Tuesday 2 January, 2018 Update: Iran Blames Protests on Enemies

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Speaking for the first time since protests began in Iran last Thursday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Iran’s enemies for instigating the internal strife. He was quoted with the following statement: “In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence services to create troubles for the Islamic Republic.”

Although Khamenei did not specifically mention the enemies by name, his comment was designed to be a swipe at Iran’s traditional adversaries, namely Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. President Trump has been especially vocal with his support of Iranian protesters, tweeting his views as well as reminders that the United States is watching events in Iran closely. So is the rest of the world, for that matter. Khamenei had to release a statement of some sort in response to Trump’s comments. It comes as no surprise that his first public comment on the crisis was to blame the riots on Iran’s enemies. The statement was generic. When faced with internal unrest, Iran has a history of blaming its enemies for inciting it.

 

At least twenty Iranians have died in the protests and over 500 were arrested thus far. Those numbers will continue to rise as long as the unrest continues. This round of protests and riots is significantly smaller than those which took place in 2009. Back then, millions protested the results of the presidential election that gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office. Security forces eventually crushed the Green Movement following weeks of violent protests.

 

The current demonstrations are being fueled by economic hardship though and this reality is leaving Iran’s leadership somewhat unnerved. Economic problems have a way of spiraling into political chaos. Inflation and unemployment are rising, yet the government has been unable to do anything substantial to reverse economic conditions. Iranians are feeling the pinch and their frustrations have blossomed into anger against the government. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.

 

NATO Slow In Waking Up to the Russian Military Threat

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Contrary to what its press releases, and statements by alliance officials proclaim, NATO has been playing catchup to Russia in the military arena since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Instead of taking steps which would seize the initiative from Moscow and serve to dictate the flow of events, the alliance has been doing the exact opposite. It is no secret that NATO’s options are limited. After all, it is a defensive alliance in title, and purpose, having been created  as a counterweight to the expansive policies and actions of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War revamped NATO’s priorities and mission. Western Europe no longer needed defending to the degree that it had from 1949 to 1991. Peacekeeping in the Balkans, and an expanding role in the Global War on Terror defined NATO over the next twenty three years. During that time, the once massive military infrastructure that had been created to challenge Soviet military power was downsized, or dismantled, and largely forgotten.

As Russia began emerging as a viable military threat in 2014, NATO was slow to react. New missions, and duties were not provided with the necessary support and command infrastructures. During the Cold War years, every military unit assigned to NATO belonged to a respective parent command, was keenly aware what its role and mission would be in a time of conflict, and practiced incessantly to master that role if the balloon ever went up. In recent times this has not been the case. Ground, air, and naval units have been tagged for missions they’ve never previously undertaken or trained for, with little or no support from the alliance.

Now, as 2017 is nearing an end, NATO looks eager to start rectifying the command dilemma. Since November, the alliance has been working on a plan to stand up an entirely new naval command, likely to be labeled the North Atlantic Command. Russian naval activity in the Atlantic has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. The latest concern is Russian submarine activity around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic. The importance of these cables cannot be overstated. They carry nearly all of the communications on the Internet. Cutting them would bring the web to a crashing halt. Tapping them would provide Moscow with valuable insights on global internet traffic.

This activity, as well as other maneuvers by Russian attack submarines is compelling NATO navies to refocus on Anti-Submarine Warfare, or ASW as it is commonly labeled. There has been little, if any emphasis on ASW since the Cold War ended. There was little need. For most of the 90s and 00s, Russian subs rarely ventured out into open ocean. Since 2014, however, Russian sub activity has been on the rise, ops tempos have increased dramatically, and new subs are coming on line at a rapid pace.

In early 2018 it will be useful to take a detailed look at how NATO intends to deal with the growing Russian threat at sea, as well as in the air, and on land. Although the attention of the world will continue to be focused mainly on what’s happening in North Korea, the chill in US-Russia relations, and recent moves concerning the situation in Ukraine suggest  a flare up in Eastern Europe or at sea between NATO and Russian forces is very possible.

 

 

Tuesday 26 December, 2017 Update: Javelins to Ukraine

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In an effort to help Ukrainian forces even the odds on the battlefield, the Trump administration has approved a plan to send Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. The move follows months of debate within the Defense Department and White House on whether or not to sell lethal arms to Kiev. The Javelin ATGMs will be included in a package of arms that will be provided to Ukraine for the first time. Up until now US assistance has been confined to training and support equipment.

The Javelin is a highly effective missile that has been proven in combat. It is known to be effective against most tanks and armored vehicles in the Russian arsenal. For the duration of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian-provided –and in many cases crewed– armor has often tipped the scales in the direction of the separatists. Kiev had requested Javelin shipments from the Obama administration since the beginning of the conflict, though the previous administration refused for fear of escalating the conflict. The current administration’s decision to provide the Javelins now is going to give Ukraine a weapon that will help even the odds against Russian armor on the battlefield.

Predictably, Russia has not reacted positively to the US move. Not long after the US State Department announced the intentions to provide lethal arms to Ukraine, Moscow warned the move will cause new bloodshed in the fighting, and possible escalation. “The United States has crossed a line by announcing its intention to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Saturday. “U.S. weapons are capable of leading to new casualties in our neighboring country, and we cannot remain indifferent to that.”

US-Russian relations have grown chillier in recent months. The Trump administration is obviously adopting a tougher stance towards Russia and the Javelins are a clear sign of this. As 2017 is coming to an end, events in Ukraine, and US-Russia relations are again taking priority in the minds of policymakers and analysts in Moscow, Washington DC, and Europe.

 

 

Friday 22 December, 2017 Update: Putin Accuses US of INF Treaty Violations

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Less than two days after the US government penalized a pair of Russian companies for violations of the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of breaking the treaty themselves, and further, of laying the groundwork for a formal withdrawal from the INF treaty. Speaking on Friday, Putin lashed out at the US on a vast array of defense and geopolitical-related subjects. His points of contention give some insight to the issues that are irking the Russian leader beneath the surface, as well as providing an glimpse at where Cold War 2.0 might potentially take is in 2018.

Russia has still not come to terms with the US deployment of Aegis Ashore to Europe as part of a US-NATO missile shield being constructed to contend with the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. From the earliest days of the program, Russia has opposed it, with Moscow claiming that the system’s true intent is to neutralize Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal.

Putin also took aim at President Trump’s national security strategy, labeling it as offensive and aggressive. The new US doctrine has labeled Russia as one of the nation’s strategic competitor, though experts and insiders agree the term means the US considers Russia to be a major threat to US interests, and policies. In spite of Putin and Trump making an effort to play nice in public, there’s suspicion and animosity growing on both sides. The US investigation into Russia’s possible tampering with the 2016 election is certainly not helping US-Russian relations. However, growing US economic sanctions are a larger bone in Putin’s throat for the moment.

The growing number of NATO troops present in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States was also brought up. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO encroachment has become a major domestic issue in Russia. Putin has used the average Russian citizen’s suspicions about NATO intentions as the rallying cry for a more aggressive foreign policy. The fact that the increase in NATO forces was made because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and continuing involvement in the War in Donbass is conveniently left out of the discussion.

 

Thursday 7 December, 2017 Update: US Pressures Saudi Arabia to Lift Its Blockade of Yemen

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Pressure is building on Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of Yemeni ports and  allow food, water, and other essential materials into the country. Saudi Arabia blockaded Yemen’s ports after Houthi rebels fired a SCUD missile last month. Relief organizations have been warning that the situation in Yemen is growing dire. The nation’s economy and infrastructure have been shattered by years of strife, and civil war. Millions of civilians are at risk of starvation.

Now the United States is joining the chorus of nation-states and organizations around the world that are calling on Saudi Arabia to open access in Yemen to prevent yet another humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. Yesterday, President Trump issued a harsh criticism of the Saudi actions and announced that his administration would be calling upon Riyadh to end its blockade. Today, administration officials and advisors have gone to work on the matter in a series of phone calls and meetings with Saudi officials.

Saudi Arabia is a close US ally, and the relationship between the Trump administration and Riyadh has been particularly warm. The White House is hoping to use its clout to ameliorate the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Of course, the request is not being made simply because it is the right thing to do. There are potential benefits for the Trump administration’s foreign policy embedded in it as well. The US announcement that it recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will be moving its embassy in Israel there from Tel Aviv is a potential power keg. There is concern about the how Muslims across the region will react to the move. The US is hoping its position on the Saudi blockade, and improving the situation in Yemen will cool Muslim reactions to the Jerusalem move.

The Saudis might not be ready to relinquish the blockade so easily, though. The death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthis on 4 December has altered the dynamics of the Yemeni civil war. Wednesday’s Saudi airstrikes against targets in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, launched in retaliation for Saleh’s death, indicate escalation could be on the horizon. It would be in Saudi Arabia’s best interests to halt the blockade at least temporarily, however, given the events of the past few days in Yemen, there’s no guarantee that Riyadh’s final decision will be influenced even by the prodding of its closest ally.