Archives For: Russia

Operation Strategic Trolling

Oct 31 2014 @ 2:24pm

NATO reported an “unusual burst of activity” by Russia’s nuclear-capable strategic bombers on its borders this week. While none of the flights violated NATO airspace, they are emblematic of the increasing tensions in Europe over the conflict in Ukraine:

In all, Nato said, its jets intercepted four groups of Russian aircraft in about 24 hours since Tuesday and some were still on manoeuvres late on Wednesday afternoon. “These sizeable Russian flights represent an unusual level of air activity over European air space,” the alliance said. A spokesman stressed there had been no violation of Nato air space, unlike a week earlier when a Russian spy plane briefly crossed Estonia’s border. But so many sorties in one day was unusual compared with recent years. … Nato said it had conducted more than 100 such intercepts of Russian aircraft this year so far, about three times as many as in 2013 before the confrontation with Moscow over separatist revolts in Ukraine soured relations.

Elias Groll adds:

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of kidnapping an Estonian intelligence agent. Swedish defense officials now speak of a fundamentally altered security paradigm in the Baltic after Russian planes carried out a mock bombing of Stockholm and violated Swedish airspace in the region.

Groll says such actions “bring relations between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.” Marc Champion also finds that “a version of the Cold War is returning, but its rules and parameters aren’t clear”:

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Ukraine Is Still A Mess

Oct 9 2014 @ 5:12pm

Adam Chandler highlights a UN report revealing that at least 331 people have been killed in the Ukrainian conflict since the signing of a ceasefire on September 5:

“There is a total breakdown of law and order,” said Gianni Magazzeni, the United Nations human rights official who announced the release of the report in Geneva. Over the past month, grim developments have included the shelling of schools and city buses, the gutting of villages, the fierce battles for control of Donetsk’s Sergei Prokofiev Airport, and startling lists of locals who are believed to either be missing or held captive by pro-Russian rebels. An early October report estimated that nearly 400,000 Ukrainians are internally displaced, part of a seven-figure estimate for the total number of Ukrainians who have been displaced.

While the latest violence has largely been limited to the exchange of small-arms fire—a shift from this summer’s large-scale military offensives, which drove up death tolls and ultimately forced the warring sides to negotiate—there’s been little letup in fighting over the past month.

With a battle raging between Ukrainian and rebel forces over the Donetsk airport, the ceasefire appears to be going off the rails entirely, threatening to take the upcoming parliamentary elections with it:

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Looking over Russia’s budget for the coming year, Callum Williams observes how many of its assumptions depend on oil prices remaining pretty high:

graph_3In 2015 Russia will need an oil price of about $105 a barrel to balance its budget (see chart). But crude is currently trading in the mid-$90s, down by about 10% since May. Weak demand from China and healthy supply from America help explain the drop.

Lower dollar-denominated oil prices are not so bad for Russia, given that the rouble has weakened so much. But over the past few years the budget’s reliance on oil revenues has increased. When excluding oil, there was a shortfall of 3.6% of GDP in 2007, but now it is more like 10%. Russia expects to run a small budget deficit (about 0.6% of GDP) this year. That prediction is optimistic—the Kremlin is banking on an oil price of $100. The latest predictions from Energy Aspects, a consultancy, show that the price of Brent is not expected to pass $100 for about nine months.

Steven Mufson details how the dip in demand and surge in US production is bad news not only for Russia, but Iran as well:

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Whither Now, Ukraine?

Sep 18 2014 @ 4:00pm

Michael Weiss’s overview of the situation in Ukraine today touches on several salient topics—corruption, nationalism, the economy, Russia—and is worth a full read. Here, he addresses the law the Ukrainian parliament passed this week granting a measure of autonomy to the country’s eastern regions:

There are already signs that Ukraine and Russia will interpret it differently. The Russian Foreign Ministry, for instance, said in a statement that the law grants the “development in certain regional districts of cross-border cooperation designed to deepen good-neighborly relations with the Russian Federation’s administrative and territorial units,” which is a pretty way of describing a breakaway autonomous zone removed in all but name from the central authority in Kiev. … For their part, the Ukrainians who elected Poroshenko largely on his campaign promise to ensure the territorial integrity of their country fear that this deal is another kind of sellout: the de facto ceding of the Donbass to Russia, or the perpetuation of an occupation in all but name. This is why protests objecting to the special status law have recently erupted outside the Rada.

“The mood at the ministry, specifically with the new foreign minister and his team, is to get it over with,” a Ukrainian diplomat told me, referring to a then-nascent cease-fire agreement. “There is one fear that we will have a new Transnistria. The other is that [the war] goes on indefinitely. The first is more awful.”

Alexander Motyl, however, argues that a frozen conflict “will actually be to Ukraine’s benefit”:

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The Great “Unraveling”?

Sep 17 2014 @ 8:42pm

[Re-posted from earlier today.]

I’m a huge admirer of Roger Cohen’s writing – and can appreciate many of the thoughts percolating in his latest column on what he sees as a disintegration of the world order. He manages to cite Scottish independence, the rise of ISIS, and the devolved powers to Eastern Ukraine – and even Ebola! – as part of a trend toward dissolution and anarchy.

But when I look at all the developments he is citing, I don’t really see anything that new. Take Iraq – please. What we are witnessing is the second major Sunni revolt since they were summarily deposed from power by the United States in 2003. How is this new? The Sunnis have long since believed in their bones that Iraq is theirs by right to govern. They despise the Shiites now running the show. The entire construct Syria_and_Iraq_2014-onward_War_mapof Iraq in the first place was designed on the premise of permanent Sunni rule over the majority. That rule necessarily had to be despotic – as all attempts to permanently deny rights to a majority in the country must be.

So we removed the despot – as we did in Libya – and we have an ongoing power-struggle that is a continuation of the same power struggle Iraq has been hosting since time immemorial. I mean look at that map on the right, from Wiki on the current division of power and land in Iraq. Does it look familiar? It looks like every map of Iraq’s sectarian divide since time immemorial. And we think we will change that by air-strikes?

My fear is that the catastrophic error of 2003 will never lead to a stable state, because the Sunnis will never tolerate or trust majority Shiite rule. Yes, we bribed them enough to switch sides temporarily in the “surge”. But they knew we’d leave; and they knew what they had to do when we did. The only conceivable way to avoid such a scenario would be to stay in Iraq indefinitely – but that too is untenable, for both the Iraqis and for us.

The Beltway nonetheless decided – against all the evidence – that the surge had worked, that sectarian passions had subsided, and that a multi-sectarian government would be able to overcome the profound rifts in Iraqi society that have always been embedded in its DNA. We were sold a bill of goods – by Petraeus and McCain and the other benign imperialists. They have spun a narrative that Iraq was “solved” in 2009 – and that the absence of US troops led to subsequent failure. But they flatter themselves. We never had any real reason to believe these sectarian divides had been overcome – and after a decade of brutal and traumatizing mutual slaughter, why on earth would they be?

Iraq was unraveled in 2003; in my view, it has thereby become the battle-ground for the simmering, wider Sunni-Shiite civil conflict that has also been a long-running strain in the region. Our own solipsistic focus on ISIS as another al Qaeda against us – again the narrative of the utterly unreconstructed neocon right and the pious interventionist left – misses this simple fact. We cannot see the forest for our own narcissistic tree.

When you look at Russia and Ukraine from the same historical perspective, the unraveling meme also seems unpersuasive. Russia is a proud and ornery and mysterious country. It has gone from global super-power to regional neo-fascist state in a matter of decades. Its sphere of influence has retreated from the edge of Berlin to the boundaries of Ukraine, which it simply controlled for an extremely long time.

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Ukraine Splits The Difference

Sep 16 2014 @ 2:59pm

The Ukrainian parliament had two big items on its agenda today:

In a vote synchronized with the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Ukrainian lawmakers unanimously approved the association pact over objections from Russia, which fears the loss of a market for its goods and damage to its economy from an influx of European products through Ukraine. … Earlier Tuesday, legislators voted behind closed doors to approve two bills granting amnesty to rebels and greater autonomy for eastern regions as part of an effort to consolidate a tenuous Sept. 5 cease-fire and end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. The decision on Tuesday to enshrine in law an amnesty and a framework for self-rule in the east represented a major concession to Russia that in many ways gave the Kremlin what it had been seeking since early in the conflict, long before the violence broadened and thousands died.

Bershidsky doubts Ukrainians will thank Poroshenko for this:

That, in effect, is Ukraine’s signature under the creation of a frozen conflict area.

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The US imposed additional sanctions on Russia’s finance, energy, and defense sectors today over its involvement in the Ukraine crisis, on the heels of another round of sanctions from the EU:

The U.S. Treasury Department tightened on September 12 debt-financing restrictions for sanctioned banks from 90 days to 30 days. And it added Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution, to the list of state banks subject to the restriction. It also prohibited the exporting of goods, services, and technology for Russian deepwater or offshore projects for five Russian firms: natural gas monopoly Gazprom Gazprom, its oil unit Gazprom Neft, Lukoil, Surgutneftgas, and Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft. Gazprom Neft and pipeline operator Transneft also have new debt restrictions of over 90 days’ maturity. … The European Union’s new sanctions include asset freezes on 24 senior officials and lawmakers, including nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinosvky, bringing to 119 the number of people sanctioned by the bloc over the Ukraine conflict. The measures also include restrictions on financing for some state-controlled Russian companies such as Rosneft, Transneft, and Gazprom Neft.

Noting that the sanctions on Rosneft might freeze a $500 billion joint project with ExxonMobil to drill for oil in the arctic, Matthew Philips comments that “these latest energy sanctions could sever what are arguably the closest ties remaining between Russia and the West”:

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From The Annals Of Chutzpah

Sep 11 2014 @ 4:46pm

Russia suddenly discovers international law:

“The U.S. president has spoken directly about the possibility of strikes by the U.S. armed forces against ISIL positions in Syria without the consent of the legitimate government,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. “This step, in the absence of a U.N. Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.”

Morrissey retorts:

Gee, I must have missed the UN Security Council resolution that granted Russia sovereignty over Crimea, and the invitation to send armor and infantry into eastern Ukraine. For that matter, perhaps the Kremlin could be kind enough to point us toward the UNSC resolution that authorized the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well. After all, Vladimir Putin’s regime appears to be an expert on international law, so …

All eyes are on the impending ISIS war today, but things are still happening in Ukraine as well. Five days after the announcement of a ceasefire, Kiev now claims that most of the Russian forces that had invaded the country have left, while Poroshenko is making some concessions to separatist sentiments in the east:

President Petro Poroshenko told a televised cabinet meeting Ukraine would remain a sovereign, united country under the terms of a peace roadmap approved last Friday, but said parts of the east under rebel control would get special status. “According to the latest information I have received from our intelligence, 70 percent of Russian troops have been moved back across the border,” he said. “This further strengthens our hope that the peace initiatives have good prospects.” However, Poroshenko said the ceasefire was not proving easy to maintain because “terrorists” were constantly trying to provoke Kiev’s forces. Ukraine’s military recorded at least six violations of the ceasefire overnight but said there were no casualties. Five servicemen have been killed during the ceasefire, Ukraine says. A civilian was also killed at the weekend during shelling of the eastern port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov in eastern Ukraine.

But Morrissey is skeptical of this supposed Russian retreat:

The “terrorists” may be rebels attempting to keep Russia from retreating. Moscow may not need much of a provocation, either. Yesterday, Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine of building up forces for an attack on Donetsk, and multiple reports of artillery fire put the truce into serious question … Hopefully, the retreat of Russia from Ukraine is real and will continue. With Lavrov looking for an excuse to return and the rebels perhaps desperate to provide it, I wouldn’t count on it.

Alec Luhn remarks on the chaotic battlefield, noting that neither Moscow nor Kiev has enough control over its fighters to enforce an airtight ceasefire:

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Nuclear Superpower Is Nuclear

Sep 9 2014 @ 11:41am

The Ukraine conflict isn’t the only thing raising concerns about a resurgent Russia. James Inhofe is even more worried about Putin’s efforts to revitalize and upgrade Russia’s nuke program:

Russia deploys aircraft and submarines armed with cruise missiles around the world that already threaten our allies. But air and submarine bases can be targeted and destroyed by the U.S. military in the event of a confrontation. A mobile GLCM [ground-launched cruise missile], on the other hand, is much harder to find. General Philip M. Breedlove, the senior NATO commander, has said that this new weapon is “absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with.”

Strategically, the deployment of a nuclear-armed GLCM further increases the disparity in regional nuclear forces between Russia and NATO, which could weaken alliance deterrence and assurance calculations. Russia currently enjoys about a 10-to-1 advantage over NATO in nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe. It provides Russia a counterbalance to those countries near Russia that are developing intermediate-range nuclear forces and, in some cases, long-range conventional strike capabilities, such as China. Russia also feels that GLCM capabilities compensate for shortcomings in Russia’s conventional forces.

Jeffrey Lewis also catches Putin talking nukes:

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