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.
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.
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.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed today to expand the offensive against Kurdish militia positions in northern Syria until ‘the last terrorist’ is killed. Operation Olive Branch, a Turkish offensive aimed at expelling the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from northern Syria, commenced on Saturday. Syrian opposition forces are also taking part in the offensive. Erdogan said the offensive has been successful thus far and will continue despite growing international concern.
A NATO ally appears to be expressing the sharpest concerns. Germany, which has seen its relationship with Turkey sour in recent years, is reconsidering a deal that would see Turkey’s Leopard 2 main battle tanks upgraded by Rheinmetall. Photographs and video taken by the media in northern Syria have shown that Turkish Leopard 2s are taking part in the offensive. Berlin is facing many calls from politicians on the left and right to cancel the deal.
The United States is another ally that has seen a decline in its relationship with Turkey in recent years. The offensive underway in northwest Syria threatens to disrupt the fight against ISIS at a time when the organization is clearly on the ropes. US forces in Syria enjoy a solid working relationship with a number of Kurdish militia groups. YPG is the US military’s main partner for operations against ISIS in Syria. It has trained and equipped a large number of YPGs combatants. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the White House and Pentagon are both concerned about the Olive Branch offensive disrupting the relationship and potentially placing Turkey and the US on a collision course. President Trump is expected to speak with Erdogan this afternoon. There is some hope that a de-escalation of the situation in northwest Syria can be reached. If that does not come about, President Trump will have to decide whether the fight against ISIS, or supporting a NATO ally takes precedence for the United States.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is beginning 2018 with a round of diplomatic maneuvering intended to relieve at least some of the pressure his government is facing. The target of Pyongyang’s effort is South Korea. In his New Year speech, Un proposed the idea of sending athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics which are being held in South Korea. With the games fast approaching, both nations appear to be willing to work towards reaching an agreement that will allow the North to send a delegation to Pyeongchang. There is much work to be done in order for that to happen, but the two nations are moving forward cautiously in the hope that North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics can become a reality. Pyongyang has reopened a communications line with the South ostensibly to aid discussions on the Olympic subject.
From a more cynical realpolitik vantage point, the North Korean overtures are the right play at the right moment. Pyongyang needs a victory of some type and the most expeditious route to achieving one runs directly through Seoul. South Korea’s liberal government is sincerely enthusiastic about the possibility of both Koreas participating in the Olympics. There is hope that a showing of goodwill now might blossom into meaningful dialogue and warmer relations down the line.
Strangely enough, Kim Jong Un is probably hoping for the same thing, but for completely different reasons. The North Korean leader is rolling the dice on the chance that his effort to improve relations with the South might help to drive a wedge in the US-South Korea relationship and buy the North some much needed relief at a critical moment. Despite his immaturity, Kim is probably aware that time is running out for him and for North Korea. Every day that goes by brings the US closer to choosing the military option for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. There are many pundits and self-declared experts who predict a US military effort against North Korea will result in heavy civilian casualties and unparalleled destruction across the region. For what it’s worth, I disagree with their views on military action wholeheartedly. However, the one area where I agree with my counterparts is the future of Kim Jong Un in the event of war.
In short, there would be no future for him or his regime. Regardless of what happens to his nuclear program, his country, and the entire region, if the United States goes kinetic, Kim Jong Un will not survive the conflict.