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Russia Responds to Ukraine Kerch Provocation and How Martial Law Affects Minsk II

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photo credit: Crimea's FSB Press Service

Short Interview with Russian UN Deputy Permanent Rep  Dimitry Polanskiy about the Kerch incident and how Ukraine’s declaring Martial Law affects Donbass by George & Olga Eliason.

On November 25, 2018, Russian border patrol intercepted three Ukrainian warships on course for the Kerch bridge. Ignoring previous agreements, Ukraine did not tell Russia or schedule transit through the shallow water strait.

Commercial and state traffic have to schedule traversing the narrow channel because it handles traffic from one direction at a time. This is most important for vessels with a deeper draft because water depth is shallow going through.

A vessel’s draft is the distance from the waterline to the bottom of the hull. This determines the minimum depth needed for the vessel to safely navigate shallow water such as the Kerch Strait. The strait can hold a vessel with an eight-meter (26 ft) draft as long as pilot assistance is used.

According to Ukraine’s version of the Kerch incident, three warships were going from the port of Odessa to the port of Mariupol and Russia shot at and captured the vessels that were innocently traveling from port to port.

The Daily Signal reported “On Sunday, Europe’s two largest standing armies went to the precipice of a major war.

That day, Russian military forces attacked and captured three Ukrainian navy vessels that were transiting through the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait on their way from Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odesa to Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov.

“This attack, of course, is not accidental. This is clearly an element planned by Russians in the escalation of the situation in the waters of the Sea of Azov, which has been lasting for several months. And I’m sure this is still not a culmination,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Monday in remarks posted to his administration’s website.”

Reporting for the Daily Signal, Nolan Peterson gets the date and the fact an incident happened right. And with what’s become par for Ukrainian outlets since the civil war started, he rushes to get his story out or just ignores the facts and paints what has been shown as Ukraine’s attempt to provoke a violent Russian reaction.

The only big story Peterson brings to the table from the Ukrainian side is that Petr Poroshenko agrees there is no state of war between Ukraine and Russia as of November 25, 2018. No war, no armies in Donbass. No armies, just Ukraine’s continual lies to help rake in sympathy graft so lawmakers get rich.

The story goes on to say Ukraine notified the proper authorities about their passage, and then in what has become typical fashion the same story states bluntly that Ukraine did not fill out the required paperwork or notify anyone they were coming.

What do Ukraine’s captured naval captains have to say? They were there under orders.

According to Vladimir Lesovoy, a third rank captain of the Ukrainian Navy, who acknowledged that he consciously ignored calls from Russian border guards to stop. Lesovoy also said that the goal of the raid was to stage a provocation.”

Ukraine Navy’s Lieutenant Alexey stated bluntly they all knew they were violating Russian territorial waters.

The story that is surfacing is the Ukrainian navy vessels had enough fuel onboard to make it to the Kerch strait but if everything was done properly. But with the usual 2-3 hour queue to go through, there was not enough fuel to make it to the other side.

Obviously unless they had prearranged refueling near or at the bridge, they had no plan of going through. They were under orders to travel full throttle to the Kerch Strait and not stop regardless of outcome.

Since the only option for fueling would probably come out of Mariupol and no refueling boats or barges have been seen, the captain was right- This was a provocation.

NATO, the EU, Canada, and the US Ambassador to the UN Haley unequivocally support Ukraine in its weird and unique fabrication of this event. US president Donald Trump isn’t following suit.

According to Ukraine, Russia was laying in wait for the opportune moment Ukraine would send warships near its new bridge with Ukraine continually crying about a Ukraine-Russian war. Russia would then capture Ukraine’s battle-tested tugboat and Soviet-era artillery ships for a museum piece perhaps?

Now that we’ve cut through the story and it’s clear even when addressed from the Ukrainian perspective, in its best light, it is still a military provocation.

While Ukrainian ships were in international waters no actions were taken.  Warnings were given for Ukraine to follow the routine procedure to go through the Kerch Strait.

The procedures include scheduling the passage 48 hours in advance to going through at the Kerch Port Captain Office. You have to confirm the plan 24 hours ahead of arrival and again 4 hours before you go through.

What is Russia’s official reaction? I had a chance to ask Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Dimitry Polanskiy.

George Eliason- Why is Russia using such a soft approach to Ukraine? The Kerch Strait incident is a key example. Ukraine ignored the agreed-upon format for bringing warships into the strait and Russia came very close to addressing it like a border incident instead of a military provocation. Is there a denoted Red Line Russia is holding Ukraine too?

And I asked how does this or Ukraine’s declaration of Martial law affect Russia’s view as a guarantor of the Minsk Agreements?

RF Deputy PR to the UN Polanskiy– “Russia is trying to ignore Ukraine provocations to avoid war which will be imminent if we reply as we should. We don’t want to give Poroshenko a chance to improve his miserable ratings but if he attacks we will reply. We still stick to Minsk Agreements and there is no other way to solve this issue if Ukraine wishes to keep these regions in one state. Martial law is an internal affair of Ukraine unless it starts an offensive in Donbass.”

Why did Poroshenko declare Martial Law right after his tugboat was captured? Why did he wait five years into Ukraine’s civil war? Sources all over the Internet are looking at the regions under Martial law since November 26th. If we look at the area not under these restrictions which include voting in elections, it is where Poroshenko got at least 50% of the vote in 2014.

Does the Martial law declaration affect Donbass? I asked Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) Foreign Minister Vladislav Danego and Deputy Foreign Minister Anna Soroka.

George Eliason– Kiev declared martial law. How does this affect Minsk 2?

LNR FM Danego– “We will work through the Europeans to ensure that it does not affect Minsk 2. The initiative from Merkel has already been on this topic – 60 days (for Martial Law) was adjusted to 30.”

According to the still surfacing story, Poroshenko wanted to declare Martial law for 60 days. Yulia Tymoshenko and Oleg Lyashko thwarted this in the Rada and pared it back to 30 days as a compromise.

And right on queue from the same article backing up the Foreign Minister’s statement- “Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, appeared to blame Moscow for breaching a 2003 agreement with Kiev that is supposed to allow for free shipping in the area.”

Merkel, not Tymoshenko is the one working overtime to smooth things out and not let Ukraine get out of hand. If Moscow had to agree to free shipping, the Kerch Strait is in Russian territorial waters. Russian land is on either side of the Kerch strait since Crimea held a referendum to rejoin Russia in 2014.

LNR Deputy FM Soroka- We don’t think that this (Ukrainian Martial Law) will affect Minsk in any way. All meetings within the framework of the Minsk process are still scheduled. Nobody mentioned any changes. Indeed, we must look at the reaction of Moscow, but again, except for notes and indignation at international venues, nothing will happen.

There are a few good reasons for Poroshenko to declare Martial law that have as much or more merit than him postponing or winning the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election by default.

Poroshenko timed both the Kerch incident and Martial law declarations right ahead of the G-20 summit to drum up support for Ukraine and get the international community in line against Moscow.

This might give him a little room back in Ukraine to complete his political triad of Army-Language-Faith. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church split with the Moscow Patriarchate was supposed to be the crown of his political life. Not every political leader can split Christianity successfully in his own lifetime.

And clearly, Petr Poroshenko is finding that out the hard way. When Poroshenko called a meeting of the bishops who would vote on autocephaly, only two out of more than eighty showed up. He’s found out that very few Orthodox leaders favor the idea.

Martial law gives Poroshenko the legal cover to suppress the areas where dissident Orthodox officials are and possibly still pass his Kiev patriarchate breakaway church through some semblance of a Church Sobor (Congress).

And last but never least, there is a new “cold Maidan” forming.  There’s no heat and people are freezing. There’s no work and people are starving. They can’t pay their bills or buy medications. Instead of rebuilding the economic base needed to take the country out of abject poverty, Ukraine prosecutes a war with a former region. Instead of trying to keep agreements it signed which would reintegrate Donbass peacefully.

According to leading Ukrainian political scientist Mikhail Pogrebinsky, 75-80% of the population think Ukraine is going in the wrong direction. If this is the case, how do the Ukrainians have any credibility internationally?

The International community has a responsibility to oversee the tax dollars it gave Ukraine for reform that has been continually wasted. The EU has a responsibility to its own people not to exasperate the humanitarian situation it created in Ukraine that will end up flooding Europe with hopeless west and central Ukrainians.

Ukraine must be held to the same standard of law every other government is held instead of being given a free pass every time Ukraine or its nationalists go on a crime spree.

Just because “It (Ukraine’s nationalist government) was intellectually decapitated (according to Zbigniew Brzezinski and Ashton B. Carter),  as a matter of deliberate policy during the Stalin years and beyond so that the most able and energetic Ukrainians were either killed or magnetically attracted to Moscow and Russified” doesn’t give Ukraine a free pass to relive their grandparents crimes or start regional wars in a 2018 world.

George Eliason is an American journalist who lives and works in Donbass. His articles have been cited in books about the Ukrainian civil war. He has been published at Mint Press News, the Security Assistance Monitor, Washingtons Blog, OpedNews, Consortium News, the Saker, RT, Global Research, and RINF, ZeroHedge, and the Greenville Post along with many other great publications. He has been cited and republished by various academic blogs including Defending History, Michael Hudson, SWEDHR, Counterpunch, the Justice Integrity Project, along with many others. Project Censored listed two article series from 2017,2018 as #2 for national impact for those years.

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Eastern Europe

Thorny path towards peace and reconciliation in Karabakh

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On January 11 the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a deal to develop cross-border transportation routes and boost economic growth to benefit the South Caucasus and the Wider Region. This meeting took place two months after the Moscow-brokered armistice between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

This ethno-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has drawn dividing lines between Armenia and Azerbaijan for almost 30 years. Some estimates put the number of deaths on both sides at 30,000 after the First Karabakh war before a ceasefire was reached in May 1994. As a result of this war, one fifth of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan was occupied and the entire Azerbaijani population of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and seven adjacent districts (Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam, Fizuly, Jabrail, Gubatli and Zangilan) was forcibly expelled by the Armenian armed forces. Incidentally, due to sporadic frontline skirmishes and clashes, both military personnel and civilians have been killed along the Line of Contact, devoid of any peacekeeping force, since 1994.

Over the years, Armenia and the separatist regime that emerged in the occupied Azerbaijani territories refused any final status short of independence for Nagorno-Karabakh and tried to preserve this status quo and achieve international security guarantees on the non-resumption of hostilities while avoiding the withdrawal of its armed forces from the occupied territories and preventing the safe return of expelled Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence. However, such a policy, in its turn, polarized the region and reduced to naught any meaningful regional cooperation between the three South Caucasus states.

The Second Karabakh war, which took place from September 27 to November 9, 2020, and the subsequent Russia-brokered peace deal on November 10, significantly changed the facts on the ground and created a new political reality that replaced the “no war, no peace” situation that had been hanging over the region for almost 30 years. As a result of this war, more than 6,000 soldiers died on both sides in fighting.

This war came to an end because of a clear victory for Azerbaijan, which has restored its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Owing to the humiliating defeat of Armenia,the myth of the invincibility of the Armenian armed forces has been shattered and the Prime Minister of this country has been under continuous pressure from the opposition to step down.

Thus, after the Second Karabakh war, the pendulum has swung from devastating war towards actual peace. The question, is, however, whether the conflicting parties will be able to achieve lasting peace in the coming years: How can a relationship that has been completely destroyed owing to this protracted armed conflict and previous wars be restored?

The fate of all inhabitants of both the highlands and lowlands of Karabakh, irrespective of their ethnic origin, is crucial in this context. Security arrangements for the Armenian minority residing in this area are currently organized through the deployment of 1,960 Russian peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the implementation of the trilateral statement signed by the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Russian Federation on November 10 (hereafter, the trilateral statement). At the same time, the return of the former Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence previously occupied by the Armenian armed forces is envisaged by the trilateral statement and the UNHCR has been assigned to oversee this task.

It is paramount that Azerbaijan has to demonstrate a policy of “strategic patience” in the coming years to entice the Armenians of Karabakh region into closer incorporation through attractive political, economic, social, and other development.

On the other hand, Armenia has to concentrate on its own internationally recognized sovereign territory. Today, it is important that this country changes its external minority policy and withdraws its territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a next step, both Armenia and Azerbaijan can recognize the territorial integrity of one other.

Such rapprochement can lead to the opening of the borders between Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan, which would increase economic opportunities for landlocked Armenia. It can thereby contribute to regional stability, development, and trans-regional cooperation among the three South Caucasian states. At the same time, it would create an enabling environment that could be more conducive for future dialogue and interactions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

We must face the fact that a stable equilibrium between these two nations has never previously been achieved. However, despite ups and downs, there was peaceful coexistence between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Karabakh as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective minorities in Azerbaijan and Armenia. This protracted conflict has, however, led Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live in parallel realities for almost 30 years.

In light of the recent past, we cannot soon reconcile our different narratives. It is a long process; however, reconciliation is not only an outcome, it is also a process. Although the gestation period might be long, the process of reconciliation itself can be extremely rewarding.

In fact, the Armenian and Azerbaijani inhabitants of Karabakh have lived together in this region in the past. However, for almost 30 years this was impossible. Will and determination should be put to good use in order to arrive at such a peaceful coexistence once again.

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Eastern Europe

Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus

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The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.

The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.

It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.

The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.

The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.

In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.

Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.

Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.

With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.

The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.

The Western stance

The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.

Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.

Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.

The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.

The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.

Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.

Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.

Georgia’s position

Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.

Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.

The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”

The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.

Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.

But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.

The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.

Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.

After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.

Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

Author’s note: first published in dailysabah

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Eastern Europe

An Impending Revolution

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Large crowds have demonstrated their anger at the results of the presidential election in Belarus. Photo: Kseniya Halubovich

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.

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