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Tolstoy’s War and Peace, NATO, and the Ukraine

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In the last few years we have witnessed, in the very pages of this magazine, a debate on whether or not NATO has become an anachronism of the Cold War, which might have made sense when the West was confronting the former Soviet Union, but makes no sense now, in fact, some maintain, it needs to be jettison from present politics, if for no other reason that the EU needs to make its own decisions without interference from the US.

Usually the issue is debated within a framework of one century, beginning with the start of World War I in 1914. Let’s revisit the issue in the light of the latest development from the Ukraine and also from an historical perspective that goes beyond 1914 by a few centuries. If we do that we may be surprised at how different the whole issue begins to appear.

As we speak, Russia has de facto annexed Crimea and is invading the Eastern part of the Ukraine while the EU has issued an ultimatum of one week before more stringent economic sanctions are approved and implemented. Putin, as the bully that he is, will predictably ignore the ultimatum and go ahead with his interference in Ukrainian affairs. One hears little from EU leaders about strengthening NATO and reinforcing the defenses of all NATO countries. So one may ask: after the downing of an airline over the Ukraine with Soviet provided missiles causing the death of a couple hundred Dutch, are second thoughts being entertained about the viability of NATO? Let’s see.

 It should be obvious to most observers, at least those who do not consider truth simply what is convenient to oneself, that the incursions of Russia into the Ukraine has put to rest the idea, some have called it a myth, that the end of the Cold War has brought permanent peace to Europe, unless we are talking of the permanent peace of a cemetery or a desert where nobody speaks and no controversies ensue. Do we need to brace ourselves for new realities on the ground? Is Russia farther than ever from the West?

Which leads to this question: is Putin testing the NATO alliance’s purpose and commitment? Is US secretary of defense Hagel correct in calling what is going on a “clarifying moment” for the alliance? The time to take a second look at the complacency of the EU in thinking that it had a benign Russia on its eastern borders; the kind of benign cute Disney-like little bear shown by Putin at the Winter Olympics a few months ago, just before he annexed Crimea.

What did Angela Merkel mean with this statement made at the White House: “post-Cold War order has been put in question” by Russia’s aggression. Why did NATO, who has had a formal relationship with Russia since 1997, suspend cooperation with Moscow in light of the Ukrainian problem? What did NATO’s second ranking official, Alexander Vershbow, mean by saying that Russia has compelled NATO to begin viewing it as an adversary. Given that US defense spending on NATO’s collective defense is three times the combined spending of all the EU allies, should they bear a greater share of that defense? Is the end of history really here with the end of the Cold War and the end of European insecurity, a Fukuyama proclaimed some time ago, thus making NATO irrelevant? Is NATO responsible for fomenting conflict with Russia, as some maintain, in as much as they allowed former nations in the Soviet sphere of influence to enter NATO? Or has the West as a whole sought partnership with Russia in as much as their security interests seemed to be converging?  Is Russia still a democratic country, or a half-hearted one? One wonders.
Some may say that the above analysis is highly biased and does not take in consideration Russia’s side of the story. They claim that In the Western media which has a very short attention span, not to speak of ignorance of historical perspective, the prevailing image is that Russia is an aggressor, intent on dominating its neighbors. Western influence is presented as “positive.” Russian influence as “negative.” Joining the EU is depicted as being a road to economic and social prosperity and NATO is offered as a defensive bulwark against the “terrible” Kremlin. Remarkably, at least in the United States, liberals and conservatives are singing the same song. Further, the discourse of “invasion,” “occupation,” “aggression,” and “World War III” is hardly diplomatic. How does anyone believe that negotiations can ensue when such language is thrown about? Of course the other side of that coin is that, if we have learned anything from the beginning of World War II, it is that appeasing of a bully usually means that the bully has to get paid later with greater loss of treasure and blood.

In any case, by contrast, in Moscow, the view of the situation in Ukraine is quite different. It perceives the West as encroaching on countries to which it has been very closely associated. Ukraine (the entire country, East, South, Central, and even West), along with Belarus, is viewed as a fraternal East Slavic nation to which Russia is intimately bound. The capital Kiev is regarded by all Russians as the “mother Russian city,” the common point of origin for all East Slavs. To view Kiev within the boundaries of the EU and NATO is more than just a violation of a sphere of influence. It is a violation of one’s historical heritage. All of which of course does not excuse the use of KBG stratagems to violate the territorial integrity of neighboring sovereign countries.

It does not help that some of the most vocal advocates for Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO come from countries that Russia perceives as historical invaders. They include Poland and Sweden, the co-founders of the Eastern Partnership program that sponsored the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Both countries have a history of animosity toward Russia, but it is Poland in particular that Moscow views as being one of the chief advocates for Western expansionism.

We in the West regard Poland primarily as the victim of Russian aggression, particularly communism. We reflect on Russia’s participation in Poland’s partitions, its suppression of Polish uprisings, the Polish-Soviet War, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyń massacre, and the establishment of communist Poland. Conversely, to a Russian with a sense of history, Poland is perceived as a historical invader, a country that during the Time of Troubles in Russia (1598-1613) supported the Tsar-pretender “False Dmitriy,” attempted to bring Catholicism to Orthodox Russia, and eventually invaded and occupied Moscow in 1609. That invasion was repelled in 1612 by the duo of Kuzma Minin and Dmitriy Pozharsky, whose statue stands today in front of St. Basil’s in Moscow.

Even in more recent times, Russians recall that it was Poland’s Marshal Piłsudski who, during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21, not only tried to ensure the freedom of Poland, but also sought to annex to Poland large swathes of Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Western Russia to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of old. Piłsudski is still admired by some in Poland today, including members of the political elite such as the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his twin brother, Jarosław. He is also greatly admired by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Russians likewise recall Polish participation in the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. In Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is the Polish legion that is depicted as being the most fanatically supportive of an expansion toward Russia, so much so that they drown in the River Viliya for Napoleon. Today, the Russians see very much the same thing, except that Napoleon is now replaced by NATO and that the Poles are now showing their loyalty, not by drowning in the Viliya, but by asking for NATO troops to be stationed in their country.

In another Tolstoyan parallel, Moscow also likely views the Ukrainians who protested on the Maidan as being the modern equivalents of the muzhiks of War and Peace. It was the muzhiks who rose up against their oppressive landlords for Napoleon, who they viewed as the embodiment of the French revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité. Today though, the modern landlords are Ukraine’s corrupt political elite and oligarchs, while the liberal ideals of Napoleon and revolutionary France are today the liberal ideals of Brussels and the European Union. Moscow regards the latter ideals in 2014 just as they regarded Napoleon’s ideals in 1812 – that is, as false promises motivated only by geopolitical ambitions rather than by any genuine sense of altruism.

While we should be clear-eyed about the present situation in the Ukraine and remember the bully Hitler, and take Putin’s propaganda machine with a big grain of salt, on the other hand we ought not forget history and its lessons so that we do not end up in another World War by permitting that empty rhetoric, unsupported by the historical facts, gets out control. NATO did not come out of a cloud, it has historical precedents and we better know what they are, before we rush to a mindless defense of democracy, freedom and Western ideals, which in the past have been breached more than observed.

Note: this article has already appeared in Ovi Magazine on November 1, 2014.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Russia’s role in the revival of the Iran Nuclear deal

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Iran in recent weeks has stated on more than one occasion, that is willing to return to the negotiation table for talks pertaining to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)/Iran Nuclear deal (the Vienna negotiations which began in April 2021 have been on hold since June 2021). The US has on more than one occasion expressed the view, that Iran needs to show greater urgency with regard to getting back to talks on the Iran Nuclear deal . The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken while addressing the press, on October 13, 2021, before his meeting with Foreign Ministers of UAE and Israel:

        ‘We continue to believe that diplomacy is the most effective way to do that, but it takes two to engage in diplomacy, and we have not – we have not seen from Iran a willingness to do that at this point.’

In August 2021, US President Biden in a meeting with the Israeli PM, Naftali Bennett had said that Washington was willing to explore other options, if diplomacy with Iran did not work (this was in stark contrast to his stance vis-à-vis Iran in his initial days in office).

Russia’s role

It would be important to point out, that Russia has been playing a key role in getting Iran back to the negotiating table, while also urging the US to remove some of the sanctions it has imposed on Iran. During the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Moscow earlier this month, a number of issues pertaining to the Iran-Russia relationship were discussed during the meeting between Abdollahian and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Iran Nuclear deal  however was high on the agenda. Here it would be pertinent to point out, that Iran is seeking to sign a strategic agreement with Russia along the lines of what it had signed with China, and Russia would thus have significant leverage vis-à-vis Tehran. While commenting on the same, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh said:

    ‘The initial arrangements of this document, entitled the Global Agreement for Cooperation between Iran and Russia, have been concluded,’

Iran and Russia have also been working jointly in Syria to keep Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in power.

Israeli PM’s visit to Russia

During Israeli PM Naftali Bennett’s recent visit to Moscow, on October 22, 2021 while a number of bilateral issues were discussed during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Iran issue was also discussed. While Putin is supposed to have put forward the Russian stance which favours a diplomatic solution for dealing with the issue of nuclear enrichment by Iran, while Israel expressed its concerns with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.

Conclusion

While Gulf Cooperation Council  (GCC countries), such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, which were opposed to revival of the Iran Nuclear deal have toned down their opposition to the deal, since they themselves are working to improve ties with Iran, Israel has been fervent in its opposition to the revival of the deal, and the Biden Administration of late has also begun to adopt a more aggressive stance (not very different from that of the Trump Administration) and seems to be unwilling to make any significant concessions in order to revive JCPOA .

It remains to be seen, if Russia’s relationship with Israel can play any role in softening the latter’s opposition to the Iran Nuclear deal.  Apart from this, Moscow whose ties with Iran have strengthened will also play an important role in getting Tehran back to the negotiating table on the Iran nuclear deal, and could also convince Iran to avoid a maximalist approach towards the Iran nuclear deal. In recent months, Moscow’s strategic importance has risen not on account of its proximity to Beijing, but because it’s stance on the situation in Afghanistan and Iran has been pragmatic, and Moscow has not kowtowed to Beijing in spite of the fact that its ties with Washington ties are far from cordial. Moscow is also one of the few countries which has been able to maintain good ties with both Israel and Iran.

 It remains to be seen, if Russia’s intervention on key global issues especially the Iran Nuclear deal can achieve any tangible results. A lot will also depend upon whether the Biden Administration, which has drawn flak for its handling of Afghanistan, is willing to think out of the box and exhibit risk appetite. It is also important that Washington-Moscow ties remain manageable if not perfect, and that both countries realize the importance of working closely on important global issues.

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Russia, Turkey and the new geopolitical reality

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Putin erdogan sochi

The recent Russia – Turkey summit in Sochi, even though yielding no tangible outcomes (as became clear well before it, the summit would  not result in the signing of any agreements), has evoked a lot of speculation – ranging from assumptions of the “failure” of talks to fairly optimistic forecasts for the future of bilateral relations.

What can be seen as a clear result of the meeting is that the two sides acknowledged readiness for further dialogue. A dialogue is vital also in view of the fact that western countries have been curtailing their military and political presence in the region, which has thus led to the formation of a terrorist state in Afghanistan.

According to Sergei Lavrov, terrorist threat persists and has even been intensifying in Idlib: «Terrorist groups operating from beyond the Idlib de-escalation zone continue to attack the positions of the Syrian army, what’s more, they have been trying to act against the Russian contingent», – the Russian foreign minister told a news conference following talks with his Egyptian counterpart, after the summit in Sochi. A solution to the problem lies, he said, in “complete implementation of the agreements signed by Presidents Putin  and  Erdogan to the effect that terrorists, first of all, from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, should be isolated regardless of whatever new slogans they might come up with and for the purpose of quelling all these terrorist groups”.

As a final agreement on de-escalation in Idlib is expected to be reached, sources report a build-up of Syrian army forces along the Syrian side of the demarcation line, on the one hand, and a concentration of Turkish military groups, on the other (whereas after talks in Sochi the Turkish military started to retreat to the north – A.I.) Opposition representatives have been making aggressive statements again, even though in Sochi, Dmitry Peskov said,  the two sides reiterated their “commitment to earlier agreements, underscored the need to implement  these agreements by clearing Idlib of terrorist groups which  were still there and which could pose a threat and  launch a fierce attack against the Syrian army”.

Turkey keeps accusing Russia of breaching a ceasefire agreement for the northwest of Syria of March 5, 2020, while Russia maintains that Turkey is not acting on its commitments and that it is unable (or unwilling? – A.I.) to separate terrorists from armed opposition. For these mutual accusations the two presidents use politically correct statements, while their discontent over the situation is articulated by foreign ministers, press secretaries and MPs.

In brief, Moscow’s position is as follows: Bashar Assad is a legally elected head of the Syrian Arab Republic, the territorial integrity of which is beyond doubt.  A compromise with Damascus calls for similar steps from the opponents, whereas confrontation in Idlib and in other hot spots across Syria should be the responsibility of countries whose troops are deployed there without the approval of the UN or without invitation from official Damascus. These countries are known – the United States and Turkey.

While Moscow and Ankara are often at odds over the Sunni opposition, their attitudes to Kurdish nationalists are less of a clash. Moscow sees them as “mere” separatists who “have not been lost” for Damascus, while Ankara describes them as terrorists that should be eliminated or neutralized by a buffer zone which Turkey has been building and strengthening for several years.

Some experts and politicians believe that this will last forever. In 1920, the already not quite Ottoman but not yet Turkish Parliament adopted the so-called National Vow, which specified that New Turkey would include Syrian and Iraqi territories, which currently border Turkey. Even though the move failed, the National Vow is still, if only unofficially, seen as a founding ideological document of the Turkish Republic, the implementation of which cements the authority of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Moreover, areas occupied by the Turkish army (which make up more than 10% of the Syrian territory) are used for accommodating Syrian refugees, of which there are over three and a half million in Turkey proper. Turks’ growing discontent over the presence of such “guests” is adding to social instability. A new influx could trigger a public outcry in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for 2023.

In all likelihood, Ankara believes that any serious concessions in Idlib will entail the collapse of the entire “buffer zone” project and will invalidate three military operations and the multimillion investments. In addition, it will bring back “the Kurdish issue”, destroy the image of Turkey as a trustworthy ally, and will inflict irreparable damage on the reputation of the incumbent authorities.

Nevertheless, Cumhuriyet observer Mehmet Ali Guller argues that Erdogan suggested readiness to make concessions when he said: «We agree that the time has come to secure a final and lasting solution to the Syrian issue. We announced that we are open for any realistic and fair steps in this direction».

From our point of view, there is nothing about “concessions” in what Erdogan says but what is clear is that he is, if only unwillingly, beginning to accept The Syrian reality. After years of demanding the removal of Bashar Assad, the Turkish leadership no longer issues statements to this effect, though it refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the incumbent regime (contacts at intelligence agency level do not count), promising to withdraw troops only after the establishment of “democratic rule” in Syria. But democracy as seen through the Middle East realities is something vague and unclear.

Furthermore, Erdogan is forced to “re-evaluate values” by a growing tension in relations with western allies. The Turkish president, after years of speaking strongly in favor of American presence in Syria, is now calling for the withdrawal of the  American contingent from the country.

A consolidated position of Ankara’s western partners on Russia-Turkey relations was formulated by Die Zeit: during talks with the Russian leader in Sochi Erdogan played the role of a “requestor”, since he “missed a decisive factor – the West”, which he needs as “a critically important partner, which makes it possible for Ankara not to bow to Russia”. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu did not agree to that: «We are a NATO member, on the one hand, but on the other hand, our relations with Russia are progressing…..Why should we make a choice [between them]?».

«It’s no secret that Ankara’s and Moscow’s interests in the region do not  coincide…..[but] The positive responses of the two countries’ leaders on the results of talks in Sochi suggest that Moscow and Ankara are prepared to remove all misunderstandings by dialogue», – Ilyas Kemaloglu, political analyst with Marmara University, says. Haberturk Media Holding observer Cetiner Cetin argues that American troops’ “flight” from Afghanistan and their gradual departure from other regions is creating a new geopolitical reality, which means that “Turkey might continue to distance itself from NATO in order to find itself among top players within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization”.

While economic ties between Russia and Turkey are mostly problem-free, the political relations are often an issue. However, every time they meet, Putin and Erdogan manage not only to “quell” conflict, but to make a way for cooperation. The reason is that the two countries, despite their tactical differences, share the strategic goals: diktat of the West is unacceptable, the leading role in the East should belong to regional powers. As long as we share these goals, a Russia-Turkey alliance will be beneficial for both parties.

From our partner International Affairs

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The 30th Anniversary of the Renewal of Diplomatic Relations Between Russia and Israel

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Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey V. Lavrov’s article for the Israeli Newspaper “Yedioth Ahronoth” dedicated to the 30th Anniversary of the Renewal of Diplomatic Relations Between Russia and Israel, October 15, 2021.

On October 18, Russia and Israel celebrate the 30th anniversary of the renewal of full-fledged diplomatic relations – the beginning of a new era of common history.

Turning to the pages of the past, let me recall that the USSR was the first country to recognize de jure the State of Israel back in May 1948. Of course, there were ups and downs in the chronicle of our relationship. Today, it could be assessed with confidence that Russian-Israeli mutually beneficial cooperation has stood the test of time and continues to actively develop in all directions.

Its foundation is formed by an intensive political dialogue, foremost – at the highest level. Inter-parliamentary contacts are progressing, bolstered by Friendship Groups established in the legislative bodies of our countries. Inter-ministerial communications are carried out on a regular basis.

Over the past decades, a solid experience of diversified cooperation has been accumulated in such spheres as economics, science and technology, healthcare and education. More than twenty acting intergovernmental agreements reflect the richness of the bilateral agenda.

Our mutual practical cooperation has significant potential. A number of joint projects are being successfully implemented. Many initiatives have received the support of the President of the Russian Federation and the Prime Minister of the State of Israel. The interest of Israeli business circles in entering the Russian market continues to grow. Despite the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, by the end of 2020 trade between Russia and Israel decreased by only 3.9%, and in January-July this year it increased by 51.8% over the previous year’s period. The key coordinating mission in these common efforts is fulfilled by the Joint Russian-Israeli Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation, founded in 1994. We are interested in the early resumption of its work in full.

A special role in strengthening the unifying baselines of our relations as well as ensuring their stability and continuity belongs to humanitarian contacts. We appreciate the high level of mutual understanding between the peoples of Russia and Israel, connected by a common historical memory and convergence of cultures. It is encouraging that this thread, which has no geographic boundaries, is only getting stronger in course of time.

There are millions of Russian-speaking compatriots living in Israel, including descendants both from the former Republics of the USSR and from the Russian Federation. Veterans of the Great Patriotic War, survivors of the siege, former prisoners of concentration camps are among them. The fate of these people is of major interest to us.

Most vigorous rejection of the attempts of historical revisionism, combatting the distortion of the genesis, course and generally recognized international legal outcomes of the World War II have always united Russia and Israel. We will continue to coordinate our efforts, and specifically at the UN, to counter this shameful phenomenon.

While in some countries of Central and Eastern Europe Nazi henchmen are being brought to the level of national heroes and neo-Nazi tendencies are being revived, the memory of the decisive contribution of the heroic soldiers of the Red Army to the Victory over Nazism, the saving of Jews and other peoples from extermination, the liberation of the world from the horrors of the Holocaust is sacred in Israel. We see how Israeli colleagues – at the state and public levels – encourage the activities of the veterans and compatriots movements, conduct active work to educate the younger generation.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the law on Celebrating the Victory Day over Nazi Germany on May 9, approved by the Israeli parliament in 2017. It is particularly telling that on the 76th anniversary of the Great Victory, celebrated this year, festive events and commemorative parades along with the Immortal Regiment march were held in more than 45 Israeli cities. Thousands of Israelis of all ages as well as officials participated. This scale speaks for itself.

Cooperation in the field of education and science – whether through student and academic exchanges or joint scientific research continues to move forward. Every year, students from Israel get an opportunity to receive higher education in Russian universities. All of them are sincerely welcome there.

We hope that it will be possible to restore mutual tourist flows as soon as the sanitary and epidemiological situation improves. Russia is traditionally one of the top three countries in terms of the number of visitors to Israel.

The Russian-Israeli dialogue is vigorously advancing through the foreign ministries. It is obvious that without constructive interaction of diplomats it is impossible to solve a number of international and regional problems that are of paramount importance both for ensuring the prosperous future of the peoples of Russia and Israel just as for strengthening international and regional security and stability. From this perspective, diversified contacts between the Security Councils and the defense ministries of our countries have also proven themselves well. On a regular basis it allows us to compare approaches and take into account each other’s legitimate interests.

Russia is pursuing an independent multi-vector foreign policy, contemplating pragmatism, the search for compromises and the observance of balances of interests. Creation of the most favorable external conditions for our internal socio-economic development remains its backbone. We have no ideological likes and dislikes, or any taboos in relations with our foreign partners, therefore we can play an active role in the international arena and specifically through mediation in the settlement of conflicts.

We are interested in continuing consultations with our Israeli partners on security and stability issues in the Middle East. We always draw attention to the fact that comprehensive solutions to the problems of the region must necessarily take into account the security interests of Israel. This is a matter of principle.

At the same time, we are convinced that there is no alternative to the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a generally recognized international legal basis. We strongly support direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. A comprehensive solution to all issues of the final status is possible only through it. We are ready to work with Israeli colleagues, including multilateral formats, primarily in the context of the renewal of work of the Middle East Quartet of international mediators in close cooperation with representatives of the Arab League.

I am convinced: it is in the common interest to maintain the momentum. Ahead of us are new milestones and additional opportunities not only to continue, but also to enrich the positive experience of multifaceted cooperation for the benefit of our states and peoples, in the interests of peace and stability.

Source: Minister of Foreign Affairs

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