RECEIVED THE MOST VOTES EVER FOR A LOSER
As most Canadians were hoping, Joe Biden won the presidential election. Donald Trump’s undemocratic refusal to concede his loss as well as his baseless accusations of fraud will not change the result, but will have a long-term impact by eroding the trust of his hard-core supporters in what should still be a democratic transition. The inappropriate or damaging decisions that he has already made in his first lame-duck month are of serious concern in themselves as well as they foretell even more similar un-hinged actions in the next seven weeks or so. There is also another less broadly discussed feature of this election that should be of concern to Democrats: the losing candidate received more votes than any winning candidate in the past.
At almost 70% of the eligible electorate and 15% more than 2016, the turnout was high by US standards. Campaigns to encourage citizens to vote were effective and seem to have increased the numbers on both sides. This leaves political observers to speculate as to why Trump received so many votes. (The lack of accuracy of polls is a separate matter. Persistent methodology flaws and inaccurate samplings seem to be part of the problem.)
|President Trump pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey, November 24th|
The regional split was as expected with the Northeast and the West Coast going to Biden and the Midwest and most of the Deep South going for Trump, along historical lines virtually going back to the Civil War in some cases. As expected, younger, women, urban, minority and educated segments of the vote favoured Biden. Older (above 50), men, rural, less educated, and white segments favoured Trump. Wealthier Americans voted for Trump, less affluent voters for Biden, also as expected. Exit polls suggest that Trump supporters were more influenced by the issues than the personality of the candidates, or at least claimed this to be the case. Despite his personal flaws, Trump managed to galvanize the conservative segment of the electorate well beyond his base. Exit polls also suggest that Trump recruited supporters in the upper middle-class that has benefited from the pre-pandemic economic growth. It is worth observing that Trump seems to have been able to convince many wealthier middle-class Americans that he was responsible for their better economic situation. Some tax measures may have played a role, but Trump constantly inflating his real influence over economic growth seems to have been taken at face value. Trump himself seems to have believed his message and could not resist coming out to claim that the Dow-Jones’ major rise after the confirmation of the Biden victory belonged to his administration.
Trump may still think of running again in 2024. For now, his concern seems to focus on building up a slush fund that he can freely draw from to support his future public involvement. The fact is that he may have a lot of things to worry about other than the presidency in the next for years, including possible criminal prosecution.
As for Trumpism, it is probably better understood as conservatism on steroids. As a foul-mouthed, populist snake-oil salesman Trump did not create a political movement but took advantage of existing political dispositions. His influence worked on older voters and may be limited in time. Besides, the emerging stars of the Republican Party do not seem to have that kind of “leadership” potential.
BUT JOE BIDEN RECEIVED MORE VOTES THAN ANY PREVIOUS WINNER
As for the Democrats they managed to muster a record number of votes for a lackluster candidate on account of his mainstream positions and of the despicable features of his adversary.
The Democrats failed though to gain control of the Senate where they will have to win the two open seats in Georgia to break even with the Republicans and be able to use the deciding vote of the Vice-President to win majority decisions. They also managed to keep control of the House, but with some losses for which their aging leadership should take responsibility.
The conflict between Joe Biden moderates and Bernie Sanders progressives was brushed over to get rid of Donald Trump but is still essentially unresolved. Trump’s attempts to brand the Democrats as socialists did not stick to Joe Biden, but it reveals the continuing reluctance of middle-of-the-road Americans to espouse more radical state intervention policies, for instance, to address economic inequalities or climate change. It leaves President-elect Biden to devise compromise policies that risk pleasing no one completely.
DEMOCRATIC TRANSITIONS AND BACK TO THE FUTURE
As is customary, foreign policy was not a major issue during the election, but the consequences of a political transition are having serious foreign policy implications. Trump’s revengeful disposition is causing him to implement his own isolationist policies that even his Republican allies would not support, for instance, disengagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of consequences. President-elect Biden will likely manage to reverse the steps taken by Trump but will face a more complicated task.
The appointments President-elect Biden has announced for his foreign policy team have been greeted by the mainstream media as the return of experienced professionals. To Trump’s supporters, that will mean the victory of the “deep state” that was so inimical to Trump’s America First approach. While it was refreshing to see Antony Blinken, the nominee for Secretary of State, refer to past mistakes in the specific context of Syria, it is not evident that new team will want to move away from the policies of the Obama era. It will, however, be more adept at crisis management.
The one area where Donald Trump’s departure may have a more immediate effect is the reassessment of the Russian disinformation campaign in the context of the 2016 election and even the Brexit campaign. With partisanship no longer a factor, a more balanced view may come to prevail in assessing the Steele dossier that cast Trump as a Russian agent as well as the allegations that Russia funded the Brexit camp. That has already begun in some media. The fact that the 2020 election was found by the competent officials to be the safest in US history, that is free of foreign interference, may also move the debate along. This is not to jump to the conclusion that the Biden administration will be easy on Russia, au contraire, but that it will most likely take a predictable objective-based approach to Russia rather than alternating between hot and cold and upsetting traditional allies in the process. It will also imply a fresh look at the traditional disarmament infrastructure which had no interest for the Trump administration.
This still leaves wide open the question of how the Biden administration will deal with China, other than to wish for a modern George Kennan to emerge that could provide the intellectual framework to deal with the People’s Republic as the original Kennan did for the Soviet Union in 1947.
UKRAINE WINS AN OLD FRIEND
To the Ukrainian government the election of Joe Biden is relatively good news. Biden knows Ukraine better than any other president. He has been closely involved with US policy in Ukraine. Besides, the Ukrainian president did not acquiesce to Donald Trump’s request to investigate Joe Biden’s son’s activity in Ukraine. Biden should be a true friend of Ukraine. Yet, the impact may not be that great. Earlier on during the Poroshenko presidency, Ukraine’s priority was to acquire US weaponry it could use against the rebel regions of Eastern Ukraine. At present, President Zelensky’s immediate priority is to keep the cease-fire going. US military support is significant, but not the priority it used to be. US economic support in the form of technical assistance programs is important, but more a long-term endeavour. Financial assistance is coming mostly from the IMF, but Ukraine has recently received a negative response from the IMF for emergency assistance.
Ukraine’s persistent difficulty in getting money from the IMF is essentially linked to the fight against corruption, the very same reason for which Joe Biden insisted that the then corrupt Procurator General be fired in 2015. Biden could not be counted to influence other public lenders to be more lenient or to lessen their standards when it comes to fighting corruption. He could be counted to support President Zelenskyy’s efforts in this respect, but that battle is an internal one over which outsiders have limited influence other than in withholding financial assistance.
|President Zelenskyy at the National Council on Anticorruption Policy, November 27th|
© President of Ukraine Website
At a more global level, US support is more relevant for eventual NATO for Ukraine, another long-term objective. For economic reasons, more crucial at this point is Ukraine’s relationship with the EU. As noted above, the Biden administration will not be softer on Russia, but could well engage in a more consistent dialogue. On the Ukrainian side, US support is certainly valued, but it does not mean that Ukraine would want to inject now more than before a US-Russia dimension to the essentially European negotiations with Russia. The other negotiating partners, Germany and France would likely share the same view.
|President Zelenskyy at the Military Medical Center of the Eastern Region, November 26th|
© President of Ukraine Website
Other than to explain why Ukraine matters in geopolitical terms, the other challenge of covering Ukraine is to strike the right balance in qualifying the political and economic situation without falling into overly far-reaching general statements about, for instance, widespread corruption, the lack of economic growth, the demographic decline or the dire state of public finances. It is necessary to add that not everybody in Ukraine is corrupt, the country still has lot of staying power and life can still go on as normal. The situation of COVID-19 in Ukraine further enhances the challenge. The official figures suggest that the situation is very difficult, but as in many other countries the official figures only reflect a part of the reality. The conclusion is that the worse is yet to come, but that ultimately the country will manage to make it till free vaccines become available through the WHO/Covax initiative sometime in 2021. The extent of the damage could, however, be more serious than in the rest of the region.
NAGORNO-KARABAKH: WHY AZERBAIJAN WON
Joseph Stalin (who by the way had a hand in creating various ethno-geographical conflicts within the USSR, including this one) famously stated in 1941 after Germany invaded his country: "There are no undefeated armies". He was right.
It took Azerbaijan just 43 days to crush the Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh army and regain its territory around the breakaway region, seven districts of mountains and foothills that had been occupied by Armenian separatists since Baku’s humiliating defeat of the early 1990s.
There are several key factors why Azerbaijan was so successful in the battlefield this time: technology, tactics, and Turkey. We can also add to this Russia's guarded support for Armenia during the crisis and total political miscalculation of Armenian leadership of the geopolitical realities in the region.
It was evident to anyone who followed the conflict that it was Turkish support for Azerbaijan that made the war qualitatively different from all previous confrontations.
The presence of Turkish F-16 fighter jets at a military airfield in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, was the direct proof that the geopolitical balance in the South Caucasus had shifted in Azerbaijan’s favor. The second largest army within NATO was openly directing the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
While Azerbaijan has not released casualty figures for its troops (we can assume it is 2-3 thousand soldiers), it has made no secret about its use of the latest high-tech drones it purchased from Turkey and Israel to carry out air strikes and battlefield reconnaissance.
Armenians who fought in 1993-94 and followed the more recent events had to admit that this time around the war was very different. Armenian forces lacked adequate sensors, electronic warfare cover, or counter-drone weaponry to defend against Azerbaijan’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Armenian forces were quickly forced into undisciplined withdrawal from the frontline positions they had been fortifying along the “line of contact” since a 1994 cease-fire.
Baku had used its oil and gas revenues to purchase a variety of diverse and modern weapons from Turkey, Israel, and Spain. The Armenians were armed mostly by aging Russian equipment and since Armenia is much poorer than Azerbaijan they found out in a hard way what it meant to be up against the 21st century weaponry, targeting systems, electronic jamming of communications and rapid development of special forces.
Here is just one curious example. Azerbaijan managed to draw out and expose the Armenian air defenses by sacrificing an air fleet of Soviet-designed Antonov AN-2 biplanes that it purchased from Ukraine.
Designed in the late 1940s, those Soviet-era biplanes are now mostly used as crop dusters or to fight forest fires. They are widely considered as “unusable” in modern combat. Baku fitted its Antonov AN-2s out so they could be piloted by remote control at low altitudes over the Armenian air defenses. They prepared camouflage to make them look like drones. The Armenians posted videos of what they thought were drones being shot down by their air defenses. In reality what was happening was that whenever the Armenians hit an AN-2 with its air defenses, the real Azerbaijani surveillance drones at higher altitudes were able to identify their positions precisely and easily destroy all of these air defenses.
From the point of view of diplomacy Russia played the conflict masterfully. Putin did not like the way Pashinyan came to power, as the result of 'street protests', but in the end could not withhold his support for Armenia. In the early days following his appointment, Pashinyan may have been inclined to pursue a negotiated settlement with Azerbaijan. He, however, could not resist the weight of a public opinion that strongly rejected any concession and even supported the idea of making Nagorno-Karabakh an independent state, along the Kosovo model. The latter could not have been greeted well in Moscow. Russia always maintained that it would come to the aid of Armenia only if the conflict would spill into Armenia itself, reminding the world (and Armenia) that it considers Nagorno-Karabakh an Azerbaijani territory. However, as soon as Azeri military victory was in no doubt, Russia stepped in and secured a ceasefire which is being maintained by 2,000 Russian peacekeepers all along the 'line of contact'. Putin could not restrain from criticizing Armenia from conceding too slowly, thus losing the key city of Shusha to Azeri forces. Russia also managed to keep Turkish army out of the core area of Karabakh and proved to the international community that the Kremlin still wields serious power in the Caucasus.
The initial frustration of Armenians with Russia’s unwillingness to defend Nagorno-Karabakh now seems to have been replaced with a sense that ultimately Russia was the saviour. It should not be overlooked that Armenia’s other friends, France and the US, were not in a position to assist by, at a minimum, exercising some influence over Turkey, their NATO ally with which they currently have a tortuous relationship.
ARMENIA/AZERBAIJAN SITUATION UPDATE
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met in Yerevan with Armenian Prime Minister Nicol Pashinyan on November 21st to discuss the implementation of the Russian-brokered truce in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Shoigu told Pashinyan that Russian peacekeepers deployed to monitor the truce have “covered almost the entire territory” of Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh since the truce was signed on November 10.
Shoigu also said Russian troops were “ensuring the return of refugees,” adding that “peaceful life has already been established.”
After meeting with Armenian officials in Yerevan, the high-ranking Russian government delegation traveled to Baku for meetings with Azerbaijani officials.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev says his troops have taken control of the first of three districts bordering Nagorno-Karabakh as part of the Russian-brokered peace agreement that ended a six-week war with Armenian forces over the breakaway region.
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said on November 20th that its units entered the Agdam district, one of three ringing Nagorno-Karabakh that are to be handed over to Azerbaijan after nearly three decades under Armenian control.
Crowds of people carrying national flags gathered in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to celebrate the handover of Agdam as Aliyev announced "major" plans for the district. The chief of staff of the Russian peacekeeping task force in Nagorno-Karabakh said the handover operation was carried out without incident.
BELARUS: SEARCH FOR CONVENIENT OPPOSITION
Seven European countries that are not members of the EU have aligned themselves with the sanctions imposed by the 27-member bloc on Belarus in response to a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests triggered by a disputed presidential election in August. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement on November 20th that the seven countries included EU candidates North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Ukraine.
Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, has faced almost daily protests calling for his resignation since the August 9th presidential election, which the opposition says was rigged and the West has refused to recognize. Several protesters have been killed and thousands of people arrested since authorities declared the Belarusian strongman the landslide winner of the vote. There have also been credible reports of torture during a widening security crackdown. Most of the country's opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to flee the country, while dozens of reporters have been jailed.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister recently visited Minsk and had some unusual meetings. Apart from traditional niceties with the “ostracized by the world” President Lukashenko, Lavrov met several leaders of industrial and financial sectors. Some of them are known for a tacit opposition to the never-ending rule of Lukashenko while continuing to be loyal to Moscow and the so-called "Union State" between Russian and Belarus. Most observers have interpreted Lavrov's visit as a final attempt to find an opposition leader who would be suitable for the Kremlin. It looks like Lavrov prefers Vladimir Makei, the current Foreign Affairs Minister of Belarus. He is known for having good relations with the political establishments of France and Germany while continuing to be trusted by Moscow.
|Foreign Minister Lavrov, Foreign Minister Makei, President Lukashenko,November 26th|
©President of Belarus Website
Lavrov himself has yet to issue an official backing of this potential candidate.
One thing, however, is clear: Moscow is ready to part with Alexander Lukashenko.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says Tehran would return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal if U.S. President-elect Joe Biden lifts crippling sanctions against the country. Zarif said in a November 17th interview with the government daily that Tehran remains committed to the nuclear accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and that Biden could make the changes quickly through “three executive orders.”
In recent months, Iran has gradually reduced its commitments under the deal in response to U.S. sanctions reimposed after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018. Iran has complained that it is not benefiting economically from the nuclear deal under which the country significantly limited its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Biden has said he would work with the other powers involved, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the EU, to amend aspects of the agreement once Iran is back in compliance.
On November 27th an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who many called the “father of the Iranian nuclear program”, sort of an Iranian version of Oppenheimer was assassinated in a daylight attack on his car.
Fakhrizadeh is the fifth Iranian nuclear expert to be assassinated in the past decade. A series of bombing and shooting attacks that Iran also blamed on Israel killed two experts in 2010, a third in 2011 and a fourth in 2012. Israel similarly neither confirmed nor denied a role in those killings.
It is rather evident that only two countries in the world have both capacity and motive to carry out this type of an attack: US and Israel. The question is was it a joint operation or Israel went ahead and did it all by itself?
Condemnation of the attack came not only from the usual allies of Iran like Syria and Venezuela but from the EU because the scientist was not a combatant (like for example the late head of the Revolutionary Guard Soleimani).
In an April 2018 televised presentation about the nuclear archive Mossad stole from a warehouse in Tehran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Fakhrizadeh as a leading figure in what he described as secret nuclear weapons work conducted under the guise of a civilian program.
Israel obviously is a prime suspect as the Jewish state is in the de facto state of war with the Islamic Republic and has the most to fear from the Iranian nuclear bomb, especially in light of Iranian threats against Israel.
Iran almost immediately pointed its finger at Israel and the United States and vowed “painful revenge”.
It is becoming clear even to an average Iranian citizen that Israel's secret service runs circles around Iranian security with one successful operation after another. Many Iranians expressed similar sentiments in their tweets after the attack. This situation points to a dysfunctional Iranian system, corruption, and a likely demoralized scientific community.
The timing of the attack was telling as well. It took place during the problematic transition between the Trump and Biden administrations and amid suggestions from the President-elect that he was basically open to re-enter the nuclear agreement with Iran (providing further concessions from Tehran). This is an unacceptable scenario for the outgoing Trump administration, Israel, Saudi Arabia and most Sunni states in the region.
If Iran rushes and launches some form of retaliation right away, it may ruin any chances of reaching a deal with an undoubtedly more friendly administration in Washington and if it sits back it will demonstrate weakness. Therefore, Iranian president chose the old and trusted “we will retaliate at the time and place of our choosing” tactic. The Iranian regime must be in a state of paralysis with the mounting pressure of the street demanding action and not mere words. Let us not forget that this assassination took place after a series of powerful and deadly Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria.
The pressure from inside is rising and this time around Iran, against all logic, may choose a direct attack on some Israel targets just to save face with its own population and this may be exactly what Israel and the outgoing president Trump want.
PERSON OF THE MONTH:
JOSEPH ROBINETTE BIDEN JR
After trying for half a lifetime, 78-year old Joe Biden will become US President in January 2021. A professional politician with a moderately liberal record, he shared Irish heritage and Roman Catholic faith with the Kennedys, but never managed to build a comparable political machine or to achieve a similar political stature despite his 36 years in the US Senate. This may have to do with hailing from a small state, but certainly also with his less inspiring or less charismatic personality.
As Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden met and even exceeded the normal expectations set for that job. He was not only supportive, but took on some difficult tasks in the post-recession environment where he could use the conciliation and negotiating skills he has honed in the US Senate. His success as second-in command probably even reinforced the image of team player rather than that of a leader.
Joe Biden has no qualms about displaying his strong religious beliefs or referring to the personal tragedies that he has encountered. Especially, through the latter he genuinely conveys the image of a compassionate leader, in striking contrast with his predecessor. Despite his middle name that evokes a French Huguenot heritage, he likes to describe himself only as Irish American, a safer political bet.
Because of his years in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his extensive foreign travel, Joe Biden will be the modern-day president with the broadest foreign policy experience. While he may not use that experience to innovate, he will be a re-assuring presence in the leadership position.
Russia recently registered record numbers for daily infections and deaths from the coronavirus, a few days after having passed 2 million cases. Health officials reported more than 25,000 cases for several days, bringing the national total to over 2 million cases and more than 35,000 fatalities since the beginning of the year.
While those figures suggest a lower death rate than elsewhere in the world, they need to be treated with caution. The official Russian death toll only includes those in which COVID has been established as the primary cause of death after an autopsy.
Data published by Russia's federal statistics service earlier this month indicated excess deaths of more than 117,000 year-on-year between March and September, suggesting that virus fatalities could be much higher.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described the surge in infections and deaths as "alarming." He acknowledged that several regions were experiencing medicine shortages and long waiting times for ambulances, but said authorities were in control of the situation. There is also reason to hope that Russia’s already available vaccines could be as effective as the ones developed in Western Europe and the US.
A Jewish American man jailed in 1985 for spying for Israel was released from strict parole conditions Friday in accordance with applicable federal guidelines. Removal of conditions will allow him to move to Israel, the US Justice Department said.
Jonathan Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst, served 30 years for giving classified US documents and had been confined by parole terms to the United States since his release in 2015, despite Israeli pressure to allow him to leave.
Israel's October 1985 raid on the Palestinian Liberation Organization's Tunis headquarters that killed around 60 people was planned with information from Pollard, according to CIA documents declassified in 2012. Pollard was arrested in 1985 after trying unsuccessfully to gain asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. His arrest had angered president Reagan and caused great deal of tension between Washington and Tel-Aviv and forced several top Israeli officials, including the head of spy agency Mossad, to resign.
Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has approved the first reading of a draft bill that would grant sweeping lifetime immunity to former presidents. The legislation is part of a package of constitutional amendments approved in a referendum this summer that could potentially see President Vladimir Putin stay in power until 2036.
The draft stipulates that any former head of state and their families obtain lifetime immunity from criminal or administrative charges. They also cannot be detained, arrested, searched, or interrogated. The only exception is for treason, which must first be approved by the State Duma and the Supreme and Constitutional courts.
Under the current law, former presidents are only immune from prosecution for crimes committed while in office.
The State Duma also passed a first reading of another bill that will grant ex-presidents a lifetime seat in the upper house of parliament, or the Federation Council, a position that also provides immunity from prosecution.
Outgoing US President Donald Trump was said to admire Putin. Now he will envy him.
Chechnya's authoritarian leader Ramzan Kadyrov has ordered images of American comic superheroes at children’s centers and playgrounds to be replaced with “real heroes” of the North Caucasus republic.
The November 20 announcement came after Kadyrov earlier this week visited a new high-rise residential complex in the city of Kurchaloy, where he criticized American comic and film figures painted on the walls of a children’s center.
"We need to remove the images of these fictional characters, these are fantasies,” Kadyrov said of the images of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Superman during the November 16 tour of the new facility. “In the history of religion and people, there are many real heroes from whom you can and should take an example, otherwise children think that only these heroes exist.”
Kadyrov recently said that he had given orders to remove pictures of all such comic superheroes in children’s centers and playgrounds.
Ramzan Kadyrov has been accused by Russian and international rights activists of numerous human rights violations, including torture, kidnapping, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and the assassination of personal and political enemies both in Russia and abroad.
The Central Asian nation's authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who heads one of the world's most oppressive governments, has unveiled a 6-meter-high golden statue of his favorite dog breed, the Alabay, an ancient livestock shepherd that is also used for protection.
State media reported that the statue is located in a complex of residential and cultural facilities in the capital where civil servants live.
The statue was dedicated to a dog that has "demonstrated respect and honor, exemplary courage and a cordial heart" to highlight "their role in the historical destiny of the nation," one news source said.
The president, who is often shown on state television as a musician, singer, horse rider, and military commando, has long promoted the Alabay breed, calling the dogs a national treasure.