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Suicidal Nuclear Gambit on Caucasus

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Nuclear security is seemingly in the vanguard of global attention, but the large framework of international provisions is increasingly perceived as a toothless tiger. In the contemporary age where asymmetric threats to security are one of the most dangerous ones, the time is high to mitigate the risk of rouge actors having potential access to materials, necessary to develop nuclear weapons.

Nowhere is this urgency more pivotal than in already turbulent areas, such as the South Caucasus. With many turmoil instabilities, lasting for decades with no completely bulletproof conflict resolution process installed, adding a threat of nuclear weapons potential means creating a house of cards that can cause complete collapse of regional peace and stability. That is precisely why recently uncovered and reoccurring actions of Armenia towards the goal of building its own nuclear capacity must be addressed more seriously. They should also attract bolder response to ensure safety of the region is sustained.

According to the report by Vienna-based nuclear watch-dog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Armenia has established quite a record of illegal trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials. There have been a couple of serious incidents spanning from 1999 onward. A large number of reported incidents has occurred on the country`s border with Georgia, tempting the IAEA to conclude there is high probability that the so called Armenian route does in fact exist. There is a further evidence to support this assertion. There were an unusually high number of Armenians caught in nuclear trafficking activities. Additionally, some of the reported incidents that made their way to the official reports suggested that the main focus of trafficking activities is in fact smuggling of nuclear material that could be used for nuclear weapons capabilities. There were also reports suggesting the trafficking of other radioactive material that could be utilized for alternate purposes, such as the building of a so called dirty bomb. Since the stakes with nuclear weaponry are always high to the extreme, the recognition of this threat must not be underrated and dismissed easily.

Only days henceforth the latest illegal activities have been uncovered by border control in April, 2016, former Armenian Prime Minister Bagratyan shocked the international public with the claim that Armenia indeed has nuclear capabilities and the ability to further develop them. The main reason for the possession is to deter neighbors such as Turkey and Azerbaijan. More specifically, to discourage them from resorting to aggressive foreign policy measures and mitigate potential threats to Armenian territorial integrity, especially in the disputed regions. Even though Turkey and its intelligence network was quick to dismiss these claims and labeled them as a failed attempt to increase the geopolitical importance of Armenia, as well as to deter its much more militarily capable neighboring countries, such claims should not be taken lightly, either. Thus, there is no cause for alarm yet.

However, there should be increased interest of the international community to investigate these serious claims. If documented, they would pose a grave desta-bilization factor for the already turbulent region. They would also trigger deepening of hostilities and mistrust in extremely delicate regional framework of peace.

The prospects and dangers of potential acquisition of a dirty bomb by rouge actors are rising on the international agenda. The recently detected activities in South Caucasus showed that there were substantial efforts made in order to smuggle and illegally sell Uranium 238, which is highly radioactive. At the beginning of 2016, a different group was trying to smuggle a highly radioactive Cesium isotope that usually forms as a waste product in nuclear reactors. What is also worrying is that the majority of the activities are occurring in highly instable and unmonitored territories of Azerbaijan and Georgia that are under the control of separatists, such as Nagorno- Karabakh and South Ossetia. The mere organization of the Armenian route proves to show that illegal activities can flourish in the security blind spots of the region.

There is also the Iranian connection. Armenia borders this Middle Eastern country that found itself in the centre of global attention until the ratification of The Joint Comprehensive plan of Action in 2015. The international agreement supposedly effectively mitigated the risk of Teheran developing its own nuclear capabilities and established a proper international regime to monitor compliance to the installed provisions. However, fears remain over future developments of this issue. The unusually high number of truck traffic between Armenia and Iran further fuels suspicion on what exactly goes down under the cloak of darkness.

Iran is not the only powerful ally of Armenia that holds knowledge on all things nuclear. Yerevan is extremely close with Russia ever since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and fully relies on Moscow when it comes to upholding its security, territorial integrity and political autonomy. Russia is of course a member of the elite nuclear club, and besides the US holds one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear capabilities in the world. This is of course a leftover of the Cold war era and fears of the Eastern or the Western devil, depends on which side of the wall the threat was being perceived.

It is worrying to note that some of the nuclear material that was trying to find its way into Armenia through South Ossetia has been, at least according to some reports, traced back to Russian nuclear facilities. This is of course of small wonder, since Russia is an official supplier of nuclear fuel for the only nuclear power plant in Armenia, the Metsamor nuclear plant that supplies roughly 40 % of electricity to the country`s population.

But the reactor itself falls into another aspect of nuclear threats posed by Armenia, specifically nuclear safety threats. The reactor is extremely outdated, and there are no proper safeguard and safety mechanism installed that would ensure adequate monitoring of its operations and recognition of potential faults in the system.

The world just marked the thirtieth anniversary of the devastating Chernobyl accident, and it is unsettling to know there is high risk of a similar disaster in the adjacent area. Nuclear safety, like nuclear security, should be taken extremely seriously. Any outdated systems, like the one at the Metsamor nuclear plant, should be either closed down until repaired and adjusted to proper security standards, or shut down completely if the plant is unable to follow necessary legal provisions. To make the future prospects even grimmer, the area where the Metsamor plant is located is being said to have very vibrant seismic activities. Thus, not only is the plant dangerous due to outdated security systems and technology, but also due to naturally occurring phenomenon that is highly likely to cause significant damage on the plant itself. Armenian officials should protect their own population and not risk a nuclear holocaust. Instead, they continue to stubbornly extend their self-entrapment grand ambitions.

Reviewing the manifold danger that Armenia represent in nuclear terms, there are no simple answers, although there are a few clear conclusions. The Metsamor power plant should be considered as an imminent and serious threat to millions of people in Asia, Middle East and Europe, and shut down. Additionally, this issue should not be shielded anymore for the sake of pure Macht politik.

Macht prefers secrecy and coercion and we already well know how it always ends up. After Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima disaster, the last thing the world needs is another nuclear catastrophe. Additionally, there are clear ambitions present in the country to develop and acquire nuclear capabilities. For more than one reason that is an extremely dangerous endeavor to pursue. Not just for the region itself and adjacent countries but also for the world which should be evolving towards the future nuclear free world instead. Consequently, we have to do all we can to prevent yet another blow to an already shaking NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty).

Conclusively, Caucasus is full of frozen yet unsolved, highly polarizing, toxic and potentially inflammable conflicts. We also have to be aware that the raging flames of instability from Syria and Iraq are not far away. We do not need another nuclear meltdown inferno. It is high time to localize the overheated blaze of Middle East. It would be a good start by stabilizing Caucasus in a just, fair and sustainable way.

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Eastern Europe

Ukraine crisis: Outlook for 2023

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“Now for the inconvenient truths that mainstream media (MSM) refuse to present to their audiences regarding the Ukraine war. This happens both in the US and in Europe but especially on the old continent,” writes Seppo Niemi, independent political, economic and military analyst, Master of social sciences (Helsinki University), Finland, in his report “Ukraine crisis: overview of 2022, outlook for 2023”. It’s a very realistic research and detailed review with analytical conclusions. He writes in particular:

– In 1990/1991 when Soviet Union collapsed, the western powers (NATO and the US) promised to then Soviet leaders not to expand their membership after Germany’s reunification. The Soviet withdrawal did occur. However, NATO started expansion eastward, which is now culminating in Ukraine crisis. NATO expanded anyhow, including in Poland for which they had also explicitly stated they would not. But that is not the only promise NATO has broken with Russia.

– In 2008, former US Ambassador to Russia William Burns and the current CIA director warned that any effort by NATO to bring Ukraine into its fold would be viewed by Russia as a threat to its national security and, if pursued, would provoke a Russian military intervention. That memo by Burns provides much-needed context to the Dec. 17, 2021, initiatives by Russia to create a new European security framework that would keep Ukraine out of NATO.

– Now, based on calculated numbers of destroyed equipment and material, one can say that by now, Ukraine has lost the nominal equipment of two larger armies. The stocks of two complete armies have by now been destroyed in Ukraine! The resources for a smaller third one will be delivered in the next rounds of western equipment deliveries during the next months.

– The European public discussion is getting hot, “send or not to send battle tanks, particularly German Leopards” but right now decisions were made “yes, we send”? What MSM and decisionmakers did not realize, was the fact that Ukraine already have had thousands of tanks and armoured vehicles, which were eliminated by Russia so far. Supposedly, Russia will destroy Ukraine’s third army just as it has destroyed the first and second one. It is doubtful that the West has enough material left to provide Ukraine with a fourth one.

– That then leaves only two options. Send in western infantry troops (boots on the ground) with the equipment they still have and try to resume warfare as long as they can. The neo-conservatives as ever favor the first option.

– The second option is to declare a non-existent victory (with the help of western MSM!) and forget about the whole issue and go home. MSM may declare that “Putin tried to conquer Europe but we stopped him after he took only half of Ukraine.” This will sound like ‘victory’. But it is of course extremely far from the truth. Anyway, the media may well buy it.

Outlook for 2023:

– President Putin’s keynote address at the Valdai Club, late October 2022, appears to have put Russia on a collision course with the US-led “Rules Based International Order”. The Biden administration two weeks earlier released its 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS), a full-throated defense of this order, which all but declares war on “autocrats” who are “working overtime to undermine democracy.”

These two visions of the future of the world order define a global competition that has become existential in nature. In short, there can be only one victor. The battle lines have been drawn now, American-led unipolarity on one side and a Russian-Chinese led multipolarity on the other.

– America’s strategy of failure is coming to Ukraine, the US mission follows in the fatal footsteps of ultimately failed war campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq or in Libya. Public critics in America, regarding US military missions in the name of “global war on terrorism” have lamented the lack of a coherent strategy.

As the old line from Carl von Clausewitz goes, “war is an extension of politics through other means.” Warfare, therefore, is an inherently political act.” Thus, whenever military force is used it must have clear ends, set forth by the political leadership ordering the use of that military force. Those clearly defined political ends must be supplemented by reliable ways to achieve that realistic political objective.

– From US viewpoint: Once Kiev was secured and the survival of President Zelensky’s government was assured in autumn 2022, the logical course of action would have been to sue for peace, to negotiate a settlement that kept western Ukraine free and ceded the Russian-speaking provinces of eastern Ukraine and Crimea officially to the Russians.

– But then, Washington doubled down and encouraged the Ukrainians to shift their objective from one of realistic territorial defense to an insane attempt to restore Ukrainian control completely over occupied territories. So, Ukraine has been duped into a war it cannot win against nuclear-armed Russia, while the West does little to prepare itself for the wider war it has provoked.

– Washington’s ruling class has blundered for decades at the strategic level. With each foreign policy disaster, America’s overall standing atop the world system has declined until it has reached its current nadir. The United States now has a stark choice to make:

  1. a) either Washington manages to pull out a miracle in Ukraine;
  2. b) or the Russians will crush Ukraine and then break the back of the NATO alliance too.

By this way Russia will end the US strategic position in Europe and likely create an entirely New World Order, where there are multiple power centers, as opposed to American unipolarity. This fate was avoidable had the US simply given more attention to strategy rather than ideology.

– After 11 months of nonstop warfare in Ukraine, the US-backed western coalition finds itself in a worse position than when it began. Aside from the fact that the economic sanctions have severely impacted Washington’s closest European allies, the West’s control of Ukraine has plunged the economy into a protracted slump, destroyed much of the country’s critical infrastructure and annihilated a sizable portion of the Ukrainian Army.

– More importantly, Ukrainian forces are now suffering unsustainable casualties on the battlefield which is laying the groundwork for the inevitable splintering of the state. Whatever the outcome of the conflict may be, one thing is certain: Ukraine will no longer exist as a viable, independent, contiguous state.

One of the biggest surprises of the current war, is simply the lack of preparedness on part of the US and the West in general. The Western policymakers seem surprised by the fact that the economic sanctions backfired and actually strengthened Russia’s economic situation. They also failed to anticipate that the vast majority of countries would not only ignore the sanctions but proactively explore options for “ditching the dollar” in their business transactions and in the sale of critical resources. The level of incompetence in the planning of this war is beyond anything we’ve ever seen before.

– It appears that all the preparation was focused on provoking a Russian invasion, not on the developments that would happen soon afterwards. What’s clear, is that the Pentagon never “gamed out” the actual war itself or the conflict as it is presently unfolding.

– On January 20, at a ceremony of the Euro-Atlantic alliance in Madrid, Josep Borrel, the Head of EU diplomacy, recalled Russia’s victories over Hitler and Napoleon, from which he concluded that it is necessary to continue to increase military pressure on it and continue arming Ukraine. No doubt, Russia understood it so, that he voiced the real goal of the western military campaign, which is the destruction of Russia and the seizure of its territories, as Hitler and Napoleon had previously attempted to do.

– On January 25, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock publicly confirmed, at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, the fact on the ground: “We are fighting a war against Russia”. With the word “we” she meant that the EU and Germany are fighting a war against Russia. Perhaps this is “the Fourth Reich”.

– Then the question arises again as to what should happen with the deliveries of the tanks at all. The West can send 200 tanks there but they don’t change anything in the overall military situation – to take over the Crimea or the Donbass, those tanks are not enough. In eastern Ukraine, in the Bakhmut area, the Russians are clearly advancing and probably will have completely conquered the Donbass before long. One only has to consider the numerical superiority of the Russians over Ukraine. Russia can mobilize up to two million reservists!

– However, those new capabilities cannot prevent a NATO defeat. In other words, US and western commanders will sooner or later have to face an even worse choice: defeat or nuclear war and Europe (the EU) is sleepwalking with the US into the same Armageddon.

– Ultimately, that is no longer an option for Ukraine either. The key to solving the conflict does not lie in Kyiv, nor does it lie in Berlin, Brussels or Paris, it lies in Washington and Moscow

– A broader front for Peace must be built in Washington… Otherwise we wake up one morning and we’re in the middle of World War III.

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Ukraine war’s first anniversary and beyond

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photo source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The first anniversary of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine falls on February 24. The Russian strategy of attrition war has not yet produced the desired political outcome but has been a success nonetheless, writes Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer M.K. Bhadrakumar.

The delusional “westernist” notions of the Moscow elite that Russia can be a dialogue partner of the West have dissipated thoroughly, with ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunning disclosure recently that the West’s negotiations with Russia regarding the Minsk Agreement were an “attempt to give Ukraine time” and that Kiev had used it “to become stronger.”

Thus, the accession to Russia four ex-Ukrainian regions — Donetsk and Lugansk [Donbass], Zaporozhye, Kherson oblasts – accounting for around one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, is a fait accompli now, and Kiev’s recognition of it is a pre-requisite for any future peace talks.

The Kremlin has put necessary mechanisms in place to galvanise the defence industry and the economy to meet the needs of the military operations in Ukraine. From a long-term perspective, one historic outcome of the conflict is going to be Russia’s emergence as an unassailable military power that draws comparison with the Soviet Red Army, which the West will never again dare to confront. This is yet to sink in.

Under the plan approved by Putin, the Moscow and the Leningrad military districts will be created, three motorised rifle divisions will be formed in the Kherson and the Zaporozhye oblasts (that have been annexed in September) and an army corps will be built in the northwestern region of Karelia bordering Finland.

The internal western assessment is that the war is going badly for Ukraine. Spiegel reported last week that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) “informed security politicians of the Bundestag in a secret meeting this week that the Ukrainian army is currently losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day in battles.”

The Biden Administration is hoping to buy time till spring to revamp the pulverised Ukrainian military and equip it with advanced weaponry. The old stocks of Soviet-era weaponry have been exhausted and future supplies to Ukraine will have to be from hardware in service with NATO countries. That is easier said than done, and western defence industry will need time to restart production.

All the bravado that ‘Kiev is preparing for an offensive to drive the Russians out of Ukraine’ has vanished.

The big picture, therefore, as the war enters the second year is that the West is working feverishly on plans, with the Biden Administration leading from the rear, to deliver heavy armour to the Ukrainian military by spring, including German Leopard tanks. If that happens, Russia is sure to retaliate with strikes on supply routes and warehouses in western Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, the outspoken former Russian president who is close to Putin and serves as deputy chairman of the powerful security council, explicitly warned, “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

There is the ‘X’ factor — US domestic politics as it approaches the 2024 election year. The Republicans are insisting on an auditing of the tens of billions of dollars spent on Ukraine — $110 billion in military aid alone — making the Biden Administration accountable.

The CIA chief William Burns paid an unpublicised visit to Kiev, reportedly to transmit the message that US arms supplies beyond July may become problematic.

International Affairs

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China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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