Russia has announced it is prepared to target and engage foreign warships found to be violating its territorial waters following yesterday’s encounter between a Royal Navy warship and Russian air and naval units in the Black Sea. HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer sailed close to Crimea’s Cape Fiolent, using an internationally accepted sea lane. Russia regarded the maneuver as a deliberate attempt to challenge Russia’s annexation of Crimea and responded predictably, claiming it fired warning shots and swiftly drove Defender away from the area it was sailing in. Britain denied this version of events and insisted its warship was sailing in Ukrainian waters. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported Defender’s voyage, stating earlier today that “The important point is that we don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
Despite the maneuvering of warships and slightly sharp rhetoric, neither side is looking to spark an armed confrontation. Moscow understands the purpose behind Defender’s maneuvering was to offer a symbolic challenge. London, on the other hand, clearly predicted the Russian reaction and subsequent warnings issued by Moscow. Each side went to bat and publicly tried to frame its actions in a positive light while simultaneously painting the other nation’s actions as overly aggressive. It has happened before, and this is simply another example of the discursive statesmanship which has become more prevalent in international politics over the last decade or so. By all indications, we will be seeing more cases of this in the future and likely stemming from similar encounters.
It took nearly four years to finally happen but Brexit is now reality. At 11:00 PM on 31 January (6 PM local time here in the eastern US) Great Britain formally left the European Union. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the night as not an end, but a beginning. In Parliament Square, and across the British Isles Brexit supporters celebrated. Understandably, Pro-EU Britons were not in a celebratory mood. Vigils were held, as well as anti-Brexit demonstrations although the point of these is unclear since Brexit is now a done-deal.
Now Britain will contend with what comes next. The problem is, no one knows just what that will be. In the coming days and weeks Britons will not see any immediate changes. The transition period remains in effect until 31 December, 2020 keeping EU laws in force for the rest of the year. The next step for the British government will be to come to terms with the EU on a permanent trade agreement by then. That will not be an easy task as many European leaders have been warning.
The next year will undoubtedly be filled with the same sort of grim warnings from the continent about the difficulties Britain will face without the protection of the EU. Supporters of the European supranational body in the UK will likely be outspoken on the topic. However, the voters in Britain have spoken…multiple times, as the case has been, and the position of the majority is now etched in stone. There will be no going back now, or at any point in the future. For better or worse, Brexit has taken effect and the destiny of Great Britain now sits entirely in the hands of its citizens.
The 2019 NATO Summit kicks off in London on 3 December, 2019. The alliance has a host of important discussion topics to choose from. Turkey’s pending veto of NATO defense plans for Poland and the Baltic States is likely the most urgent topic at the moment. The existing fears of US detachment from NATO through the remainder of the Trump presidency is another. It is only fair to point out, however, that those fears have thus far been unfounded. The United States has remained firmly committed to the alliance and engaged in it since 20 January, 2017.
Unfortunately, despite the position of the United States, the future of NATO is somewhat uncertain at the moment thanks in large part to its European members. Inside of NATO there is much debate about what direction the alliance needs to go in. The world in 2019 is markedly different from what it was in 1949 when NATO was founded. It was conceived as a defense against a threatening Soviet military force. The USSR is gone now, but the Russian Federation is now struggling to fill its predecessor’s shoes and challenge NATO militarily and politically. The Russian threat, which appeared so dangerous in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea has failed to materialize and it might never.
NATO has been seeking a mission beyond the boundaries of Europe for some time now, meeting limited success in Afghanistan, and even Syria. 21st Century missions outside of Europe have tested NATO unity and created bitter infighting among members though. With China’s rise, the Western Pacific could be ready for a NATO mission, but the same potential problems would arise.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing NATO’s future at the moment is the European Union. Once heralded as the logical successor to NATO, the EU has endured a rocky last ten years or so. The unity once championed by its supporters no longer exists. Britain is leaving the EU, and there are firm indications the populations of other European nations want to follow suit. The supra-national body is rudderless right now, suffering from a lack of effective leadership at the top. In the eyes of some European politicians the question is no longer: will the EU implode? The question now is: when?
More importantly, what will be the role for NATO if the EU breaks up? Will it acrimoniously dissolve as its members choose sides, or step in to fill the void?
This week in London, NATO’s leaders need to seriously consider what the future of Europe, and the world will be like in the next decade, and then determine what the alliance’s place in that world will be.
Iran’s actions in the Strait of Hormuz over the last 24 hours threaten to move the current standoff between Tehran and the West into dangerous waters. The seizure of a British-flagged tanker yesterday by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stoked tensions in the region. A second tanker owned by a British company but Liberian-flagged was also stopped and boarded but subsequently permitted to move on. Iran claims the seizure is a “reciprocal” action, apparently in response to Britain’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker bound for Syria on 4 July. An IRGC spokesman released a statement claiming that this was the case. However, a government message put out via Iran’s state-run news agency IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency) claims the tanker was seized because it rammed an Iranian trawler in the Strait of Hormuz.
For the moment, London appears to be ruling out military action as a response. Given the current state and dispositions of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, this does not come as a surprise. Britain will not move unilaterally. The Queen’s aircraft and warships will only go into action in concert with a US effort. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt described Iran’s actions as “destabilizing and illegal.” He also warned of “serious consequences” for Tehran.
The tanker seizures also serve as a warning to the United States and the West that commercial vessels using the Strait of Hormuz are at the mercy of Iran. The Iranian government’s threats to close the strait and attempt to strangle the global economy have gained more credibility over the last few days. Tehran’s hope is that the tanker seizures will lead to European pressure for the US to scale back its economic sanctions in place against Iran.
Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to ensure the safe passage of vessels operating in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf through a multi-national maritime effort. This will be discussed later in the weekend.
Across Europe, governments are now contending with the domestic fallout, and consequences of the 2019 EU Parliamentary elections. For some national leaders, and governments the election results were favorable, but for some of the largest nations on the continent the EU election results have brought on fear, and uncertainty about the future. The after-effects have brought on a reckoning of sorts in some cases. Great Britain is certainly one of these nation-states, but it is not the only one.
Britain was not even supposed to take part in the past weekend’s elections. Its separation from the EU was scheduled to have happened by now. As we all are aware, that departure is now unlikely to take place before October, 2019. The government’s failure to abide by the original timeline was on the minds of many as they cast their ballots. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, barely six weeks old, was the big winner, taking 31.6 percent of the vote. Britain’s two major political parties, Labour and the Conservatives suffered humiliating defeats. These parties now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to redefine themselves in order to remain relevant in post-Brexit British politics.
In short, Labour and Conservatives both need to become pro-Brexit parties. Regardless of what the polls say, the majority of Britons still want Brexit, even if the majority of politicians in both parties don’t. It became apparent to many Britons that Theresa May, and many Members of Parliament were doing everything possible to prevent Brexit from happening. Whether or not this is the case is a moot point. Because of the mainstream politicians dithering, and delaying, Nigel Farage came out of nowhere with a political party solely committed to making Brexit a reality, and thrashed Labour and the Conservatives.
Now, with the Conservatives preparing to select Theresa May’s successor, the resumes of prospective candidates will be scrutinized carefully. No politician who was lukewarm, or hesitant about Brexit stands a chance of taking over at 10 Downing St. The separation of Great Britain from the European Union has to happen at the end of October, or if at all possible sooner. Otherwise, the Brexit party might be there to pick up the pieces and steer Britain in a direction no one is ready for.
In the next entry we will look at the nations of Western Europe.