It is no secret that relations between the United States and Russia have been tumbling downhill for an extended period of time. Last week’s indictments of 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian groups on charges related to attempted meddling in US elections and political process raises the possibility of even chillier relations, and heightened tensions looming in the weeks and months ahead. The indictments are not the only telltale sign of trouble on the horizon.
In Syria, the convoluted situation on the ground and in the skies has created an environment where a direct confrontation between US and Russian forces could come about with very little warning. There have been a high number of close calls in the air over the last six months, leading military officials in the Pentagon to question whether or not deconfliction channels are working as well as advertised. Added to that are the increasing number of reports surfacing in the media that a US airstrike killed a number of Russian military contractors in northern Syria on 7 February. Moscow has downplayed the reports, possibly to prevent questions rising about just why Russian mercenaries were operating in the area of an oil and natural gas field controlled by a US-supported militia. It’s becoming apparent that a US airstrike in support of the militia forces did take place, resulting in perhaps 20-30 Russian citizens having been killed. How or even if Russia will respond is unknown. Given Moscow’s reluctance to shed light on its Syrian operations, a Russian response will probably happen in the shadows and away from the roving eyes of the media, and other observers.
Circumstances being what they are, conditions are turning ripe for an wholly new cold war to blossom in Syria, and in other places where US and Russian interests are at odds. Whether it comes about by design, or happenstance remains to be seen. Moscow and Washington would prefer to keep the current competition in the shadows for as long as possible. Eventually, the maneuvering will be pushed out into the open, and the intentions and objectives of both sides will become clear. That will be the point when things run the risk of turning into a full blown cold war between the United States and Russia, or becoming something even more dangerous.
While in Argentina over the weekend, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked to reporters that the imposing of oil sanctions and restrictions against Venezuela’s oil sector is now on the table. US oil sanctions are considered the nuclear option and would close off Venezuela’s economy to the single source of dependable income it has left. US and international sanctions already in place against Venezuela have not had the intended effect. If anything, the moves have emboldened Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro to dig in his heels and go for broke. In January, 2018 Maduro announced he will be seeking a new term in office. The presidential election has been scheduled for 30 April of this year and with the majority of opposition candidates and leaders banned from running, Maduro is expected to skate to an easy victory.
If the presidential election proceeds, and the Trump administration imposes an oil embargo in response, the impact on markets, supply, and output will be significant. 2018 has seen an overall tightening in the oil market and a supply disruption now is sure to cause reverberations that weren’t felt when there was a crude superabundance. If Venezuela faces an oil embargo its economy will collapse entirely and that could cause an undesirable chain of destabilization among its neighbors, and other Latin American nations. The prospects of sanctions bringing a scenario like this to life are real. Caribbean nations rely heavily on cheap Venezuelan oil and have resisted Tillerson’s calls for a hemisphere-wide effort to challenge Maduro. US, Mexican, and Canadian oil officials, and diplomats are forming a working group to try and find an alternative to Venezuelan oil for nations in the Western Hemisphere that are reliant on it at the present time.
President Trump favors harsher sanctions against Venezuela, though its uncertain if he’s willing to turn to his nuclear option just yet. As mentioned above, the current sanctions in place have not motivated Nicolas Maduro to begin the reform process. If US efforts to create an anti-Maduro coalition show signs of success between now and the end of April, expect the Trump administration to begin thinking seriously about oil sanctions, or an outright embargo against Venezuela by 1 May.
A confidential United Nations report suggests North Korea is exporting commodities in direct violation of the international sanctions that have been levied against the Pyongyang regime. The report, submitted by a panel of experts to the UN Security Council, accused North Korea of exporting, or attempting to export oil and other commodities that are prohibited in resolutions, from January to September, 2017. A host of multinational oil companies are also under investigation for their roles in supplying petroleum products to the North, although no specific company names were revealed.
According to the UN report, North Korea has netted $200 million from the shipment of banned commodities. False paperwork, evasive techniques, and circuitous routes were employed to cover up the North’s involvement, but it was not enough. Evidence of military cooperation between North Korea and Syria to develop the later’s chemical weapons capabilities was also discovered.
It’s unlikely that the UN will penalize Pyongyang with additional heavy sanctions with less than a week to go before the start of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The North has made overtures to South Korea in recent weeks, and will be sending a team of athletes to the games in Pyeongchang. The UN is not about to rock the boat when North Korea has been making the effort (albeit a self-serving one) to behave itself. If the Security Council even whispers about sanctions between now and the beginning of the games it will be a PR jackpot for the North Koreans.
Consequently, do not expect North Korea to face penalties for the sanction violations. There remained a bit of hope in the UN that sanctions imposed by the Security Council might pave the way towards a turn around by Kim Jong Un. That is not going to be the case. With the sanctions so easy to circumvent, no incentive exists for the North Korean government to behave, let alone even care if the sanctions remain in place or not. And it is not as if the UN Security Council is in any position to enforce the sanctions when two of its members are not so clandestinely enabling Pyongyang to skirt a number of the sanctions now in place.
Whether by design or by happenstance, Poland has played significant roles in nearly all of Europe’s major geopolitical acts over the last 100 years. Throughout much of the twentieth century, Poland found itself sandwiched between two major powers; Germany to the west and Russia to the east. World War II began with Hitler’s invasion and subsequent defeat of Poland. In the Cold War era Poland was a satellite of the Soviet Union and member of the Warsaw Pact. The first cracks in the Iron Curtain appeared in Poland with the birth of the Solidarity movement in 1980. Following the end of the Cold War and break up of the Soviet Union, Poland was once again a free nation-state, and as the twentieth century drew to a close the former Soviet satellite applied for, and war granted membership in the NATO alliance.
Eighteen years into the twenty first century and Poland is again playing an essential role in European geopolitics. The reemergence of the Russia as a threat to NATO places the nation squarely on the front line of what is potentially a new cold war. Along with the threat to the east, Poland is contending with another type of threat coming from the west. Warsaw and the European Union have locked horns an increasing number of times in recent months on a diverse range of issues. Poland’s independent streak is rubbing Brussels the wrong way. Whatever drama comes next, Poland will be in the middle of it.
With all of this in mind, the Spring 2018 project for this blog will be to produce a picture of what Poland will look like four years from now. Economic, political, military, and domestic factors will be explored. Questions will be formed and hopefully answered as well. The following are but two examples: Will Poland’s relationship with the EU mend, or continue to fray? How seriously do the Polish people take the possibility of a future war with Russia?
The project posts will be published weekly between mid-March and mid-April, 2018.
Planning and preparation is underway for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s visit Da Nang in March. News of the potential visit broke when Secretary of Defense James Mattis was in Vietnam for talks with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. It’s almost certain now that the United States Navy will be returning to Vietnam in a very big way. Carl Vinson’s port call will mark the first time a US aircraft carrier has sailed in Vietnamese waters since Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of US citizens from Saigon in April, 1975.
Word of the port call comes at a time when tensions in the South China Sea region appear ready to flare up. China has claimed that earlier this month a US Navy destroyer violated its territorial waters when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal. There is speculation that Beijing is preparing to make a move in the region. On 30 December, 2017 Chinese state television broadcast video of Chinese military facilities on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. The broadcast highlighted the scale of China’s military buildup in the region. China may intend to use the transit as the reason for increasing its military presence in and around South China Sea.
Carl Vinson’s visit is symbolic of the growing defense relationship between the United States and Vietnam. Vietnam has been quite vocal with its opposition to Chinese moves in the area, joining India, Australia, Japan, and other regional powers that harbor misgivings about China’s long-term intentions. Those nations have followed the US lead and strengthened their defense relationships with Vietnam over the past five years. India has provided advanced training for Vietnamese fighter pilots, and its budding submarine force. Australia has provided equipment and advisors to a lesser degree.
The purpose that is fueling the relationship’s growth is clear. Vietnam represents the first line of defense against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The more capable its military becomes, the greater the possibility that it can slow down a potential Chinese military venture until US, Australian, and Japanese warships and aircraft arrive in force.