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.

Monday 17 July, 2018 Update: Helsinki 2018 Resembled Vienna 1961

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To put it bluntly, Vladimir Putin rolled President Trump in Helsinki yesterday. Plain and simple. Collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election, and independent Russian attempts to influence the election took front stage. Obviously I was not in the room when Putin and Trump sat down for their private discussion, though its safe to assume that Putin steered the discussion in the direction of the collusion topic, and there it remained for the duration. No major geopolitical, or defense issues were deliberated or resolved. Syria, nuclear proliferation, and a handful of other issues were briefly mentioned in the press conference statements by Putin and Trump, yet nothing substantial.

So, where does the Helsinki summit leave US-Russia relations now? Essentially, in the same place they were before Trump and Putin arrived in Finland. President Trump had an excellent opportunity to confront his Russian counterpart on a host of matters from possible Russian collusion in US elections, to Russian activity in Syria, Ukraine, and other places around the world. Instead, the US president chose a less confrontational approach, and he learned firsthand what Vladimir Putin is all about.

Trump’s experience in Helsinki is eerily similar to John F Kennedy’s first summit with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, in June, 1961. Kennedy came to Vienna confident he could reach an agreement with Khrushchev on Berlin, Laos, or Cuba. It did not happen. Kennedy walked away empty-handed, and admitted frankly, “He (Khrushchev) beat the hell out of me.” Fortunately, Kennedy recovered from his dismal performance in Vienna and challenged the Soviets when they moved to solve the Berlin, and Cuba matters to their advantage.

There’s little question that Russia will challenge President Trump and the United States soon. Although there was clearly no collusion between the Trump campaign, and Russian government in the 2016 election, it is nearly certain that a major Russian intelligence operation was launched during the US election cycle. The success of this operation can be measured by the amount of distrust, and confusion it has brought to American political, and intelligence circles. As US attention remains focused inward, Russia will eventually use this to its advantage and move. Maybe in Syria, or Ukraine. Or, perhaps to spark a new flashpoint in another area, make rapid gains, and solidify them before the United States is able to respond effectively.

Saturday 23 June, 2018 Update: Trump-Putin Meeting In the Works

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US National Security Adviser John Bolton will be visiting Moscow in the coming week to try and lay groundwork for a meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin next month. Trump will be in Europe then for a NATO summit in Brussels, and then a state visit to Great Britain. The proposed mini-summit of sorts between the two leaders is the latest attempt by the White House to build a friendlier relationship with Russia. Earlier this month at the G7 Summit in Quebec, Trump tried unsuccessfully to convince the other members to readmit Russia, which was suspended in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea. Relations between the US and Russia have been cold for quite some time, though there has been a large amount of backchannel discussion between the two nations over security concerns, namely Syria.

It is worth noting that there are no plans to include European leadership in a potential July talks. The exclusion of EU members, and NATO allies sends a blunt message to Europe about the reemergence of US leadership on the global stage, and the current state of relations between the United States and Europe. The Trump administration does not intend to be encumbered by European actions and interests, or be bound by a lack of consensus among its European allies. Right now, Washington and Europe have significant disagreements on a host of issues including security, trade, and immigration. There’s little chance an overall agreement could be reached right now on how to approach Russia.

Therefore, the United States sees fit to take the lead.

A Brief Postscript on the Syrian Strikes

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Western air and missile strikes against chemical weapon production and storage facilities in Syria have ended. The strikes were successful in both military and political terms. Bomb damage assessments indicate that every site targeted was effectively destroyed. The Trump  administration, through its actions and the end result, has reestablished and reinforced the credibility of red line threats. The predictions, and warnings that Western military action in Syria would bring about a Third World War have been fully discredited. Despite all that Russia has invested in Syria, and the staunch support it has given to Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is not prepared to start a major war simply to save Syria.

Friday night’s military action has also helped bring about the emergence of an official US strategy vis-à-vis Syria. Destroying ISIS, long the primary objective of US efforts in Syria, is now mated with the preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again. President Trump’s stated goal to remove US troops as quickly as possible can still be achieved. ISIS is on its last legs, and before long a US ground presence will not be essential.  If Assad opts to use chemical weapons in the fighting again, any US and Western response will come exclusively from air and naval assets.

Russia’s next move remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin does not like to lose, so it is highly probable he will craft a response aimed at reminding the United States, Britain, and France that Russia remains a force to be dealt with. Since the situation in Syria remains sensitive and fluid, Russia’s countermove will not happen there. It could come in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe, and take the form of diplomatic pressure, heightened military maneuvers and activity, or shadow operations such as cyber strikes against the civilian infrastructures in the Baltic States. Cyber strikes would be the perfect tool to be used if Moscow wants to highlight the vulnerability of Western interests in the region. After all, the US-led strikes against Syria served to highlight just how vulnerable the Russian position in Syria is.

Then there are the numerous other proxy wars going on in Syria that will be affected by the West’s actions. It will be interesting to see how Iran, Israel, and Turkey react, and how Friday’s strikes will affect their respective plans for Syria.