Sunday, August 30, 2020

Issue 45

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER 



OFF TO THE RACES

On August 20th, 33 years after he started his first campaign for the presidency, 77-year old former Vice- President Joe Biden accepted the Democratic presidential nomination and the challenge to take on United States President Donald Trump in the November 3rd election.





The Democratic Convention that chose Biden was as no other in history. It was formally held in Wisconsin, but essentially all virtual. Biden had his first opportunity to address the nation as a presidential candidate in a formal speech. The speech was a test for Biden, who is well known for his straight-talk gaffes. However, some have noted that Biden's speaking abilities have faltered in recent years, with some critics raising questions about his mental acuity. Trump has already started calling the former vice-president "Sleepy Joe".

Biden's big night came as the US economy continues to struggle, with unemployment rising amid the coronavirus pandemic. Observers have noted that the convention was lofty in its criticisms of Trump and its hopeful rhetoric, but relatively light on policy proposals.

Biden delivered concrete proposals with personal stories. The speech was a pleasant surprise for those who expected Biden to deliver a low-energy, gaffes-filled rambling as he often did prior to the convention. The speech he gave received positive reviews from such conservative networks as FOX and even Ben Shapiro's the Daily Wire had good things to say about it.

David Frum (former speechwriter for George W. Bush who came up with the famous catch phrase "axis of evil") said that the speech was primarily directed at those Republican voters who have supported Trump in 2016 but now grew tired and irritated with never-ending scandals and the divisiveness of Trump's presidency.

Joe Biden came through as a humane, measured, old-school retail politician, kind of a middle of the road alternative to the whacky and unpredictable Trump. Joe Biden also catered strongly to black voters by praising his former boss Barack Obama and his recent VP pick Kamala Harris.

Several other Democratic party figures spoke on the final night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), with former presidential candidates Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and billionaire media mogul Mike Bloomberg featuring prominently. 

Biden was riding high in the polls prior to the convention. He still enjoys a considerable lead over Trump nationally, but the gap is narrowing. In 15 battleground states which will decide the election Biden is either leading within the margin of error or tied with the incumbent.





The Republican convention was technically held in North Carolina, but also essentially a virtual affair except for the last evening event held on the grounds of the White House. There, in front of a 2,000-strong (and un-masked) crowd 74-year old Donald Trump, a masterful and cunning campaigner, unleashed an all-out assault on Joe Biden and his party. Donald Trump had ridiculed all recent polls (not without justification if we remember 2016 predictions of virtually all news outlets of the impending Hillary Clinton's landslide victory). The biggest attacks by Republicans were against the Democratic Party's radical turn to the left. Trump and other speakers went on to claim that the aging Joe Biden will not be able to stem the left wing move on the environment, medical care, law-enforcement, taxation and foreign policy. Trump also defended his handling of COVID-19 and presented himself as the only candidate capable of taking on China. He also took credit for crushing ISIS, killing its leader and keeping America out of military adventures.

Recent analyses (including that of Nixon White Counsel John Dean) have tried to explain the un-wavering support of Trump’s base for an individual without moral fiber or any of the qualities expected of a US President. The emerging conclusion is that it revolves around the appetite for certain groups (less-educated white men and evangelicals) to bind with an authoritarian leader. The corollary is that these supporters will not withdraw their support no matter what their candidate does wrong or no matter convincing arguments the other candidate may produce. This could lead to an outcome similar to 2016: we may have a candidate losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College. There have been US authoritarian leaders before, Nixon regarded as the most recent, but this makes for strange times. The November 3rd election could well be the most electrifying and nerve-wracking in modern history, even more so when the incumbent still refuses to say that he will definitely accept the results.

--o--

BELARUS: TERRITORY OF UNCERTAINTY

It is an odd revolution by any standard: there are no recognized leaders within the country, political parties and even defined political goals. People of this quiet and somewhat pastoral copy of the defunct Soviet Union are united only by a distaste for Aleksandr Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager who has ruled Belarus for 26 years. As one activist in Minsk observed "our revolution is so peaceful that what we need is our version of Mahatma Gandhi ''.


President Lukashenko visiting Army base near Grodno, August 22nd
© President of Belarus Website


Lukashenko managed to run a European country for a quarter of the century without even having a political party of his own, not to mention an opposition. As a result the revolution divided the country into two unequal parts: the population itself and Lukashenko's personal apparatus that includes police, KGB and the Army. At the same time he antagonized not only his own country, but the European Union and all neighbouring states including Russia.

At the time of crisis nobody expressed a particular desire to stand by his side.

The EU limited its reaction to a rather symbolic set of sanctions targeting Lukashenko's inner circle. Taking into account the delicate geopolitical position of Belarus, Russia has expressed its lukewarm support for Belarus as a country and dispatched some advisors to Minsk.

In an August 27th interview, Putin allowed that Russia had put together a police group that could intervene in Belarus should the situation require. He, however, also added that he did not expect the need for this police group to intervene and that he saw the situation in Belarus being resolved through political means. There was a message for the protesters: do not go too far. There was also a message for Lukashenko: use of force will not resolve the problem.  



Although Lukashenko and Putin frequently met and conversed by phone over the years, there is a general sense that the Putin administration has found Lukashenko a difficult partner. They would not be sorry to see him leave. There is also no indication that the proponents of change in Belarus would not want continuing strong relations with Russia.

For now, it looks like certain compromises on the part of the regime will take place in order to defuse a stand off, put an end to the strikes and work out a new constitution. How can Lukashenko move to agree to any compromise is the key question. This is in any event a short term solution. In the long run Lukashenko will have to leave the political scene.

--o--

 

ANOTHER CUP OF TEA?

Alexei Navalny, the best known opposition leader in Russia was most likely poisoned by tea he drank from a plastic cup at the airport in the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he had been meeting his supporters. On the way to Moscow the plane he was on made an emergency landing in the city of Omsk after Navalny got violently sick.

From Alexei Navalny's Facebook Page


After two days in the Russian hospital, where the local doctors ruled out poisoning, he was flown to a hospital in Berlin where the doctors confirmed poisoning as the most plausible reason for Navalny's collapse. Several independent lab results have confirmed the diagnosis.

The most interesting part of this story is not particulars of the toxicology report or what poison was used but who poisoned him and on whose orders. The Kremlin view had been that Navalny was annoying but not politically significant. Tolerating him rather than scaring, hurting or killing him seemed a better policy, both domestically and from a foreign policy point of view. He could also be occasionally sent to jail whenever necessary. What would have triggered a change of opinion at the top is not clear. There is also the possibility that some the of officials whose alleged corruption was denounced by Navalny took the initiative. There is, however, at this time no clear indication as to who that could be.

Here it is important to take into consideration that it is not the first fatal cup of tea consumed by Kremlin's critics. In 2006 the former GRU defector to England Aleksandr Litvinenko was poisoned and later died of polonium poisoning in the tea which was served to him by Russian agents in a London restaurant. Before that Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known Russian investigative journalist was also poisoned by drinking tea but managed to survive. Shortly after she was shot dead by some Chechen men who were later caught, tried and convicted. However, the investigation failed to dermine who ordered the murder.

So far the reaction from the Kremlin was that no investigation is required until the Navalny poisoning is proven conclusively.

--o--

 

UKRAINE UPDATE

On August 24th, Ukrainians celebrated the 29th anniversary of the independence of post-Soviet Ukraine. The celebrations attended by President Zelenskyy in Kyiv had their solemn moments but were not without a celebratory and light-hearted dimension. Despite all the difficulties facing the country, life goes on.


Independence Day Celebrations
© President of Ukraine Website


There were no major political developments this month, but the growing COVID-19 problem is a serious concern. Unlike in some neighbouring countries, the pandemic situation is slowly deteriorating rather than improving. If there was a time when the number of new cases would have seen to slow down, the long-term observable tendency is for constant growth in the number of cases. In a country where the level of testing is relatively low, the number of deaths is seen as a more reliable indicator of the real situation. A record number of deaths was registered on August 26th. There was also a significant increase in the number of new cases registered daily.  Opposition leader Tymoshenko has contracted the disease and been moved to intensive care. The central government’s capacity to impose the necessary measures to regain control of the situation is doubtful.

The authorities’ decision to close the country’s borders to foreign travelers even had repercussions in relations with Israel. There is a long-standing tradition that was revived after the end of the communist regime for Breslov Hasidic Jews to make a pilgrimage to the grave of Nachman of Breslov, a famous religious leader, in the Central Ukrainian town of Uman around the time of Rosh Hashanah.   Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was reportedly against the idea of the pilgrimage this year for fear that it would compound Israel’s own problems with COVID-19. Since he could not block it against the wishes of his own ultra-religious political allies, he relied on President Zelensky to intervene against the massive presence of Israeli pilgrims in the relatively small town of Uman. The incident may not be so significant in itself, but it illustrates an aspect of Ukrainian life whose diversity and complexity is not always evident to outsiders.


President Zelenskyy meeting leaders of Jewish religious organizations, August 25th
© President of Ukraine Webiste


Whereas the Ukrainian authorities want less foreigners to come in, they would have liked to take in the members of the Wagner group of mercenaries that were arrested in Belarus earlier in the month. The Wagner mercenaries are reported to have conducted military activity in various countries including in Eastern Ukraine.  As such they would be considered as war criminals in Ukraine.  How they found their way to Belarus is somewhat mysterious. The President of Belarus alleged they were sent to disrupt the presidential elections in his country. (There was no need for anyone else to do that.) There were even rumours that US elements had been involved in luring the mercenaries to Belarus. Ultimately, they were quietly sent back to Russia after the Belarus presidential election.

The good news was probably that the ceasefire along the demarcation line in the Eastern Ukraine conflict is holding. As was noted at the end of August, there has been a period of at least  33 days during which there were no casualties.

This quieting of military activity would seek to pave the way for another summit meeting the Normandy Four (Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany) in the near future with a view to moving the peace process along. Replacing former President Kuchma by former President Kravchuk as the senior Ukrainian representative in the Tripartite Contact group that manages the ongoing diplomatic discussions with Russia and the OSCE seems to have helped, if nothing else, the atmosphere of the discussion.

There are also continuing noises that former Georgian President Saakashvili will become Prime Minister shortly. The political rumour mill still consumes a lot of energy.

--o--

 

HISTORIC PEACE DEAL BETWEEN ISRAEL AND UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

 

The Israel-United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreement is the third peace agreement between Israel and an Arab country. The other two were signed with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994).

Location of Israel and the UAE


It could increase the prospects for peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East.

For several years Israel and several Gulf states have been closely collaborating mainly on security issues and under the table. Now, these relations are being opened and upgraded. People across much of the Sunni Muslim Arab world do not perceive Israel anymore as an enemy, but rather as an ally. It will increase the legitimacy of Israel's existence as a Jewish state in the Middle East. A combination of both threats and opportunities have pushed for the agreement. The threat both countries are facing is Iran's quest for hegemony and domination in the Middle East from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to Yemen. The Arab Gulf states are especially prone to the Iranians threats.

Striking a peace deal with Israel, the UAE chose path to peace and prosperity. It has also chose to press Israel on the Palestinian issue as a friend and as history proved many times Israel is way more susceptible to friendly initiatives than hostility.

Ruling elites of most Arab nations know this but only the very few admit this by signing peace deals with the Jewish state preferring to deal with Israel under the table.

The UAE has resources while Israel has the human power to promote innovation, sustainability and entrepreneurship.  The Israel-UAE agreement prevented Israel's plan to unilaterally annex areas in the West Bank that the Trump peace plan allocated to Israel. But it also sends the Palestinians two messages:

    The Palestinians can no longer exercise veto power on relations between Israel and Arab states which strongly share with Israel significant security and economic interests.

    Blocking the Iran threats is more important than the Palestinian cause.



The announcement of the peace treaty was made in Washington. The Trump administration may have wanted to get credit for having somehow facilitated the deal, but did not seem to convince many of its real contribution to a process that follow its own dynamics.

--o--

 

PERSON OF THE MONTH : KAMALA HARRIS




55-year old Kamala Harris finished first for the second spot on the 2020 Democratic ticket. She thus became the first Black American woman and the first person of Southeast Asian origin to make it to the presidential ticket of a major US party. Her selection drew acclaim from the ranks of those who were most likely to vote for Joe Biden this November. Harris’ nomination is indeed a major political milestone. Her accomplishment consists of presenting herself as the most suitable candidate for the circumstances of 2020. As a Senator from one of the largest states in the Union, she was initially well positioned. The idea that she may have been an overly zealous Attorney General of California and the harsh criticism she directed at candidate Biden early in the campaign may have delayed her appointment, but were not sufficient obstacles to her  selection.

Harris’ education and early professional career are virtually textbook perfect. The fact that she had some of the high school education in Montréal and that she frequently visited her mother’sfamily in India would suggest she had the opportunity to develop an early awareness of world diversity.

Experience would tend to show that the Vice Presidential candidate does not bring a large number of new voters to the ticket, but that it can firm up the support of existing supporters. A less than ideal candidate may not lead to the loss of supporters, but can become a distraction and even a liability: Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin come to mind. Kamala Harris’ record would suggest that she will definitely strengthen the Democratic ticket and will be a formidable campaigner. Biden supporters may not look forward to the Biden-Trump debate, but most cannot wait to see what Harris will do when she faces off with 61-year old stiff Mike Pence.

Even more important, whatever happens in November 2016, Harris is already in a good position for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination.

--o--

BRIEFLY NOTED

  

USA-1

The U.S. Justice Department will seek to reinstate the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the ethnic Chechen convicted of killing three people and injuring hundreds of others during the 2013 Boston Marathon.

An appeals court in Boston on July 31 overturned the death sentence that had been handed to Tsarnaev in 2015. The court ordered a new trial to determine what penalty Tsarnaev, 27, should receive, finding that the judge who oversaw the case did not sufficiently vet jurors for biases.

Attorney General William Barr said on August 20 in an interview with the Associated Press that the Justice Department would appeal the court’s ruling. “We will do whatever’s necessary,” Barr said. “We will take it up to the Supreme Court and we will continue to pursue the death penalty.”

 

USA-2

American federal prosecutors have charged a former U.S. Army Green Beret living in northern Virginia with spying for Russia from 1996 to 2011. Prosecutors said on August 21 that Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, 45, periodically visited Russia and met Russian intelligence agents.

In 1997, Debbins was even allegedly assigned a code name by Russian intelligence operatives and signed a statement saying that he wanted to serve Russia, according to prosecutors.

"When service members collude to provide classified information to our foreign adversaries, they betray the oaths they swore to their country and their fellow service members," said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia., whose office is prosecuting the case. "As this indictment reflects, we will be steadfast and dogged in holding such individuals accountable."

 

TURKEY

The killing of a notorious crime boss from the Caucasus region is echoing across the criminal underworld of the former Soviet Union, with reverberations reaching an alleged Uzbek crime boss in Turkey who is the nephew of the former international amateur boxing chief.

Nadir "Lotu Guli" Salifov, a reputed member of the "thieves-in-law" criminal syndicate, had been known as a top crime boss in Russia and Azerbaijan.

He was shot dead at a restaurant in Turkey's southern coastal city of Antalya on the evening of August 19. According to police sources the killer was one of Salifov's bodyguards and that the bodyguard stood behind Salifov and shot him four times, including at least one shot to the back of his head, while he was seated at a card game.

 

IRAN

The joint commission on the Iran nuclear agreement will meet in Vienna on September 1st, the European Union has said, after the U.S. and its European allies sparred over Washington's bid to reimpose UN sanctions on Tehran. The meeting will be chaired by the EU and attended by representatives of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and Iran.

 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 20th formally launched the process of activating a mechanism aimed at reimposing UN sanctions on Iran, citing Iranian violations of the 2015 nuclear deal, which Washington exited in 2018.

France, Germany, and Britain said they cannot support the U.S. move, as it is incompatible with efforts to support the Iran nuclear deal.

"In order to preserve the agreement, we urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with its nuclear commitments and return to full compliance without delay," the three said in a joint statement on August 20.

The United States maintains it has the right to trigger the re-imposition of sanctions through the agreement's "snapback" mechanism.

 

KYRGYZSTAN

The Bishkek city court has upheld a lower court's sentencing of former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Sapar Isakov to 18 years in prison for corruption.

The ruling was announced on August 20th during a session held via video link due to restrictions prompted by the coronavirus.

On June 9th, the Birinchi Mai district court found Isakov guilty of misusing state funds allocated for the renovation of Bishkek's National History Museum and a hippodrome in the northern town of Cholpon-Ata while in office.

That ruling came as Isakov had already been serving a 15-year prison term after being sentenced in December 2019 on corruption charges stemming from his involvement in a 2013 project to modernize the Bishkek Thermal Power Station.

The Birinchi Mai court sentenced Isakov to 12 years in prison, but the judge said that "in aggregate, taking into account his earlier conviction and prison sentence of 15 years, Isakov shall be sentenced to 18 years in a high-security penitentiary."

He also ordered Isakov to pay about $3.3 million in fines.

Isakov, 43, served as prime minister for nearly eight months, from August 26, 2017 to April 19, 2018. He denies the charges.

The probes against Isakov and several other high-profile figures were launched amid tensions between former President Almazbek Atambaev and current President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

Atambaev himself is currently in prison, serving a sentence of 11 years and two months for the illegal release of notorious crime boss Aziz Batukaev in 2013. He denies the charge.

--o--


THE AUTHORS

Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His area of expertise includes Russia, Eurasian Economic Union, Eastern and Central Europe.  Ilya Gerol has written several books, one of them, The Manipulators, had become a textbook on relations of media and society.

During his career in the Canadian Foreign Service, Gilles Breton had three assignments at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. His first posting there began during the Soviet period, in 1983. His last was from 2008 to 2012 as Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission. He also served as Deputy Director responsible for Canada’s relations with Russia from 2000 to 2008. As an international civil servant, he was Deputy Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw from 1994 to 1997.

Gilles Breton also currently serves as Chairman of the National Board of the Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association. The views expressed in this newsletter exclusively reflect the opinion of the authors.





 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Issue 44

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER


DO NOT WRITE TRUMP OFF JUST YET


Virtually all polls from FOX and CNN to the New-York Times and the Wall street Journal now point to Joe Biden's increasing lead over President Trump. The latest FOX news poll where Trump was trailing Biden across all segments of the electorate was shown to Trump during his recent FOX interview with Chris Wallace. It showed Biden ahead of the incumbent among seniors, hispanics, blacks, whites with college diplomas, as well as among suburban women. If that is not enough most Americans now give Trump increasingly lower approval ratings in his handling of the Covid-19 crisis and the race relations. The only category where the two candidates are tied is the economy. If you throw into this the fact that similar numbers were shared at this time of the election year by only 2 one-term presidents - Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr. then it seems Donald Trump will join that club. All logic, the logic of numbers, suggests he will not be re-elected. So simple. Most people think Trump is done. He is losing even in most battleground states. Or is it so simple?





Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat, elected to the US Congress in 2019 after serving several years as a CIA analyst, has dismissed most polls showing Biden beating Trump. She compared them to the same overly optimistic polls of 2016 when almost everyone predicted a Hillary Clinton landslide victory. Representative Slotkin said that polls consistently underreport Trump supporters. Many Americans are afraid to voice their open support for Trump out of genuine fear of being ridiculed. Trump supporters, she went on to claim, are just as elusive as in 2016, maybe even more so. If Slotkin is right, the numbers are much closer than the polls show. It is more difficult for pollsters to measure, but the general impression is that the level of commitment of Trump supporters is greater than that of Biden supporters. The level of participation is also an issue, hence the importance for Trump and Republicans to curtail mail-in voting. If you add to the mix the uncertainty related to the evolution of the COVID-19, the actual results of the election may be more unpredictable than has been the case for decades.

Then there is the issue of law and order. Many Americans may be are shocked by rising crime statistics and by the unending protests in certain major cities. Trump’s heavy-handed response in sending federal troops to Portland (Oregon) in order to protect federal buildings, against the wish of Democratic party mayors and members of Congress, seems to have had a mixed impact. The images conjured up by the appearance of federal agents dressed in combat camouflage on the streets of Portland are not necessarily vote-getters. By contrast, slogans like "defund the police" do not resonate well with most Americans in large urban cities. The Trump campaign has already begun using it in its negative ads against Joe Biden, unfairly but effectively.



The above points to the possibility that Trump supporters might be more numerous than many polls predict. Donald Trump has been written off many times before. His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is a clear disaster but shifting the debate to the controversial issue of re-opening of schools was a clever way of drawing attention away from his failures.  His COVID-19 briefings have in fact essentially become attempts at diversion. Trump is known to have survived six business bankruptcies. Managing a bankrupt candidacy becomes the next exercise. Having a weak candidate across the stage is an important factor. It would not take a major faux-pas on the part of candidate Biden to make the November 3 election almost as unpredictable as a penalty kick shootout in the finals of the World Cup.

--o--

UNDECLARED WAR AGAINST IRAN


Throughout its brief history modern Israel fought a lot of wars and participated in scores of engagements with its enemies in the Middle East. The vast majority of such clashes were of highly modern, high tech nature. (The 1967 Six-Day War of 1967, for example, was for its time an incredible event where a country of 3 million people destroyed the armies of 5 much larger countries in less than a week).

One of the main reasons why Israel won all of its wars is its stubborn adherence to the technological superiority over its numerous and populous adversaries. The latest conflict is not much different.

A series of violent attacks, involving explosions and fires, has been hitting Iran. Some attacks involved cyber technology, some were kinetic or the combination of both. The incidents have been too frequent and intense to be random accidents. They are part of an organized effort. The attacks on various Iranian targets (most connected to the ongoing Iranian nuclear program like explosions and fire at facilities that enrich uranium). The latest wave of attacks began in late June and continues to this day.



One has to include also the ongoing Israeli attacks by way of its air force, drones and helicopters on a variety of Iranian targets in Syria. The last such attack took place on July 20th near Damascus and killed several Iranian soldiers and members of the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah.

The US is undoubtedly involved in some of those strikes and operations (especially in Iran) or at the least gives Israel freedom of operation, its cover and intelligence information.

The question is why now and how come Iran is not retaliating?

The answer to the first question is that Israel wants to slow down the Iranian nuclear program by any means possible short of an open, massive attack on all of its nuclear facilities. Nuclear Iran will be a nightmare for many countries but especially two: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel simply cannot afford and most likely would never allow Iran to go nuclear. Israeli leaders now foresee that Donald Trump, the most pro-Israeli American president, most likely will lose the next elections. Joe Biden and his Democratic cohorts will be the most anti-Israeli administration in decades, maybe ever. So the time is short.

Trump Heights, a planned Israeli settlement in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

As to the second question, Iran is at its weakest with the ruined economy, COVID-19 devastation and is most likely took a decision to downplay damage caused by the Israeli strikes and will sit quietly until Joe Biden takes office. Mullahs in Iran know that with Biden and his people in office they will have much less to fear and that Israel's hands will be tied more than under the current administration.


--o--


UKRAINE: NOBODY SAID IT WOULD BE EASY


There are many reasons for the recent fall of President Zelenskyy’s rating from 71% in September 2019 to 38% in June 2020. The general impression that electoral promises are not being fulfilled especially when it comes to economic growth would not be a surprising reason for popular disenchantment. Opinion polls have consistently shown that the expectation of a better economic situation has been the most important issue for Ukrainians. Yet, Zelenskyy cannot be blamed for the onset of a worldwide pandemic and its impact on Ukraine. More relevant to his falling popularity is the fact that he seems to have included in his close entourage individuals who were inclined to use their position for personal gain. This does not sit well with the idea of an anti-corruption president and is certainly more damning. Then, there is the fact that he decided to sell his house and to move into one of the government-owned mansions in the secluded elite enclave of Koncha-Zaspa. This is not in itself a violation of any legal rule, but, in the public view, it would lump Zelenskyy with some of his predecessors as one who does not mind feeding from governmental largesse. For many, the anti-corruption campaigner has turned out to be little different than his predecessors.

President of Switzerland Sommarruga and President Zelenskyy visiting the Donbass area
July 23rd
©President of Ukraine Website


Even though Zelenskyy has barely completed the first of his 5-year mandate, it is remarkable that some generally moderate observers are already willing to write his political obituary. Some who never liked Zelenskyy because of his perceived lack of anti-Russian conviction already are already adding his name to Ukraine’s already too long list of one-term presidential disappointments. Others who doubted his political resilience already see the former actor turned politician as one who is running out of script.

It would seem premature to write off the Zelenskyy presidency for what might be a temporary fall in popular rating.

There are however two clear challenges ahead.

The first is vital, it is simply in running the country. The Zelenskyy election team did not include experienced political managers. A new Prime Minister with management credentials, Denys Shmyhal, was appointed in March. His task will also include healing the rift between the national government and some regional leaders.

The second challenge is more existential: it is in driving the anti-corruption/economic reform agenda. Zelenskyy succeeded in meeting the reform demands of the IMF in connection with land reform and banking, thus opening the door to additional financial assistance from the IMF itself and from other lenders. This is however responsive, not pro-active. Calling in an alleged experienced reformer as former Georgian President Saakashvili to the rescue may have been politically useful but does not resolve the problem. The criticism leveled at Zelenskyy reveals the heightened level of expectation at home and abroad: the time is up for the President to take more decisive action.


Resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is no less of a challenge, but the incremental approach of President Zelenskky seems to be leading to some progress.  After considerable discussion, additional measures for a ceasefire agreement along the line of contact in Eastern Ukraine/Donbass were concluded and came into effect on July 27th. This was the main topic of his phone call with Vladimir Putin on July 26th. This certainly does not resolve all the issues in that conflict but considering that Zelenskyy cannot afford and does not want to antagonize the majority public opinion on this issue, even small progress is significant.


--o--

UK-RUSSIA VACCINE DISPUTE, OR NOT


Russia's ambassador to Great Britain has denied Western allegations that Moscow helped hackers target laboratories conducting research on vaccines to fight the coronavirus. Andrei Kelin told the BBC in an interview broadcasted on July 19th that "I don't believe in this story at all. There is no sense in it." Britain, Canada, and the United States on July 16th accused Russia of trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research from academic and pharmaceutical institutions around the world.

The British National Cybersecurity Center (NCSC) accused the hacking group APT29, also known as the Dukes or Cozy Bear, of targeting organizations involved in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in the three countries.



APT29 hackers "almost certainly operate as part of Russian intelligence services," the NCSC said, adding that the United States and Canada shared its assessment.

Following the report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia had "nothing to do" with any alleged cyberattacks on pharmaceutical companies and research institutes in the countries.
Kelin told the BBC that the allegations made "no sense." He also declared that the Russian pharmaceutical giant R-Pharm was officially working in cooperation with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to produce a COVID-19 vaccine.

"In this world, to attribute any kind of computer hackers to any country, it is impossible," he said.
Britain did not say which organizations were targeted, or whether any information had been stolen. It was confirmed later in the month that the UK would continue sending vaccine samples to Russia, as part of the ongoing international cooperation. There were also reports that Russia may be ready to proceed with its own vaccine by mid-August.


--o--

DID RUSSIA PAY THE TALIBANS TO KILL US SOLDIERS?


We do not have the definite answer, but since the issue keeps coming up in Washington we offer a few observations.

First, Russia may be responsible for lot of things, but generally it is possible to find or allege a motive for the actions attributed to Russia. In this case, it is very difficult to see in what way this would be of any benefit to Russia and even more why they would need to do any anything. Russia is known to have attempted to cultivate some of the moderate elements among the Taliban, but, ultimately, the presence of US forces in Afghanistan serves Russian long-term interests. Russia would rather have the US keep the Talibans in check than to have to do it itself. Besides, the Talibans do not need to get paid to kill US soldiers.



Second, in matters of intelligence, the old maxim “no smoke without fire” can also apply. It cannot be excluded that the US would have intercepted a communication between a Russian operative and a Taliban interlocutor about the expediency of doing away with one or many US operatives. In the logic of intelligence collection, the fact that the information is not consistent with Russian policy or interests would not necessarily prevent the item from potentially making its way into a Presidential briefing book, but with suitable caveats and qualifiers.

Third, it would be up to the military to recommend what to do with the intelligence if anything. In order to protect the source or the means by which the information was acquired it may even be decided not to do anything that would indicate to the other side that its security was breached.

The information was made public. We can only speculate why. A president with any credibility in matters of intelligence could have condemned the leak and essentially left it to the Secretary of Defense to take appropriate action. Instead, questions were raised. Did the President know? Does he read his intelligence briefings? Did he raise it with Vladimir Putin?

On the substance of the issue, it is very difficult to come to any definite conclusion other than to say that there may be some beginning of truth to the allegation.

On the handling of the incident issue, the Trump White House having little credibility in intelligence and Russia matters finds itself, as always, not dealing with the issue, but struggling to protect the President’s image. 


--o--

THE EU’S NEW LIFE


The EU appears to be more functional than expected. After the longest in the EU history summit of all members it had been decided that USD 480 billion will be allocated as an emergency package for COVID-19 stricken Europe. The summit was long and dramatic because of deep disagreements, small and successful members like the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria on one side and big "elephants" like France and Italy. Paris, Rome and Madrid insisted that the lion share should be given to them in the form of grants due to the depth and potential length of the crisis while Vienna, Brussels and Hague preferred to issue their assistance in the form of credits in order to keep the balance sheet more or less in good shape.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and President of the Ruropean Council Charles Michel
July 21st, Brussels 


Finally, it was decided that grants will be issued to the more affected by COVID-19 countries. Baltic countries found themselves in the most vulnerable situation. The damage from the pandemic there was evaluated as insignificant one and consequently the emergency assistance was minimal. Nevertheless, the disagreements were ironed out and the EU economy got a long-awaited boost. In the midst of the growing disagreements between the US and EU it was crucial for the Europeans to show that their Union is more functional than many, including Donald Trump, like to present.


--o--

ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN


Azerbaijan dramatically escalated tensions amid its border battle with Armenia earlier this month with an implicit threat to bomb the region's only nuclear power plant and unleash "great catastrophe" on Armenians. The July 16th warning drew outrage from Yerevan and deepened concerns that the worst violence in four years between Azerbaijan and Armenia, who are technically still in a war begun in the late 1980s, could quickly spiral out of control.

At least 16 Azerbaijanis and Armenians have died in the fighting near a northern section of their internationally recognized border that has included heavy artillery, tank, and drone attacks since it began on July 12th.


Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant


Yerevan and Baku routinely threaten and accuse the other of provocations that have killed dozens of people in recent years, many of them civilians, with neither side willing to back down publicly for fear of being viewed as weak in the more than 30-year-long standoff.

But the threat to attack a Soviet-built nuclear plant with missiles, a move that could massively increase the death toll and set off a Chernobyl-like fallout in the region and beyond, is unprecedented. (In fact the most advanced missiles in the Azeri arsenal are LORA systems purchased from Israel in 2018)

"The Armenian side must not forget that our army's state-of-the-art missile systems allow us to strike the Metsamor nuclear plant with precision, which could lead to a great catastrophe for Armenia," Vagif Dargahli, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman, said on July 16th, hours after hostilities had resumed following a one-day lull.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry quickly condemned Dargahli’s remarks as a "manifestation of state terrorism” that "reflects Azerbaijan’s genocidal intentions."


Location of the Metsamor nuclear power plant

The Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant lies just a few kilometers from cities with tens of thousands of people and 35 kilometers from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and its 1 million inhabitants.

To add to the magnitude of the crisis, the Turkish defence minister said that Turkey would militarily support Azerbaijan.

Russia, the main and only ally of Armenia in the region, has several military bases in the country and called on both sides, together with the US, for the de-escalation.


--o--

PERSON OF THE MONTH:

ANDRZEJ DUDA




On July 12th, 48-year old law professor Andrzej Duda was re-elected as President of Poland, for another 5 years.  For the second time he received 51% of the popular vote in the second round of the election.

Duda may not himself deserve a lot of credit for his country’s economic performance, but in a quiet month for individual accomplishments,  he is person of the month as the leader of a political class that has managed to give Poland 28 straight years of economic growth and to make it one of the success stories of Central Europe. In 1990, Ukraine had a larger GDP than Poland. Nowadays, Poland is three times richer than Ukraine.




Duda also deserves mention, not necessarily credit, for being one of few European leaders who enjoy the company of Donald Trump. Duda travelled to Washington during the electoral campaign ostensibly to collect Trump’s endorsement and to confirm Poland’s willingness to welcome 1,000 US troops being re-deployed from Germany.  Considering Poland’s at times difficult relationship with the European Union, looking up to Washington rather than Brussels is not surprising, but it is also revealing of long-standing inclination in Polish politics.

The political party that supported Duda’s re-election is known for its social conservatism, including its anti-LGBT views. Poland in fact just announced its intention to leave the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Duda thus finds himself with his neighbours Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin in a small group of leaders with similar conservative views.  This, however, does not make Duda a friend of Vladimir Putin.  In matter of foreign policy and specifically relations with Russia, Duda’s views would be closer to Washington than to Brussels.


--o--

BRIEFLY NOTED


ISRAEL


Staunch Israeli ally Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó visited Israel on July 20th to sign a deal with regard to space research, as other European allies are warning of weakened ties due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex portions of the West Bank. Hungary and Israel have close ties and the country is considered to be a very “close friend” of Israel.

Szijjártó was in Jerusalem for only 12 hours, where he met with Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Science Minister Yizhar Shay. The Hungarian Foreign Minister has made a number of visits to Israel. Unlike last month’s visit by Germany Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to warn Israel against annexation, Szijjártó’s trip is viewed as a sign of friendship between the two nations.

IRAN


Iran's judiciary says the country has executed a man convicted of providing information to the United States and Israel about a top Iranian commander later killed by a U.S. drone strike in Iraq.
"Mahmud Musavi-Majd's sentence was carried out on Monday morning over the charge of espionage so that the case of his betrayal to his country will be closed forever," the judiciary's Mizan Online website reported on July 20th.

Iranian authorities in June said Musavi-Majd passed on information about the whereabouts of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) elite Quds Force, who was killed in a U.S. drone air strike near Baghdad in January.

Amnesty International recorded 251 executions in Iran during 2019, making Iran second to China in state executions.



RUSSIA-1


Tens of thousands of people in the Far Eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk (near the Chinese and North Korean borders) marched in an unsanctioned rally on July 18th to protest the arrest of a local governor on murder charges going back several years. There were massive crowds filing down a main thoroughfare in the regional capital and gathering in its main square to demand the release of Khabarovsk Krai Governor Sergei Furgal. An estimated 15,000 to 50,000 demonstrators took part in the nearly five-hour rally, according to reports, although police gave no official crowd estimate. City authorities reported no arrests or violence. The rally ended in front of the city's Mayor's Office, where demonstrators protested comments made by Mayor Sergei Kravchuk, who earlier suggested that Furgal's supporters were being paid.

Sergei Furgal


The 50-year-old Furgal, who belongs to the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, denies the charges, and his supporters say they are politically motivated. Last week, weekend protests were reportedly the largest-ever in the city of 590,000.

The continuing protests, far from the Russian capital, are a rare public show of defiance against the Kremlin and come following a controversial nationwide vote that set the stage for President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036.

Khabarovsk residents would not be unaware of their governor’s failings. Their main grievance would be that Moscow, being unhappy with the governor, is stealing the results of the open election that brought Furgal to power less than two years ago. Among the signs seen during the July 18 rally were ones reading "Free Furgal" and “Moscow. Go away from our river, our minerals, our resources.”

RUSSIA-2

Lawyers for the former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was sentenced in Moscow to 16 years in prison on espionage charges in mid-June, say their client may be exchanged in September for Russian nationals held in the United States.

Paul Whelan


TASS news agency reported that Whelan, who denies any wrongdoing, remains at the Lefortovo detention center in Moscow as talks proceed.

Whelan's other lawyer, Olga Karlova, told Interfax that "certain sources" informed Whelan's defense team that he may be exchanged in September, though "the information has not been confirmed."
Karlova added that although the Moscow City Court formally informed the Lefortovo detention center's administration last week that Whelan's sentence had come into force, thus starting the process of defining in which correctional facility Whelan would start serving his term, her client will most likely stay in the detention center depending on "how successful the exchange talks are."

Reports in June said that Russian and U.S. officials were in talks on a possible swap of Whelan for two Russians -- Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko -- who are serving lengthy sentences in U.S. prisons.


TURKMENISTAN


An official of the Turkish Embassy in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, has died of pneumonia in the only Central Asian nation that has not officially registered a single coronavirus case. Citing unnamed officials at the Turkish embassy, Turkmen.news outlet reported that an adviser on religious issues, Kemal Uckun, died in an Ashgabat hospital in early July. Mr. Uckun, who worked at the embassy since January 2018 was hospitalized with lung problems, a heavy cough, and a fever on June 27th.

According to BGN's sources inside the country, Turkmenistan's hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients with pneumonia symptoms, some of whom, including medical personnel, have died. In some parts of the country, so-called quarantine zones have been established and some industrial facilities are being shut down. However, Turkmen officials continue to say that there are no coronavirus cases in the country.



--o--


THE AUTHORS

Ilya Gerol, former foreign editor of the Citizen in Ottawa, syndicated columnist in Canadian, US and European media specializing in international affairs. His area of expertise includes Russia, Eurasian Economic Union, Eastern and Central Europe.  Ilya Gerol has written several books, one of them, The Manipulators, had become a textbook on relations of media and society.

During his career in the Canadian Foreign Service, Gilles Breton had three assignments at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. His first posting there began during the Soviet period, in 1983. His last was from 2008 to 2012 as Minister-Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission. He also served as Deputy Director responsible for Canada’s relations with Russia from 2000 to 2008. As an international civil servant, he was Deputy Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw from 1994 to 1997.

Gilles Breton also currently serves as Chairman of the National Board of the Canada-Eurasia-Russia Business Association. The views expressed in this newsletter exclusively reflect the opinion of the authors.