Vladimir Putin would never allow a good crisis to go to waste, so it is no surprise to find him speaking his mind on the North Korean crisis. During the 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, the Russian leader took some time to speak about the simmering situation in northeast Asia. To be honest, Putin’s comments were not earthshattering by any means. He offered his opinion that economic sanctions are likely not going to persuade North Korea from dropping its nuclear weapons program, and championed diplomacy as the sole course of action left which can resolve the crisis peacefully. Putin also issued a frank, and somewhat dramatic warning that further escalation of the crisis could result in a “planetary catastrophe.” While his observations are not very insightful, they are more or less accurate. Sanctions will not do any more good and if this crisis continues to escalate it could result in the use of nuclear weapons, and a regional war that causes tens of thousands of deaths.
Putin’s words are not the result of newfound respect and concern for humanity. He did not wake up yesterday morning, hug a tree and suddenly decide that what the world needs now is love. Vladimir Putin is a man who rarely takes action or says something unless there is some benefit to be gained for him or his country.
In this case, the favor Putin’s words might bring about is more concentrated global attention on the North Korean situation just as Russian military forces are preparing to commence the large scale Zapad 17 maneuvers in Belarus. There has been considerable speculation about what will come from the exercises. Some Western observers are suspicious of Putin’s intentions, believing that when Zapad concludes, the Russians may not leave entirely. It could mark the beginning of a permanent major Russian military presence in Belarus, or perhaps a move of some sort in Ukraine, not necessarily a military one either.
If he does plan to take some sort of action during or after Zapad, the current North Korean crisis potentially provides him with perfect cover. Even though he is despised by many, Putin’s thoughts on North Korea will carry weight and cause politicians and media types to consider the crisis more carefully. As that is happening, the scrutiny that has been placed on Russia lately will dissipate briefly, giving Putin a potential window of opportunity. Perhaps he will make use of it, perhaps not.
Either way, the Russian president’s public statements about North Korea make it seem that he is considering the possibility at the very least.
August is here and Zapad 17 is on the horizon. As it approaches, concern and speculation are beginning to grow at a faster pace within media, military, and geopolitical circles. Many non-military observers view Zapad as an intimidation weapon being wielded by Russian President Vladimir Putin while military analysts see it as essential training and cohesion to prepare Russian forces for potential future conflicts. Both groups are correct.
Some details that have been widely known about Zapad 17 since earlier in the year continue to hold true. The number of troops involved will be over 100,000 with the overwhelming majority of them being Russian, and most of the training will take place in Belarus. NATO has been invited to witness the exercise and will be sending roughly eighty observers to Belarus in September. Despite the invitation, many NATO countries are openly apprehensive about Zapad 17, especially the Baltic States and Poland.
More particulars about the exercise are becoming known through official Russian government outlets, and less frequently from NATO and US sources. Main elements of the recently reconstituted 1st Guards Tank Army will form the centerpiece of the exercise. This army was reformed in late 2014 after a sixteen-year period in decommission. Zapad 17 will be the first opportunity for the main combat elements of 1st Guards to work cohesively. Incorporating it into the exercise is also meant to serve as a message to the Baltics and Poland. 1st Guards has an extensive pedigree from serving on the Eastern Front in World War II, through to post-war occupation duty in Berlin, and later taking part in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia to break the Prague Spring.
Preparations for the exercise are underway in earnest. Russia has requisitioned enough rail cars to transport 4,000 tanks and other pieces of heavy equipment to and from Belarus. By mid-August advance parties from many of the units scheduled to take part in Zapad will begin arriving in Belarus ahead of the main formations. The primary surge of Russian combat units into Belarus is expected to take place in late August and Early September. The exercise is scheduled to begin on 14 September, 2016 and run until the 20th.
Vladimir Putin is not taking the possibility of fresh US sanctions lightly. With sanctions legislation aimed at Russia about to land on President Trump’s desk, the Russian leader understands perfectly well that Trump is not going to veto the bill and send it back to the House. The legislation will be signed and a new round of US sanctions against Russia will be set in place. Putin has opted to retaliate before the legislation is even signed, and to do so in a fashion which guarantees a US response.
On Sunday Putin announced that the US diplomatic mission to Russia will have to reduce its staff by 755 personnel by 1 September. The reduction in US staff had been announced on Friday, however, today’s announcement was the first to include concrete numbers. Russia also made it known that it would seize two US diplomatic properties in Russia, a move similar to action the US took against Russian properties in America this past December. Putin also added, somewhat ominously, that further retaliation will come if the sanctions are passed.
Since January, the Trump administration and its Russian counterparts had been hoping for an improvement in US-Russia relations. It was not to be following accusations that Russia had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. The accusations have contributed directly to the creation of sanctions and a straining of the relationship between Moscow and Washington. Now, the tit-for-tat exchange is on the verge of escalating. President Trump could very well decide to let these sanctions act as the US response to Sunday’s announcement by Putin. Yet, if further action is taken by Russia, it will result in a proportionate response by the US. If this keeps up into the fall, the United States and Russia might find themselves in a nasty diplomatic scrap, with very few exit options.
*Author’s note: Regrettably, Today’s Dirt will not be posting Part II of the ‘The Case For Military Action Against North Korea.’ My employer has requested that I refrain from writing and posting any articles centered on North Korea and potential US military action against it for a period of time given what is happening right now. I understand the reasons for my employer to ask this of me, and have agreed. After Labor Day, we will revisit the issue and hopefully can work something out. I apologize. *
Out of the meeting between President Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg has come a somewhat unexpected brood: An agreement on a ceasefire in southern Syria. The ceasefire has come out of concerns about fighting spilling over Syria’s southern border with Jordan and Israel. Those two countries have been particularly alarmed over the expanding Iranian presence and involvement in the area. Jordan has been closely involved the negotiations geared towards bringing this deal to reality, which had been underway for some time before the final product was realized in Hamburg.
The parties involved in the ceasefire need to keep in mind that Syria has become a graveyard of ceasefire efforts in recent years. More than one has died shortly after being put into effect, largely because of outlawed factions such as Al Qaeda not going along with an agreement’s terms and deliberately disrupting it. Other times extraneous ceasefire terms were used by Russia to goad the pro-Western rebel groups into behavior that violated the said ceasefire.
There are still many questions that need to be answered about this one. This ceasefire is set to go into effect on Sunday at noon, Syrian time. It is unclear exactly what the enforcement guidelines will be, or who will be enforcing the terms. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Russian military police will be the enforcers, however, US and Jordanian diplomats have disputed that, saying the issue has not yet been decided.
There is no predicting if this latest ceasefire will hold, though it does have some advantages that its predecessors did not. Foremost is that it mostly affects an area that is not the heart of the conflict. Southwestern Syria has experienced significantly less fighting than other parts of the country. A second leverage is the significance this ceasefire will have for Syria’s neighbors. This agreement is not just aimed at stopping a conflict between dueling Syrian groups. Jordan, and Israel stake a major claim in this ceasefire since it helps secure their borders with Syria. This point may help give the ceasefire added strength that its predecessors lacked.
In any event, this is a positive step forward to a more concrete agreement in the future. With the exception of perhaps the Syrian government, every other party involved in the Syrian conflict has grown weary of the fighting. ISIS now on the ropes, and the time has come for the major powers involved to take a hard look at the potential shapes a post-ISIS Syria can take.
President Trump arrived in Hamburg a short while ago following a brief visit to Poland ahead of the G20 Summit scheduled to begin on 7 July in the northern German city. The president’s stay in Poland, while short, was productive and gave the world a preview of some talking points that he will likely bring up with other world leaders during the G20. The Poland visit also afforded us a glimpse at the evolving Trump foreign policy platform, and the geopolitical priorities for the United States. For the moment, North Korea’s ballistic missile progress tops the list.
Trump delivered an address in Poland before departing for Hamburg. In it, he reaffirmed the US commitment to NATO, and Article 5 but added that Europe does need to do more. He also railed against threats from radical Islamic terrorism, to Russia, and North Korea. Overall, the president sought to highlight the common ground between the US and Europe as a prelude to the G20 where the reception he receives could be markedly different from the warm, sincere greetings he received in Poland.
While Hamburg won’t be a politically hostile environment altogether for Trump, the environment could be rather chilly. Angela Merkel might be looking to seize the moment in Hamburg and attempt an ambush on him. With the EU locked in a dispute with Poland right now, the president’s visit there has undoubtedly ruffled some feathers in Brussels. Merkel, who’s personality differences with the American leader seem to be affecting her policy positions, will have the opportunity to sit vis-à-vis at the same table and hold constructive discussions. Or harangue him incessantly, if she chooses that route.
While speaking of vis-à-vis encounters, Trump and Vladimir Putin will be meeting for the first time ever at the event. The president will be walking a tightrope of not wanting to appear soft on the man who is widely believed to have orchestrated an attempt to influence a US election. With that, along with the issues flaring up between the US and Russia, Trump should be polite, yet firm.