Donald Trump welcomed the heads of Baltic states to the White House this week. It was supposed to be a celebration of their centennials and a tribute to shared ideals of freedom and democracy. In ironic twist, as Baltic leaders touched glasses with the host, it was precisely his illiberal views that have shredded the US credibility and strained transatlantic relations.
The presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, however, put on a tightly scripted charm offensive during the meeting. One can decode their behavior as follows: Trump may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.
Former US Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, while quibbling over the Baltic policy at the margins, never questioned the US commitment to collective defense. With his remarks about conditional security guarantees, Donald Trump had stepped into a new territory. This, naturally, unsettled many in Eastern Europe. A recent poll found only 16.1% of Lithuanian’s have trust in the current White House incumbent.
In hopes of shaping the US policy in more favorable direction, Baltic representatives have looked for all possible levers and keys. Cutting across party lines, they managed to arrange visits of influential Congressional power brokers and extract statements of unconditional support. One the one hand, they have taken comfort in the actions of Congress, which has systematically sought to punish Russia for its misdeeds.
But they are also aware of the fact that vast power and potential for unilateral action lay in the Oval Office. Hence, systematic effort has been made to establish links with people close to president’s ear – Mike Pence, James Mattis, H. R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, last two of which are already out of the administration.
At a time when many allies were trembling about the appointment of a new national security adviser, the Baltics may have quietly cheered. When in summer Trump questioned if he would automatically leap in defence of the Baltics, John Bolton had called it ‘a massive failure of deterrence’ and suggested that the President retract his statement. But targeting people in Trump’s orbit may as well be a losing strategy. Simply put: anyone could be next in the firing line.
No one in the Baltics wanted Donald Trump as a gift – an erratic man at the wheel. One must admit, however, that his ambivalent presidency has prompted allied governments to hold up a mirror and engage in some self-inspection. Opposing Vladimir Putin is easy: he jails opponents, grabs foreign lands and orders brazen assassinations. To figure out how to deal with Trump, illiberal leader of the free world, requires significantly more skill and statecraft.
Trump has left allies with an unpleasant choice: either you hitch your wagon to an aspiring authoritarian in the service of national interest or stand up to his improper behavior while endangering your most valued partnership.
Pragmatically, the Baltic coping strategy, knowing Trump’s thin-skin, has been to weigh words carefully and avoid airing of any personal criticism. Instead, they have looked for every opportunity to compliment the man in the Oval Office. During the April 3 meeting, Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite even bizarrely suggested that Trump’s ‘unpredictable leadership’ has somehow put ‘very good pressure to all of us, all members of NATO’.
Stephen Walt, a leading realist thinker, has incisively observed that ‘when you really need allies, you can’t be too choosy’. The Baltics need all the friends they can get, which also explains their uncritical praise of Trump.
However, there is also real a danger of swinging too far in attempts to please populists and autocrats. In one instance, Baltic lawmakers have already demonstrated their willingness to abandon democratic principles in the name of vital security concerns. All three governments were unwilling to back any EU punishments on Poland, a country that has seen the rule of law and democracy unravel.
The Baltics can and should retain willingness to oppose the US at the policy level. A case in point was the UN vote on Jerusalem. Despite threats that ‘names will be taken’, Estonia and Lithuania did not bow to US pressure and rejected proposed recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (Latvia shamelessly abstained). Their opposition, however, was couched in diplomatic language so that it does not catch Trump’s personal radar.
Perhaps this is the only possible balancing act in the Trump era – staying out of TV headlines and twitter feed – mediums that are crucial for the US president, while still challenging the administration on policy in measured and bureaucratic fashion. After all, it is his own public image that President Trump is most concerned with, not the details and intricacies of actual policies.
For any country, reconciling interests with certain set of values can be a very narrow corridor to walk. But it is also something that the trio of Baltic countries must aspire to if they want to belong to the family of mature democracies.
As these republics reach one hundred years of modern statehood and celebrate their impressive achievements, they should recognize that it is not only Moscow’s blunt power tools that pose risks to their democracies. Values of freedom can also be eroded in seemingly innocent fashion by cozying up to disgraced Western demagogues. This is their challenge at 100.
An Impending Revolution
Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.
The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.
The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.
On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.
European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.
The 44-Day War: Democracy Has Been Defeated by Autocracy in Nagorno-Karabakh
The people of Artsakh are seen as pro-Russian. Is this Pro-Moscow assessment of people of Artsakh accurate, and why Russian peacekeepers are welcomed in Nagorno-Karabakh?
The Republic of Artsakh and its people developed the nation’s democracy for approximately three decades. Back in 1991, Artsakh held a referendum on its independence, as well as democratic elections under a barrage of Azerbaijani rockets. The people of Artsakh accomplished this step by themselves, being convinced that without freedom of the individual, there is no freedom for the country. The Artsakh National Liberation Movement was nothing but a struggle for freedom and the right to decide one’s own destiny.
The development of democracy was not easy for a war-torn country with ade-facto status, limited resources, lack of institutions, combined with the threat of resumption of hostilities and the temptation of using elements of authoritarianism in governance as well as in the public mood.
Nevertheless, during the last three decades, the people of Artsakh have managed to develop working democratic institutions, ensure political pluralism, and form effective human rights institutions. The vivid examples thereof are the 2020presidential elections held on a competitive basis, a 5-party Parliament, and the constitutional mechanisms for the separation of powers.
It is noteworthy that the full spectrum of democratization in Artsakh has been carried out by the country alone, without the direct support of international governmental and non-governmental organizations, and despite the numerous appeals by the civil society of Artsakh made to them.
However, Artsakh’s democracy has been highly regarded not only by parliamentarians, politicians and experts who have visited Artsakh, but also by the international organizations, such as Freedom House in its Freedom in the World annual reports. In these reports Artsakh is on the list of partly free countries, making progress in ensuring political and civil liberties each year, while Azerbaijan holds on to a not free status all the while making regressive steps in every aspect.
The people of Artsakh believed that the development of democracy would inevitably strengthen the position on unimaginability of any vertical relationship with dictatorial Azerbaijan. The people of Artsakh believed that they were keeping the eastern gate of the European civilization and its set of values. The people of Artsakh believed that those in West involved in the conflict settlement process, particularly France and the United States would view the Artsakh struggle with an understanding that it was created by their examples and ideals of freedom.
And what did the people of Artsakh receive as a result of believing in the West? They faced a new war and a new bloodshed unleashed by the same Azerbaijan. They also faced a harsh reality in the form of gross violations of human rights, war crimes and destruction of their cultural heritage. The principle of equality and self-determination of peoples in general, and the notions of freedom and human rights in particular completely collapsed before the eyes of the people of Artsakh.
One doesn’t have to be a military expert to understand that Artsakh, a small country with limited resources and capabilities, could not on its own resist Turkey-backed Azerbaijan for long, especially given the direct involvement of Turkish command staff and thousands of mercenaries from the Middle East terrorist organizations in the conflict, and the use of advanced military technology likethe banned weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
What did the people of Artsakh need to prevent this war? The answer would have been the de jure recognition of Artsakh that at least would have dampened the possibility of a new war, put an end to the century-old conflict, and establish long lasting peace and security in the region.
Instead of recognizing their unalienable right to self-determination, a new war was imposed on the people of Artsakh. As a result of this war, the people of Artsakh were left with a devastated country, thousands of dead and wounded compatriots, a new generation of refugees and IDPs, dependence on the peacekeeping mission for physical security, a “neither peace nor war” situation, as well as an uncertain future.
Russia wanted to come to Karabakh and so it did. Russia is in Artsakh not because the people of Artsakh were dreaming of weakened sovereignty while they continued to think of what West would do, but Russia came to Artsakh because Russia, unlike the West, acts rather than speaks. When on the one hand there are European and American concerns expressed in empty statements and on the other hand there are Russian peacekeepers and tanks, there is no room left for thinking long.
Let’s look at the values in which European Union, United States, Canada, and the rest of the so called “civilized world” believe in: the ideas of human rights and freedoms which they been advocating for years across the world. Now let’s try to see what is left from them all. Maybe once can find an inspiration for writing new books and sharing ideas about the future of humanity vis-à-vis the civilized world. Perhaps, in the European Union, in the United States, in Canada, and in the rest of the so called “civilized” world, their population may enjoy the ideals of human rights, but the people living in small and unimportant countries are often deprived of such rights. Perhaps the Western intellectuals and authors will write books on how the West left the faith of the people of Artsakh to the hands of the terrorists while empowering the Turkish-Azerbaijani dictators with their indifference and inaction. Indeed, for the West, the lives of the people of Artsakh are not valuable just because they are from a ‘gray’ zone, because they live in a country that doesn’t officially ‘exist’. These discriminatory phrases are definitions time and again used by the Western officials. It is what it is. The West, however, should not forget to celebrate Zero Discrimination Day and quote articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Later, when Turkish expansionism and terrorism will knock on the Western doors, the West will remember those unimportant people from an unrecognized country that absorbed the first blow. At that juncture, the West will also remember how it admired the people of Artsakh’s endurance and collective resistance, but at the same time left them alone in their fight against terrorism and modern military technology. Perhaps, for the West it is just like watching a fun action movie with popcorn and cola.
Having 193 or 194 member-countries in the United Nations (UN)as a result of recognition of Artsakh would not change the existing international legal order, however, it could serve a textbook example for rising democracies and a lesson for the dictatorships and international terrorism. By not recognizing the right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination, the West is burying the concepts of human rights, freedoms, and democracy, thereby paving a way for the next military-political adventures of dictators. The West should decide. The longer the West spends on thinking without any concrete action, the further the region will move away from it.
NATO invented new threat in the Baltic States
It seems as if NATO has changed its priorities in the Baltic States.
It is well known that NATO member states agreed at the 2016 Summit in Warsaw to enhance NATO’s military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.
So, the arrival of the multinational Allied battlegroup in Latvia in June 2017 concluded the deployment of forces under NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and Poland, thereby implementing the decisions made at the NATO’s Summits. Since than NATO has been actively enhancing its military capabilities in the Baltic States. It increased the number of troops and deployed heavy weapons including tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Canada is the framework nation for the battalion-size NATO battlegroup deployed to Latvia.
It was said that NATO’s enhanced forward presence is defensive, proportionate, and in line with international commitments.
Though it was absolutely evident that NATO pursues not only the stated goals, but some hidden ones. Among them are convincing of the need to increase defence budgets of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, political support at all levels, loyalty to all decisions made by leading NATO member states.
The more so, NATO invented new threat in the Baltic States. All of a sudden the Baltic States have been turned to the drone test site. In order to justify NATO new interests, it was said that unmanned aerial vehicles are an emerging threat to NATO soldiers deployed around the world, and especially in the Baltic region.
The leadership of the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia even held a symposium in Camp Adazi in November to talk about how to deal with the drone threat.
Latvia’s Battle Group Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Norton said that NATO recognized this threat as they prepared to deploy to Latvia, and made it a priority to come up with solutions.
“When I was looking at our adversaries and the way in which they have conducted recent operations around the world, it was obvious that they used UAS to great effect,” he said. “I determined that if we were to continue to be successful in deterring foreign aggression, we must demonstrate the ability to counter the threat of UAS. This is what led me to the idea of running a counter-UAS symposium and exercise.” In his turn Latvian Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks acknowledged that “the Latvian Defence Department has taken into account the lessons learned from the use of drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
It should be said that this conclusion looks more than odd. Does Pabriks consider Armenia and Azerbadzan as adversaries?
The symposium combined presentations by experts from the United Kingdom and Canada with open discussion between members of all nine nations of the Battle Group as well as members of the Latvian National Armed Forces about the capabilities they have in Adazi, and how they could use them to minimize the UAS threat. Finally, they tested some of their weapon systems in shooting down target drones at the Camp Adazi range. And, probably, this was the main goal.
Major Matt Bentley, the organizer of the symposium, stressed that this is a complex problem that will not be solved with one symposium. He said it was an important first step in the process of developing practices and capabilities that can defend Allied soldiers from drones while defending Latvia. Following the symposium, the Battle Group drafted a service paper to send to all sending nations for each ally to consider as they develop ways to defeat this threat.
According to LCol Norton, as Allied nations develop ways and means to combat the threat posed by UAS, the Battle Group will be in a good position to test them in a multinational context. In the meantime, the Battle Group will continue to build and refine tactics, techniques and procedures using the tools at hand to mitigate the threat. So, NATO invented new threat in the Baltic States to convince these countries in need to pay more and to deploy more foreign troops on their territory. And all this against the backdrop of a pandemic and an acute shortage of funds for medicine in Latvia.
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