Tag: russia

U.S. and NATO Fear Greek Fifth Column to Aid Russia

In the midst of bitter bailout negotiations between Greece and Europe, warnings proliferated of a possible Greek Fifth Column. The European Union and even NATO would collapse should Athens turn toward Russia. It is one of the stranger paranoid fantasies driving U.S. foreign policy.

For five years Athens has been arguing with its European neighbors over debts and reform. The issue doesn’t much concern the U.S. A European economic crisis would be bad for America, but Grexit is not likely to set off such a cataclysm.

Nevertheless, some analysts speculated that Athens might fall out of the European Union and NATO as well as the Eurozone, resulting in geopolitical catastrophe. Thus, the U.S. should insist that Europe pay off Greece. Despite an apparent bailout agreement, another crisis seems inevitable, in which case the specter of a Greek Trojan Horse likely will reemerge.

This fear betrays an overactive imagination. “You do not want Europe to have to deal with a Greece that is a member of NATO but which all of a sudden hates the West and is cozying up to Russia,” warned Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Security Implications of Grexit

This weekend’s news was dominated by the sorry tale of Greece, where a referendum on whether to accept the terms of a new European Union bailout failed by a landslide. Now Greece’s Eurozone creditors face the uneasy choice between offering a more generous bailout plan, or accepting a Greek departure from the Euro.

Sunday’s referendum was just the latest debacle in the five-year tug-of-war between Greece and other Eurozone members. The ruling Syriza party has been openly hostile to the austerity-focused conditions of EU bailout loans – which run counter to their left-leaning economic agenda – as well as to the EU negotiation process itself. The spur-of-the-moment referendum was itself largely a surreal PR stunt: the deal voters were evaluating had in fact been withdrawn by the EU prior to Sunday’s vote.

Unfortunately, the situation in Greece is untenable. Banks remain shut, and ATM users can withdraw only 60 euros a day. The country defaulted on its IMF loans last week, the first advanced industrialized economy to ever do so. An emergency summit of Eurozone leaders is convening on Tuesday to hear new Greek proposals, but it is unclear whether German leaders in particular can be convinced to accept a more generous bailout deal. Failing that, Greece will begin its Eurozone exit, creating turmoil in international markets.

But as I wrote over at CNN.com, “Grexit” would result in more than just financial problems. Greece’s exit from the Eurozone is likely to draw it closer to Russia, with security implications for other EU and NATO member states.

Ties have been growing between Athens and Moscow in recent months:

“During his visit last month at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, for example, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke of the Greek and Russian relationship, hinting that Greece was “ready to go to new seas to reach new safe ports… the Russian energy minister just recently announced a $2.77 billion pipeline project in Greece, and Moscow followed this with an informal invitation to Greece to join the BRICs’ New Development Bank.”

Given its current economic problems, Russia cannot afford to bail Greece out entirely. But it could certainly provide funding for sizable infrastructure projects.  

In the short-term, Grexit would certainly be a boon to Russian propagandists:

“allowing anchors on Russian state TV to highlight further evidence of the decline of the European Union and of Western civilization more broadly.” 

And in the longer-term, a Russia-friendly Greek government could even act as a spoiler within the EU and within NATO, including a veto over any extension of sanctions on Russia.

Until this point, the White House has largely avoided commenting on the Greek crisis, other than reassurances that U.S. banks are largely insulated. But as Eurozone leaders make the final choice on Greece’s future, U.S. leaders would do well to consider how a Grexit could impact U.S. security aims in Europe.

You can read the whole piece on the security implications of the Greek crisis here.

Washington Is Fostering Anti-U.S. Cooperation between Russia and China

Relations between the United States and Russia continue to deteriorate, with the U.S.-led NATO alliance planning to station troops and heavy weaponry on Russia’s border.  At the same time that U.S.-Russian relations are reaching frosty levels not seen since the days of the Cold War, ties between China and Russia are growing noticeably closer.  Symbolizing that trend was a powerful visual seen on television sets around the world in early May.  Chinese president Xi Jinping not only attended the celebration in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, he occupied the position of honor at the side of Russian president Vladimir Putin.  The image was especially powerful because the United States and several other major Western powers pointedly refused to attend the gathering to show their continuing displeasure with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aid to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine. 

As I point out in a recent article in Aspenia Online, the events in Moscow were only one signal of a Russian-Chinese rapprochement that seems  motivated by a joint desire to curb America’s global dominance.  Bilateral economic agreements between Moscow and Beijing are on the rise, including a May 2015 $400 billion deal to sell Russian natural gas to the voracious Chinese economy.  In addition, Russia has now replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s principal source of oil.

The prevailing assumption in the West that Russia and China would become geopolitical competitors, if not outright adversaries, in Central Asia also apparently needs to be reassessed.  Following the May 8 Putin-Xi summit in Moscow, the two leaders signed a new declaration announcing the coordinated development of the so-called Silk Road Economic Belt in Central Asia.  Although Russian and Chinese ambitions in that region are still in conflict over the long run, it appears that both governments have declared a truce in their rivalry.

Putin Returns

In a piece published today over at Townhall, I talk about Vladimir Putin’s recent disappearance from the public eye, and why it wasn’t as big a deal as you might think.

The rumors surrounding his ten-day disappearance ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was kept busy, scotching speculation that the Russian leader was ill, quashing reports of a power struggle within the Kremlin, and refuting assertions that Putin had been absent to attend the birth of his new child.

When Putin finally reappeared on Monday, he waved away all questions about his absence, simply noting that “life would be boring without gossip.”  We’ll probably never know where Putin was for those ten days, though his pallor implied a minor illness. Given the consistent unwillingness of the Kremlin to divulge information about Putin’s personal life, the whole thing may have been nothing more than the flu.

But it’s worth asking why Putin’s disappearance caused such a media furor. Putin’s centrality to the Russian political system is so well-accepted that commentators and policymakers routinely treat Putin himself as sole representative of the Russian state, psychoanalyzing the man for insight into Russian foreign policy choices. His disappearance, therefore, implied the possibility of chaos in Russia.

Putin is certainly the key figure in Russian politics today, in terms of both personality and power. His ability to mediate between key factions inside the Russian state has allowed him to solidify power, and to govern far more effectively than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, ever did. He is still overwhelmingly popular. Yet Putin is not the only player in Russian politics. He has a number of close, senior advisors, many of whom could fill a central role in the system Putin built. His death or incapacitation would be a shock, but it wouldn’t necessarily result in major political changes.

Obviously, we can’t predict the future. After all, who could have predicted when Boris Yeltsin picked a young, unknown former intelligence operative as his presidential successor how successful Putin would be in reining in the corrupt excesses of the Russian state, or how effectively he would undermine Russian democratic reforms?

Yet it is unlikely that Putin’s departure from office, no matter when it occurs, will result in chaos and the collapse of the Russian government. It is even less plausible that his death would result in a pro-democracy or pro-Western protest movement like the one we saw in Ukraine.

Instead, as I argue in the article, it is probable that one of Putin’s close advisors would become his successor, taking over as Russia’s president, probably with a thin veneer of legitimacy in the form of largely uncontested elections. With a similar background and worldview, this successor would simply continue many of Putin’s policies. In short, Putin’s Russia – and its odious foreign policy – probably isn’t going anywhere, even if the man himself does. 

Boris Nemtsov, RIP

The murder of Boris Nemtsov in the immediate proximity of the Kremlin seems to be an important milestone in Russia’s descent into darkness. As Deputy Prime Minister in the late 1990s and as an opposition politician during the era of Vladimir Putin, Mr. Nemtsov was a voice for a more liberal, open, and democratic Russia.

Notwithstanding a certain degree of restraint in his criticism of the Russian government, his work as one of the central figures of Russian opposition reflected great personal courage. In spite of a history of frequent arrests, in the past year, he positioned himself as an important domestic critic of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

He was not a stranger to free market ideas or to the work of the Cato Institute, which has been trying to support the transition of Soviet Russia to markets since its landmark 1990 Moscow conference, Transition to Freedom: The New Soviet Challenge.  One decade later, Mr. Nemtsov spoke at a Cato conference on the privatization of pension systems around the world.

The circumstances of Mr. Nemtsov’s death are extremely disconcerting, especially in the light of the track record of Mr. Putin’s regime. Mr. Nemtsov was killed two days before the planned demonstration against Mr. Putin’s war against Ukraine. He feared for his life as he was preparing to publish new evidence on the presence of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine. And the ‘investigation’ of his murder started on Friday night, with the police ransacking his apartment and confiscating his documents and hard drives.

Mr. Putin’s facetious promise that he will “personally oversee the investigation” strongly suggests we will never learn the names of Mr. Nemtsov’s murderers. But it is safe to say that a country in which opposition politicians of Mr. Nemtsov’s stature have to fear for their lives is a on a very dismal path.

Obama’s Hypocrisy Regarding Forcible Border Changes

In a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama stated that he was considering sending weapons to the government of Ukraine.  Noting that Russia had already annexed Crimea and was now backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, the president warned that “the West cannot stand and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.”

Such sentiments might have more credibility if the Western powers, including the United States, had not engaged in similar conduct.  But Washington and its NATO allies have indeed redrawn borders, including borders in Europe, through military force.  Two incidents are especially relevant.  Turkey, a leading member of NATO, invaded Cyprus in 1974 and amputated some 37 percent of that country’s territory.  Turkish forces ethnically cleansed the area of its Greek Cypriot inhabitants and, in the years that followed, desecrated a large number of Greek historical and religious sites.

Ankara subsequently established a client state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the occupied territories.  Turkey has steadfastly refused to atone for its illegal invasion and occupation, much less disgorge the land that it conquered.  Yet except for some token economic sanctions imposed shortly after the invasion, which were soon lifted, Washington has never even condemned the aggression that its NATO ally committed. 

One might assume that it would be awkward for U.S. leaders to excoriate Vladimir Putin’s regime for annexing Crimea or setting up puppet states in the occupied Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which Moscow did after a short, nasty war in 2008) when a NATO member is guilty of similar behavior.  But such flagrant inconsistency has apparently caused American officials little difficulty.

New Minsk, Not Quite the Same as the Old Minsk

After a grueling seventeen hours of negotiation, German, French, Ukrainian, and Russian leaders emerged with a compromise agreement aimed at ending the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Although similar to last September’s failed Minsk accords, the new deal provides more details on timing and implementation, which may help a ceasefire to hold. After so many prior failures, strong skepticism is understandable. But if U.S. and European leaders actually commit to the specifics of the deal, it can provide Ukraine with much-needed time to rebuild, reform and address its dire economic problems.

The all-night negotiations between leaders in Belarus showed how far apart the parties were on a number of key issues, including whether the deal should rely on the boundaries laid out in the Minsk I ceasefire, or on the current situation in Eastern Ukraine. Since rebel forces have made substantial territorial gains since September, neither side is keen to concede on the issue. Other issues, including which side will control border crossings into Russia, and the withdrawal of foreign fighters and equipment, proved equally thorny.

Admittedly, the deal still leaves many issues unsettled. It calls for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and a demilitarized buffer zone in Eastern Ukraine.  It also mandates constitutional reform to allow the eastern regions increased autonomy, as well as amnesty for those involved in the fighting. But the issue of boundary lines is left effectively unsolved, requiring Kiev to adhere to the current front lines when withdrawing weaponry, and the rebels to adhere instead to the boundaries agreed upon in September. There is also no real mechanism to ensure compliance, although the situation will be monitored  by the OSCE.

Still, Minsk II provides more concrete details on each issue, which may help this deal to succeed. Timing is more clearly defined for the start of the ceasefire, the removal of troops and heavy weapons, the creation of the buffer zone, while all constitutional reforms and elections are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. The sequencing of events is also more clearly defined: the agreement calls for control of the border to be returned to Ukraine only after new elections in the region, which themselves must follow constitutional reform in Kiev. Since Minsk I’s failure can be attributed in part to disagreement between both sides over who would implement such steps first, this is a welcome change. The restoration of social transfers from Kiev to residents in rebel-controlled areas is also welcome, and may serve to reduce some of the misery in the region.

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