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Ukraine after Putin – Biden talks

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Negotiations between US and Ukrainian Presidents Joe Biden and Volodymir Zelensky in the wake of Putin-Biden talks were anticipated with genuine interest, particularly given that talks between the Ukrainian and American leaders took place against the backdrop of the Ukrainian provocation in the Sea of Azov.

As became clear from official sources, the “Ukrainian issue” stood high on the agenda of the talks between the Russian and US presidents. Meanwhile, no one consulted Ukraine. There was a visit to Moscow by Victoria Nuland, who is chief on Ukraine in the State Department, and there was an urgent flight to Moscow by CIA Director William Burns. Of course, that made Kyiv jumpy, amid “threats” outlined by American special services as “a concentration of Russian troops along Ukrainian borders”, scenarios and the Thus, likelihood of Russia advancing on Ukraine, described in colour and discussed at length by western media. Despite all these high-profile preparations for talks between the leaders of the world’s key nations, Kyiv came to believe that it was no more than preparations for the talks. No more……

Thus, it was important to aggravate the situation so Kyiv opted for a provocation. On December 9 Russia’s Federal Security Service reported that the Ukrainian naval ship “Donbass” was moving in the direction of the Kerch Strait and was not responding to any appeals for it to change course. Despite the warnings, the ship continued to move towards the strait and the Crimean Bridge. Several hours after the vessel reversed course. It was a play of nerves. The auxiliary vessel of the Ukrainian Navy posed a techno rather than military danger – 122 meters long, its hypothetical blow on the Crimean Bridge pillars could be tangible enough. The  result of this pathetic provocation-2021 was that Zelensky asserted himself as possessing a larger ship – 122 meters, against Poroshenko’s tugboat in the provocation – 2018 – 23 meters.

On December 9, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba urged in his Twitter page “to put an end to the violations of freedom of seafaring in the Black Sea and in the Sea of Azov”. The scenario with the “advancing” “Donbass” resulted in a flop – it was expected that the Russian frontier guards would send it to the bottom, thereby demonstrating the extent of Crimea’s militarization, the level of aggression, and the absence of any freedom of navigation in the region. But that did not happen.

One of the outcomes of Putin-Biden talks is the US decision to freeze military assistance to Ukraine. «The decision is designed to contribute to a diplomatic settlement of the conflict. However, the US authorities are considering an extensive package of military aid in case Russia invades Ukraine.  …the assistance was frozen despite Kyiv’s requests and requests from some American lawmakers. The US administration adopted such a decision in order to make time for a diplomatic settlement between Russia and Ukraine and in order to ease tension». This sounds strange, as there is no situation between Russia and Ukraine that cries for settlement. Russia is not getting ready for war, its troops are minding their own business on their own territory. And even though the issue of Nord Stream 2 and the Minsk Agreements is still on the agenda, there is nothing to talk about, as everything has already been said. Ukraine has nothing to do with Nord Stream 2, it’s none of its business. The Minsk Agreements do require a settlement but it will become possible on condition Ukraine meets all of the provisions. No more can be said on this, everything was said before. But Kyiv is not interested in a diplomatic settlement and has no intention of implementing the Minsk Agreements, looking for an opportunity to abolish them.

The turbulent reaction to the movement of Russian troops across Russia has triggered a serious irritation in the West. One of publications to this effect is titled: «Stop playing into Putin’s hand, idiots». The author of the article argues that Putin managed to “blow the West’s mind” by means of his “threat to attack Ukraine”: «He told an enlarged meeting of the panel of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: «Our warnings of late do make themselves felt and produce a certain effect. However, tension did emerge. Given this, I see two options: firstly, it is important that they experience this state of mind for as long as possible, so that it will not occur to them to start a conflict we do not need on our western borders. We do not need conflicts». Tis is the most important thing.

The author of the article, just like many government officials in NATO countries, is discontent over their fear. A voice of reason should have told them that Russia does not want aggression, just as it does not want Lviv, which reads as Lemberg on invasion maps from the German Bild. It looks like reason did tell them that, but this demonstrative fear coming from “the presumption of Russia’s aggressiveness” (a term coined by Viacheslav Nikonov) covers a far bigger fear. The West, having  used up all the available instruments of exerting pressure on Russia, is searching for other options – what else it can do to this end.

But let’s make one step backward. I assume that the  military and political fear that prompted high-ranking officials to visit Moscow hinges on the following fabricated concerns:

  1. If Russia chooses to advance on Ukraine, it will not stop at division line – on the border of Donbass republics;
  2. The USA will not take part in this military conflict – Ukraine is not a member of NATO, an overt conflict with Russia is inadmissible.

These scary scenarios and assumptions pursue a certain propagandistic agenda. Meanwhile, it’s important to bear in mind that no sanctions will stop Russia from defending its national interests.  Neither disconnection from SWIFT, the potential danger of which has been estimated and measures taken, nor energy or individual sanctions, nothing “can reform” Moscow. This is no longer scary. American political analyst Dimitri Simes pointed at during Viacheslav Nikonov’s program “Big Game”: “Russians are used to this unpleasant normality”.

Reports that the United States has frozen military assistance to Ukraine are encouraging. However, this does not mean that the US waives its plans to militarize Ukraine, which can be done through mounting military aid on behalf of other parties, that it is not possible to set up training camps and “temporarily” deploy separate NATO units on those “temporary” bases. This something to play with: should they raise the question of NATO units in Ukraine – they will pull them out but will start to supply weapons, and vice versa – discontinue weapons supplies but will bring in troops. Besides, there could be assistance in developing and building military infrastructure – marine bases etc.

Europe will have to pay a high price for “political correctness” if it approves energy sanctions against Russia and declines to buy Russian oil and gas. If Europe dances to the US tune and opts for an energy blockade of Russia, by relying on LNG and building interconnector pipelines for connecting the so far unconnected European pipelines for the supply of gas not from Russia. This process which will take several years will lead to protests and an increase in oil and gas prices. No “green energy” will be able to balance the energy balance, so discussions will start on nuclear energy, which will begin to shake the political foundations of Europe. This is what Washington offers the European Union and Europeans – a set of fairly dubious prospects.

Given the situation, Ukraine has found itself in a big political game yet again. Nevertheless, it remains one of the points within the framework of preparations for the talks. Ukraine remains a principal issue and a geopolitical platform in the competition between Moscow and Washington. But as before, it is not a party whose initiative matters to Washington. While everybody talks of Ukraine, Ukraine is the last to talk to. Such is the reality.  

From our partner International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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Lithuanian society is left shaken by plans to raise retirement age

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This month Lithuanian society is left shaken after spreading the news about the increasing of the retirement age. In Lithuania, the retirement age has increased every year since 2012 and by 2026 it will be 65 years. Previously, discussion surfaced on whether raising the retirement age to 72 would help offset Lithuania’s ageing population issues.

As Lithuania’s demographic situation continues to worsen, the European Commission estimates that the number of working-age people capable of supporting pensioners will go down in the future. Brussels says that increasing the retirement age could be a solution.

The existing average in Lithuania is now 57.5 years. It should be said that Lithuania expects to reach a life expectancy of 65 years only in 2030.

In some years there will be 50 retirees per 100 working people and it will have crucial implications for public finances and may require raising taxes. At the moment, 35% of the country’s population are aged over 55.

Before prolonging its working age, Lithuania should address the relatively poor health and low life expectancy of its population. Before they even reach retirement age, many people in Lithuania are unable to work due to high prevalence of chronic, non-infectious conditions.

It’s necessary to focus on increasing healthy life expectancy in Lithuania, instead of weighing up the idea of increasing the retirement age, Irena Segalovičienė, presidential adviser has said.

Taking into account the fact that men in Lithuania live an average of 14 more years from the age of 65, and women an 18 more years, Vilnius residents are not impressed with such an idea.

The officials are afraid of possible protests which could lead even to the government resignation.

Thus, late Thursday afternoon millions of French workers were still on the streets protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned pension reforms.

Lithuanian officials were quick to announce that it’s inadequate to consider a 7-year increase in the retirement age at this stage. Most likely, the news was deliberately disseminated in order to study public opinion on this issue.

Discussion is most toxic now, and will continue in Lithuania because wasting money on defence, government puts aging population at risk of poverty and death.

At the same time, the government calls for more defense spending. Together with Poland and the UK, Lithuania is leading a push within the NATO to agree to higher spending goals. In 2023, the country’s national defense budget will reach 2.52% of its gross domestic product (GDP). According to Zilvinas Tomkus, Lithuania’s vice minister of defence, Lithuania is ready to spend even more on the modernization of its armed forces and military infrastructure. The more so, spending money on defence procurement today will not improve Lithuania defence today. The modernized weapons, vehicles and equipment will be available only in some years while old Lithuanians need money right now just to survive.

Thus, chosen political priorities do not reflect the current social and economic situation in the country and even worsen it.

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