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.
Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas has slowed efforts to sanction Russian energy and runs the risk of driving a wedge into the trans-Atlantic unified front that has performed impressively in sanctioning Russia and aiding Ukraine. Europe has been trying to wean itself off of Russian energy for years now, but progress have been at a snail’s pace and uncertain. Mostly because Europe has found it next to impossible to locate a replacement source for its blanket energy needs. Today, the German government confirmed it will continue to buy Russian natural gas, oil and coal despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing mountain of sanctions on Moscow. In a statement, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his country and the remainder of Europe are too reliant on Russian energy imports for the continent to cut trade links, even in the short term. This is why Germany made it a point to exempt energy from the sanctions the West has placed on Russia. Natural gas, oil and coal from Russia are the lifeblood of German and European industrial output, heating and electricity output. If Russia chooses to put the screws to European energy exports, Western unity could splinter.
The Pentagon confirmed today something many of us in the fields of geopolitics and defense have noticed over the past few days. With progress slowing to a crawl on the ground, Russia is relying more on long-range fires. These include artillery, multiple-launch rocket fire, cruise missiles, and close air support, which is being used in an effort to weaken Ukrainian defensive positions and strong points of resistance. Other terms used are softening the enemy or preparing the battlefield. The good news is that the reliance on long-range fires signals that Russia is not ready to resume the pushes towards numerous Ukrainian cities and other objectives. The bad news is that at some point, the advances will commence again.
The number of Ukrainian refugees is now approaching 1.8 million at last count and the number is anticipated to exceed 2 million within the next 24 hours. Europe is on the verge of a major refugee crisis, the likes of which have not been seen in decades.
With the official response to Russia’s security demands having been delivered yesterday, the West is now forced to watch and wait. Russia holds the initiative at present and Moscow is aware of the advantage it holds. The United States, EU and NATO are restricted in what actions they can take now to influence the situation. Everything is dependent on Russia’s next move. Vladimir Putin has before him a wide variety of options to choose from.
On one end of the spectrum there is the option of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This is the most disquieting option of all those available to Putin. The prospect of an overt Russian military operation against Ukraine has captured the imagination and fears of the world. Yet an invasion may not be the most auspicious move for Russia to make at the moment. Although Ukraine’s military is in no condition to halt a combined arms thrust by the Russian military, and the chances of NATO intervening militarily on the side of Ukraine are low, bringing Ukraine back into the fold is not Russia’s primary objective. Putin’s ambitions go far beyond simply reacquiring one former piece of the USSR puzzle. The saber rattling and deliberate rise of tensions are parts of a greater strategy designed to redress and eventually roll back the ramifications of NATO’s eastward expansion. This will not occur overnight or through military action alone and Putin understands this.
Vladimir Putin and his advisers also realize the most expedient way for Russia to achieve its goals is by undermining NATO and exploiting a handful of key alliance vulnerabilities. Such as Germany and its reliance on Russia for natural gas. The benefits of Germany’s awkward position are already becoming evident with Berlin’s reluctance to openly support Ukraine on the same level of its NATO partners. Russia could attempt to exploit this growing rift by increasing the economic pressure on Germany. This is nothing short of blackmail, but it is an effective tool, nevertheless.
There are other effective options Russia could decide to utilize. Unfortunately, my time is short at the moment so I will discuss those on Saturday in Part II. For tomorrow, expect another Ukraine update and perhaps a quick look at the rest of the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin found himself walking back comments by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that included a threat to cut off gas supplies to European nations. Putin surmised that his Belarusian counterpart made the comments in a fit of anger. The European Union accuses Belarus of provoking the migrant crisis on its western border to undermine EU security. The Union is considering new sanctions against Belarus and its government. In a television interview given earlier today on Rossiya television, Putin said that discussions with Lukashenko had not mentioned the threat to cut off Europe’s gas supply. “Of course, in theory, Lukashenko as president of a transit country could order our supplies to be cut to Europe. But this would mean a breach of our gas transit contract and I hope this will not happen,” Putin said. The absence of a firm assurance that gas supplies will not be affected obviously indicates some latitude for Lukashenko to go farther with his threat as the crisis continues. The Belarusian leader’s threat has sparked worry around Europe as natural gas shortages and rising prices affect available supplies and the market.
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.