Thursday, July 27, 2017

Issue 9



Presidents Putin and Trump, Hamburg, July 7th, 2017
Ⓒ President of Russia Website

Media spotlight at G-20 summit in Hamburg was naturally stolen by the much anticipated sit-down between presidents Trump and Putin. Their meeting lasted a whole two hours longer than scheduled. There were, however, other less celebrated yet very consequential meetings between other leaders, bilateral and multilateral. Examples: intensive and far reaching meetings between Chancellor Merkel and President Macron aimed at working out a united front vis-a-vis Washington on international trade and climate change; Chinese leader Xi and his Japanese counterpart on North Korean problem and finally trilateral talks between Putin, Merkel and Macron on the most painful European conflict: Ukraine.

Paradoxically enough the two leaders most out of place at this gathering were Trump and Putin who managed to find some degree of common ground between themselves, but failed to win the sympathies of others. 

The negative side of the post-G20 reality is Trump's inability to follow up on almost any point agreed between him and Putin during the summit. Trump's decision making process persistently has been paralyzed not only by opposition in congress, but even more so by the State Department and Pentagon. As BGN's source in the US State Department put it "It is not a political confrontation. It is a battle of professionals with an amateur". This situation will not get better. Not only senators and congressmen, but also the legal advisors are beginning to demand from the White House that it get rid of extended family members who have an excessive influence on the President.

The only successful result of the summit was agreement to create safe zones in Syria. Many observers believe that it can be interpreted as a substantial victory for Putin: Assad's hold on power has been de facto accepted the West, the Russian army is authorized to supervise the implementation of the ceasefire and military coordination between the US and Russia in Syria is restored. At the same time, as details of the ceasefire agreement were revealed, Israel expressed its strong objections to the possibility of Iran and Hezbollah approaching the Israeli border under the umbrella of the Russian military.

The outcome of Hamburg also had a bitter connotation for Russia: the sanctions against Moscow will remain in force for the foreseeable future, with all kinds of negative consequences for the Russian economy.



Ⓒ Idaho National Laboratory
As Vladimir Putin noted, Donald Trump is a practical person who quickly understands the nature of problems, even though he is not necessarily familiar with them at the outset. As can be expected from Putin, there was a certain amount of irony in the observation.

The cyber security proposal that Putin put to Donald Trump in Hamburg was most likely the formalization of official exchanges that were initiated by Russia during the Obama presidency. The current proposal most likely foresaw the creation of a more permanent bilateral working group to address cyber security issues. (As noted in BGN issue #3, US intelligence authorities had conversations with their Russian counterparts about cyber security as recently as April 2016.) Donald Trump clearly understood the raison d’être of such a working group and how it could serve to advance the interests of both countries in countering cyber security threats emanating from third parties whoever they may be. Such a working group would also serve in the long run as a confidence-building measure in an area where there is built-in mistrust.

Without the required background knowledge, Trump’s problem was that he could not resist presenting the mere creation of the working group as something new that could not have been done without him as well as something that would offer iron-clad protection against virtually any further hacking. Trump could get away with taking the credit of the work of others before him. Not seeing the incongruity of a deal with Russia about countering hacking when the allegations of Russian hacking of his political opponents are unlikely to be put to rest in the foreseeable future reveals a striking lack of political sensitivity. Trump did not understand the impact of his boastful and overreaching tweet. A public relations expert might have told him what not to write, if he had been willing to consult one before writing.

Trump tried to backtrack by casting doubt on the proposed arrangement with Russia. In the end, it looks as though a working group on cyber-security may be convened. Simply put, a complicated dialogue is better than no dialogue at all. The complexity of the subject matter and the fact that the dialogue involves security establishments that perceive each other as the rival if not the outright enemy mean that a lot of work is required. They also mean that, other than in some early success with low-hanging fruit, the accomplishments of any such working group will only show after months if not years.



Ⓒ Nord Stream

The revised version of the United States Congressional Bill on sanctions against North Korea, Iran and Russia will be most likely signed by president Trump. The anti-Russian part of the sanctions' package deals mostly with the energy sector and individuals related to it. Meanwhile the EU considers this step to be directed against their economies as well. The first target here would the expansion of the North Stream gas pipeline. The 1,222 km long sub-sea pipeline from the Russian port of Vyborg to Greifswald in Germany is the longest under water pipeline in the world. The proposed expansion through the construction of two additional lines (referred to as Nord Stream 2) would double the pipeline's capacity and bring it to 110 billion cubic metres (3.9 trillion cubic feet) annuallyThe completion of Nord Stream 2 would further secure cheaper and more direct delivery of Russian natural gas to Germany and other North European countries. Nord Stream, designed to bypass Ukraine and reduce dependance on Soviet-era above ground pipelines, direcly affected the economic and political advantages Ukraine was deriving from gas transit through its territory. The European Union interprets the new anti-Russian sanctions as an attempt to impose on Europe a far more expensive supply of American condensed gas instead of cheap natural gas from Russia.

According to Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, the new wave of US sanctions, will equally hurt European and Russian economies. Early reactions in Europe seem to suggest that US attempts to stop Nord Stream 2 might even make the project more popular in Europe.



Israeli PM Netanyahu, Hungarian PM Orban, Slovak PM Fico, Budapest July 19th, 2017
Facebook/Árvai Károly/

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Budapest with the leaders of Visegrad group ( also known as V4); Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Czech Republic. The four nations form a sort of conservative opposition within the European Union with more ideological attachment to the US than to Europe itself. Their meeting with Israeli PM is another expression of that trend: with Israel's closeness to the Trump administration, the V4 nations hope to get even closer to Washington.

The hot mike that Netanyahu was wearing at the supposedly closed door meeting allowed the press and the world to hear unusually harsh words and revelations. Netanyahu expressed his bewilderment at the EU's "crazy" practice of pressuring Israel into concessions vis-a vis Palestinians and tying it to their trade with Israel. Netanyahu sharply criticized Obama and praised Trump. He also openly admitted that Israel carried out "a dozen" attacks against Iranian-Hezbollah bases in Syria and Lebanon. He added that Israel hadnotified Putin on several occasions that it will not allow any Iranian presence at its borders. 

Maybe this time the hot mike was more of a message than a gaffe. 



NATO Secretary General Jens Peterson was in Kyiv on July 10th to show support for Ukraine’s NATO Membership ambitions. The discussions did result in an agreement to “begin a discussion about a membership action plan”, something positive for President Poroshenko, yet without an actual time commitment.

Kurt Volker, the newly-minted US special envoy to the Ukraine peace talks completed his first official visit to Ukraine on July 23rd.   He concluded that the conflict is a hot war not a frozen conflict, not a particularly insightful comment but one that reflects the latest more intense recent round of bombardment. He also hinted at the possibility of the US providing “defensive” weapons to Ukraine. Going public with the hint reassures Ukraine and her supporters about US intentions. It also upsets Russia, but again does not come with a time line. In any event, the US, as it does not participate directly in the main discussions (the Normandy Four) on resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine needs to stake out its position more actively.

President Poroshenko during Normandy Four Teleconference
ⓒPresident of Ukraine Websit
Meanwhile, President Trump continues to allege that Ukrainian authorities openly supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 US presidential campaign, but that this "interference"is not being suitably investigated.

The first telephone conference between leaders of the Normandy Four countries (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France) with the participation of Emmanuel Macron was held on July 24th. Macron keeps insisting on the relevance of a direct dialogue leading to concrete actions. Putin also seems personally committed to the process. Poroshenko seems more cautious, since a political solution emerging from the international discussion might prove difficult for him to sell back home. More discussions are planned at the level of foreign policy advisors in August, with a meeting of leaders themselves eventually following.

On July 3rd in an interview with wPolitice, a leading Polish right-wing publication, Polish Foreign Minister Waszczykowski stated that Ukraine could not expect to enter Europe with Bandera, referring to the current government’s glorification of Stepan Bandera, a famous Ukrainian nationalist leader during the Soviet period. The statement did not receive a lot of attention but in fact illustrates very well through a Polish-Ukrainian dispute the state of mind of the current Ukrainian leadership. To Ukrainian nationalists Bandera is a hero, an anti-Soviet freedom fighter and a martyr. To Polish nationalists he is guilty of the massacre of Polish and Jewish civilians. For Soviet propaganda, he was possibly one of the worst “enemies of the people”. The KGB saw fit to assassinate him in 1959. To some Russians today, including official Russia, he remains the embodiment of the dark side of Ukrainian nationalism.

Bandera Centenary Commemorative Stamp
To outsiders, it would seem that, in the overall scheme of things, Ukrainian officials might find it in the national interest of Ukraine to put the future of their relationship with Poland and eventually the EU above the cult of a controversial wartime figure. That does not seem to be the case. The desirability of seeking reconciliation with a European neighbour who is potentially your strongest partner does not seem to have gained any traction with the leadership in Kyiv. It almost seems as if the idea of abandoning Bandera could be seen by some as an act of treason and a concession to Russia rather than as a gesture to Poland. For the political life in today’s Ukraine, this illustrates the continuing importance of events going back more than 70 years.


Navalny Facebook Homepage


Navalny is an unofficial leader of Russian opposition to Putin in the upcoming presidential election in Russia. The opposition itself is not a united force, but as it often has been the case in Russian history, it is split between various bitterly opposed factions. Navalny describes himself as a national-democrat, emphasizing by that his desire to bring together Russian nationalists and a sizable number of urban, democratically oriented middle age professionals. Having a couple of degrees in finance and law from prestigious Russian Universities he also obtained a scholarship at Yale. Unlike other well-known figures from Russian opposition , Navalny has managed to present himself as a serious challenge to current Putin's establishment. In the 2013 Moscow municipal elections where Navalny ran against the Putin's appointee Sobyanin, he managed to secure around 27% of the votes, an unusual achievement for the opposition.

Navalny Facebook Profile Photo

Navalny's popularity spiked after he made the anti-corruption drive the main theme of his campaign. His film "He is not Dimon to you!" a hard hitting expose of corrupt practices by Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev became an instant hit at every level of Russian society. According to Stanislav Belkovsky, the leading voice of liberalism in Russian media (something akin to Thomas Friedman, famous New York Times columnist): "Putin is wary of Navalny to such a degree that he fails to mention him by name, he calls him "this gentlemen" or "this man" in order not to make Navalny even more popular".

The game that the Kremlin plays with Navalny to maintain some semblance of democracy for the West and for the local consumption consists of regular harassment, arrests, short sentences given to Navalny (15 days, 30 days, suspended sentences) bogus corruption charges, threats  and so on, but they never dare to put him away for good, counting on the certainty that Putin will still be able to overtake Navalny at the ballot box. 

Assuming that Navalny will be allowed to run (not a fact), the deck will be stacked against him from the very beginning. Putin will win in 2018, but in some years to come Russia could have another president, Alexei Navalny.



There is at least one foreign policy area where Donald Trump has taken the US where he said he would during his presidential campaign. That is the conflict in Syria. There was of course a brief period where, after the early April chemical weapons incident and the subsequent use of cruise missiles against a Syrian air base, when some policy change seemed possible. This is no longer the case. It became known in mid-July that the CIA would end its program that provided weapons and other supplies to rebels fighting the Syrian regime. This decision was immediately severely criticized by Senator John McCain who presented it as a gift to Vladimir Putin. CIA support for Syrian rebels had indeed been the subject of regular criticism on the part of Russia, for the fact that weapons intended for “moderate” rebels would end up with the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. While US sources have alluded to their own misgivings about the value of the program, it seems that the final call required a decision directly from the White House.

Whereas this does not signal the end of US presence in Syria (the support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by Kurds, is not affected), it indeed aligns the US Syria position more closely with that of Russia. From Russian statements on the matter, it is also fairly clear that putting an end to support for rebels was not the subject of any negotiation, but rather a US-driven decision. Its main implication is that the US supports those who fight ISIS, not those who fight Assad. During his presidential campaign, Trump kept insisting that the priority should be the battle against ISIS. The current policy is consistent with the campaign promise.

Source: Russian Defence Ministry

This is not to say that there will be no other disconnected statement from Trump on Syria and the Middle East in general, but it leads to a few observations:

  • With the military situation generally moving in favour of the Syrian government, with US support for rebels gone, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar being distracted by their own spat and losing interest in fomenting regime change in Syria as well as with France no longer leading the charge for Assad’s departure, Assad’s job looks more secure that of Attorney General Sessions.
  • With the US agreeing with Russia and Jordan on July 7th on the southern zone of de-escalation in Syria, despite Israeli concerns about the ensuing proximity of Hezbollah and Iranian troops to its border, the US has for a rare occasion not paid unconditional attention to Israel’s worries. It is now Russian troops that will have to serve as a buffer between Israel on one side and Hezbollah and Iran on the other.
  • With the US-Turkey relationship frayed by US support for Syrian Kurds, with Turkey on the verge of acquiring an advanced missile defence system from Russia,and with mercurial Erdogan in charge, Turkey has become even more unpredictable ally for the US.
  • With Saudi Arabia fighting a war in Yemen, openly conflicting with Qatar and facing some internal turmoil, it is less and less the tower of stability on which the US could rely.
  • More generally, in the comparison with the US, at no point has Russia held as much sway in the Middle East as it has now. There is nothing to suggest that the US could reverse the trend in the near future.


It has suddenly become clear that no one except for the US is seriously interested in taking decisive measures to stop the nuclear menace of North Korean dictator Kim Jong un. The new left-leaning president of South Korea opted to resurrect the so called "sunshine policy" in use in the 1990's, a polite term for classical appeasement. Russia, which shares a common border with North Korea, limits its participation in the resolution of the Korean crisis to empty and neutral diplomatic declarations. Japan has improved its military posture, yet mainly continues to rely on US-Japan military cooperation. The real force behind the impunity with which young Kim prolongs his ballistic rocket fireworks remains China. Despite all rumors and assumptions that Beijing practices some containment of Kim's nuclear ambitions, China is increasing its trade with North Korea and in reality remains the only protector and manipulator of the rogue state.

Most experts in the region are convinced that China could easily pressure North Korea into reforms and moderation, but chooses to use the crisis to its own advantage. China is hostile to the growing US military presence in the area and in some ways using the North Korean threat to the US as a deflection from its own far reaching ambitions in the Pacific.
This conundrum is a strong argument in favor of coalition-building for solving major international conflicts rather than the approach to deal with them unilaterally and radically. 




On July 26th, President Poroshenko decreed that Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was no longer a Ukrainian citizen. Saakashvili had become a Ukrainian citizen in May 2015 and had been immediately made governor of the Odessa region by Poroshenko himself. Speculation is rife about the possible reasons for the move against Saakahvili: a Poroshenko deal with Saakashvili's political rivals in Georgia, the revenge of Interior Minister Avakov who had a violent public altercation with him in late 2015 or Poroshenko's fear that Saakahvili might become a credible opponent at the 2019 presidential election. Saakahvili's personal flamboyant style apart, he was widely perceived as a determined anti-corruption activist. Poroshenko's gesture has already drawn criticism from some of his political allies. Some have already observed that it is a sign of weakness on his part. 


The European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg ruled against Azerbaijan's government practice of cracking down against non-official opposition and the press, specifically the government's use of lengthy pre-trial detention of several journalists, bloggers and activists. Surprisingly enough the administration of President Aliev did not appeal the verdict and promised a speedy reform of its judicial system. Azerbaijan needs to keep good relations not only with Moscow, its major trade partner and political ally, but also with the West particularly at the time of the prolonged conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. President Aliev put forward an ambitious national goal of transforming energy-rich Azerbaijan into something along the lines of Kuwait or the UAE. At a time of low oil and gas revenues the technological modernization of Baku relies predominantly on Western investments and know-how.


The Government of Moldova banned Russian military and cargo planes from using its air space on the way to Prednestrovie - the Russian speaking enclave which de-facto separated from Moldova in 1991. This decision prevents Russian military from rotating its personal and supplying local pro-Russian militias with arms and materials. This step by Chisinau (capital of Moldova) could have far reaching consequences. Considering that this move will not make Russia forsake its interests in the area, the conflict could escalate further particularly in light of a similar decision already taken by Ukraine. It has to be noted that Moldova and Ukraine are the only two countries that border the enclave. According to statements made recently in Kyiv, Ukraine decided to assist Moldova in returning Prednestrovie under its sovereignty. This move in fact will surely open another front in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.


Uzbekistan and the EU held high-level political and economic talks. For the first time since the death of Islam Karimov, the long-term autocratic leader of Uzbekistan, the new leadership allowed itself to look at cooperation with the West as a promising path. Shavkat Mirziyaev, the new president of the largest Central Asian country began implementing policy of open doors. Uzbekistan, rich in gold, energy and cotton among other things is in desperate need of investments. Moscow which finds itself in a difficult economic situation is not able to dominate Uzbekistan's investment field as before. Tashkent's new administration now looks at EU, Canada and the US as its potential economic partners and investors. That is why the new Uzbek government made some initial steps to liberalize the political climate in the country.


Almazbek Atabayev, president of that Central Asian country expressed his increasing concern about Taliban activities in the neighboring Afghanistan. He asked Putin during his recent visit to Moscow to open second Russian military base in his country. According to Atabayev increased border infiltration by Jihadists threaten his country's stability and can lead to wider insurrection. Kyrgyzstan initiated various internal steps to curb the growth of radical Islam and introduced other mechanisms to limit religious influence and extremism.  



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.