Monday, October 30, 2017

Issue 12



In less than a year Donald Trump has managed to damage US relations with allies and partners on the international scene: Mexico and Canada have been forced to demonstrate incredible fits of political creativity just to keep NAFTA afloat, the EU is strongly opposing the White House attempts to undermine the delicate deal 6 countries and the EU signed with Iran under President Obama and the continuing deterioration of relations with Russia practically resurrected the Cold War between Washington and Moscow.

In many ways this conflict-ridden approach extends inward, into the heart of American political life. There are strong indications that State Secretary Rex Tillerson is about to resign or be fired. His recent denials only confirmed those suspicions. One of the candidates to replace him is Nikki Haley the current American Ambassador to the UN. She is not known for a nuanced approach and that may increase her chances of being picked for the job by Trump. More troubling is an assumption expressed several times already by The Washington Post and New York Times that the departure of Tillerson could be followed by resignations of other key members of Trump's cabinet like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, General Kelly and others. If that is to happen the replacements could easily bring about lesser caliber politicians without any serious influence on the President.

In such an unstable and unpredictable situation it becomes infinitely more difficult to tackle such urgent and complex matters as the Korean crisis, US-Russian discord, the Middle Eastern quagmire and delicate relations with China.



Facebook Profile
Ksenia Sobchak a well-known socialite and TV personality announced her decision to run for the presidency of Russia. It took everyone in the Russian political establishment by surprise. While the official opposition as a rule nominates old non-entities like Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party and Zhirinovsky, the leader of the so-called Liberal-Democrats, the real opposition figure was considered Alexei Navalny, a strong anti-corruption crusader and political nemesis of Vladimir Putin. Ksenia Sobchak is adored by a younger generation of Russians, as well as by the artistic and literary communities and people with more modern and pro-Western outlook. At the same time being the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, former mayor of St. Petersburg and political mentor of Putin, she enjoys personal relations with the President and his inner circle. Ksenia's candidacy gained the support of such a senior and influential political observer as Vladimir Pozner and even some representatives of the ruling elite.

Many in Russia however believe that Sobchak's wild card entry had been designed to sideline the uncompromising Navalny. One thing is for sure:elections in Russia will be more entertaining than previously imagined. Also, no one on the other hand should doubt that Putin will be re-elected again.



The main event of the last few weeks is the return of Mikheil Saakashvili to Ukraine and, after his tour of major cities, the launch of a protest action in proximity to the Rada (Parliament) building in Kyiv.

Saakashvili, with two supporters, in front of his tent by the Rada building, October 29th
Facebook posting

In his bid to consolidate opposition forces, Saakashvili has gathered support from some political parties across the spectrum and from some local leaders. His speeches and protest actions are well-attended, but it would be exaggerated to refer to massive support in the population. Saakashvili initially focussed his demands on three elements: the establishment of anti-corruption courts, canceling parliamentarians’ immunity from prosecution and adopting a new electoral law that would decrease the influence of oligarchs on elections. He now tends to insist more broadly on a post President Poroshenko, post-oligarchic Ukraine. He is in regular conflict with the Prosecutor General, but there is no sign that the authorities would go as far to deport him, as they have done with some of his Georgian associates.

According to one of the latest public opinion polls, Saakashvili’s personal rating in Ukraine is below 2%. The revocation of his Ukrainian citizenship by President Poroshenko has re-energized him and brought him back into the limelight, but has not made him a unifying widely popular figure. In the midst of this Saakashvili diversion, Ukrainians are left to look elsewhere for new, more credible political leadership. At present, there is, however, no strong home-grown political leader in sight. Former Prime Minister Tymoshenko, the main opponent and first declared presidential candidate for 2018, seems stuck at around 8%. Poroshenko may have moved above the 10% rating, but seems unlikely to move up any further.

In a context where national political figures are not in a position to lead new initiatives, the good news is that some regional governments have taken advantage of the additional budgetary resources made available to them through the recent decentralization process. This has resulted, in some instances, in more effective local governance and more significant investments in local infrastructure projects. These are positive developments that could have a beneficial long-term effect. In the meantime, they could, however, diminish the interest in the search for a renewed national leadership and channel political activism to the regional level. Irredentism exists in some regions other than the Donbass, but is not yet a major issue. This is not a Catalonia-like situation.

At this stage, it is unclear what will be the outcome of Saakashvili’s political efforts and, with less than a year before the next presidential election, what President Poroshenko can reasonably expect to do other than to complete his mandate and perhaps make it to the second round of the presidential ballot in a crowded field of weak candidates. In the current context, one could see the next President of Ukraine elected “by default”, in the absence of a strong popular contender. Oligarchs who traditionally have heavily influenced national politics may not necessarily have a problem with a president with a weak popular mandate and without strong parliamentary support.



President Putin in Sochi, October 19th
President of Russia Website
In the speech he delivered in Sochi on October 19th,.Vladimir Putin describes the past 25 years this way: “Two and a half decades gone to waste, a lot of missed opportunities, and a heavy burden of mutual distrust.”  As could be expected, the speech received mixed reviews, with some commentators even choosing to focus on a sidebar, one of Putin’s answers in which he remarked on the need to “show respect for the legally-elected US President, even if you disagree with him”. 

As part of its negative take, the speech contains many recriminations against the US and, as such, may turn off Western audiences. Beyond the recriminations, the speech contains a few interesting observations that are useful in understanding why we are now back in a cold war situation. Some observations also need the occasional additional explanation.

One could simply say that we have a new Cold War because there are now fundamental disagreements between Washington and Moscow. Disagreements are unavoidable. The deterioration of relations we now observe might have been avoided.

In one of his answers Putin said: “Our most serious mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much. And your mistake is that you took that trust as weakness and abused it.” The first part of the quote about “too much trust” essentially refers to the decade from the end of the Soviet Union to the bombing of Belgrade by NATO in 1999. The negative perception of that period was re-emphasised by Putin’s sharp criticism of then Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev whom he described as “having a cranium, but no head”.

Putin mentions specifically the bombing of Belgrade. What is not explained is the extent to which that bombing was a turning point in the minds of the Russian leaders. The justification for the action is not the issue. This is when Russians realized for the first time that they trusted the West too much. Even independent-minded Solzhenitsyn observed on this later on. The change in the Russian mindset has not been reversed.

Putin also makes a reference to NATO: “We were confronted with the redistribution of spheres of influence and NATO expansion. Overconfidence invariably leads to mistakes. The outcome was unfortunate. ”

In 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attack, the atmosphere was conducive to the creation of the NATO-Russia Council. There was great hope that this would be game changer: cooperation would eventually replace confrontation. In fact, it has changed virtually nothing. The tipping point that would have permanently altered the NATO-Russia relationship was never reached. Inertia, the weight of NATO as an institution and the perception of Russia as the enemy were simply too great. Besides, for former Soviet Bloc countries, for which NATO accession had been an existential matter, partnering with Russia seemed like giving up what you just gained. Here also, in NATO circles, the mindset is still the same.

Putin also mentions the invasion of Iraq, that happened without UN Security Council approval as an occurrence of a split between East and West. He, however, does not mention the Yukos, affair. It is not the jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovski that matters so much here. The Yukos affair marks the failed attempt by  Exxon to acquire a controlling interest in a major Russian oil company, that was considered as one of the “jewels of the Crown”. Russia did not agree with the invasion of Iraq and encountered some economic losses as a result of the collapse of the Saddam regime. What matters more that with the arrival of Putin in 2000 Russia began to take a more nationalistic and statist economic policy and to defend its national interests more aggressively. Putin’s Russia would not let the US take over what it considered a strategic asset. The decision reportedly greatly upset the then Republican leaders, Vice-President Cheney and former Senator Robert Dole. The disappointment over not finding a compliant partner was going to reverse whatever positive trend may have existed and affect durably the Washington outlook for years.

Georgia and Ukraine were going to be difficult when a new generation of leadership would take over and wish to address the future of the countries and their place in the world. The context of competition rather than partnership having been re-established, it would have taken miracles of preventive diplomacy for the situation in Georgia (in 2008) and Ukraine (more visibly from 2014) not to have led to a heightening of tension between the US and Russia.

Yet, it would take a forthcoming Russian victory in the context of its military involvement in Syria along with the allegation of meddling in US elections to take us fully into the new Cold War.

There is enough blame to distribute to everyone involved. The diagnosis in Putin’s speech is unfortunately right, we have to contend with a heavy burden of mutual distrust. Dialogue might be one way to alleviate the distrust. The problem is compounded by the fact that the US president is not in position to engage credibly in such a dialogue. European leaders have to take up the slack. As for Canadian leadership, whereas it is right to focus on support for Ukraine, it has not found it possible to engage in a meaningful dialogue.



President Steinmeier addressing the congregation
St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, Moscow, October 25th
Facebook posting

The German President, though the most senior representative of the German State, is at times perceived an an honourary figure for his “above politics” ceremonial functions. Former Foreign Minister Steinmeier is, however, not just any President. As a political ally of Chancellor Merkel, his October 25th first visit to Moscow as President brings an additional dimension to the political dialogue between Germany and Russia. It also serves to underline the highly symbolic gesture of returning to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia the full ownership of the St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral. The symbolism is enhanced by the coincidence with Reformation’s 500th anniversary. Less symbolic, but no less important, is the fact that Germany-Russia bilateral trade, after declining by 11 percent in 2016, is up by 25 percent in January-July 2017. The inflow of direct investments from Germany has also increased: for the first quarter of 2017 alone they reached $312 million, by comparison to $225 million for the same period in 2016. So much for “tougher” sanctions.

President Steinmeier remarks at the press conference after his meeting in the Kremlin are worth quoting: “In any case, I am convinced that we need to overcome the alienation that has set in between our countries in the past years. To do so, it is necessary to continue our dialogue. There must be long-term attempts on both sides to find solutions to overcoming crises.”



"If Kim Jong-un suddenly dies don't ask me about", Mike Pompeo, the CIA Director said recently.
While it could be interpreted as a CIA-style joke, it actually reflects two radically opposing views on how to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat. President Trump and some of his ardent supporters in the intelligence community, not the military, believe that a massive attack on governmental, industrial and military targets together with decapitating strikes against Kim and his inner circle in party and state would win the day.

People like Rex Tillerson, James Mattis are openly opting for a coordinated blockade of North Korea by US, Japan and South Korea with Russia and China abstaining from active opposition. This month's election in Japan brought Prime Minister Abe an absolute majority that will allow him to transform the self-defence force into a modern and powerful army. Japan wants to be more active in squeezing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. South Korea meanwhile still has to be convinced that its strong desire to have some sort of dialogue with the North is nothing but an illusion.

Less known is the fact that North Korea is completing its own strategic plan to survive a nuclear war. The regime announced the construction of 2,000 hermetic shelters where maybe not the whole population but the elite could survive for some time. Despite the obvious idiocy of that project it shows that Pyongyang is determined to go ahead with its nuclear program. The fate of Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi, who were forced to abandon their nuclear aspirations, has been taken seriously by the North Korean regime.

Meanwhile one can distinguish the appearance of some pro-North Korean sentiments in Russia and China. If the solution to the crisis is not be found soon, the North Korean issue will add to a long list of problems dividing East and West.

According to Washington sources former US President Jimmy Carter (age 93) is planning to visit North Korea to meet with Kim. This move offers little hope, but it is still better than Pompeo's morbid sense of humor.



King Salaman and President Putin, Moscow, October 5th
President of Russia Website

King Salman made history by becoming the first head of the House of Saud to visit Moscow. The fact of this visit can be interpreted as a political achievement of Vladimir Putin. This meeting confirmed Russia's return to the Middle East as a top political actor. The outcome of the Syrian crisis proved to the Arab world that they cannot be reliant solely on the United States. Considering that Riyadh sees Iran as the existential threat, the Kingdom wants to weaken the alliance between Russia and Iran. That is why King Salman agreed to rapidly increase Saudi investments in the Russian infrastructure while inviting Moscow to participate in several ambitious projects. Saudis also purchased the state of the art Russia's air defense systems (S-400). From the Russian point of view the historic visit by the King is another demonstration that Russia is not limiting itself to a relative closeness with Iran and is ready to do business with many regional powers. The Government-controlled Iranian press had an overall negative take on the visit.



The Congress of the Chinese Communist party has just concluded in Beijing. The Congress re-elected Xi Jinping as the Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, that automatically makes him President of People's Republic of China. This Congress could be considered a historic one as it places Xi into a very exclusive pantheon of core leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Like for them, Xi's ideas have been enshrined in the Party Constitution. To consolidate his power Xi replaced 5 of 7 members of the Politburo, the Party's ruling areopagus. In addition he conducted an unprecedented purge of the military command and regional party elite, using the pretext of old age or corruption.

The platform presented by Xi to the party Congress combined realism and ambition. Xi's vision of the future of China incorporates two objectives: to make China wealthy and an influential global power, as well as to carry on its own development project that does not imitate Western models.

Xi enthusiastically promotes Chinese experience and achievements in the developing world. China has now become a leader of international investments: it carries out various economic and infrastructural projects in over 90 countries (for comparison US does it in 57).

It is more likely than not that Xi Jinping will break with ongoing tradition limiting leaders to only two terms in power. Also one could envision that under President Xi China will eventually restore the global structure of a bipolar world by becoming the second superpower.




Sergei Shoigu, Russia's Defense Minister announced the end of military operation in Syria. Though it is not the first time similar announcements have been made by Moscow, this time around it looks more plausible. President Assad, with the help of Russian military (Air Force, Special Forces and advisers) restored control of almost 70% of Syria while American-led coalition crushed IS in Raqqa and the North East.

Unfortunately this is not the end of the Syrian conflict. The country is being split into at least two parts. One with the government in Damascus and another one in Raqqa where the democratic opposition will attempt to form a new administration. 

Both sides will try to negotiate in the framework of Geneva and Astana formats.

Large-scale military action by all sides in Syria had subsided drastically since the recent downfall of ISIS. New hostilities are highly probable between newly formed players. The presence and cooperation between such powerful military entities like the US, Russia, Turkey and Israel may, however, lead the participants towards a more peaceful resolution of this complex and violent conflict.


This important Central Asian country started a period of financial, economic and political liberalization. For the first time since Uzbekistan became an independent state (in 1991) government allowed free currency exchange, initiated broad programs of privatization and endorsed large-scale foreign investments. One of Uzbekistan's main industries is cotton. The country is on the path of massive mechanization and upgrading process in this area. The government is looking for high-tech solutions and serious investments into this industry. 

Rustam Halilov, financial analyst in Tashkent explains: "When Uzbekistan was part of the USSR we manufactured Tupolev passenger jets now we want to re-start this aviation-building industry. We need cooperation with Western companies and investments. We also have more developed industries such as gold mining and gas exploration that nevertheless need upgrading and infusion of high-tech innovations that requires serious investments."

New President Shavkat Mirziayev announced that 2018 will be officially declared 'Year of Investments" and that Uzbekistan will open its doors for international business on an unprecedented scale.


Armenia's president Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev met recently in Geneva in an attempt to restore regularity of contacts aimed at containing potentially explosive conflict between the two nations over the Nagorno-Karabakh. This area, populated by ethnic Armenians, was part of the Azerbaijan republic during the decades of Soviet rule. In 1991, as the USSR collapsed, and as the result of armed conflict between already sovereign Azerbaijan and Armenia, the area of Nagorno-Karabakh, together with other territories, was captured by Armenia. Throughout the years there were dozens of armed clashed between two sides with hundreds of casualties. Every clash has a real possibility of turning to a full scale war between two well-armed adversaries. The meeting in Geneva is an attempt to de-escalate the conflict to a manageable level.


All forms of automobile traffic (commercial and not) has been frozen on both sides of the border between the two neighboring countries. The reason for the gridlock is political and personal. Newly elected Kyrgyzstan president Sooronbay Zhenbekov had accused Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader of neighboring Kazakhstan of meddling in his country's electoral process by openly supporting one of his opponents. Astana rejected the accusations and ordered the border closed as an act of retaliation. The relations between the two former Soviet republics was strained for a long time and this incident only made things worse.


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.