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War in the Caucasus: One more effort to shape a new world order

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Fighting in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia is about much more than deep-seated ethnic divisions and territorial disputes. It’s the latest clash designed, at least in part, to shape a new world order.

The stakes for Azerbaijan, backed if not egged on by Turkey, are high as the Azeri capital’s Baku International Sea Trade Port seeks to solidify its head start in its competition with Russian, Iranian, Turkmen and Kazakh Caspian Sea harbours, to be a key node in competing Eurasian transport corridors. Baku is likely to emerge as the Caspian’s largest trading port.

An Azeri success in clawing back some Armenian-occupied areas of Azerbaijan, captured by Armenia in the early 1990s, would bolster Baku’s bid to be the Caspian’s premier port at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

The Caspian is at the intersection of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) from China to Europe via Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that aims to connect India via Iran and Russia to Europe.

An Azeri military success would also cement Turkey’s claim to be a player in former Soviet lands that Russia views as its sphere of influence and bolster nationalist sentiment among Iranians of ethnic Azeri descent that account for up to 25 percent of the Islamic republic’s population, many of whom have risen to prominence in the Iranian power structure.

In an indication of passions that the conflict in the Caucasus evokes, Iranians in areas bordering Azerbaijan often stand on hilltops to watch the fighting in the distance.

Iranian security forces have recently clashed with ethnic Azeri demonstrators in various cities chanting “Karabakh is ours. It will remain ours.”

The demonstrators were referring to Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan that is at the core of the conflict in the Caucasus.

The demonstrations serve as a reminder of environmental protests in the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan at the time of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that often turned into manifestations of Azeri nationalism.

Baku port’s competitive position was bolstered on the eve of the eruption of fighting in the Caucasus with the launch of new railway routes from China to Europe that transit Azerbaijan and Turkey.

China last month inaugurated a new railway route from Jinhua in eastern China to Baku, which would reduce transport time by a third.

In June, China dispatched its second train from the central Chinese city of Xi’an to Istanbul via Baku from where it connects to a rail line to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the eastern Turkish city of Kars and onwards to Istanbul.

Azeri analysts charge that Armenian occupation of Azeri territory and demands for independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, threaten Baku’s position as a key node in Eurasian transport corridors.

“By continuing its occupation Armenia poses (a) threat not only to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity but also to the regional stability and cooperation,” said Orkhan Baghirov, a senior researcher at the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations, a think tank with close ties to the government.

Mr. Baghirov was referring to recent Russian, Iranian, Turkmen and Kazakh efforts to match Baku in upgrading their Caspian Sea ports in anticipation of the TITR and INSTC taking off.

Russia is redeveloping Lagan Port into the country’s first ice-free Caspian Sea harbour capable of handling transhipment of 12.5 million tonnes. The port is intended to boost trade with the Gulf as well as shipment from India via Iran.

Lagan would allow Russia to tap into the TITR that is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) via the Russian railway system as well as Kazakh, Turkmen, and Azeri ports.

It would also bolster Russian, Iranian and Indian efforts to get off the ground the INSTC that would hook up Caspian Sea ports to create a corridor from India to Russia via Iran, and in competition with the Suez Canal, to northern Europe.

The INSTC would initially link Jawaharlal Nehru Port, India’s largest container port east of Mumbai, through the Iranian deep-sea port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, funded by India to bypass Pakistan, and its Caspian Sea port of Bandar-e-Anzali to Russia’s Volga River harbour of Astrakhan and onwards by rail to Europe.

Iranian and Indian officials suggest the route would significantly cut shipping time and costs from India to Europe. Senior Indian Commerce Ministry official B B Swain said the hook up would reduce travel distance by 40 and cost by 30 percent.

Iran is further investing in increased capacity and connectivity at its Amirabad port while at the same time emphasizing its naval capabilities in the Caspian.

For their part, Turkmenistan inaugurated in 2018 its US$1.5 billion Turkmenbashi Sea Port while Kazakhstan that same year unveiled its Kuryk port.

The fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia with Turkey and Israel supporting the Azeris; Russia struggling to achieve a sustainable ceasefire; Iran seeking to walk a fine line in fighting just across its border; and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates attempting to stymie Iranian advances wherever they can, threatens to overlay port competition in the Caspian with aspects of the Middle East’s myriad conflicts.

Said Iran scholar Shireen T Hunter: “Largely because of the Iran factor, the Caucasus has become linked with Middle East issues. Israel and Saudi Arabia have tried to squeeze Iran through Azerbaijan… Thus, how the conflict evolves and ends could affect Middle East power calculations…. An expanded conflict would pose policy challenges for major international players.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Eastern Europe

Demystifying the Myth of War Crimes in Ukraine

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image source: war.ukraine.ua photo: Vadim Ghirda

Hypocrisy – a prevalent trait of the western powers. West’s policies on human rights are deluged with double standards. What is going around the world is a secondary, to them safeguarding their interest is prime. What Indian barbaric regime is doing in India with the minorities and in Indian occupied Kashmir, Israelis in Palestine, is not enough to catch an eye, because Muslims are dying, its none of their business. Let’s recap what USA did in Afghanistan and Iraq. How war crimes done by the west in these countries can be ignored. Humanity suffered at the hands of these western states. Innocent people got killed in the drone strikes and the West called it ‘Collateral Damage’. Innocent civilians suffered pain, hunger, and anguish, but West was mute. Human rights are for all without any discrimination based on religion, origin, race and colour. Unfortunately, the hypocrite USA only consider Human Rights for its allies and the holy land of USA. Clear violations of international humanitarian law are done by USA and its western allies in Afghanistan and other states. Moreover, the crime partner of USA, India is doing ferocious acts in India Occupied Kashmir, but all of them are silent.

As per the standards set by USA, kill innocent people and then an apology by Central Command is enough to justify an unjust loss of human life. Yes, the world should follow this too. Why only Americans have the right to make unjust just. Who will set an example of justice, war mongers, liars and killer USA? Oh yes, wonderful, now make big news out of nothing or yes something on Ukraine. Ukrainians are the only human left on the face of earth to get the western sympathizes. But it’s important for the Ukrainian decision makers to not to be fooled by the USA. Demystifying the war crimes by Russia in Ukraine is not to support Ukraine but yes to counter Russia. The very reason why this conflict started is West itself. And then, yes USA is excellent at imposing sanctions and it did the same with Russians as well. But, literally speaking who is going to listen to USA, not even India, one of the USA’s defense partners.

International Criminal Court – ICC should know its responsibility and first of all held USA accountable for the war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fake news, misinformation, mal-information, and disinformation is playing big role in manipulating the contemporary international politics. States are using this to hijack the actual information and create an environment of mistrust. Access to actual information in such circumstances in becoming difficult.  Why Russian news channels are blacklisted, why only Ukrainian and other foreign media outlets are into play. USA is busy in narrative building based on fake information.  USA is actually selling the despairs of Ukrainian people.  Therefore, huge responsibility also lies on journalists as well. Are we living in the stone age or in 21st century? Where is responsible journalism? The journalist and civil societies should work as pressure groups and push ICC to open investigations on unlawful killings by USA and its allies in Afghanistan. ICC also open inquires on the atrocities done by Israelis in Palestine, and Indian barbarism in Indian Occupied Kashmir. A detailed systematic investigation is need of hour.

This will reveal the horrible face of these elites of international arena. The USA forces in Afghanistan have “committed acts of torture, killings, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence”.  Did Russian forces have created a ‘secret kill team’ to allegedly kill innocent Ukrainian Civilians?  The answer is NO.  Let’s also consider ‘Collateral Damage’ in the case of Russia – Ukraine War. Instead of making world fool again on Ukraine, USA should remorse over its war crimes. A shameless country with no ethos is going to advocate Human Rights when its own citizens are not safe from the hate-fire it started. Humanity – a word, not known to USA. All it knows is to control other states’ resources, sovereignty, and independence. Subtle interference in the other countries’ internal matters, and creating fault-lines to manipulate the policy making. I doubt USA as an example of human rights and democracy. Disinformation is the new normal for USA.

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Eastern Europe

The Illusion of Constraint: Russia Advances in Eastern Ukraine Despite Harsh Sanctions

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The war of attrition is gradually becoming a reality as Russia continues to make gains in the east. According to Ukrainian officials, Russian forces now control about 80% of the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk. Despite new aid packages by the US and European Union (EU), Ukrainian armed forces are struggling in Donbas as a brutal Russian offensive is underway – forces now controlling over 20% of Ukrainian territory, according to president Zelensky. Analytical estimates reveal that Russia (alongside pro-Russian rebels) has already seized almost 90% of eastern Donbas; en route to upend the city of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the province of Luhansk. And geopolitical experts believe a similar showdown in the neighboring Donetsk province would ease Russian domination over the entire Donbas region.

The Ukrainian dignitaries have consistently insisted on long-range artillery support to counter Russia’s onslaught. However, a single contention prevails in the Western cohort: supplying long-range weaponry could enable Ukrainian attacks beyond Russian borders, perhaps invoking a direct conflict with a belligerent Russia. Thus, the Western support remains mostly limited to conservative alternatives as Russia defies earlier odds to gain an upper-hand. The core western defense has been the barrage of sanctions imposed on Russia and the damage to the Russian economy. The West believes it could avoid militarily provoking Russia and still economically debilitate the country to the point of desperate negotiation. However, the truth is far divergent from this popular belief.

Even after three and a half months, the torrent of sanctions has failed to decimate the Russian economy as initially envisioned by the West. Putin has spent the last two decades fortifying the Russian economy via integration into the global financial apparatus. Sure, the invasion in late February spurred financial restrictions and constraints on trade. But the initial panic has since receded as relative stability is taking on the reins. The Central Bank of Russia has played a pivotal role in preventing a financial collapse. As sanctions threatened to spur a crisis, the Bank of Russia hiked the policy rate to 20% – encouraging savings; preventing the egress of investments. The Kremlin mandated the state-owned enterprises to hold export receipts in Roubles. And salaries and pensions were generously increased to compensate for the inflationary effects of the invasion. Three months forward, the interest rates are back to the pre-invasion level of 9.5%. The Rouble – crashing to a record low in days following the invasion – is trading near four-year highs. And inflation, though still a vice, has cooled off to 17% year-on-year from a two-decade peak in April. While fiscal and monetary policies have considerably stabilized the economy, another underlying factor has unsurprisingly buttressed the rebound: the Russian energy sector.

Foreign companies are pulling out, investments are downgrading, and currency reserves are locked up around the globe. Then how exactly is Russia financing the war in Ukraine? Sure the stocks of imports are running low, and people are spending less. Yet how is the Russian war machine still operational when the world is closing up for Russia? Ironically, the world is indirectly financing the Russian agenda in Ukraine. Fossil fuel exports have always been monumental for the Russian economy. Receipts from oil and gas exports made up roughly 45% of Russia’s federal budget in 2021. According to a market report of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Russia’s oil revenue alone is up by 50% this year – despite the toughest raft of sanctions ever meted out by the West. The US has utterly banned Russian energy imports while the EU has managed to reduce its reliance on Russian energy supplies. According to the data from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) – a Finnish nonprofit think tank – the EU lowered natural gas imports from Russia by 23% in the first 100 days of the invasion (February 24 to June 3) compared to the same period last year. The data further reveals that the EU reduced its oil imports from Russia by 18% in May. Still, Russia earned a record $97 billion in revenue from exports of fossil fuels despite a modest fall of 15% in export volumes. How is that possible?

Despite trading at roughly 30% discount from international prices, Russian crude is sailing as surging global oil prices are still fetching receipts over 60% higher compared to last year. The volumes have certainly lowered as many countries have refused to trade with Russia to avoid American fury. Yet some countries have contended for cheap Russian energy supplies to guard domestic economic interests. India has been surprisingly vocal and determined about its choices of self-interest despite Western pressure. Since the invasion, India has procured 27% of its crude needs from Russia – up from less than 5% in April. According to research, India has cumulatively imported roughly 18% of Russia’s total oil exports since the invasion – increasing from roughly 1% pre-war quota. China has been another noteworthy importer of Russian oil, building its strategic reserves amid high global oil prices. Despite agreeing on a partial embargo banning roughly three-quarters of Russian oil imports to the region, Europe would not cast a substantial blow to Russia until 2023. While criticizing India and China for purchasing Russian oil, the EU has perhaps neglected its own energy imports from Russia, approximating €57 billion in the first 100 days of the invasion. And in spite of lofty promises to wean off Russian energy, European countries like Hungary and Slovakia would continue to rely on Russian oil via pipeline till at least 2024. Hence, while the West convenes to topple Russian dominance in Ukraine, the efforts are unfortunately not enough to fluster Putin – at least in the short run.

Nonetheless, the sanctions would hurt Russia somewhere down the line. Elvira Nabiullina – Governor of the Bank of Russia – recently admitted: “The effect of sanctions has not been acute as we feared at the beginning. [However] it would be premature to say that the full effect of sanctions has manifested itself.” The windfall energy export receipts may continue, but the import shortfall could damage the productivity of other sectors of the Russian economy. However, we need to understand that this is a war of attrition. And (despite a budget deficit) Russia has enough fiscal room to finance its domestic and military needs shortly. Mr.Richard Connolly – Director of the Eastern Advisory Group – sums up the reality perfectly: “For as long as the political will is there in the Kremlin and for as long as export prices remain high, I don’t see any immediate financial constraints confronting the Kremlin.” Hence, as sanctions fall short and Ukrainian defense fissures, the outlook is bleak – especially when Kyiv is resistant to negotiate territorial gains to fend off a humanitarian catastrophe.

Ultimately, the West needs to acknowledge its failure and decide: Is the sluggish war in favor of Ukraine or Russia? And what would be the primary goal of negotiations if Russia gains enough territory to dictate the terms? Given how the West has already exhausted almost all of its economic options and military options are off the table, I wonder how even the negotiations could do any good to Ukraine!

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania to lose confidence for German troops in near future

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Nine NATO member states held talks in Romania on Friday ahead of a key NATO summit later this month.

The nine, including Romania, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania urged NATO to increase their protection.

It should be noted that some of these countries use every political event to call NATO for additional troops on their territories. Thus, the Baltic States are the leaders among applicants.

Germany in its turn agreed last week to increase its contribution to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battalion in Lithuania. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced such plans after passing legislation to increase defense spending during a visit to Vilnius on Tuesday.Germany leads the 1,200-strong eFP battlegroup in Lithuania and currently has around 500 soldiers stationed there.

“We are going to increase our contribution by strengthening the Eastern flank of NATO. We are going to create a strong brigade and we have discussed that together in our meetings and we are going to have to work towards this direction,” Scholz said at a press conference with Baltic and German leaders.A brigade usually consists of between 3,000-5,000 troops. So, Berlin intends to increase its troops by 10 times.

The Baltic States welcomed Germany’s “historic decision” without suspecting what it could lead to.

It is no secret that German military contingent has very dubious reputation. In 2021 Germany had to recall a platoon from a NATO mission in Lithuania after reports emerged of troops engaging in racist and anti-Semitic behaviour, as well as sexual assault.According to Der Spiegel, the allegations relate to a party held at a hotel in Lithuania at the end of April, 2021.Some 30 German soldiers headed home from Lithuania.

The misconduct of foreign soldiers in Lithuania was a slap in the face of Lithuanian population who believed troops are here to defend.

A number of troops were also suspected of bullying, threatening violence and filming an incident of sexual assault.

Such behaviour is not only inexcusable but brings shame on Germany as NATO’s security guarantor.

Meanwhile, according to the FT latest publication, the proposal from Berlin is that a 3,500-strong brigade would only have a permanent headquarters in Lithuania, staffed by 50 to 60 personnel, but be based in Germany.

And probably, this Germany’s back step will secure Lithuanian population.

The Berlin’s decision to increase its military presence in Lithuania by 10 times could cause potential threat of increasing the number of incidents with inappropriate behavior of German military personnel by 10 times. It is logical that the number of crimes will rise and the residents’ trust in NATO ally will drop significantly. Is Lithuania ready to tolerate aggressive foreign soldiers in the streets of its cities? Can Lithuanians be calm for their children? Does Lithuania really need such foreign troops increasing? There are too many questions to answer before making the final decision.

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