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Trump, change and the new level of militarization in the South Caucasus

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap] fter Donald J. Trump has become a president-elect of the United States of America there has been an ongoing debate about largely anything connected to that fact and not least about the President’s vision of the U.S. foreign policy. While there is no lack of arguments from different experts, most of them agree that the change is coming to that particular area of the functioning of the state.

The differences in opinions expressed usually cover details of what may actually change. Max Boot even argues in his recent article that Mr. Trump’s foreign policy might not be that different from that of Mr. Obama’s by nature, however quite different in style. If Obama wanted to withdraw from the world very carefully, Trump may not be so subtle and gentle to the existing order and that may lead to the post-American age sooner than later.

True enough also for the South Caucasus, where eight years of the Obama administration have brought a clear sense of withdrawal of the U.S. from the region both in terms of its geopolitical influence and its general presence as a global power. Today, countries of the region, as well as the vast majority of other states in the world are trying to evaluate the consequences of the recent U.S. elections and predict what that would mean for the policy of the U.S. towards their small but very strategically located region, surrounded by bigger states such as Russia, Iran and Turkey.

As the U.S. presidential transition period is progressing, the states of the South Caucasus are watching and analyzing the transition through the prism of their own interests. A recent announcement of the Ambassador of the United States and Co-Chair of the Minsk Group of OSCE James Warlick on his Twitter account that he would be stepping down from his position and leaving the State Department has made all the regional news’ headlines in the South Caucasus. This news generated a lot of interest due to the fact that James Warlick is an American representative in the Minsk Group that is charged with the meditation and resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan with two other Co-Chairs from France and Russia. Moreover, at the same time news hit that Ambassador Warlick will join the Egorov Puginsky Afanasiev & Partners law firm. He himself described this company as “…Russia’s largest and most prestigious law firm” in a tweet, that he apparently later deleted.

Egorov Puginsky Afanasiev & Partners law firm (or EPA&P) has been established in 1993 with offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and associated office in London. It specializes in representation of foreign companies in Russia and Russian companies abroad. Reportedly it is also quite connected to the Russian government and businesses. The soon-to-be-former U.S. diplomat is planning to join this law firm as a partner.

Ambassador Warlick has taken the position of the Co-Chair of the Minsk Group in September 2013 and will remain in this position until the end of this year. His appointment was made during the second term of the Obama administration and if the position he is going to take after should be viewed as any indicator, the attitude of Obama’s foreign policy advisors towards the main security threat in the South Caucasus becomes quite clear.

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has reaffirmed its position as the main security threat in the South Caucasus region after the recent escalation in April 2016. That escalation led to both the short-lived re-intensification of negotiations process in this conflict and the arms race between Armenia and Azerbaijan reaching new levels with Armenia having demonstrated that it acquired 9K720 “Iskander” (known in NATO terminology as SS-26 Stone) mobile short-range ballistic missile systems from Russia in September 2016. The acquisition of such sophisticated and modern weaponry by one of the sides of this unstable conflict brings on the pressure to the other side to keep up and procure equal capabilities both in terms of offense and defense. 9K720 are capable of a very accurate targeting on the distance of up to 500 km (approx. 311 miles). In comparison, the distance between capitals of Armenia and Azerbaijan is around 400 km.

Acquisition of missile systems by Armenia followed the aforementioned re-intensification of negotiations. This dynamics in negotiation process have been very visible during the summer and then gradually went down right after Armenia have demonstrated the systems in the beginning of fall. Another feature of the said summer was the crisis that Yerevan have lived through with hostage situation and “Sasna Tsrer” terrorist group. The pattern clearly indicates that there was a possibility of the processes around Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to develop in more peaceful way. Instead, Armenia chose to move on with show of strength and incite even more serious arms race, simultaneously backing off in negotiations.

Hence, after the two consecutive terms of the Obama administration, the peak year of 2016 resulted in both the unprecedented military escalation and gradually new levels of arms race in the South Caucasus – a general outcome of a foreign policy that aims at withdrawing from the world and pivoting towards isolationism. If Trump’s administration is to continue within the same general direction in the U.S. foreign policy, it is quite possible that the processes of militarization and intensification of the hostilities in the region will pick up a new pace with the more aggressive withdrawal policies of the new administration. The South Caucasus may see post-American era much sooner than many other regions in the world.

This may be very harmful to the U.S. interests due to the fact that South Caucasus is seen as a region that plays an important part in energy security of Europe that is provided by Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey. The instability that could be brought by the militarization and hostilities in the region may harm this important energy security framework. In this context the region awaits the appointment of a new Secretary of State in Trump’s administration and that of a new U.S. Co-Chair of the Minsk Group as to indicate how things are likely to develop for the region.

The election of Mr. Trump as the next President of the U.S. has truly brought a lot of change. There is a chance that if Mr. Trump appoints such people to the aforementioned positions that will be quite aware of risk factors for South Caucasus and will be able to adopt a realistic view on current processes and in retrospective, the described dangerous trend can be stopped or even reversed. The negative stance of Mr. Trump on lobbying organizations is another factor that may prevent the Armenian-American lobby from intervening into U.S. foreign policy shaping process. So change may turn out good after all.

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Eastern Europe

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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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian society is left shaken by plans to raise retirement age

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This month Lithuanian society is left shaken after spreading the news about the increasing of the retirement age. In Lithuania, the retirement age has increased every year since 2012 and by 2026 it will be 65 years. Previously, discussion surfaced on whether raising the retirement age to 72 would help offset Lithuania’s ageing population issues.

As Lithuania’s demographic situation continues to worsen, the European Commission estimates that the number of working-age people capable of supporting pensioners will go down in the future. Brussels says that increasing the retirement age could be a solution.

The existing average in Lithuania is now 57.5 years. It should be said that Lithuania expects to reach a life expectancy of 65 years only in 2030.

In some years there will be 50 retirees per 100 working people and it will have crucial implications for public finances and may require raising taxes. At the moment, 35% of the country’s population are aged over 55.

Before prolonging its working age, Lithuania should address the relatively poor health and low life expectancy of its population. Before they even reach retirement age, many people in Lithuania are unable to work due to high prevalence of chronic, non-infectious conditions.

It’s necessary to focus on increasing healthy life expectancy in Lithuania, instead of weighing up the idea of increasing the retirement age, Irena Segalovičienė, presidential adviser has said.

Taking into account the fact that men in Lithuania live an average of 14 more years from the age of 65, and women an 18 more years, Vilnius residents are not impressed with such an idea.

The officials are afraid of possible protests which could lead even to the government resignation.

Thus, late Thursday afternoon millions of French workers were still on the streets protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned pension reforms.

Lithuanian officials were quick to announce that it’s inadequate to consider a 7-year increase in the retirement age at this stage. Most likely, the news was deliberately disseminated in order to study public opinion on this issue.

Discussion is most toxic now, and will continue in Lithuania because wasting money on defence, government puts aging population at risk of poverty and death.

At the same time, the government calls for more defense spending. Together with Poland and the UK, Lithuania is leading a push within the NATO to agree to higher spending goals. In 2023, the country’s national defense budget will reach 2.52% of its gross domestic product (GDP). According to Zilvinas Tomkus, Lithuania’s vice minister of defence, Lithuania is ready to spend even more on the modernization of its armed forces and military infrastructure. The more so, spending money on defence procurement today will not improve Lithuania defence today. The modernized weapons, vehicles and equipment will be available only in some years while old Lithuanians need money right now just to survive.

Thus, chosen political priorities do not reflect the current social and economic situation in the country and even worsen it.

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