The fact Russia is serious about Ukraine appears to finally be kicking in for NATO, the EU and Western governments. Whether this will end up being a matter of ‘too little, too late’ remains to be seen. But for the moment, there are at least some decisions being made in Western capitals which will lead to prudent action in the near future. The Western media is also coming around to the idea that all of this might very well be real. The media is almost always at least 48 hours behind events though, and we’re seeing that in their reporting today.
-Wall Street is responding negatively to the worsening situation in Europe. The Dow Jones Industrial Average cratered this morning, dropping more than 1,000 points. The immediate reason for the drop was news that President Biden will be holding a video call with European leaders this afternoon to discuss Ukraine and Russia’s growing military buildup. There are other factors contributing to the Dow’s slide into correction territory, however, the realization that the Ukraine crisis is worsening appears to be the catalyst.
-The US is moving ahead with plans to withdraw dependents of embassy staff from Ukraine starting this week. The plan was announced on Friday but did not garner much media coverage until the official authorization was given. Apparently, the US State Department has also decided to remove non-essential staff from the Kiev embassy as well. Great Britain has also announced the planned withdrawal of family members of diplomats and other embassy staff. London has also indicated it will be reducing its embassy staff in Kiev along lines similar to what the US is doing with its people. The European Union, on the other hand, will not evacuate its diplomats from Ukraine for the moment.
-NATO is starting to reinforce its Eastern Flank, albeit in limited fashion. A number of alliance members have pledged to deploy additional fighter aircraft and warships to the region in the near future. Denmark is sending four F-16s to bolster the Baltic Air Policing mission in Lithuania as well as a frigate to the eastern Baltic Sea. The Netherlands has pledged two F-35s for Bulgarian air policing duties, yet they will not arrive until April. Spain, we discussed last week, has committed two warships and possibly fighter aircraft to Bulgaria. France has revealed it is open to deploying ground troops to Romania and Bulgaria under NATO command. The United States is considering reinforcing its own forces in Europe but no further details have yet been made available.
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.
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.
At the German port of Bremerhaven the first wave of US troops and equipment started arriving on Friday as preparations for the Defender 20 exercise move into high gear. In the coming days and weeks they will be followed by 20,000 troops and roughly a division’s worth of equipment. The equipment will make the trans-Atlantic crossing by ship and arrive at ports in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Troops will fly across, mate up with their equipment and then move east from staging areas in Germany to Poland and the Baltic States where the bulk of the exercise will take place. For citizens of Germany and the Low Countries who remember the later years of the Cold War, it might seem more like 1987 than 2020 for the next few weeks. Defender 20 bears more than a passing resemblance to the REFORGER exercises held by the US during the Cold War.
Defender 20 will be the biggest NATO military exercise in Europe in 25 years. The purpose of the maneuvers is more significant than the size. This will be the first time since the REFORGER days that the US has practiced moving a division sized force across the Atlantic and then deploying to a potential battlefield. Europe in 2020 is a very different place than it was in 1987, but the emergence of the Russian threat in recent years highlights the need for the US and NATO to take the defense of Eastern Europe seriously. NATO’s creation the Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics is a sign of this. But if a conflict should break out in Eastern Europe or the Baltics, US heavy-maneuver forces will be essential to defending Europe, as was the case during the Cold War when the main opponent was the Soviet Union. The main difference now is geographic location of potential fighting. In a future conflict it will be Poland and the Baltics, not West Germany and the rest of Central Europe.
The exercise will start in April and the bulk of it will run through the end of May. As the start dates gets closer I’ll talk more about Defender 20, and Russia’s reaction to it.
It is 0245 here in the eastern United States and 0745 in the Netherlands. The polls there opened fifteen minutes ago and will remain open for the next nine hours as Dutch voters go to the polls. At stake are the 150 seats in the House of Representatives. The elections in the Netherlands have garnered much attention in the last week or so thanks to the diplomatic crisis between the Dutch and Turkish governments, however, there are other factors responsible for the recent surge of interest.
Many in the media, as well as a sizeable fraction of political observers are looking upon the Dutch parliamentary elections as a prime indicator of the direction European politics will be taking for the next five to seven years. The overall consensus is that these elections will serve as a litmus test for European populism, though the pundits and analysts who claim this seem to have forgotten the results of earlier litmus tests on the continent like Brexit, and the Italian referendum, as two examples. Populism has become a force to be reckoned with in Europe already, having challenged or defeated the embattled status quo in a number of EU nations already. The media, and European Union supporters especially seem to be locked in denial on this. Their positions and reactions to Europe’s political shift to the right is strikingly similar to those of Democrats and the media here in the United States during the 2016 Primaries. As then-candidate Donald Trump racked up victory after victory it became apparent he was ushering in a new populist era of American politics. The warning signs were everywhere and anyone who could read the political tea leaves objectively understood that something major was happening in US politics at the time. His opponents, the media, and the political establishment responded in large part by burying their heads in the sand and waiting patiently for the ‘Trump Phenomenon’ to burn itself out. To their surprise and horror it did not happen. On 9 November, 2016, they awoke to find their greatest nightmare had become reality: President-elect Donald Trump.
Geert Wilders is in many regards the Dutch Donald Trump. His Party for Freedom (PPV) is a right-wing movement expressing a message expressed on a foundation of nativism, and populism. Wilders argues that political elites in the Netherlands have lost touch what issues regular people consider to be of the most importance. The political and cosmopolitan elites promotion of internationalism undermines the nation’s identity. He points to the fallout from the European refugee crisis as proof of this. How Wilder and his party perform in the elections today could give a hint about how similar candidates will fare in the French and German elections later in the year.
Or it may not. The ongoing spat with Turkey could serve as a Dutch ‘October Surprise.’ It has the potential to siphon votes away from the incumbent parties and motivate more people to cast their ballots for the PPV and other anti-establishment parties. In nine hours or so we will see whether or not this is the case.