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Eastern Europe

South Gas Corridor and the recent escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh

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Authors: Rusif Huseynov, Murad Muradov

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] E [/yt_dropcap]urope`s longest running conflict was reactivated in Nagorno-Karabakh on February 25, when the cease-fire regime along the contact line was violated. The skirmishes lasted several days and left dead corpses behind without producing any other result.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry stated its forces had “suffered losses” when repelling the large-scale Armenian assault. By a suspicious coincidence the skirmish happened just on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Khojaly genocide that was commemorated in Baku with a 40,000 people-strong march.

Azerbaijani diplomats consider that the recent Armenian provocation was aimed at disrupting the negotiation process over the conflict’s peaceful settlement. However, such an interpretation of the events could be too diplomatic and may not reveal the echoes of deeper geopolitical struggle in the region and beyond.

Lately there have been alerts on Armenia`s preparations for a new skirmish, which was strengthened by the news on supply of MiG-29 fighters and other sophisticated aircraft from Russia to Armenia in February 2016. The Kremlin also promised the Armenian authorities a $200 mln-credit for arms purchase. In the autumn last year, media reported the transfer of Iskander ballistic missiles to Armenia. The military cooperation was further deepened when Putin submitted a project of a Russian-Armenian agreement on creating the Unified Caucasus Air Defense System to the State Duma in October and approved a proposal to create a joint Russian-Armenian military group in November. It should have been obvious that such a massive and quickly armament poses a threat to the entire region. But ‘why?’ and ‘when?’ could be the main questions.

A few days prior to the shootouts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku hosted the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) Advisory Council. The Azerbaijani authorities attached a great importance to the event; President Ilham Aliyev himself delivered an address to the meeting. It was attended not only by high-ranking officials of the countries involved in the Southern Gas Corridor, but also senior representatives from the European Union and United Kingdom.

The Southern Gas Corridor is a complex of several infrastructural projects aimed at bringing natural gas from the Caspian basin to Europe. With a total investment estimated at USD 45 billion, this route comprises the South Caucasus Pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TAP) and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TANAP). Although Azerbaijan`s Shah Deniz gas field is regarded as the major supply for the project, the involvement of other suppliers from the region is also being discussed. Several sources refer to the SGC as “…arguably the global oil and gas industry’s most significant and ambitious undertaking yet.”

The Southern Gas Corridor project is designed to improve the security and diversity of the EU’s energy supply, to reduce Europe`s dependency on Russian gas. Since energy has turned into a cornerstone of the foreign policy of Putin`s Russia as a vital source of income and tool of influence, the Kremlin feels quite jealous of any attempts to diversify Europe`s energy supply. And when such attempts are either initiated or supported by a former Soviet nation or Eastern European satellite such as Azerbaijan, to ensure independence in this issue or, even worse, to become an active energy player, Moscow may use its influence to prevent possible projects through both “carrots” (allegedly more efficient alternative projects, such as “South Stream”) and “sticks” (efforts to sabotage the projects viewed in Moscow as hostile). The TAP project which is the final stage of the SGC project, has been under constant threat from environmentalist groups in Italy, a country where Russian interests are well represented.

Even in the 1990s when Russia`s policies were relatively “dove”ish, the Kremlin did try hard to prevent the conclusion of the 1994 oil contract and later initiatives that directed the major energy flows from Azerbaijan towards the West. The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surronding regions, several coup attempts (one of them happening just 2 weeks after “The Contract of the Century” was signed) and terror attacks in Azerbaijan in early and mid-1990s unsurprisingly coincided with the period, when Azerbaijani officials and foreign companies were actively negotiating and signing oil agreements. Then Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Valter Shonia could not have been more frank when he was quoted as saying, “Any politician denying the reality of Russian power is not going to remain long in office. Russia is interested in cooperation with the West over Azerbaijan but if there is some attempt to unseat Russia, there will be unpleasant consequences.” In the end, Russia secured a considerable share of the contract to be entrusted to a Russian company. Moreover, Azerbaijan agreed to continue selling oil via the the outdated, lengthy and uncomfortable Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline.

In other words, since the 1990s Russia’s policies have been aimed to block by all means all independent regional energy and other infrastructure projects in the South Caucasus that bypass Russia and there have not been any substantial changes in the policies of Russia to say that Moscow is happy with these projects. Moreover, the events around Ukraine and occupation of Crimea demonstrate that Moscow has become more aggressive toward any projects that diminish the influence of Russia in the post-soviet space. Thus, the recent escalation on the line of contact between Azerbaijan and Armenia can be viewed through prism to pressure Azerbaijan for its new energy project.  

The interest of the European Union in diversifying its energy sources means that Europe has a real stake in the latest energy contest for the Caspian energy resources. The continuing Western standoff with the Kremlin means that Azerbaijani gas will become more important to Brussels in the coming months and years. Since weak Europe is a key to Russia’s “divide-and-rule” strategy in Eurasia, one should beware of the Kremlin’s attempts to undermine the feasibility of the SGC project.

Moscow has a couple of reasons to worry that a negative status-quo it helped to build up in the region, might be undermined in favor of a more cooperational approach. Such strategic initiatives as the SGC, as well as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, set to be launched soon, bear potential for deepening the participation of the South Caucasus countries in global supply chains. In Armenia, many realize now that the only factor keeping their country from seizing these opportunities is the protracted conflict with Azerbaijan and quasicolonial dependence on the “Russian bear”. A large trend of the recent months has been the “Baku platform”, the first-ever attempt at independent people’s diplomacy whereby a number of Armenian public figures openly supported peaceful resolution of the conflict and normalization process, and some of them even visited Baku at the time where the intergovernmental contacts are probably at a historic low. The Platform discourse emphasized the benefits obtained by “the third forces” (usually an euphemism for Moscow) from the unrelenting conflict and alienation between the two neighbouring nations. The latest escalation might have been a signal sent to the countries “not to relax” and keep the confrontational mood that has recently become totally prevalent in both Baku and Yerevan, again raising security concerns of foreign investors.

(*) Murad Muradov is an independent researcher who has recently graduated from an MSc in Comparative Politics course at the London School of Economics. He also holds an MA degree in International Affairs from the ADA University (Azerbaijan). Mr. Muradov’s spheres of interest includes the Politics of Europe, post-Soviet countries and the Middle East, as well as international political economy.

Rusif Huseynov is the co-founder of the Topchubashov Center. His main interest is peace and conflict studies, while his focus area covers mainly Eastern Europe, Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia.

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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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Eastern Europe

Why there is New Escalation in Ukraine War?

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In Dnipro, the Russian missile smashed the entire section of a nine-story building. January 14, 2022.Photo from Valentyn Reznichenko, Head of the Dnipropetrovsk Region Military Administration

Russia and Ukraine war has entered its second phase where violence and destruction become more prevalent with less possibility of negotiation between the conflicting parties. Russia claimed to have conquered a hotly disputed salt mining town, a rare win for the Kremlin after a string of losses in its invasion of Ukraine. Moscow chose Donetsk and the adjoining Luhansk province as objectives from the start, and in September proclaimed them part of Russia along with two other territories. Taking control of the town would allow Russian forces “to sever supply lines for the Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut and then block and encircle the Ukrainian battalions. Russia sees Bakhmut as a stepping stone toward total control of Donbas, the industrial region that encompasses Donetsk Province.

Moreover, Russia has opened multiple fronts encircling Ukraine from all sides. Russian missiles blasted a military camp in western Ukraine, killing 35 people in an attack on a site that served as a vital hub for collaboration between Ukraine and the NATO countries that assist its defense. The attack’s proximity to a NATO member country heightened the prospect of the alliance becoming involved in the war, which has reignited old Cold War rivalries and threatens to alter the present global security system. Poland also serves as a transit point for Western military supplies to Ukraine, and the bombings came in response to Moscow’s threats to target those shipments.

 However, despite significant casualties in the Ukrainian military forces over the last 11 months, Kyiv believes it is in a good position. It would be considerably more powerful if more contemporary weaponry were available, and there have already been some significant breakthroughs in this area, such as the supply of a variety of flexible light armored vehicles from Germany, France, and the United States that can move troops around quickly. Against a backdrop, Russia would reject any peace agreement that does not include the retention of all seized Ukrainian territory. On the flip side, Ukraine has been pleading with Western nations for months to equip it with more modern armaments, such as the Patriot air defense system.

Ukraine War and the Remilitarization of Europe

 Kyiv has shifted its focus toward Western Europe and the United States and the NATO alliance has been galvanized in a way not seen since the Cold War. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed Congress in a historic speech on his foreign tours after the Russia attack in February. “Against all odds and doom and gloom scenarios, Ukraine didn’t fall’. Throughout the war, Kyiv has relied significantly on Western military help, and Zelenskyy continues to want more. Zelenskyy’s visit coincided with the announcement of $1.85 billion in further military support to Ukraine, which includes a Patriot missile battery for the first time.

The United Kingdom has announced that it will equip Ukraine with British tanks, putting pressure on Germany and other nations to offer additional military assistance to Kyiv in its conflict with Russia. It would send Challenger 2 tanks as well as additional artillery systems to Kyiv. Zelensky tweeted that British help “would not only boost us on the battlefield but will also send the proper signal to other partners. The decision by the United Kingdom to send the tanks would be important if other Western countries followed suit. Poland intends to send 14 Leopard tanks produced in Germany to Ukraine as part of a bigger multinational aid alliance. French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed intentions for France to supply the Ukrainian military with AMX-10 RC light tanks. The Ukrainian armed forces will get Western-designed tanks for the first time. It represents a considerable increase in French engagement in the Ukraine war. Moreover, European Union foreign ministers have agreed to top up a fund for arms deliveries to Ukraine by a further two billion euros ($2.11bn) and discuss the 9th Round of sanctions on Russia which will escalate the skyrocketing food and oil prices further.

The Tanks are unlikely to change the game of the war but it triggers the remilitarization of Europe on the widest scale since that war, escalating military combat in the Pacific, and high levels of international instability produced by the war in Ukraine and tensions over Taiwan. Besides, it reflects that at the beginning of the war, the NATO members were divided regarding their response to the Ukraine war, and their responses were confined to the gamut of sanctions against Russia. However, as the war becomes complex, the European countries enhanced their support to billions of dollars in military aid and small weapons to Ukraine. Now, the whole of Europe can witness an increase in defense budget which drags them more in the dangerous trajectory of war resulting in more escalation and mayhem.

Putin’s Shadow War: New Front in Belarus

Belarus is being engaged in launching a new front in Ukraine’s war, which might compel Kyiv to shift resources and focus away from its counteroffensives in the country’s east and south. Belarus’s President, Alexander Lukashenko, announced on Monday that his soldiers will join Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, accusing Kyiv and its western backers of planning an attack on Belarus. Two days after visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg, Lukashenko announced the deployment. Kyiv, according to Zelenskiy, has no intentions to strike Belarus. Russia exploited Belarus as a staging area for its February 24th war, moving hundreds of troops across the border to attack Kyiv and firing missiles from Belarusian air bases into Ukrainian targets. Ukraine’s borders were allegedly under attack from Russian forces in Belarus to the north and Crimea to the south, near various Ukrainian cities including Kyiv, Kharkiv’s second biggest city, Odesa, and distant shooting from Zaporizhzhya. Engaging Belarus in the war will certainly open a new front in the Ukraine war.

Russian New General and Plausible New Escalation

Russia intends to deploy 500,000 extra troops beginning in mid-January, much more than the 300,000 soldiers it recruited in September. So far, Russia claims that 150,000 of those troops have been delivered to Ukraine.Besides, Russia named a new general in command of the Ukraine conflict, replacing its predecessor after only three months. This might indicate that Russia is preparing to intensify its conflict. Russia’s new commander in Ukraine has inherited a poisoned chalice, making him likely to deepen the conflict as Russia attempts to recover from a run of military failures. The ministry portrayed Gerasimov as taking on a new role with even more authority over Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.

His appointment, coming after months of Russian defeats, might indicate that Russia is about to step up its attempts to wrest triumph from defeat. Gerasimov has greater access, power, and resources at his disposal than any other subsidiary commander. This might entail increasing levels of violence, more cooperation, and a full-scale, all-out war on all fronts. Gerasimov is said to have been one of the military officers who devised Russia’s original invasion strategy.  The November missile strikes against Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities as well as orchestrated gas and oil leaks on European pipelines have been deeply painful for Ukraine but the winter doesn’t go as harshly as Putin expected. Ukraine has survived the first phase of the war better than both supporters and detractors expected. Russia has failed to realize its military aspirations, and the tide has begun to turn in Ukraine’s favor in recent months. he needs a win or his career will end in shame. As the conflict drags on with no apparent conclusion in sight, fierce fighting is likely to restart in early spring. Putin has previously used a variety of escalators tactics to destroy Ukrainian resilience and hope.

It is largely unlikely that Russia will fully retreat from the war as Vladimir Putin has grown so involved in the Ukraine conflict that he is making operational and tactical choices. He, on the other hand, is personally engaged in the battle and cannot afford to lose. Even if Russia pulls out from Ukraine, there is no chance for Russian disintegration which the West is silencing as part of its war strategy. Meanwhile, Ukraine is now well-equipped to hold its current leverage in the war but is not yet in a position to conclusively win the war. Besides, if the opposite happens or the war prolongs for years, then how would Ukraine and the transatlantic onslaught survive? Europe is already undergoing a cost-of-living crisis. The skyrocketing energy crisis, global inflation on the flip side, and increasing military expenditure left the west between the devil and the deep sea. In that regard, both are destined to pay heavy prices if the stalemate isn’t over. Thus, the fate of the Ukraine war this winter and the spring offensives will be critical in determining the course of the conflict in 2023.

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