Monday, September 30, 2019

Issue 35

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWLETTER



 
ONE PHONE CALL TOO MANY, PERHAPS


A whistle blower's revelations about Donald Trump's July 25th telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have convinced the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives to launch impeachment proceedings. According to the notes eventually provided by the White House, Trump sought the resumption of the investigation into leading Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son business dealings in that country. There is circumstantial evidence that the US president used military aid commitments as leverage in his attempt to put pressure on Zelenskyy, in order to get to the Bidens.



Whatever Trump has said to Zelenskyy will likely convince the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to approve articles of impeachment that will have to be taken to the Senate. A lot of reasonable and fair-minded people around the world may also reach that conclusion. In the US the judgment will, however, most likely follow partisan lines. Leading Trump supporters did not even bother with denial, they are already in full attack mode against the Bidens and the President’s accusers. It is expected that the Republican majority in the Senate will find the evidence inconclusive: there is no quid pro quo, they will argue, since Trump did not make an explicit link between investigating the Bidens and US military assistance. Short of more damaging evidence, without the approval of two thirds of the Senators, the impeachment will fail.

The first official casualty of the Trump-Zelenskyy charade is Ambassador Kurt Volker who resigned from his position as Special US representative for Ukraine. Volker’s actual role in the follow up to the Trump-Zelenskyy conversation and his support for Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, are not entirely clear. More revelations can be expected that could corroborate Trump’s inappropriate actions.

In light of the Trump-Zelenskyy July conversation, the Democratic leadership in the House could no longer credibly refrain from pursuing impeachment. It looks as though attempts will be made to expedite the process so that, if Trump cannot be impeached, it will at least be possible to make the Republican senators accountable for a highly partisan verdict.

Presidents Zelenskyy and Trump, September 25th, New York
©President of Ukraine Website


In his mafia-style “shakedown” of Zelenskyy, Trump made some inaccurate or unjustified statements about the facts and about the people involved around Joe Biden and his son. Even though Joe Biden did not do anything wrong or different from other leaders, the doubts that were raised about his behaviour may linger in the minds of voters. Democratic party voters may move their support to another candidate rather than having Donald Trump hammer Joe Biden over these issues during the presidential campaign, however unjustifiable the allegations might be. After all, despite the factual evidence, there are still people who believe the Trump-propagated rumour that Barack Obama was not born in the US.

President Zelenskyy commented that he did not feel any pressure during the July call with Trump. Granted, his commitment in response to Trump was vague enough to amount to almost nothing. With all the focus on the US side of the discussion, no one cared to wonder whether it would have been legal or ethically appropriate for Zelenskyy to try to influence the Ukrainian prosecutor to re-open the Biden case. Zelenskyy may not have looked too strong during his conversation with Trump, but most important for him, that should not disqualify him from being in a position to negotiate with Vladimir Putin. The dynamics would be entirely different.

--o--


EASTERN UKRAINE/DONBASS: LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?


There are signs that both Russia and Ukraine are softening, if not their policies, at least their rhetoric towards one another. In the aftermath of a successful prisoner swap in September of this year, Kiev and Moscow are actively discussing the resurrection of the Minsk-2 agreement including the most disputed earlier the "Steinmeier formula".  The latter presumed the Ukraine must recognize the special status for Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the framework of the Ukraine, withdrawal of troops away from front lines and conducting supervised local elections. 

President Zelenskyy meeting freed Ukrainian sailors
September 12th, Kyiv
©President of Ukraine Website


This is all far from actual implementation, but at least both sides are willing to talk about it. As a popular Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon stated recently: "Paris, Berlin and Rome do not hide their 'Ukrainian fatigue'. It is clear that everyone wants a new and more rational approach from both sides in the endless conflict".

President Zelenskyy's recent initiatives reflect that point of view. He ordered some military de-escalation at front lines and allowed more civilian traffic between Ukraine and rebellious regions. Zelenskyy is also actively working to resume the Normandy format negotiations between leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

All those unilateral steps were made to encourage Moscow to reciprocate.

The above noted resignation of US Ambassador Volker may also affect the dynamics of the international negotiation. Volker, along with Ukrainian leaders, had been arguing recently for a more active role for the US in the Ukraine-Russia discussions in the Normandy format. The appetite among US politicians for more involvement with Ukraine has, however, just taken a hit.  As well, in light of the recent display, there is the fact that Ukrainians may no longer be so keen on US involvement in their affairs. With the US in the room, the discussions could be more difficult, but it would be easier to sell a successful outcome of the negotiations to the Ukrainians who fear that Zelenskyy and European leaders will yield too much to Vladimir Putin.


--o--

“THERE IS A CRACK IN EVERYTHING. THAT'S HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN.” (LEONARD COHEN)


The large end-of-summer protests that marked the beginning of the campaign for the municipal council elections in Moscow, and even more the strong reaction of the authorities through the muscular police handling of the protesters drew considerable attention in Western media and direct criticism from European leaders, including especially President Macron. Many would have liked to see in the protests the beginning of a crack in the managed democracy system of President Putin. That may have been too much wishful thinking, but there are signs that the continuation of the system will face new challenges.





Many non-traditional opposition representatives were denied registration of their candidacy for the Moscow municipal elections. This is what led to the protests. Given the current legislative framework that does not make it easy to register independent candidates, nothing could be done to satisfy the demands of the protesters. Eventually, the non-traditional opposition called on citizens to vote “intelligently” by focusing their support on traditional opposition candidates such as communists, so as to deny victory to Kremlin-backed United Russia candidates. That worked in some cases. Yet, ultimately the ruling party managed to retain its majority in the municipal council, aided by a very low turnout. The election of a relatively large number of opposition candidates was a symbolic victory.

In the rest of the country, United Russia did well every where except in Khabarovsk region for reasons that seem very specific to the region including the presence of a popular governor coming from an opposition party.

The surge of opposition parties in Moscow does not substantially alter the standing and authority of President Putin at the national level. Even though it is limited this time to Moscow and Khabarovsk and parts of St. Petersburg, it does however illustrate the inherent difficulty of continuing to turn the leader’s popular standing into majority support for the political party with which he is identified. The yearning for political stability has helped in the past, essentially since Putin came to power. Popular discontent has been relatively well managed, even including the controversial pension reform. What happens though when the fear of change tapers off and is certainly not so prevalent in the new generations that have only known Putin-style stability?



Perhaps even more important is the problem created by the severity of the measures taken against the protesters as well as the de facto immunity granted to police forces for their behaviour against protesters. Whereas in previous years protesters received fines of short detention sentences, this time they are treated as criminals. Some have even received imprisonment sentences of up to four years. This, even when there was evidence of no improper behaviour. Cases of documented unnecessary use of brutal force against protesters also seem to have gone unpunished. 

A group of distinguished Russian scientists has called on the country's leadership to stop political repression after a wave of arrests and harsh sentences against participants in recent pro-democracy protests. A statement signed by more than 50 scholars from the Russian Academy of Sciences says that while state agencies and law enforcement were obliged to ensure the rights of citizens, persecution of those attending peaceful political protests has instead become harsher.
"The profession of a scientist requires objectivity, a rigorous system of evidence with the inadmissibility of falsifications and fraud; we know what it is, and we believe that the law enforcement system should be based on the same basic principles," said the statement.
"Unfortunately, before our eyes, both the investigation and the courts demonstrate a complete disregard for these principles, turning the defense of law into a mockery of it," it added.

Somewhat similar points were made in a public letter signed by over 100 Russian orthodox priests. While it is not unexpected from respected scientists to express political views, it is virtually unheard for members of the clergy to express themselves without the approval of the Patriarchate. The clerics make similar points to the scientists, but in seeking clemency in the traditional religious way for the protesters they take the matter one step further by stressing the point that people cannot live in fear, quoting  St. Paul’s letter to the Romans 8,15:" The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again”.

This is not to say that change will happen overnight, but rather that with the scientists’ and the clerics’ intervention there has been the beginning of a change in the political debate. The consequences could be far-reaching down the road.  Comparisons are not fair, but there is an analogy between what clerics argued and Pope John Paul II’s repeated “Have no fear” message to his Polish followers.

--o--

IRAN'S CHESS GAME


The former head of Mossad, the late Meir Dagan, once remarked that Iran, unlike Arab states who fought Israel for decades, is playing chess, not checkers. This compliment was and is not far from the mark. As is evident from Iran's involvement in Syria, Iraq, and now in its confrontation with several Sunni states in the Gulf, and with the West in general, Iran has been playing one cool game of chess. So far. It has been frustrating the Saudis in Yemen for a long time and, when needed, managed to lash out and deliver tactical shots like boarding a British oil tanker by landing Revolutionary Guard commandos by helicopter on deck of the ship in a tit-for-tat response to the British arrest of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar. (A few weeks ago, Iran released the British tanker exactly two weeks after the Iranian vessel was freed.) Iran showed strength and Britain backed off. An even bigger gamble was a direct attack by drones and missiles on the Aramco oil refinery in Saudi Arabia's Khurais oil field at Abqaiq. With this Iran was taking its asymmetrical struggle to another level. The attack highlighted how ineffective Saudi air defenses are and provided everybody a food for thought; what will occur in the even of wider conflict? Through its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah Iran delivered a more direct message (uttered by Hassan Nasrallah): "In case of direct war Iran will annihilate Saudi Arabia".



In the aftermath of the drone attack on refining facilities in Saudi Arabia, it is remarkable how quickly the fear of an open conflict seems to have subsided. Early on, Donald Trump used the expression “locked and loaded” to describe the possible US response to an attack attributed to Iran. It turned out that the response was in the form of more economic sanctions against Iran and the deployment of additional forces in Saudi Arabia (an inherently controversial decision in Saudi Arabia where ultra-conservatives disapprove of the presence of non-Muslim troops in the Kingdom). For their part, Washington’s key allies (UK, France and Germany) took their time to join the chorus blaming Iran for the attack.  A more sober assessment of the situation seems to have revealed that a military escalation of the situation would afford no better protection for the soft industrial targets located in Saudi Arabia, in close proximity to Iran and Yemen.

Iran made a correct calculation that the only real power in the Gulf that can harm them, the United States, will not get involved militarily. Donald Trump, Iran quickly gathered, is really not as unpredictable as he often portrayed. He wants to make it to November 2020 without getting involved in a war. In other words, threats may be issued, but will no be carried out as they could lead to undesirable military and political consequences.  That is exactly why Iran said a few days after the attack on Saudi oil field (which it denied of carrying out): Iran is ready for all out war and will lash out not only at the source of attack on its interests (meaning US ships and bases) but other hostile actors in the region (read Abu-Dhabi, Saudis, Israel).

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was an advocate of military action against Iran may have been fired just in time.

Iran is being seriously crippled by sanctions and would not be able to go on like this for a long time. The mullahs know this very well. They are also very much aware of the cold fact that in case of any serious confrontation with the US military they will be utterly destroyed and most likely lose power in a violent takeover. As any dictatorial regime, they are weak at the core and could overplay their hand and get punished. However, so far one has to give Iran credit: they are playing a nuanced a game of chess.

--o--

NATANYAHU FIRST TO TRY THE IMPOSSIBLE


Israeli President Rivlin tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 25th with putting together a new government after power-sharing talks with Blue and White Party Chairman Benny Gantz failed. But Netanyahu, facing a looming indictment on corruption charges, still has no clear path to a fifth term after the September 17th general elections, second since April and he is short of a parliamentary majority for his Likud party and its allies. Accepting the mandate from President Reuven Rivlin at a televised ceremony, Netanyahu said his chances of success were only marginally higher than those of Gantz, a former general who heads the Blue and White party.

PM Netanyahu


In his remarks, Netanyahu seemed to hope for a scenario in which he and Gantz would be able to take another go at power-sharing once it became clear there was no way out of the current deadlock, save for a third election that few in Israel wanted.  "If I do not succeed, I will return the mandate to you and with the help of God and Israel's citizens and yourself, Mr. President, we will establish a broad national unity government down the line," he said.

Netanyahu, 69 and Israel's longest-serving leader, will have 28 days to form a coalition and can ask Rivlin for a two-week extension if necessary. Rivlin, in his remarks, pointedly noted that he was under no obligation to grant his prime minister-designate that two-week extension to establish a governing coalition. Nor did he commit to turning to Gantz if Netanyahu failed to break the current deadlock.

Under Israeli law, Rivlin can assign the coalition-building task to any member of parliament he deems likely to succeed.

The Knesset, Israel's Parliament


With final results announced on Wednesday, Likud has the pledged support of 55 legislators in the 120-member parliament, against 54 for Blue and White. The two parties failed to reach a coalition deal in talks launched on Tuesday.

Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a possible kingmaker, has been keeping his mainly Russian speaking Yisrael Beiteinu party on the fence since the September 17 elections declaring multiple times his aversion to Likud's ultra-Orthodox religious partners and Blue and White's left-wing allies.

"It became clear that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz have the 61 seats necessary to form a government," Rivlin said at the ceremony. "Netanyahu's ability to assemble an administration is higher at the moment," the president said. 

A deal in which Netanyahu and Gantz would take turns as prime minister was widely discussed however in his campaign, Gantz pledged not serve in a government with Netanyahu, citing the Israeli leader's legal troubles.

--o--

PERSON OF THE MONTH: ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, SECRETARY-GENERAL OF THE UNITED NATIONS



"My generation failed in its fight against ecological crisis", said António Guterres at the Climate Action Summit held in New-York this September. "Your generation, young and ambitious has to pick up the fight and succeed".  Antonio Gutteres did not get as much attention as Greta Thunberg, but he hosted the Summit at which Thunberg made her impassioned plea for action on climate change. He has also been a strong advocate of international coordinated action on climate change, despite the fact that this may cost him a second term as UN Secretary-General if Donald Trump is re-elected. Guterres has made clear he is not concerned about a second term, but will keep doing what he believes is right.

The former leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party, Prime Minister for seven years (1995-2002) Antonio Guterres has become one of the most popular European politicians. He managed to appeal to various sectors of Portuguese society and the European Union. In the 70s, he was instrumental in bringing Portugal into the EU. He has excellent credentials as a middle-of-the road political leader who succeeded in reconciling his Catholicism, socialist convictions and his love for physics. 

For 10 years he was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This experience has propelled Guterres into the very top of the United Nations when in 2017 he became the 9th Secretary General. 

--o--

GEORGIA


Thousands of people have gathered in the center of Georgia’s capital to protest against the government and the ruling Georgian Dream party, three months after the violent dispersal of a rally against Russian influence. The protesters blocked traffic on September 20th in Rustaveli Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, holding placards with slogans against Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman and former prime minister whom critics accuse of ruling the country from behind the scenes.

“The unilateral, oligarchic, informal rule of Bidzina Ivanishvili is unacceptable to us,” Shota Digmelashvili, one of the organizers of the Shame civic rights movement, told the crowd as he presented an action plan for the 2020 parliamentary elections.

The Shame movement that has been holding daily protests outside parliament in Tbilisi for the past few months. The wave of protests was sparked by the visit of an official Russian delegation to parliament in June, including a Russian lawmaker who sat in the Georgian parliament speaker's seat while addressing a group of officials from predominantly Orthodox Christian countries.

Three months ago, on June 20, more than 240 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets and water cannons to turn back crowds trying to enter the parliament building. The opposition, anti-government activists, and their supporters were angered further this month when controversial Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia was picked as the new prime minister. The anti-government protesters had been calling for Gakharia's ouster from the Interior Ministry for his role in the police crackdown.

--o--

 ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN


The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan have held talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The Foreign Ministries of the two countries said in separate statements on September 24 that Zohrab Mnatsakanian and Elmar Mamadyarov were joined during the talks on September 23 by the co-chairmen of the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group (US, France and Russia).

During the talks, Mnatsakanyan stressed the need to ensure the safe return home of Armenian citizens detained by the Azerbaijani side near the breakaway region, Armenia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Mamadyarov in turn pointed out that one Azerbaijani soldier was shot dead after he lost his way and entered territory controlled by Nagorno-Karabakh separatist forces.

Negotiations involving the Minsk Group helped forge a cease-fire in the region, which is not always honored, but have failed to produce a lasting settlement of the conflict.

--o--

BELARUS-RUSSIA


The Russian and Belarusian militaries have launched weeklong joint exercises in the Nizhny Novgorod region, west of Moscow. The Union Shield 2019 drills are set to involve a total of 12,000 troops and 950 pieces of military equipment, including combat vehicles, aircraft, and helicopters, Russia’s Western Military District said on September 13. The Belarusian Defense Ministry said it had sent 4,000 soldiers, more than 30 tanks, 80 armored vehicles, 50 multiple rocket launchers, and about 15 aircraft and helicopters. During the second phase of the exercises, troops will search and eliminate hypothetical saboteurs and illegal armed groups, a statement said.

In August, the chief of the General Staff of the Belarusian armed forces, First Deputy Defense Minister Major-General Aleh Belokonev, said the exercise would be held "deep inside the territory of the Russian Federation and not at practice ranges near [EU] borders" in order to "avoid the escalation of the situation in Europe."

Belarus and Russia are joined in a union state that exists mainly on paper, and the two countries hold joint military exercises that regularly engage the West's attention. The Union Shield drills are carried out every two years alternately on the territory of Russia and Belarus. Union Shield 2017 was held in Belarus and involved some 12,700 troops.

--o--

TURKMENISTAN


Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has pardoned 868 prisoners as part of the country's Independence Day celebrations. Berdymukhamedov, an authoritarian ruler who controls all aspects of Turkmen society, has issued such decrees several times a year, usually on the eve of state holidays such as the upcoming Independence Day observance on September 27. In a previous act of clemency, Berdymukhamedov announced in May the pardoning of 764 inmates to mark the Night of Revelation, an important stage during the holy month of Ramadan observed by Muslims around the world.

Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, issued similar amnesty decrees once a year during Ramadan. Human rights activists have generally presented these acts of clemency as a means of rotating the population in Turkmenistan’s penitentiaries.

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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.


Friday, August 30, 2019

Issue 34


THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER



GLOBAL DISARMAMENT


Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signing the INF Treaty
December 8th, 1987, Washington DC

To those who are old enough to have witnessed with excitement the signing of the major disarmament treaties of the 20th century it does not come naturally to acknowledge the fact that public opinion in the Euro-Atlantic region no longer perceives the existence of a long-term direct nuclear threat. US and Russian nuclear arsenals are no less powerful than before, but the global confrontation that could trigger their use no longer seems to exist. Even sharp differences over Ukraine, Syria or Venezuela are circumscribed. US conventional weapons are dispensed with parsimony in Ukraine, not much used in Syria, and not used at all yet in Venezuela.

As the decision of the US to leave the INF Treaty came into effect in early August, yet another Cold War era disarmament arrangement got tossed away. With the likelihood that the same will happen in 2021 or even before with the new START agreement, there will be very little left of the legal framework that hitherto curtailed the global arms race.  It may well be that political understandings between the US and Russia will fill the void and ultimately provide a similar level of global security. There are, however, two problems. First, in the absence of legal limitations, the military-industrial complexes in both the US and Russia are not constrained in the same manner. The inertia that drives weapons developers in both countries may not meet the same resistance. Resources, that could be better used elsewhere, will likely continue to flow unhindered towards the development of new weapons system. Second, but no less important, with the demise of the main disarmament treaties the verification systems that support transparency and confidence will be weakened. They will have to be replaced with new ones to avoid a further deterioration of the security climate.

Amidst allegations by both sides that the other side is cheating, it should be observed that it is the US that does not want its conduct to be limited by binding legal agreements. This is consistent with the current administration’s thinking in other matters, such as for instance the International Criminal Court whose jurisdiction the US does not accept.  As noted above, the rejection of legal agreements does not in itself increase the risk of a confrontation. There is nevertheless a certain discomfort at the idea that the US administration wishes to be governed only by its own rules. The fact that there is an unpredictable occupant in the White House can only leave us to hope that there will be “adults in the room” when decisions are made.  

--o--


THE INF TREATY, MORE SPECIFICALLY

The Iskander-K that launches the non-INF compliant Russian cruise missile
©Wikipedia

The US left the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on account of what it saw as a serious Russian violation of the Agreement in terms of development and deployment of a new cruise missile. Within a few weeks of leaving the Treaty, the US tested a roughly similar cruise missile, vigorously denying it had started developing it before leaving the Treaty.  Ultimately, who started cheating may not matter that much. Disagreements over the implementation of the Treaty could have been the subject of serious negotiations and, with time, could have been resolved and the Treaty, if necessary updated. This might have happened with previous US administrations. With John Bolton as US National Security Advisor, this was not to be. Bolton’s abhorrence of disarmament treaties is well known.


The Tomahawk cruise missile. A new land-launched version will exceed INF limitations.

The argument that the INF Treaty was obsolete because it did not address the threat posed by China in Asia has been raised on the US side.  The problem here is that China has no interest in engaging in negotiations on this matter.

Understandably NATO and NATO countries repeated the US line about blaming Russia for the demise of the INF. It would have futile for any US ally to try to change the US position. Supporting it publicly after the fact does no harm. European concern would be though that, INF or not, there is little desire for new US weapons system to be based in Europe. As for Russia, Putin simply stated that its future behaviour would be guided by US actions.


--o--


IRAN GAMBIT


John Bolton’s negotiation style (and probably that of Secretary of State Pompeo as well) was also reflected in the decision to impose direct sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and then calling for Iran to come to the negotiating table. In this respect, President Macron’s decision to invite Zarif to the location of the G7 Summit on August 25th was a clever one. Macron was probably the first leader to say publicly more than a year ago that Trump’s motivation for leaving the nuclear deal with Iran last year is not with its substance, but that it was concluded under President Obama. Macron, from his frequent interaction with Trump, would know that the only way to get Trump moving on the issue is to have him cast as the star actor and bringing the show to him. Trump seems to have responded to the Zarif bait by suggesting that a meeting with Iranian President Rouhani would be possible “in the right circumstances”.

Macron had received Zarif in Paris on August 23rd for “productive” talks aimed at rescuing the 2015 international deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. It is not entirely clear when Trump and the US side were told about Zarif’s travel to Biarritz on the 25th. What matters is that was played with both sides in a manner that did not raise objections.


FM Zarif, President Macron,
Biarritz, August 25th


For Macron, the invitation to Zarif was a no-lose proposition. There may not be immediate positive follow-up to Zarif being for a few hours in the same city as the US President. The tone of the US-Iran conversation has nevertheless been altered. It is, however, at least premature to envisage a North Korea scenario where top leaders engage in a negotiation process.


--o--


VENEZUELA UPDATE


President Maduro claims that he is engaged in secret talks with the US. As is often the case, the Trump/Bolton team sends contradictory signals on the matter. The President confirms that there are talks, but gives no details. Bolton says that the only item for discussion is Maduro’s departure.  In the meantime, Norway’s discrete efforts to support negotiations between the Maduro regime and the opposition forces were not helped by the US decision to impose another set of sweeping sanctions on Venezuela. That decision compelled Maduro refused to suspend the negotiations for now.

In the absence of a Macron/Iran type of intervention, the situation is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.


--o--

NEW CHAPTER OF UKRAINIAN POLITICAL HISTORY

President Zelenskyy speaking before the new Rada
August 29th, Kyiv
©President of Ukraine Website


The New Rada (Parliament) that began its work in Kyiv on August 29th is the first in the history of independent Ukraine dominated by one political party. The Servant of the People party led by President Zelenskyy has obtained an absolute majority of seats in the parliamentary elections and will form the government without any traditional coalitions and traditional party alliances. This will provide Volodymyr Zelenskyy with carte blanche to introduce the most radical reforms of the state apparatus, law and order system and a genuine privatization of the economy. Zelenskyy has already begun his reforms with a radical and important cleanup of the country's Security Service (SBU).

When Ukraine's domestic security service revealed last year that it had faked the death of a dissident Russian journalist to expose a team of hit men allegedly hired by Moscow to destabilize the country by assassinating high-profile figures in Ukraine, it was expecting compliments, something that would make them look like the legendary Israeli security service, the Mossad. Instead, the stunt sparked widespread criticism, gave Russia another reason to ridicule their foe and once again tarnished the already lousy reputation of the SBU.

A year later, fresh off huge election victories that brought him and his fledgling Servant of the People party to power, President Zelenskyy now has a possibility to do what none of his predecessors was able to do: reform, repair, refresh the agency.

How successful the 41-year-old Zelenskyy and his young team of reformers are in cleaning up the agency, arguably the country's most powerful institution, will be a litmus test of his administration's resolve to bring Ukraine more into line with Western democracies.

On the other hand, failure to reform the security service will also undermine larger efforts to fight corruption and economic crime, as the agency's activities have much to do with Ukraine's efforts to bolster the rule of law, and its checkered reputation deters foreign investors from bringing business to a country where the security service was often part of economic crime.

Of course, the SBU is small child of its notorious father, the KGB of the Soviet Union (just as any other security agency of the former republics, all 15 of them). Oleksy Melnyk, director of the Ukraine-based Razumkov centre said this about the SBU: "it's kind of an under-reformed Soviet special service and the SBU is very much how the KGB was or even the NKVD," he added, referring to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's secret police. It is a large organization, in the best traditions of the Soviet Union and a sign of not very democratic state. It has about 30,000 employees. The SBU is more than seven times the size of the United Kingdom's MI5, and more than four times the size of the Mossad.

The West also had applied pressure in that direction and insisted that the reform was almost obligatory if the country wanted eventually to be member of NATO and other Western-aligned organizations.

The SBU's infiltration by Russian agents has also been a serious obstacle to reform and will likely continue to be as Zelenskiy's team moves ahead, although perhaps to a lesser degree than in the past.

The Russian spy agencies not only had total access to everything sacred within Ukraine and the SBU during the Euro-Maidan in 2014,but former SBU chief Oleksandr Yakymenko who was appointed by Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was without doubt working directly for the Russian FSB. Now, as the old slang of the spying business went, it was a "good get".It is hard to get a better source than that when one spies on another country.

Also, it has been reported that when unidentified Russian special forces (so-called "green men") stormed the Crimea peninsula in 2014, thousands of Ukrainian security agents switched sides and declared their loyalty to Moscow.

This is a huge test for the young president and his people. If Zelenskyy succeeds in this this reform or even a makeover of the agency he will prove himself a true political operator. The odds, however, are against him.

--o--

FIRST CASPIAN ECONOMIC FORUM



After almost a quarter of the century, an end is in sight for a dispute over a sea that was under question as to whether it was even a sea. The Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea was signed last year. Russia is committed to ratifying the Convention in the near future.

A lot is at stake, namely billions of dollars of oil and gas contracts. The Caspian, the largest enclosed body of water in the world, contains a massive 48 billion barrels of oil and 9 trillion cubic metres of natural gas in proven offshore reserves. And that is what we know about: there may be much more, but territorial disputes have frustrated attempts at proper exploration.

The Caspian problem arose after the breakup of the USSR. Before then, the water was split between two nation states: Iran and the Soviet Union. Afterwards, there were four new nations to deal with: Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. One of the major stumbling blocks has been the status of the sea itself. Many were arguing whether it was a sea or a lake?

This is no simple debate over words, but of development rights and cash. If it had been designated a lake, the rights would have been divided up equally, with each nation receiving 20 per cent. If, however, it is deemed to be a sea, it is split between the competing nations in proportion to each one’s share of its coastline. Iran, the major loser in the sea approach, had been resisting the definition.


Russian PM Medvedev with high-level officials from Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan
Avaza, Turkmenistan, August 11th
© PM of Russia Website

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev participated in the First Caspian Economic Forum on August 11-12 in Turkmenistan. The Soviet style of official photograph that accompanies the event should not lead to an under-estimation of the economic significance for Russia of the Caspian Sea region economic cooperation. The so-called "pivot to the East" is not exclusively about China.

--o--



PERSON OF THE MONTH: EMMANUEL MACRON (ENCORE)


Emmanuel Macron deserves the title for a second time on account of his deft management of this year’s G7 Summit and related issues. Macron now seems to have found a way to deal with President Trump, not necessarily to have him change his mind on certain issues such as, for instance, climate change. Rather, Macron, through his daring invite to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif was able to orient the conversation in the direction that he chose. He also managed to get some form of arrangement in principle with the US over the taxation of internet giants. Throughout the meeting and till the end he kept Trump engaged in a manner that deserved him a warm hug rather than a twitter insult, as happened to Justin Trudeau last year.

Presidents Trump and Macron
Biarritz, August 26th


Presidents Putin and Macron
Fort de Brégançon, August 19th


Rather than proposing to re-create the G8 by re-inviting Russia, a non-starter with some G7 leaders, Macron invited President Putin to his summer residence for an extended working session days before the G7 meeting. While this may not look as good as having Russia at the table it certainly accomplished a great deal in terms of political consultations with Russia. Since then, Macron has proposed at the annual meeting of French Ambassadors a “re-think of our link with Russia” arguing that Russia is “incontournable” (unavoidable). Coming from a leader who is also directly involved in the negotiations over Eastern Ukraine, this bears watching.

Macron also calmly withstood the insult directed at his wife by Brazilian President Bolsonaro as well as being called a “cretin” by a senior Brazilian Minister.

All in all, with the UK leader obsessed with leaving the EU and the German chancellor retiring soon, Macron now emerges as the foremost European leader.

--o--

BELARUS


Belarus is seeking to buy U.S. oil for its refineries for the first time as it strives to diversify supplies away from its more powerful, energy-rich neighbor Russia and to build warmer relations with the West. The interest in U.S. crude comes as Moscow voices greater interest in pursuing a union with Belarus, a project that has remained dormant for the past 20 years but that the Kremlin wants to revive.

The state-owned Belarusian Oil Company, which is affiliated with the refiner Belneftekhim Concern, has hired David Gencarelli to lobby the U.S. government for sanctions relief so the country can buy crude. Gencarelli will assist the company in getting a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department for the "purchase of crude oil with delivery to the refineries in the Republic of Belarus," according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing. 

Belarus buying oil from a Kremlin foe is a "political message aimed at Russia", said Michael Carpenter, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, who now is a senior director at the Penn Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "This is a hard slap in Putin’s face."

Russia, the world's second-largest oil producer, has kept Belarus within its sphere of influence by offering the nation cheap energy and loans that have propped up its outdated economy for decades.

--o--


RUSSIA


Russia's first floating nuclear power plant, which Greenpeace has dubbed a “floating Chernobyl,” has set sail on a nearly 5,000-kilometer voyage to its destination in the nation’s northeast. The floating plant, the Akademik Lomonosov, departed the Arctic port of Murmansk on August 23rd, according to state nuclear company Rosatom.

Akademik Lomonosov
©Rosatom


If all goes according to plan, the 140-meter towed platform that carries two 35-megawatt nuclear reactors is to be put into service later this year in the Arctic off the coast of Chukotka in the Far East, providing power for a port town and for oil rigs.

Analysts say the project is part of Russia’s greater aims to secure the rich deposits of oil and gas in the North Pole region. Due to climate change, new shipping routes are opening in Russia’s north. As a result, Moscow is strengthening its military position in the area.

The reactor's trip is expected to take between four and six weeks, depending on the weather conditions and the amount of ice on the way. When it arrives in Pevek, a town of 5,000 in the Siberian region of Chukotka, it will replace a local nuclear plant and a closed coal plant.

--o--

ARMENIA


A recent visit by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian to Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the comments he made there, have triggered a fresh war of words between Yerevan and Baku. In a recent statement, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry accused Pashinian of "provoking" tensions in the region with his "illegal" visit earlier this week. In an hour-long speech before thousands of people gathered on August 5th in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Pashinian said the region was "Armenian, and that's that." He also led the crowd in chanting for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.


PM Pashinian
Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, August 5th


In a first statement published the following day, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry called Pashinian's speech "aggressive" and a "major blow" to internationally mediated negotiations to settle the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Yerevan responded to that statement by saying the Azerbaijani authorities misunderstood the "context and content" of Pashinian's speech, which it said aimed at promoting a "pan-Armenian agenda of unity, solidarity, development, and prosperity" of Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Armenian diaspora."

The Armenian Foreign Ministry also accused Baku of being "unable to maintain norms of diplomatic ethics," launching "personalized attacks," and "creating threats to the security and existence of the people" of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Mainly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan amid a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Since 1994, it has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces that Azerbaijan says include troops supplied by Armenia. The region's claim to independence has not been recognized by any country.

Negotiations involving the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group helped forge a cease-fire in the region, which is not always honored, but have failed to produce a lasting settlement of the conflict. The Minsk Group is co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States.

--o--

NORWAY/RUSSIA


Researchers at a Norwegian institute believe that there may have been two explosions, not one, at the Russian naval test site on the White Sea in early August, an incident that killed at least five people and raised new questions about Russia's weapons research.

The conclusions were published on August 14th by the Norsar Research Institute, based on seismographic and acoustic readings taken the day of the deadly incident, but have gone largely unnoticed. Anne Lycke, the institute's chief executive, told the media that the institute's monitoring stations first detected seismographic readings on August 8th at around 9 a.m. local time in Arkhangelsk, a major city on the White Sea. The readings, she said, pointed to an explosion that occurred somewhere close to the Earth's surface, either on ground or on water.

Around two hours later, at 11 a.m., a different sensor designed to pick up infrasound, or low-frequency sound, registered another, different acoustic event, Lycke said. Researchers concluded that that was likely an explosion that occurred in the air, some height above the ground, she said.
The institute's findings, which were first reported by the newspaper Afternposten on August 22nd, add to a growing body of publicly available evidence about the August 8th incident that took place at the Nyonoksa naval test site, a range on the White Sea that has been used for decades by Soviet and Russian military planners.

--o--

UKRAINE/RUSSIA


Three Russian citizens held in Ukraine are getting ready for a prisoner swap, their lawyer said amid reports that Russia plans to hand over to Kyiv dozens of jailed Ukrainians. Valentin Rybin told the TASS news agency on August 22nd that his clients Aleksandr Baranov, Maksim Odintsov, and Yevgeny Mefyodov are currently going through judicial procedures in preparation for the exchange "in the nearest future."

Baranov and Odintsov, once soldiers of the Ukrainian Army in Crimea, changed sides after Moscow seized the peninsula in 2014. They were found guilty of high treason and desertion in February and sentenced to 13 and 14 years in prison, respectively. Mefyodov is charged with separatism over a deadly standoff between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists in Ukraine's Black Sea port city of Odesa in 2014. Their lawyer's statement comes a day after some Russian media reports cited sources saying that many Ukrainians held in Russia will be exchanged for Russians held in Ukraine.

The Kommersant newspaper reported on August 21st that the exchange could take place by the end of August and among the Ukrainians set to be transferred to Kyiv there will be 24 Ukrainian sailors detained by Russian forces in November near the Kerch Strait close to Russia-annexed Crimea.
However, on August 21st, a court in Moscow upheld the pretrial detention for 13 of the 24 Ukrainian sailors until October 26th.

Also on August 21st, media reports in Russia said five Ukrainian nationals jailed in Russia may be handed over to Kyiv to serve the rest of their sentences at home. The Moscow-based Memorial human rights center said the previous day that five Ukrainians held in Russia had been transferred from labor camps in several different regions to the Lefortovo detention center in Moscow.

--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.


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Issue 33

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER



NO END TO THE DEMOCRATS' WAR AGAINST TRUMP


As if his report was not enough in itself the US House of representatives led by Democrats invited the retired FBI director Robert Mueller to a marathon of testimonies in front of two committees. His testimony basically repeated the main points of his report's 444 pages that Donald Trump or people close to him were not guilty of colluding with Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign. On the question of obstruction of justice, Mueller testified that the President could not be totally exonerated. He even made it clear that the President could be indicted once he leaves office. There may have been too much legal nuance in this for the full meaning of that statement to register with the audience.



Members of Congress continued to demand from White House the full of disclosure of Trump's one on one conversation with Putin during their summit in Helsinki last year. The White House refused to provide the content. The Congress for the third time tabled a Trump impeachment resolution. Though only 90 or so members voted for it, it shows that the crusade against Trump has become an obsession of the Democratic political establishment. This strategy is unlikely to help the Democratic party reclaim the White House in 2020. A credible candidate from a new generation of politicians might do that.

--o--


UKRAINE THAT WAS NOT, UKRAINE THAT COULD BE



The significance of the overall victory of President Zelensky’s party in the July 21st parliamentary elections cannot be overestimated. For the first time since Ukrainian independence in 1991, there will be political alignment between the Presidency and the Parliament. Admittedly, there was a relatively low turnout on July 21st, just below 50%. There are many possible explanations for such a low participation, from voter disaffection to the summer timing of the poll. Clearly though, the issue was not the popularity of President Zelensky who continues to keep a very high public opinion rating.

The results of the elections are an unmistakable rejection of the professional political class that essentially controlled the outgoing Parliament. Previous parliamentarians may have been duly elected, but they clearly no longer reflected the preoccupations of the electorate. The verdict is clear and, in some cases, brutal.

The mass arrival of new parliamentarians with limited political or even public life experience may cause the new assembly to go though unavoidable growing pains. This will be a small price to pay to have a parliamentary majority that focuses on the interest of the country and is not beholden to any oligarch.

To Russia, there may be a temptation of reading too much in the fact that the nationalist tendency in the new parliament will be greatly diminished. This in no way implies that there is a return to the “good old days”. Zelensky and his party may not define their objectives as against Russia, they will no less defend Ukrainian interests. They may, however, do so in a more pragmatic way, not only to spite the other side. The possible discussion about the reinstatement of direct flights between Ukraine and Russia is a case in point.

The fact that an openly pro-Russia party did well in the Eastern regions that border on the conflict area in the Donbass should neither be discounted nor exaggerated. These regions would still perceive a normal relationship with Russia as important for their long-term prosperity, but it does not alter their sense of belonging to a different country. They do not seek to rejoin the Russian Federation. There is nevertheless some irony in the fact that the pro-Russia party did better at the national level overall than former President Poroshenko’s party.

Poroshenko’s party did however gather slightly more votes than Zelensky’s among Ukrainian voters outside of Ukraine. The diaspora may not be so comfortable with Zelensky as it was with Poroshenko. Zelensky may be saying all the right things when it comes to the conflict with Russia, as he did during his early July visit to Canada, but he clearly does not have the same nationalist credentials or inclinations. His first language is Russian, his Ukrainian not so strong. His statement on the 1031st anniversary of the Christianization of Kievan Rus called for dialogue between churches “so that faith would unite Ukrainians rather than divide them”. This is very different from Poroshenko’s rhetoric. The statement was immediately welcomed by a representative of the Church supported by the Moscow Patriarchate.

Most important, the two main tasks now awaiting Zelensky are fighting corruption and ending the war in Donbass.

President Zelensky during a working visit to the Cherkasy region, July 31st
©President of Ukraine Website


On corruption, the work has already started. Within the limit of his constitutional authority, the President has already released some senior officials from their duties. He also made several visits to the regions, taking the opportunity to chew out local politicians for their ineffectiveness. Once the new Parliament is functioning, he will be able to move more broadly and appoint new personnel to key top positions, including that of Procurator General. The Presidential Administration has already prepared an anti-corruption strategy that will include the digitization of government work (to reduce the occasions for corruption) and a public education program that will promote zero tolerance to corruption.

President Zelenskyy and EU Council President Tusk visiting Stanytsia Luhanska in Luhansk region, July 7th
©President of Ukraine Website

As for ending the war in Donbass, a ceasefire is already in effect since July 21st. There have of course already been numerous violations, but the tendency is towards less military activity. There have already been some efforts to bring new life to the discussions under the Normandy format (Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany). Exchange of prisoners may be in the works. Even more important, however, will be what can be done to remove the blockade and re-establish the exchange of goods between rebel regions and the rest of Ukraine. This is part of Zelensky’s first objective of winning back popular support in rebel regions.

Altogether, the stage is set for Zelensky to carry out reforms that could substantially transform Ukraine as well as to create the conditions for ending the armed conflict in the Eastern rebel regions. From what has been accomplished so far, there is ground for optimism.

--o--

PERSIAN GULF-GULF OF TROUBLE


The conflict between Iran and the West is quickly becoming the most poignant conflict of our times. It is not only that the war may flare up at any time, but also that the Iranian drive to make a bomb and the crippling sanctions it is are under, are dividing the West. The European Union has already created new trade structures to circumvent the US sanctions against Iran and purchase Iranian oil through multiple intermediaries using various other currencies, but not US Dollars.

British ship seized by Iranian Navy on July 19th in the Strit of Hormuz


Russia meanwhile formally supports Iran, but does not associate itself with Tehran too closely. One of the possible outcomes of the current crisis could be a popular uprising of the Iranian population against the theocratic regime due to severe economic situation inside Iran. If this were to occur, it would change the whole situation in the region and beyond. 

--o--



TRADE STATISTICS QUESTIONS


US President Donald J. Trump is the living proof that a misreading of trade statistics can lead to unfounded conclusions. In the case of the author of the “art of the Deal”, this may well reflect the view, based on his own business experience, that in any trade relation one of the parties gets done in by the other e.g. China versus the US. It may also reflect the prejudice that the only good deal is the one he himself negotiated e.g. NAFTA versus its expected replacement, the USMCA.

Trumpism aside, a careful reading of diverse trade statistics can offer interesting insights. Put together, the following three observations are of interest:

             Between 2016 and 2018 Canada-Russia overall trade increased by 36%
             Between 2016 and 2018 EU-Russia overall trade increased by 32%
             Between 2016 and 2018 overall Russia world trade increased by 37%

The interpretation that might be offered on the basis of the above is that, after the 2012 recession and the impact of the imposition of Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia beginning in 2014 had a negative impact on trade with Russia, the tendency has now been reversed. Trade with Russia is inching its way back to the maximum level reached in 2012.



The related conclusion one might also be entitled to draw from the above is that sanctions imposed against Russia and counter-sanctions imposed by Russia are no longer having much real impact on trade flows. On the basis of the strong attendance by businesspeople from all over the world at the June 2018 St.Petersburg International Economic Forum and other similar business events, it seems that such a conclusion is already broadly shared.

--o--


PERSON OF THE MONTH,

BORIS JOHNSON




Boris Johnson has become the United Kingdom’s new prime minister — and is poised to lead the country out of the European Union.

Johnson was born in 1964 in New York City. He graduated from Eton and attended Oxford and other prestigious schools. Johnson had a successful career in journalism working for The Times, Daily Telegraph and finally as an editor of The Spectator (until 2005), before becoming the former mayor of London from 2008 to 2016.

Boris Johnson is a modern, British conservative. He is an obvious Eurosceptic, but socially a liberal. His extravagant behavior and his wit served him well and for that reason his popularity goes well beyond strictly conservative constituencies.

Boris faces perhaps the most daunting and immediate challenge of any British prime minister since Winston Churchill during World War II.

Aside form the Brexit saga, the U.K. has been pulled headfirst into a standoff with Iran, and with it a delicate balancing act between Washington and Europe in terms of how to respond to Iran. So far, exploiting UK's political mess and Brexit quagmire, as well as a very uncharacteristic passivity of the famed British Navy, Iran had the upper hand. The whole world is watching what, if anything will be done with the new PM at the helm.

There are four items on the new PM's short work list:

1. Iran
2. Brexit
3. Beating Labour Leader Corbyn at the upcoming elections (which will be hard without scoring the first two),
and distant 4th would an attempt to slightly improve relations with Russia.

He has a fan at the White House who already described Boris Johnson using his trademark phrase "great guy".

Others, on a slightly more intellectual side, for example Conrad Black who was Boris' boss at one time predict that he will be an excellent PM. The media and the left-leaning political circles are obviously not crazy about Boris. For them he is too unpredictable, too free with his language or using the Orwellian newspeak, not a "good thinker". The fact that he is liked by Trump also does not sit well with many Brits.

One thing is to win your party. Quite the other is to win the country.
It will be exciting right out of the gate. 

--o--

MOSCOW PROTESTS AND ARRESTS


From 3,500 (according to the authorities) to 20,000 (according to protesters) people participated on July 27th in an “unauthorised" protest against the exclusion of opposition candidates from city of Moscow elections to be held on September 8th. More than 1,000 people were detained during the protest. The reaction of the authorities has been to initiate criminal cases against some of the participants in order to discourage further protests. In response to the widespread Western criticism of Moscow police actions against the protesters, Russia Today compared these actions to the ones taken by the French police against the “gilets jaunes”.  More than an actual threat to the prevailing political system, the Moscow events may be a prefiguring of upcoming challenges during any power transition at the national level that should take place in 2024. 

The Central Election Commission is now reviewing the controversial applications and may find a way to reverse the previous exclusion of some opposition candidates.

--o--

UKRAINE SHIPPING


Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) has arrested a Russian tanker that Moscow allegedly used to block three Ukrainian naval vessels before detaining them and 24 Ukrainian sailors in November near Crimea.

According to the SBU July 25th  statement, the tanker was detained by Ukrainian authorities after it arrived under the Russian flag at the Ukrainian port city of Izmail on the Danube River on July 24.
The 15 Russian citizens on board were released and sent back home. The ship itself was formally seized under a July 29th  Court order. It will now likely become another item on the long Kyiv-Moscow negotiating list.

--o--


CHINA'S NEW MILITARY DOCTRINE

Beijing issued a so-called 'White Book' where it spells out the main points of its new military doctrine. For the first time the doctrine mentions the nuclear weapons as an integral element of China's defense system while stressing that China will never be the first to use nuclear weapons. The doctrine also emphasizes Beijing's intentions to further develop its Pacific fleet and make it one of the most powerful in the world.

The first iteration of China's military doctrine...

China said it will require sustainable development of its military industrial complex based on its own resources.  For the first time within its military doctrine it stated that China will continue to increase military cooperation with Russia. 

--o--

SOUTH KOREA-RUSSIA

Russia says it has carried out its first ever joint air patrol with China, prompting both South Korea and Japan to send jets in response. The Russian defence ministry announced that four bombers, supported by fighter jets, patrolled a pre-planned route over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.
South Korean jest jets fired flares and machine-gun warning shots when Russian planes intruded.

Japan has protested both to Russia and South Korea over the incident.

LiancourtRocks, in Japan called Takeshima, in South KoreaDokdo


The alleged incursion happened over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands, which are occupied by South Korea, but also claimed by Japan. Russian and Chinese bombers and reconnaissance planes have occasionally entered the zone in recent years, but this is the first incident of its kind between Russia and South Korea.

Russian Defense ministry said two of its Tu-95 strategic missile-carriers had joined two Chinese Hong-6K strategic bombers on the pre-planned route over "neutral waters". They were supported by fighters and A-50 and Kongjing-2000 airborne early warning and control aircraft.

--o--

BELARUS 


Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with his Belarusian counterpart, Aleksandr Lukashenko, in St. Petersburg on July 18 to discuss further integration within the Russia-Belarus Union State, a grouping that has existed mainly on paper after it was established in the 1990s.

In recent months, Putin and Lukashenko have held several rounds of talks on the integration, with the latter stressing that the partnership should be equal. Russia has been Belarus's main lender for many years and Minsk still owes Moscow large sums of money. Belarus's economy remains largely inefficient, and its external debt increased by $3.4 billion from July 2016 to October. In June, Finance Minister Siluanov said Moscow will lend more money to Belarus only after the two countries agree on furthering their integration.

President Lukashenko, Nikolai Lukashenko and President Putin at Valaam Monastery, July 17th
©President of Belarus Website


Lukashenko said after talks that he and Putin reached "agreements in principle on several issues hindering the integration between the two countries," including the price of Russian gas sold to Belarus. Earlier this year, Lukashenko told reporters Russia and Belarus still need to sort out a number of problems before talking about integration, adding that "the Russian leadership, especially the government, are not ready to go that way." In other words, despite recent positive statements, a lot remains to be done.

--o--

GEORGIA


Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected a parliamentary call to impose sanctions on Georgia, saying patching up strained relations was more important than reacting to provocations by "scumbags.” Talking to reporters in St. Petersburg, Putin said he would stay away from "sanctions against Georgia out of respect for the Georgian people."

"For the sake of restoring full ties, I would not do anything to complicate our relations," Putin added.
In what appeared to be a reference to a crude verbal attack on him by a Georgian TV presenter, the Russian president said there was no point in taking seriously what he called the outbursts of "some scumbags."

Putin was speaking shortly after the Russian parliament unanimously backed a resolution urging the government to draw up economic sanctions on Georgia for his approval, a move that would have sharply escalated tensions between the two countries.

On July 7, Giorgi Gabunia, a host of a news-analysis program called Postscript on the Georgian opposition-run Rustavi-2 television channel, called Putin a "stinking occupier" and a "walrus c***" and vowed that he would defecate on Putin's grave.

Gabunia's tirade against Putin came at one of the most tense periods in relations between Russia and Georgia since they fought a five-day war in 2008.

--o--



MONGOLIA


Populist President Khaltmaa Battulga, who won an early July run-off election, is a real estate tycoon who has a Genghis Khan-themed amusement park as one of his assets.The leader of the opposition Democratic Party won just under 51% of the vote, giving him the majority needed to overcome parliament speaker Miyeegombo Enkhbold of the ruling Mongolian People’s Party.

President Battulga


Some investors have been wary of a Battulga presidency because of his calls for more state control of some mines and his suspicions of China, Mongolia’s biggest trade partner. Despite past protests, he has said he will stand behind plans to build a key railway to China from the enormous Tavan Tolgoi coal mine and has praised China’s Belt and Road pan-Asian infrastructure initiative.

Battulga captured the attention of voters who feel Mongolia received a bad deal on investments, promising greater government control of strategic mines, such as Rio Tinto’s, Oyu Tolgoi copper mine.

Mongolia is a parliamentary democracy. The government is run by a prime minister, but the president has powers to veto legislation and make judicial appointments.

--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 particular 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.