A Look Around the World: 3 December, 2018

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Late November and early December have been an active geopolitical period across the globe. Following the conclusion of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires yesterday, the world’s attention is shifting back to the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, US-China relations, and the upcoming vote in the British House of Commons on Theresa May’s Brexit Deal. Below is a brief summary of where each situation stands respectively, and what can be potentially be expected to happen with them in the coming week or so.

 

Ukraine

The strain in relations between Kiev and Moscow continues following the 25 November incident at the mouth of the Sea of Azov when Russia seized three Ukrainian ships, and 24 sailors. The Ukrainian sailors will face border violation charges from Russian authorities, and Moscow does not appear ready to consider their release anytime soon.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko today announced the call-up of reservists for training. Poroshenko has been warning of a possible Russian invasion coming in the near future, pointing to evidence of Russian forces massing near the border as proof. His alleged evidence has not been refuted or confirmed by outside sources, although US RC-135s and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones have been active over the Black Sea, and Ukrainian territory since the 25 November incident. If Russia was mobilizing its forces near the border, Washington would’ve likely informed the world of it by now.

Martial law is still in effect across large portions of the Ukraine. This will continue at least until the end of December, and perhaps beyond then.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is expected to be discussed at length on Tuesday at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels.

 

US-China Relations

Over the weekend at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aries, President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to an agreement to halt future trade tariffs from being put into place after 1 January, 2019. Global markets have responded well to the temporary truce with Asia, Europe, and New York all reporting gains. The major question now is what will come next. If the truce holds firm and can be expanded, the prospect of a greater understanding between Beijing and Washington on other issues will become possible.

Xi and Trump seem to have a good personal relationship, yet neither leader has allowed it to blur the national interests of their respective nations. China is continuing its military buildup in the South China Sea, and actively harassing US warships and aircraft that transit the airspace and waters near its declared territory there. The US continues to champion freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and its frequent FON exercises there are held to emphasize the US commitment to the principle.

 

Theresa May’s Brexit Deal

11 December could very well be the make-or-break moment for British Prime Minister Theresa May’s political fortunes. The House of Commons will deliver its verdict on the post-Brexit agreement that May and European Union leaders signed off on last month. Opposition to the deal has been steadily rising in the UK. Even though May’s cabinet signed off on the agreement there’s been dissention in the ranks with some cabinet members resigning as a result of the agreement.

In short, many Britons feel the agreement gives too much to the European Union in exchange for the UK receiving nothing in return. Following Brexit, the UK would remain tethered to EU in a sense, and that defeats the entire purpose of the Brexit referendum.  As it stands right now, May does not have enough votes in her pocket to get it through Parliament. She has some time remaining, although its unclear if it will be enough time to reverse her fortunes.

The bigger question looming is; what will happen if the agreement fails to get through Parliament?

Black Sea Crisis Update

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International attention is centering on the Black Sea region following Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships at the entrance to the Sea of Azov. The incident is in the process of blossoming into a crisis, and there is no sign of it coming to an end anytime soon. Relations between Russia and Ukraine were already at an all-time low before Sunday’s seizure. Now they appear poised to deteriorate even further as the prospect of a larger conflict looms in the distance if the current crisis is not deescalated soon.

On Monday martial law was officially imposed on 10 of the nation’s 27 regions, mainly those with areas bordering Russia. President Petro Poroshenko had issued a decree for a 30-day period of martial law after the seizure. He claims the measure will ‘strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities amid increasing aggression.’ Whether this is the case or not remains to be seen.

International reaction to the crisis has uniformly condemned Russia’s actions. There has also been talk of imposing fresh sanctions on Russia as punishment, however, so far nothing has come of it. Particularly strong condemnations came from the European Union, and the United States. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called Sunday’s incident an ‘Outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory.’ President Trump’s statement was somewhat more subdued, but he indicated he’s not happy what is events in the region. Trump is expected to meet with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G20 Summit in Buenos Aires later this week. His refusal to openly condemn Russia’s actions now is likely a calculated move not to tip his hand before he sits down with Putin.

Along with the three ships, Russian security forces also took 24 Ukrainian sailors into custody. They are being held on Crimea. A court has ordered two of the sailors to be held for 60 days, according to media reports. Those sailors, as well as the rest, are being treated as criminals, not as prisoners of war. The Ukrainian government is calling for the immediate release of the sailors, and ships, though it seems unlikely that Kiev’s demands will produce the desired results anytime soon. If at all.

Russia Closes Kerch Strait and Seizes 3 Ukrainian Warships

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The tense situation in the Sea of Azov have finally spilled over following a gradual rise in tensions over the past six months. Today, Russia blocked all maritime traffic beneath the Crimea Bridge which spans the Kerch Strait. The strait is the only passage into the Sea of Azov. The reason behind the closure was the approach of Ukrainian naval vessels. Kiev failed to give notice that the ships were planning to use the strait, according to Russia. The Ukrainian government denied this and called the Russian move “an act of aggression aimed at deliberately escalating the situation in the waters of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.”

The incident began when a Russian coast guard vessel allegedly rammed a Ukrainian tug boat. The tug was escorting a pair of Ukrainian Navy artillery boats from Odessa to Mariupol. Accusations were traded between Kiev and Moscow. After the incident between the ships, Russia closed the strait, and seized the Ukrainian ships shortly thereafter.

An agreement signed in 2003 gives both Russia and Ukraine rights to the  Sea of Azov, though Russia controls both sides of the strait. Throughout most of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, there has been no overt action by Russia to restrict Ukrainian seaborne commerce in and around Crimea, and the eastern Black Sea. That policy appears to have come to an end today.

The Kerch Strait is closed for business.

Author’s Note: I’ll post more about this tomorrow, and as events play out through the week.

Saturday 9 December, 2017 Update: Political Turmoil Returns to Ukraine

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Almost four years after the Maidan revolution swept Viktor Yushchenko and his regime from power, Ukraine is in the midst of another bout of political turmoil.  Protesters have taken to the streets chanting “Bandits Out!” and protester tents have returned to Maidan Square. This time around, the scope of the protests is smaller than four years ago, but the target of the growing dissent is essentially the same: Government graft.

The current political drama’s impetus is Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia. He entered Ukrainian politics after Maidan to help combat corruption. He served as governor of the Odessa region before a falling out between him and his longtime friend, Ukraine’s current president Petro Poroshenko. Saakashvili resigned from his post in 2016 and publicly accused Poroshenko of corruption and blocking reforms. Poroshenko responded in July by stripping him of his Ukrainian citizenship, opening the door for his potential deportation back to Georgia where Saakashvili is wanted on fraud charges. With the help of supporters, Saakashvili made his way back into the country late Sunday. Earlier this week, he held a rally in Kiev where he called for Poroshenko to be impeached. Two days later, he was arrested by security service agents, but a large crowd of his supporters blocked the van carrying him and freed him from government custody. Late on Friday, Saakashvili was arrested again and taken into custody, prompting crowds of his supporters to gather outside of the detention center where he is being held.

The  draconian manner in which Poroshenko is handling this challenge to his position reveals the grim reality that the primary demand of Maidan has yet to be realized. Corruption is still prevalent, and the Oligarchic system remains in place. This situation would be bad enough even under peacetime conditions, however, the fact that Ukraine is mired in a nearly four-year long war against Russian-supported separatists exacerbates matters. The West has done little to assist in the corruption fight since Maidan, focusing its efforts on military and diplomatic assistance instead. Now, even those efforts have diminished. Europe is suffering from ‘Ukraine burn-out’ and the United States has still not adopted a thorough Ukraine policy. It was hoped that the Trump administration would make it a priority, but that has yet happen.

The turmoil in Ukraine could provide Russia with a window of opportunity as well. It is likely that right now in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin and his advisers are looking at the situation and working on a way to turn it to Russia’s advantage. The war in Ukraine has dragged on in stalemate for quite some time. Putin has been patiently awaiting the time when favorable circumstances could permanently change that.

That moment could very well be now.

 

 

 

Sunday 19 February, 2017 Update: Mixed Signals In Ukraine

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Russia’s strategy of destabilization followed rapidly by concession in regards to pivotal matters in the Ukrainian Crisis came to life once again over the weekend. On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, activity was ramping up on two fronts as Russian overtures and efforts for a new ceasefire clashed with orders from Moscow which have the appearance of being a potential stepping stone towards the first formal diplomatic recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and its sister breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine.

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country will begin temporarily recognizing passport and ID documents issued by the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine. The decision caused near-immediate backlash from Kiev and beyond. Ukrainian President Poroshenko condemned Russia’s action while other members of the Ukrainian government reacted angrily with a consensus growing that this move is contradictory to the spirit of the Minsk Agreements and will undermine any future ceasefires.

On that note, a new ceasefire was agreed upon by the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers with assistance from their French and German counterparts. The latest ceasefire goes into effect on 20 February, 2017, which means that the ceasefire is technically in effect right now. The core of this ceasefire attempt will be the withdrawal of heavy arms from eastern Ukraine. The move was negotiated in the first Minsk Agreement two years ago, but never implemented. Along with the withdrawal of heavy arms, this ceasefire promises the withdrawal of foreign troops, local elections and the reestablishment of Ukrainian control of its eastern border. These are also elements which were negotiated as part of the Minsk agreement. Including them in this ceasefire draft offers the impression that the Russians might possibly be serious about implementing measures that will end the fighting in eastern Ukraine permanently.

Ukraine promises to be a regular headline for the near-future.