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False Promise: How the Turkish-Russian Dilemma Unmasks NATO

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There is no shortage of security threats to the NATO alliance: a resurgent and militarily active Russia; the territorial and global jihadist threat of DAESH; and the movements of over 4 million refugees.

Now, more than ever, would seem a time where solidarity of purpose and the coordination of logistical and security efforts would serve as a useful mechanism for minimum basic security. While NATO could hardly be described as a model of solidarity or efficiency, the outlook of NATO has not only dramatically changed after the November 24th downing of a Russian Su-24 warplane, its very purpose for existing may be now called into question.

While the data is insufficient at this point, the narrative is developing predictably. Turkish President Erdogan said that the Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace and that it failed to respect 10 warnings from the Turkish military. Ultimately, “Turkey is a country whose warnings should be taken seriously and listened to. Don’t test Turkey’s patience. Try to win its friendship.” Erdogan doubled down by highlighting the estimated 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey – a burden that far out paces any commitment by other NATO member states. These are nothing short of targeted threats and are intended to resonate more within the NATO alliance than act as a hedge against Russia’s military activity on or within Turkish borders.

Russia’s reaction has been equally predictable. President Putin has quickly adopted a more harsh tone, not only highlighting the consequences of this action on Russian-Turkish relations but directly calling this “a stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices.” Thus, the board is set, the die cast, and the pieces moving. The next steps are now what crucially matter. In this sense, it is easy to see why some are questioning how is this not the start of WWIII? We are witnessing a nearly global response to a series of meta-conflicts that have seen tens of thousands of lives lost and millions displaced. Meanwhile, global and regional powers are now openly brandishing military, economic, and political tools, bound in seemingly contradictory relationships as everyone has a web of shared/conflicting interests. Forces are gradually being amassed reminiscent of a situation preparatory to war and now the traditional security dilemma could be starting to unfold. The only ingredient missing is a modern day Ferdinand-Princip moment.

It would be overly pessimistic to say that this is a foregone conclusion. Similarly, it would be foolishly naive to say that the current state of affairs in the Syrian-DAESH conflict is not a potential tinderbox that could unravel the world’s strongest military alliance. Unfortunately, the varied and inconsistent reactions by NATO member states are doing little to prevent the pessimistic narrative from becoming reality. The brief moment of opportunity and unity of purpose between the U.S., Russia, and France in light of DAESH’s global strikes in Paris seem to have been as substantively robust as internet selfies transposed with the French flag on Facebook. The Turkish strike, which could technically be called a strike by NATO against Russia, has effectively sublimated any global sentiment for transcending traditional rivalries.

While the message from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was clear (“we stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally”), the responses from leaders of other NATO member states have been less clear. The responses have been a mix of passively enumerating international law, a call for calm and de-escalation, and confusion, given the many reports citing that the Russian aircraft was only in Turkish airspace for 30 seconds. This last claim, which comes out of an early report from the U.S., gives credence to Putin’s charge that this attack from Turkey was far from reactionary but premeditated. How, ultimately, can the NATO alliance move forward given the disparate reactions to the events of November 24, their competing goals in the two-front challenge of Syria-DAESH and Russia, and the increasingly emotional political discourse heavily-laden with nationalistic overtones?

It is important to put the NATO alliance into context. It is a military alliance intended to provide mutual security and protection against external threats. This function was a strategic priority of the highest order. The history of NATO was rather simple in this regard: it was designed to be a bulwark against the Soviet Union in a bi-polar world with inter-state security threats expected to be fought in conventional theatres. 25 years on, a lot has changed in the global political and security landscape. And while NATO has not adapted one cannot be overly critical: NATO, in effect, served its purpose. If its purpose now is to support and extend ad infinitum the status quo of ‘Pax Americana,’ then its aims are aspirational and its structure is subordinated to interests based upon values (or dogma) rather than security.

It is at this point where we ought to be reminded of another set of European values – the specific and changing interests of the state. To paraphrase the famous quote from Henry Templeton: “I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of [insert country]. We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and those interests it is our duty to follow.” NATO is not a single sovereign state and it is no longer singularly charged to defend the collective interests of Europe against the no longer existent Soviet Union. Security threats and interests change, as do individual state strategies toward pursuing those interests and defending against diverse threats. NATO, in its current structure, no longer adequately addresses the security challenges to its member states nor serves as a convening body to unite a set of similar interests among diverse parties. This alliance is in tatters and basically has been for 25 years. The Turkish strike on the Russian aircraft was not the straw that broke the camel’s back, therefore, but simply the removal of a blindfold long needed to be removed.

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Steering Russia-US Relations Away from Diplomatic Expulsion Rocks

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As the recent expulsions of Russian diplomats from the US, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic demonstrate, this measure is becoming a standard international practice of the West. For the Biden administration, a new manifestation of the “Russia’s threat” is an additional tool to discipline its European allies and to cement the transatlantic partnership. For many European NATO members, expulsions of diplomats are a symbolic gesture demonstrating their firm support of the US and its anti-Russian policies.

Clear enough, such a practice will not be limited to Russia only. Today hundreds, if not thousands of diplomatic officers all around the world find themselves hostage to problems they have nothing to do with. Western decision-makers seem to consider hosting foreign diplomats not as something natural and uncontroversial but rather as a sort of privilege temporarily granted to a particular country — one that can be denied at any given moment.

It would be logical to assume that in times of crisis, when the cost of any error grows exponentially, it is particularly crucial to preserve and even to expand the existing diplomatic channels. Each diplomat, irrespective of his or her rank and post, is, inter alia, a communications channel, a source of information, and a party to a dialogue that can help understand your opponent’s logic, fears, intentions, and expectations. Niccolo Machiavelli’s adage, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” remains just as pertinent five centuries later. Unfortunately, these wise words are out of circulation in most Western capitals today.

A proponent of expulsions would argue that those expelled are not actually diplomats at all. They are alleged intelligence officers and their mission is to undermine the host country’s national security. Therefore, expulsions are justified and appropriate. However, this logic appears to be extremely dubious. Indeed, if you have hard evidence, or at the very least a reasonable suspicion that a diplomatic mission serves as a front office for intelligence officers, and if operations of these officers are causing serious harm to your country’s security, why should you wait for the latest political crisis to expel them? You should not tolerate their presence in principle and expel them once you expose them.

Even the experience of the Cold War itself demonstrates that expulsions of diplomats produce no short-term or long-term positive results whatsoever. In fact, there can be no possible positive results because diplomatic service is nothing more but just one of a number of technical instruments used in foreign politics. Diplomats may bring you bad messages from their capitals and they often do, but if you are smart enough, you never shoot the messenger.

Diplomatic traditions do not allow such unfriendly actions to go unnoticed. Moscow has to respond. Usually, states respond to expulsions of their diplomats by symmetrical actions – i.e. Russia has to expel the same number of US, Polish or Czech diplomats, as the number of Russian diplomats expelled from the US, Poland or the Czech Republic. Of course, each case is special. For instance, the Czech Embassy in Moscow is much smaller than the Russian Embassy in Prague, so the impact of the symmetrical actions on the Czech diplomatic mission in Russia will be quite strong.

The question now is whether the Kremlin would go beyond a symmetrical response and start a new cycle of escalation. For example, it could set new restrictions upon Western companies operating in the country, it could cancel accreditation of select Western media in Moscow, it could close branches of US and European foundations and NGOs in Russia. I hope that the final response will be measured and not excessive.

The door for US-Russian negotiations is still open. So far, both sides tried to avoid specific actions that would make these negotiations absolutely impossible. The recent US sanctions against Russia have been mostly symbolic, and the Russian leadership so far has demonstrated no appetite for a rapid further escalation. I think that a meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin remains an option and an opportunity. Such a meeting would not lead to any “reset” in the bilateral relations, but it would bring more clarity to the relationship. To stabilize US-Russian relations even at a very low level would already be a major accomplishment.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia becomes member of International Organization for Migration

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Photo credit: Anton Novoderezhlin/TASS

After several negotiations, Russia finally becomes as a full-fledged member of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It means that Russia has adopted, as a mandatory condition for obtaining membership, the constitution of the organization. It simply implies that by joining this international organization, it has given the country an additional status.

After the collapse of the Soviet, Russia has been interacting with the IOM since 1992 only as an observer. In the past years, Russia has shown interest in expanding this cooperation. The decision to admit Russia to the organization was approved at a Council’s meeting by the majority of votes: 116 states voted for it, and two countries voted against – these are Ukraine and Georgia. That however, the United States and Honduras abstained, according to information obtained from Moscow office of International Migration Organization.

“In line with the resolution of the 111th session of the IOM Council of November 24, 2020 that approved Russia’s application for the IOM membership, Russia becomes a full-fledged member of the organization from the day when this notification is handed over to its director general,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a website statement in April.

Adoption of the IOM Constitution is a mandatory condition for obtaining its membership, which opens “extra possibilities for developing constructive cooperation with international community on migration-related matters,” the statement stressed in part.

It is significant to recall that Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an order to secure Russia’s membership in the organization in August 2020 and submitted its Constitution to the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament) in February 2021.

Headquartered in Geneva, the International Organization for Migration, a leading inter-government organization active in the area of migration, was set up on December 5, 1951. It opened its office in Moscow in 1992.

IOM supports migrants across the world, developing effective responses to the shifting dynamics of migration and, as such, is a key source of advice on migration policy and practice. The organization works in emergency situations, developing the resilience of all people on the move, and particularly those in situations of vulnerability, as well as building capacity within governments to manage all forms and impacts of mobility.

IOM’s stated mission is to promote humane and orderly migration by providing services and advice to governments and migrants. It works to help ensure proper management of migration, to promote international cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, be they refugees, displaced persons or other uprooted people. It is part of the structured system of the United Nations, and includes over 170 countries.

Senator Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of Russia’s Federation Council (Senate) Committee on International Affairs, noted that the organization’s constitution has a provision saying that it is in a nation’s jurisdiction to decide how many migrants it can receive, therefore the IOM membership imposes no extra commitments on Russia and doesn’t restrict its right to conduct an independent migration policy.

On other hand, Russia’s full-fledged membership in IOM will help it increase its influence on international policy in the sphere of migration and use the country’s potential to promote its interests in this sphere, Senator Dzhabarov explained.

Russia has had an inflow of migrants mainly from the former Soviet republics. The migrants have played exceptional roles both in society and in the economy. The inflow of foreign workers to Russia has be resolved in accordance with real needs of the economy and based on the protection of Russian citizens’ interests in the labor market, according to various expert opinions.

The whole activity of labor migrants has to be conducted in strict compliance with legislation of the Russian Federation and generally recognized international norms.

State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and many state officials have repeatedly explained the necessity of holding of partnership dialogues on finding solutions to emerging problems within the framework of harmonization of legislation in various fields including regional security, migration policy and international cooperation. Besides that, Russia is ready for compliance with international treaties and agreements.

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Relegating the “Russia Problem” to Turkey

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erdogan aliyev
Image credit: Prezident.Az

Turkey’s foreign policy is at a crossroads. Its Eurasianist twist is gaining momentum and looking east is becoming a new norm. Expanding its reach into Central Asia, in the hope of forming an alliance of sorts with the Turkic-speaking countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan — is beginning to look more realistic. In the north, the north-east, in Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, there is an identifiable geopolitical arc where Turkey is increasingly able to puncture Russia’s underbelly.

Take Azerbaijan’s victory in Second Karabakh War. It is rarely noticed that the military triumph has also transformed the country into a springboard for Turkey’s energy, cultural and geopolitical interests in the Caspian Sea region of Central Asia. Just two months after the November ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey signed a new trade deal with Azerbaijan. Turkey also sees benefits from January’s Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan agreement which aims to jointly develop the Dostluk (Friendship) gas field under the Caspian Sea, and it recently hosted a trilateral meeting with the Azerbaijani and Turkmen foreign ministers. The progress around Dostlug removes a significant roadblock on the implementation of the much-touted Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) which would allow gas to flow through the South Caucasus to Europe. Neither Russia nor Iran welcome this — both oppose Turkey’s ambitions of becoming an energy hub and finding new sources of energy.

Official visits followed. On March 6-9, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Defense cooperation, preferential trade deals, and a free trade agreement were discussed in Tashkent. Turkey also resurrected a regional trade agreement during a March 4 virtual meeting of the so-called Economic Cooperation Organization which was formed in 1985 to facilitate trade between Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Though it has been largely moribund, the timing of its re-emergence is important as it is designed to be a piece in the new Turkish jigsaw.

Turkey is slowly trying to build an economic and cultural basis for cooperation based on the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency founded in 1991 and the Turkic Council in 2009. Although Turkey’s economic presence in the region remains overshadowed by China and Russia, there is a potential to exploit. Regional dependence on Russia and China is not always welcome and Central Asian states looking for alternatives to re-balance see Turkey as a good candidate. Furthermore, states such as Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are also cash-strapped, which increases the potential for Turkish involvement.

There is also another dimension to the eastward push. Turkey increasingly views Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan as parts of an emerging geopolitical area that can help it balance Russia’s growing military presence in the Black Sea and in the South Caucasus. With this in mind, Turkey is stepping up its military cooperation not only with Azerbaijan, but also with Georgia and Ukraine. The recent visit of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Turkey highlighted the defense and economic spheres. This builds upon ongoing work of joint drone production, increasing arms trade, and naval cooperation between the two Black Sea states.

The trilateral Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey partnership works in support of Georgia’s push to join NATO. Joint military drills are also taking place involving scenarios of repelling enemy attacks targeting the regional infrastructure.

Even though Turkey and Russia have shown that they are able to cooperate in different theaters, notably in Syria, they nonetheless remain geopolitical competitors with diverging visions. There is an emerging two-pronged strategy Turkey is now pursuing to address what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees as a geopolitical imbalance. Cooperate with Vladimir Putin where possible, but cooperate with regional powers hostile to Russia where necessary.

There is one final theme for Turkey to exploit. The West knows its limits. The Caspian Sea is too far, while an over-close relationship with Ukraine and Georgia seems too risky. This creates a potential for cooperation between Turkey and the collective West. Delegating the “Russia problem” to Turkey could be beneficial, though it cannot change the balance of power overnight and there will be setbacks down the road.

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