of voter intimidation and voting irregularities across Turkey to be investigated. It is unlikely an investigation will happen though. Turkey’s electoral body has ruled the vote valid.

That act will do nothing to change the fact that the referendum results could usher in a new period of political instability for Turkey. In the nation’s largest population centers, the majority of citizens voted ‘No.’  Protests have already broken out in Istanbul and other cities and there have been clashes between Turks opposed to Erdoğan and his supporters.

Outside of Turkey, there is uneasiness about the new role of Erdoğan and the chance that the secular Turkey of the past will forever vanish. European politicians are spending a great deal of time this morning debating what the referendum results will mean for Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, and how it will affect the migration crisis. Concerns about Erdoğan directing Turkey away from Europe and toward a closer relationship with Russia need to be addressed. That particular possibility, should it come to reality, has the potential to disrupt the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East.

With the Easter Holiday coming to a close, and North Korea quite possibly calming down for a short period, the opportunity will be taken this week to discuss Turkey at length.