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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

Lithuania’s voice in NATO is getting stronger, Karoblis is happier

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Lithuania’s voice in NATO is getting stronger but pushy. It uses new arguments to attract NATO attention to fulfill its individual goals. And it should be admitted that Lithuania successfully exploited its military weakness to obtain military strength.

About 500 troops are deploying to new training facilities in the country and will stay through the winter in preparation for a massive divisional exercise in Europe that will see 20,000 U.S. troops in Europe known as Defender 2020.

The troops deploying to Lithuania this October are the 1st Armored Battalion of the 9th Regiment, 1st Division, along with 30 Abrams tanks, 25 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and 70 wheeled vehicles to the Gen. S.Žukauskas Training Area in Pabradė.

Defender, which will strain the beleaguered U.S. logistics system, will move thousands of U.S. troops from forts in the United States to sealift ships that will take them to Europe, testing investments in European security.

Lithuanian authorities do not hide their satisfaction with U.S. troops arriving. “The geopolitical situation in the region hasn’t changed,” Giedrimas Jeglinskas, Lithuania’s vice minister of national defence, said in an interview with Defense News. “For us this is a great thing. We see that the U.S. is in the region, and U.S. presence is the biggest deterrent that we could ever hope for. We’ve said for a long time that we want U.S. soldiers on our soil — and we can argue about whether its permanent rotational forces or a permanent rotation — but the fact is that they are there.”

But even such steps are not enough to Lithuania. Thus, Lithuania’s Minister of National Defence Raimundas Karoblis calls for NATO to deploy air defences in the country. In order to achieve another aim – to have reliable air defence – Karoblis insists that that NATO should deploy air defence measures to Lithuania in order to protect the international battalion stationed in the country.

It is interesting that Lithuania has moved from requests to strong political recommendations.

“It was already agreed during the [2016] Warsaw Summit, and it is not implemented. This issue was also raised by several commanders of the battle group,” Karoblis told journalists during a joint press conference with visiting German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on October, 10.

Huge NATO is almost cornered by small Lithuania

Germany leads the international NATO battalion deployed in Lithuania since 2017, with around 600 German troops stationed in Lithuania as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP).

Karoblis said air defence measures are primarily necessary to protect the foreign troops serving in the battalion, since Lithuania does not have necessary systems for that.

“It’s about the security of the soldiers who are deployed here,” the minister said.

So, NATO has no chance but provide necessary defence for their soldiers.

On the one hand, Lithuania shows its commitment in defending foreign troops properly. On the other hand, it defends its own troops and territory at the expense of others.

In this particular case Lithuania creatively developed the way how to attract the Alliance possibilities to strengthen Lithuania’s own military capabilities. It is paradoxically, but in this case Lithuanian Military Independence is equal to Lithuanian Military Dependence on others.

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Surprise signing of “Steinmeier formula”: Causes and consequences

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The news about the so-called “Steinmeier formula” having been signed by all members of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) came as a big surprise. All the more so, since the September 4 agreement by the political advisers to the presidents of the Normandy Four countries to endorse the proposal made a big buzz in the world media, and set off a storm of angry outrage in the Ukrainian press with a number of political and public figures, as well as representatives of nationalists all but calling President Vladimir Zelensky a traitor. Former President Leonid Kuchma, who represents Ukraine at the Contact Group, refused to sign the formula during a group meeting on September 18. In a bid to rectify the situation, they started talking about the existence of some alleged “Zelensky formula, whose contents was never made public.

Until the “formula” was actually signed at the October 1 meeting by the Contact Group, there had been neither announcements of, nor preparations for this. What happened between September 18 and October 1, which eventually prompted President Zelensky’s decision to sign the “formula”?

The UN General Assembly, during which Vladimir President Zelensky finally met with President Donald Trump, advised him to establish closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and settle differences together. Shortly afterwards, the White House published, without securing any prior agreement from Kiev, the transcript of a telephone linkup between Trump and Zelensky. This was followed by the resignation of the US Special Envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker.

These two important developments are a clear sign of Washington’s utilitarian attitude towards Kiev. However, even if they did influence Kiev’s further actions, they only served as a catalyst. Finding himself on the brink of a diplomatic scandal with France and Germany, Zelensky needed to make good his campaign promises and move fast to maintain his lead over his political opponents (presidential elections – parliamentary elections – government formation – exchange of prisoners – signing of the “Steinmeier formula”- a meeting of the “Normandy Four”).

The signing of the “Steinmeier formula” at the Contact Group opened the way for a summit of the heads of state of the “Normandy Four” is open, and this is the most significant and, maybe, the only result of the October 1 signing. 

The signing of the “Steinmeier formula” is seen by Ukrainian media as an act of treason. Why? Because they are afraid. Of what?

“Do you know what the sense of this document (Minsk agreements – D.B.) was? That it will not be implemented. The sides had different interpretations of the text of the agreements, which gave Ukraine time to contain Russia, which faced additional Western sanctions. (…) Decentralization will be interpreted as federalization, local elections will be held, which the OSCE, being financially dependent on Russia, will formally recognize. At the same time, the constitution will be changed and the law on special status implemented, this time in full. Only after this (according to the Minsk agreements), will Ukraine restore control over its border. After all, it is clear that Moscow will only implement the first part of the agreement. (…) The authorities there will be formed by the Kremlin. Next up is a nationwide election in Ukraine. And the key to parliament is in the hands of the Russian authorities,” the Ukrainian website lb.ua news writes. 

In this logic, even the OSCE plays on Russia’s side. The main thing for Kiev, however, is that the documents will never be implemented.

Moreover, according to Russian experts, Kiev has ample opportunities to sabotage the Minsk agreements even after they have been signed. 

Andrei Kortunov gives his own picture of how the situation may develop further:

1. The Ukrainian law on the special status of Donbass will soon expire. A new law will be adopted, and what it will look like we do not know.

2. Kiev’s formal consent to the “Steinmeier formula” is not entirely obvious.   It says that it endorsed only the general principle of the formula. Moreover, given the strong efforts being made to undermine the Ukrainian position, just how the preparations for the summit will go depends on the political will of the Ukrainian leadership.

3. Disagreements remain, in particular, concerning the special status of Donbass.

That being said, the process has still moved forward. I do hope that all participants in this process will show maximum flexibility, so that it keeps moving on, which would probably provide some tangible results in the next three to four months.”

In a sober assessment of what happened, the OSCE Special Representative Martin Sajdik, noted that the signatures are not under one common document, but under separate letters. This means that theoretically, each side could stick to its own interpretation of the formula. As for the local elections in Donbass, Sajdik continues, there are many questions that need to be answered before the elections:

“There is still much work to be done on this issue within the contact group and in the ‘Normandy format,’” he told reporters. “A lot of work remains in the political subgroup of the contact group. It is in it that it will be necessary to talk about the holding of elections.”

He added that many questions remain open, including the security of the upcoming procedure; and that the “Normandy format” summit could be the first step in this direction.

As for the “Steinmeier formula,” it is only a mechanism which, as part of diplomatic cooperation in the “Normandy Four” format, symbolizes the participants’ readiness to resolve the conflict in southeastern Ukraine and determine the future status of the republics of Donbass. It does not guarantee the implementation of the Minsk accords though. 

Moreover, a statement issued by representatives of the unrecognized republics demands a step-by-step roadmap of what needs to be done now.  They believe that the signing of the “Steinmeier formula” should be viewed as recognition of the right of the people of Donbass to determine their own fate. This is the bottom line of the joint statement made by the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR), Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik.

“Yesterday, thanks to Russia, Germany and France, Ukraine finally signed the Steinmeier formula, which guarantees Donbass a special status. Thus, it   recognizes the special right of the people of Donbass to independently determine their fate. It is up to us to decide what language to speak, what kind of an economy we need, how our judicial system will be formed, how our people’s militia will protect our citizens, and how we will integrate with Russia. This is our business and our goal, and we will continue negotiations in Minsk in order to ultimately achieve self-rule and self-determination,” the statement says.”

The signing of the “formula” provoked fierce resistance on the part of the advocates of the so-called “Poroshenko’s course,” as the “party of war” considers the signing as a sign of surrender. Meanwhile, the European Union and its leading members welcomed Zelensky’s move. Paradoxically, Ukrainian parties, which support European integration, such as European Solidarity, Golos and Batkivshchyna, took an anti-European position. The nationalists brought about 2,000 people to the streets of Kiev and in many other cities (200-300 people in each city), who chanted “No surrender!” and called for the impeachment of President Zelensky.

In an October 2 appeal to Ukrainians protesting against the signing of the “Steinmeier formula,” President Zelensky said: “Today there is only one platform where these issues can be discussed at the highest level. This is a meeting in the Normandy format … This formula says only one thing – namely, exactly when the so-called law on the special status of the Donbass should work. It will after local elections have been held there according to the Constitution of Ukraine, the laws of Ukraine, and after the publication of the OSCE report that the elections were held in line with internationally recognized democratic standards.”

Political advisers to the leaders of the “Normandy Four” can confirm the signing of the “Steinmeier formula.” At their meeting, the heads of state of the “Normandy Four” can agree the “formula” as the initial mechanism for the implementation of the Minsk accords.

However, it is Kiev, who holds the key to the implementation of the “formula,” or rather, the Minsk agreements as a whole. Political decisions taken on the international level need to be followed up by the Ukrainian parliament, which should pass laws on the special status of the unrecognized republics, and an election law, after which local elections should be held.  President Zelensky has a majority in the Verkhovna Rada and can amend the constitution in such a way that it outlines the special status of the unrecognized republics of Donbass.

Depending on the intentions of the Ukrainian leadership, the situation may develop according to several scenarios:

1) Zelensky uses his majority in parliament to push through laws, necessary for the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

2) Zelensky fails to muster parliamentary support, since his majority is not solid enough. 

3) Zelensky receives parliamentary support, the laws are passed, but the Minsk agreements are interpreted in such a way that only Kiev can arrange. For example, “special status” is interpreted as part of a decentralization policy. The implementation of the Minsk accords is put on hold again. 

In the first scenario, the adopted laws will need to be implemented, which could prove extremely difficult.

In the second scenario, President Zelensky could say: “The elected representatives of the Ukrainian people failed to support the implementation of the Minsk agreements. I did all I could, but ‘everything is possible.’ Therefore, it is necessary to amend the Minsk agreements and look for a new formula of their implementation. And this is the third scenario.

Kiev’s intention to implement exactly the third scenario became very much evident during Vladimir Zelensky’s press conference, which he convened to clarify his position regarding the signing of the “Steinmeier formula.” Following are the main points of Zelensky’s address:

The “Steinmeier formula” is agreed upon, but not signed.

“Red lines” regarding Donbass Ukraine will not be crossed.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces will not surrender.

Nobody can influence the president’s decisions.

There will be no local elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in the presence of any armed forces on their territories.

Elections are possible only after the border between the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and the Russian Federation goes under Ukraine’s control.

The exact date of the meeting in the “Normandy format” will be agreed shortly.

The signing of the “Steinmeier formula” has created more questions, which could be answered during the summit of the heads of state of the “Normandy Four.”  

From our partner International Affairs

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Two-faced Lithuanian politics

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Lithuania continues attempts to support the image of a democratic state and at the same time not to lose foreign military support.

On September 26, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda made his first address at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In his speech he said that threat to Russia’s neighbouring countries remains strong and Moscow is attempting to further destabilise neighbouring states.

Such statement can be regarded as a call for further support in developing Lithuania’s military capabilities to oppose Russia in the Baltic Region.

In order to look “nice” in the eyes of the world community, Gitanas Nausėda added that Russia could change and inspire confidence.

As we know, it could be done only by political means and only through negotiations. The Lithuanian president underlined also that “determination to adhere to international law is often the last barrier separating our countries from unpredictable and therefore dangerous disorder”.

From the very beginning it sounded as if Lithuania would like Russia to change its position on the international arena. But later Lithuanian president contradicted himself. He called not to create any international platforms with Russia’s participation designed to resolve existing political and military problems. Thus, he strongly rejected the idea of some political leaders to create a new geopolitical space from the Atlantic Ocean to Vladivostok, drawing Russia in.

It turns out that Lithuania is not interested in changing Russia’s position.

The recent events in Lithuania illustrated such two-faced position on contemporary politics. Lithuanian authorities are not going to change their plans. According to Ministry of National Defence Rotational U.S. force, a battalion-sized unit of over 500 U.S. Army soldiers, will deploy in Lithuania to ensure deterrence and train in exercises shortly in October. The unit is part of the U.S. Army Europe Operation Atlantic Resolve.

“We have sought for a larger long-term U.S. military involvement in Lithuania and the region consistently and patiently. Therefore the deployment of the U.S. Army battalion for a longer period of time is good and awaited news and a result of our efforts and investment,” Minister of National Defence Raimundas Karoblis said.

He also underscores that Lithuania has already hosted many U.S. battalions, however, that used to be in the framework of concrete exercises. This time the U.S. forces are arriving for a long-term deployment, not for an international exercise.

The troops will bring heavy equipment 30 Abrams tanks, 25 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, 70 wheeled vehicles and will deploy at Gen S.Žukauskas Training Area in Pabradė.

The U.S. battalion is planned to stay in Lithuania until spring 2020.

The more so, on September 26 the Lithuanian Armed Forces accepted 110 Unimog U5000 trucks of 5t payload manufactured by Germany’s Daimler AG as it is updating its truck fleet with vehicles of the same make as there already are in the fleet.

The trucks are delivered on the basis of a contract signed back in 2015 though continuing successful cooperation of the Ministry of National Defence and the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA). 88 such trucks have already been delivered to the Lithuanian Armed Forces; the contract covers acquisition of the total of 340 new Unimog trucks.

The 110 have been delivered to the Lithuanian Armed Forces on the basis of the contract on the Unimog truck acquisition between the Defence Materiel Agency under the MoD and the NATO Support and Procurement Agency updated in 2018. Daimler AG is committed to delivering the remaining 142 trucks in 2020-2021.

In other words, Lithuania does not really want Russia to change its position and behaviour. it is profitable for Lithuania to show its political concern, arm itself and get help. Lithuanian authorities do not care of escalating tension in Europe and it ignores attempts to resolve crisis of political confidence in Europe by political means.

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