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Does Biden want to keep Ukraine as a personal fiefdom?

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The strange policy, pursued by the present occupant of the White House during the past few weeks is fairly surprising. Moreover, Joe Biden’s actions vis-à-vis Russia are downright contradictory, to say the least. Or maybe his strange initiatives are sending some ulterior message to the team around him and those who supported last fall’s very dirty elections?

On the morning of April 15, President Joe Biden signed a presidential directive introducing a new batch of anti-Russian sanctions. The move sent the Russian ruble slightly down and prompted new statements by Russian politicians about the need to brace up for an even greater break with the West, and even of switching Russian banks from the SWIFT system of international financial transactions. Moreover, competent sources say that the prospect, fraught with a severe collapse of Russia’s national currency, prevented Moscow from snapping up in 2014 the whole of what Russians call Malorossiya (Little Russia). Six years on, Russia is ready to face up to this threat now that it has its very own national payment system MIR, and its Chinese partners are ready to introduce en masse their UnionPay system. Chances are that Moscow will eventually abandon SWIFT and deprive Washington and Brussels of one of the few remaining levers of pressure on Russia.

However, just a day earlier, Biden had been negotiating, and sort of agreed about a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin within the next few weeks. Well, there are things that need to be settled on a personal level, of course. And still, “within a few weeks” means an “emergency” summit. Even the leaders of small countries do not schedule one-on-one meetings at such a short notice as bilateral summits, especially between great power leaders. It normally take a year and more to prepare. Therefore, “a few weeks” is a very inconvenient period for diplomatic protocol and security officials, advisers and the staff of heads of state.

One obvious explanation for such a rush could be the looming military standoff between Russia and Ukraine. Confused by conflicting instructions from the old and new US administrations, and forced to maneuver between his own oligarchs and the far-right forces, Ukraine’s President Zelensky is apparently unable to pursue a pragmatic policy. He cannot take a step back, Ukraine’s resources are not sufficient enough for any lengthy arms rattling along the borders of the unrecognized Donetsk and Lugansk republics, and he has very small chances of a blitzkrieg. As a result, a war can break out simply by accident or as a result of actions by some trigger-happy mid-rank commander on the ground.

However, it looks like Washington may find itself the winner no matter how the war may unfold. Kiev’s victory and the return of Donetsk and Lugansk under its control will seriously undermine Putin’s position both at home and on the international front. On the other hand, Kiev’s local defeat will give an excellent reason for slapping new sanctions on Moscow, including the Nord Stream project, which prevents the United States from selling its liquefied natural gas to Europe. Well, the hypothetical Russian offensive and the reunification of Novorossiya and Little Russia with Russia will make it possible to declare the Russian Federation an evil empire, will force the NATO allies to ramp up their defense outlays and spend money on deploying additional US military contingents on their soil. The problem for Russia is that it does not have enough resources to quickly and effectively integrate even the 4.5 million-strong Novorossiya (Odessa, Kherson and Nikolayev regions), let alone the whole of Eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, to feed the “Kremlin monster” Ukraine and wait for it to die from indigestion would seem a simple way out for Washington. And still, Biden goes to negotiate, demonstrating his readiness for playing hardball (after all, he introduced new sanctions after agreeing to a meeting). Why?

Throughout last year, many Ukrainian and later US politicians, led by former New York mayor and Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani were trying hard to draw public attention to Hunter Biden’s allegedly corrupt business dealings in Ukraine, backed by his father, Joe Biden (in April 2014, the son of the then US Vice President, Hunter Biden joined the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings.

The Ukrainians, including their former Prosecutor General, provided strong enough evidence of funds withdrawn via Burisma and exorbitant salaries paid to foreign directors. President Donald Trump personally intervened in support of the investigation as it turned out that many businessmen with links to the Democratic Party had been somehow involved in murky financial dealings in Ukraine. However, the investigation was gradually rolled up. But wasn’t Burisma just the tip of the corruption iceberg? It was the Democratic US administration that removed Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych. Since March 2014, Kiev has been taking recommendations by US ambassadors as direct instructions. The independent policies of the two pro-Western presidents, Poroshenko and Zelenskiy, have always been a big question. Meanwhile, impoverished Ukraine is a potentially very rich region with lots of fertile land and mineral resources, but the authorities are still unable to support local businesses and agrarians, even if they wanted to. Since 2014, the country has consistently been bending under IMF demands jacking up tariffs, abandoning any protectionist measures, and losing any control over foreign investors. Therefore, it is very hard to say just how many business assets in Ukraine are actually controlled by US Democrats. And if we assume that in exchange for political support Biden and his entourage handed out lucrative contracts to local businessmen under their control, then the situation for the US leader looks absolutely critical.

Well, even if Zelensky surrenders to Russian tankmen, goes to Moscow and comes clean about Biden’s unsightly role in organizing corruption schemes, the Democratic Party’s powerful propaganda machine will still cope with that.  Gone are the days when direct evidence of corruption and other crimes led to the resignation of politicians. That being said, what will Biden tell his business partners if the Russians win? Moreover, any military defeat could be the end of Ukraine as an independent state. The only alternative is direct military support for Zelensky, but this would be a shortcut to the Third World War, where there will be no winners!

Slavisha Batko Milacic is a historian and independent analyst. He has been doing analytics for years, writing in Serbian and English about the situation in the Balkans and Europe. Slavisha Batko Milacic can be contacted at email: varjag5[at]outlook.com

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Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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