Precarious Syria Talks Leave its Future Uncertain: Jonathan Spyer, Jerusalem Post, Feb. 5, 2016 — UN Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura this week announced the suspension of just-convened peace talks in Geneva intended to resolve the Syrian civil war.
Missing the Cold War? You Can Get a Taste of it Again in Eastern Europe: Matt Gurney, National Post, Feb. 10, 2016— I confess to always having had a touch of Cold War envy.
Vladimir Putin Will Only Become More Murderous and Dangerous: Ralph Peters, New York Post, Jan. 24, 2016— On Thursday, a formal British inquiry into the assassination of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko released its findings: Litvinenko was murdered, and Vladimir Putin “probably” approved the operation personally.
Putin Calls on European Jews to Take Refuge in Russia: Sam Sokol, Jerusalem Post, Jan. 20, 2016 — Western European Jews fleeing anti-Semitism are welcome to take refuge in the Russian Federation, which is “ready to accept them,” President Vladimir Putin told a visiting delegation of Jewish community leaders on Tuesday.
Will Russian Victories in Syria Spark a Regional War?: Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11, 2016
Russia Announces Surprise Military Drills in South: Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, Feb. 8, 2016
Bleed Russia: Michael Rubin, Commentary, Feb. 7, 2016
Who Needs Assassins When You’ve Got Hackers?: Mark Galeotti, New York Times, Jan. 22, 2015
Jerusalem Post, Feb. 5, 2016
UN Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura this week announced the suspension of just-convened peace talks in Geneva intended to resolve the Syrian civil war. The failure of the talks was predictable, and foreseen by most serious analysts on Syria. Diplomacy requires compromise. But the forces of President Bashar Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are advancing in both northern and southern Syria. The dictator and his allies, as a consequence, see no reason to abandon their core aims or accept a political process leading to a transition of power.
The action of consequence with regard to Syria is taking place on the battlefields of Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa and Quneitra provinces, not in the conference rooms of Geneva and Vienna. The aim of the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies at present appears to be to destroy the non-Islamic State Sunni Arab rebellion against Assad. This would have the consequence of leaving only three effective protagonists in the war in Syria – Assad, Islamic State and the Kurds in the north.
Moscow is engaged at the moment in the energetic courting of the Kurds. Should Russia, after defeating the non-Islamic State rebels, succeed in tempting the Syrian Kurds away from their current alliance with the US, this would leave Moscow the effective master of the universally approved war against Islamic State in Syria. Assad, who was facing possible defeat prior to the Russian intervention in September 2015, would be entirely dependent on Moscow and to a lesser extent Tehran for his survival. This would make the Russians and Iranians the decisive element in Syria’s future.
The defeat of the non-Islamic State Sunni Arab rebellion is the first stage in this strategy. The main regime and Russian efforts are currently directed toward the remaining heartland of the rebellion in northwest Syria. But Assad and his allies also appear intent on delivering a death blow to the revolt in the place it was born – Deraa province in the south and its environs. This, incidentally, if achieved in its entirety, would bring Hezbollah and Iran to the area east of Quneitra crossing, facing the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights. It is not by any means certain that the regime will achieve this aim in total. But as of now, Assad and his friends are moving forward.
The first stage following the Russian intervention, and achieved in the dying months of 2015, was to end the rebel threat to the regime enclave in Latakia province. There is no further prospect of the rebels finding their way into the populated areas of this province. The regime has recaptured 35 villages in the northern Latakia countryside. This achieved, the main fulcrum of the current effort is Aleppo province. Aleppo is the capital of Syria’s north. The rebellion’s arrival in this city in the late summer of 2012 signaled the point at which it first began to pose a real threat to Assad.
This week, the regime, its Iran-mustered Shi’a militia supporters and Russian air power succeeded in breaking the link between the border town of Azaz and rebel-held eastern Aleppo. This reporter traveled these rebel supply routes from the border when they were first carved out in 2012. They were vital to the maintenance of the rebellion’s positions in Aleppo. There is a single link remaining between Turkey and eastern Aleppo – via Idlib province.
But the rebel situation is rapidly deteriorating. The regime also broke a two-year siege on two Shi’ite towns, Nubul and Zahra. The rebels rushed all available personnel and resources to defend these supply routes. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida branch in Syria, sent a convoy of 750 fighters to the area. This proved insufficient. Further south, a recent regime offensive in Deraa province led to the recapture of the town of Sheikh Maskin, which again cuts the rebels off from key supply lines in a province they once dominated.
So the direction of the war is currently in the regime’s favor. This is due to the Russian air intervention and to Iran’s provision of ground fighters from a variety of regional populations aligned with it. The pattern of events on the ground had a predictable effect on the diplomacy in Geneva. All this does not, however, necessarily presage imminent and comprehensive regime and Russian success on the ground.
Syrian opposition sources note that the pendulum of the war has swung back and forth many times in the course of the last four years. They hope that fresh efforts from Ankara, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will help to stem regime gains in the weeks ahead. Perhaps more fundamentally, any attempt by the regime to claw back the entirety of Sunni Arab majority areas or Kurdish majority areas of Syria would lead to the same situation the regime faced in 2012 – namely, overstretch and insufficient forces to effectively hold areas conquered.
But as of now, thanks to the Russian intervention, prospects for rebel victory have been averted and the Assad regime, with its allies, is on the march once more. Comprehensive eclipse for the non-Islamic State Sunni Arab rebel groups is no longer an impossibility somewhere down the line. This reality at present precludes progress toward a diplomatic solution. As an old Russian proverb has it: When the guns roar, the muses are silent.
National Post, Feb. 10, 2016
I confess to always having had a touch of Cold War envy. As a keen watcher of military and geopolitical affairs, I far prefer the relatively clear and orderly divisions of the superpower rivalry to the gigantic sucking chest wound that is modern international affairs. I’m old enough, barely, to remember the dying days of the Cold War — my parents told me to watch TV when the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989. It was important, they said. They were right.
I studied the Cold War closely in school. I’m probably one of only a handful of Canadians born after 1980 who doesn’t get confused by terms like “MIRV,” “Looking Glass,” “EMP” and “countervalue.” But I was certainly content enough, seeing as how I live in a major urban-industrial era, to leave the Cold War and its nuclear terminology in the past. But it’s getting increasingly hard to do that. Last week, after years of diverting its attention elsewhere, the U.S. military began ramping up its force levels and spending in Europe — particularly Eastern Europe. A brigade-sized force, anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 troops, will establish a quasi-permanent U.S. military presence in the easternmost NATO countries — Poland and the Baltics are places oft mentioned as probable homes for the U.S. force.
“Quasi” permanent is an important legal distinction here. NATO had previously agreed with Russia, during warmer times in the East-West relationship, to never permanently station NATO forces in Eastern Europe (beyond the local military forces of the member states there, of course). So the U.S. intends to frequently rotate different units in and out of the area. No troops will be “permanently” assigned to Eastern Europe, but a sizeable U.S. force will always be there. There will also be large stocks of U.S. munitions and equipment in the region, sufficient to allow a larger force to be rapidly, by the standards of such things, ramped up, if needed.
A quasi-permanent force of only 5,000 troops isn’t exactly breaking out the plans for REFORGER (Cold War military vets will remember that term — see, I told you I know my terminology!). But it’s a pretty dramatic sign that the U.S. views Russia as a real threat. NATO’s eastern members have always feared Moscow, of course, and would welcome as much NATO firepower and as many troops as we could send. But NATO’s western members have preferred to play nice with Moscow, and do business with it.
We still can, within limits. No one is suggesting we unduly provoke the Russians. And despite ongoing Western sanctions against Russia, few have proposed completely isolating the country’s economy or political leadership. Russia is a major player on the world stage, particularly in the Middle East. It’s a fact on the ground that we must contend with. Fair enough. But we have to contend with it from a position of strength. Russia is only a shadow of what it was during the Cold War. The correlation of forces, if I can slip into military jargon once more, are vastly more favourable to NATO now than they ever were before. Russia has kept up its nuclear arsenal, or so we believe. Other than that, the West enjoys military and economic superiority over the Russians that could only have dreamed over in prior generations.
The problem, of course, is that the West is reluctant to use its forces, or to invest its economic might in military readiness. The Russians are currently reeling from the collapse in global oil prices, and that’s a very serious problem that could become critical for them in years to come. But in the meantime, they have invested heavily in modernizing their armed forces, and they’re not afraid to use them. They’ve thrown themselves into the Syrian civil war, they’ve invaded Ukraine (their use of proxies is only the flimsiest of possible shields) and they’ve been patrolling and posturing aggressively all over the world. Russian jets are probing NATO countries across the globe, including North America. NATO naval commanders recently went on the record to say they haven’t seen this much Russian submarine activity in decades.
It’s not always what you’ve got, in other words, but how you use it. And the Russians are using their military forces aggressively — and well. There’s a school of thought that suggests they’re just thumping their chests to keep us on edge, and that much of their recent behaviour is essentially designed to unnerve and cow the West, precisely because Russian President Vladimir Putin, the old Cold Warrior, knows how much ground Russia has lost to NATO. I find that explanation compelling.
But we can’t bank on it. Russia’s back and wants to throw its weight around in parts of the world in which the West has had almost total freedom of action since the Cold War ended. Fair enough. They have the right to an armed forces and to use it, within reasonable limits, as they see fit (they’ve exceeded those limits some, most dramatically in Ukraine, but the point stands). But the West has military forces too, and the right to use them as well. Further, through NATO, it has an obligation to stand with its allies. In recent years, war games have shown that it would be hellishly difficult to prevent Russia from grabbing the eastern NATO states in the unlikely event that they chose to. The U.S. standing up a brigade there is a response to that, and also a clear sign to Putin that, yes, NATO takes itself seriously.
This isn’t the Cold War, it just feels like it sometimes. But we still need to take our own defence seriously. If Russian troops (or “little green men” who just happen to speak Russian, carry Russian weapons and call in support from air units and artillery inside Russia, as happened in Ukraine) move into a NATO country, they won’t just be dealing with local forces, but the U.S. Army, and probably other NATO countries, as well (Canada, too, has sent rotating infantry companies). It’s a classic tripwire — sure, maybe the Russians could overwhelm those forces, but they’d think twice about killing a bunch of Americans, Canadians and Britons to gobble up the Baltics. Putin’s probably not that crazy, but it’s good to be ready. Just in case.
New York Post, Jan. 24, 2016
On Thursday, a formal British inquiry into the assassination of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko released its findings: Litvinenko was murdered, and Vladimir Putin “probably” approved the operation personally. No one who follows Russian affairs was surprised. The evidence was overwhelming. A decade ago, two Russian spies had poisoned their former colleague by spiking his tea with polonium in London, leaving a radioactive trail that led back to Moscow. On his deathbed, Litvinenko stated that Putin had ordered the hit. No sane person doubted him.
On Friday, a Kremlin spokesman dismissed the findings as “English humor.” Extradition requests for the named assassins will go ignored. And Czar Vladimir will continue to murder political opponents and critics whenever he wants. We know the famous victims, such as crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya and opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov, but there have been far more deaths. This is murder as a tool of statecraft.
Just last week, Putin’s favorite henchman, Chechen chief Ramzan Kadyrov, cur of the Caucasus, openly threatened media workers and dissidents who dare to dream of a different path for Russia. Putin’s Russia isn’t a nation of laws, but it is a land of rules. And rule No. 1 is that no one’s allowed to criticize, mock or challenge the reigning czar. To borrow the words of one of our own apparatchiki, “What does it matter?” Why should we care about the death of one defector when the world’s ablaze? Because the second-most-powerful nuclear-armed state is ruled dictatorially by a remorseless assassin. It matters because he ignores international law. It matters because, like Hitler, he has a vision that only war can fulfill. And it matters because he’s as brilliant as he is ruthless, a leader who knows his own people and sizes up his enemies with genius.
When Putin climbed onto the throne, Russia was crumbling. Underestimated at home and abroad, the former KGB officer quickly centralized power, enforced his will, enriched his people (thanks to an oil and gas boom) and, not least, gave Russians back their national pride. He built a cult of personality that played to the common citizen, sidelining the urban intelligentsia. He tamed the hated Yeltsin-era oligarchs, just as his idol, Peter the Great, had broken the boyari, old Russia’s aristocrats. And he bought influence in Europe, disrupting every response to his bad behavior.
He used natural gas as a weapon, letting East Europeans freeze to death. Western Europeans wept crocodile tears and signed new energy contracts. After toying with a feckless American president, Putin “liberated” Crimea from Ukraine. When the West failed to respond in a serious way, he invaded eastern Ukraine. In both operations he used thinly disguised security forces, smirking as he denied Russian involvement. Again, he faced a limp response, sanctions designed to protect Western business interests.
Next, he staged a military surprise, deploying forces to Syria under the high-tech noses of Western intelligence agencies. While the Syrian opposition turned out to be tougher than he expected, Putin nonetheless has managed to stabilize the Assad government’s position, insuring that, whatever Bashar al-Assad’s personal fate, a pro-Russian regime will remain in Damascus. Now, in addition to expanding Russia’s longtime presence on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, Putin’s grabbing an airbase in the interior, just where a Russian presence would block the advance of US-backed rebels. Again, we will do nothing.
Along the way, Putin’s suffered embarrassments, but no compelling defeats. The West has yet to stand up to him in any significant way. The result is that he now expects to win — which makes him extremely dangerous. That danger may be coming to a head, because market forces are doing what no Western leader dared: applying the brakes. With oil and gas prices plummeting, Russia’s economy’s shrinking, inflation’s soaring, the ruble’s collapsing, pensions are losing value, wages can’t keep pace — and the first hairline cracks in Putin’s popularity are showing. The czar won’t fall tomorrow, but the grumbling has begun.
For the first time, I believe the Kremlin’s fudging the numbers on Putin’s popularity, which officially remain at an 85% approval rating. Putin’s single weakness has been his poor grasp of economics. Instead of diversifying Russia’s economy when the times were good, he relied on oil and gas production — which he could control, restricting Russia’s new aristocracy of wealth to the manageable size of the old court nobility. A diversified economy would have diffused his authority.
But in the words of the greatest American economist of our time, Cyndi Lauper, “Money changes everything.” Putin’s inattention to market fundamentals is hurting him now. Although Russia’s projected budget — amended week to week — seeks to fence funds for Putin’s cherished military buildup, it becomes a greater challenge by the day. Even those cautious Western sanctions add to the pain now, intensifying the effects of plunging commodity prices. Should we rejoice? Does this mean that the assassinations and invasions might end? No. In his desperation, Putin could become even more embittered and reckless. Ailing on the home front, he may feel compelled to deliver new triumphs abroad. His throne isn’t threatened yet, but his pride is wounded. And beware a wounded bear.
Jerusalem Post, Jan. 20, 2016
Western European Jews fleeing anti-Semitism are welcome to take refuge in the Russian Federation, which is “ready to accept them,” President Vladimir Putin told a visiting delegation of Jewish community leaders on Tuesday. In an exchange with Dr. Moshe Vyacheslav Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, in the Kremlin, Putin reacted to reports of stark increases in anti-Semitic violence by stating that Jews “should come here, to Russia. They left the Soviet Union; now they should come back.”
In response, Kantor called Putin’s proposal “a fundamentally new idea” that he plans on raising for discussion among European Jewish leaders at the EJC’s upcoming general assembly, adding that he hopes they would support it. Kantor also came out in favor of Russia’s involvement in Syria, where it supports dictator Bashar Assad, stating that the congress “decisively supports the actions of the Russian Federation against Islamic State.
“Why are Jews running from a Europe that was recently safe? They are fleeing, as you rightly said, not only because of terrorist attacks against our communities in Toulouse, Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, and now Marseille, but because of their fear to simply appear in the streets of European cities,” Kantor said, citing research that indicated that anti-Semitic violence surged 40 percent worldwide in 2014. A recent study in France indicated that 43 percent of that nation’s Jews are interested in emigrating.
Kantor complained both of “an explosive growth in nationalism, xenophobia and racism, with radical right movements sprouting up like mushrooms” as well as “Islamic fundamentalism and extremism” in Europe. “The continent has not outlived the age-old disease: During times of socioeconomic crisis, it is struck again by the virus of anti-Semitism. That is why the Jews who carry the ‘genetic’ memory of the horrors of the 1930s are leaving Europe,” he said. Several days before the meeting, Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Jewish News website he understands that Putin had called for the meeting. “Our meeting was strikingly friendly,” Arkush subsequently said. “As someone with a background of activism in the campaign for Soviet Jewry, I see the encounter as a clear sign of warming relations and trust between Russia and the Jewish people and Israel. I do not believe it will be the last such meeting.”
Putin’s comments were generally well received, with the World Israel Beytenu Movement calling Putin’s words an example of “his positive approach toward the Jewish community in Russia and the Jewish state” and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia calling Putin’s invitation part of a “Jew-friendly position.” Ukrainian Jews were less well disposed toward Putin’s call, however, with Eduard Dolinsky, who directs the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, telling The Jerusalem Post that “It’s like a call from an Egyptian pharaoh for Jews to come back.”
Putin’s administration has consistently accused the Ukrainian state of anti-Semitism since pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovich was toppled in a popular revolution two years ago, leading to intense anger toward the Kremlin by many Ukrainian Jews, who believe they have been made into propaganda pawns in the conflict. Noting that the Putin meeting took place only weeks before Kantor is slated to run for reelection as head of the EJC, Dolinsky said he believes the goal of the meeting was two-fold, “to show EJC members that he has support of Putin and show Putin that he controls European Jewish organization.”
“I think this trip and Kantor remarks about the Congress supporting Russia operation in Syria will cause a deep disagreement inside of EJC and European Jewish organizations.” While Kantor and Putin railed against the strengthening of far-right parties in western Europe, critics have accused the Kremlin of collaborating with some of these groups. France’s National Front was given a multimillion- euro loan by a Moscow bank in 2014, while Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik Party was included in the list of observers who oversaw elections in the Russian-backed separatist enclave of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Putin, The Economist reported two years ago, “has some curious bedfellows on the fringes of European politics.”
Will Russian Victories in Syria Spark a Regional War?: Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 11, 2016—Defying U.S. predictions of a quagmire in Syria, Russia is achieving strategic victories there with this month’s Aleppo offensive.
Russia Announces Surprise Military Drills in South: Andrew E. Kramer, New York Times, Feb. 8, 2016— Russia’s Defense Ministry announced a surprise military exercise on Monday that ordered troops garrisoned throughout the nation’s southern region to full combat readiness, a move that appeared intended to unnerve neighbors.
Bleed Russia: Michael Rubin, Commentary, Feb. 7, 2016—When Governor Mitt Romney described Russia as the greatest geopolitical foe the United States faced, President Obama ridiculed him. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” the president quipped. And yet today hardly an American warship departs Norfolk, Virginia or Mayport, Florida that is not tailed by a Russian submarine or shadowed by a Russian spy ship.
Who Needs Assassins When You’ve Got Hackers?: Mark Galeotti, New York Times, Jan. 22, 2015—A British inquiry announced this week that Alexander V. Litvinenko, a Russian security officer turned defector who died in a London hospital of polonium poisoning in 2006, was “probably” murdered on the instructions of President Vladimir V. Putin. That’s little surprise. For more than eight years the world has suspected that the Kremlin was behind the assassination. (Just as surely, Mr. Putin has denied his responsibility. His spokesman Dmitri Peskov denounced the inquiry as a “quasi investigation” and an expression of the “elegant British sense of humor.”)