Monday, May 31, 2021

Issue 53

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER


PROFESSIONALS AT WORK


On the margins of the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Reykjavik on May 19th, almost 35 years after Reagan and Gorbachev held their famous summit in the Icelandic capital in October 1986.


Reagan and Gorbachev, Reykjavik, October 1986
White House photos




The talks which mark the highest-level public meeting between US and Russian officials since President Biden took office in January, were held on the heels of earlier reports that the Biden administration will waive US sanctions on the German companies overseeing construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The gesture is aimed at Germany more than Russia, but still matters. The Biden administration has likewise pursued a measured response to the recent Colonial Pipeline hack, noting that it came from a criminal group within Russia but stopping short of calling it a Kremlin-sponsored cyberattack. There are even discrete suggestions that the US may be willing to engage in some form of dialogue over global cyber-security issues.


Blinken and Lavrov, Reykjavik, May 2021
©MFA Russia



“We seriously diverge in our assessment of the international situation and our approaches towards how we should resolve it,” Lavrov said. The meeting was conducted through the interpreters except for one instance when to press his point Lavrov said in English - “Not exactly similar views but similar goals".


Blinken's tone was anything but confrontational. Instead, it was diplomatic, professional and measured. “There are many areas where our interests intersect and overlap, and we believe that we can work together and indeed build on those interests,” said Blinken. “It is our view that, if the leaders of Russia and the United States can work together cooperatively, our people, the world can be a safer and more secure place".


This meeting was an important preamble to a Putin-Biden summit which will take place on June 16th in Geneva. 


The first item the two sides will want to discuss is strategic stability, all the issues related to international security and disarmament. The list of other issues where two countries can discuss and possibly cooperate is long: Afghanistan, Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, Middle East to name a few. China and its growing presence in the world may not be on the agenda as such but will be in both leaders’ minds as well, even with the US and Russia harbouring no expectation from one another in this connection. 


Obviously moving along this full agenda will take years. On some issues like the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the jailing of political opponents in Russia the best that can be expected is for the leaders to agree to disagree. The thawing of relations between Washington and Moscow may nevertheless begin with some symbolic gestures such as returning diplomatic and consular establishments to their level of a few years ago.


The road to better relations is long and will most likely consume the rest of Biden's first term but the first step was taken in Reykjavik.


--o--


THE ASTRONAUT, BETTER THAN THE STAR


Foreign Ministers Garneau and Lavrov, Reykjavik, May 2021
©MFA Russia


Foreign Minister Marc Garneau also had his bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Reykjavik. Lavrov pointedly remarked that his last meeting of significance with a Canadian Foreign Minister was with Stéphane Dion in 2016 and alluded to occasional encounters since then with Foreign Minister Christya Freeland. The readout from Global Affairs Canada would suggest that, as expected, Garneau was forceful in advancing strong Canadian views on Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, but also mentions the discussion covering Canadian views in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an issue of significant importance on the Canadian foreign policy agenda. The accomplishment may not be major, but career astronaut Garneau seems to have outperformed his predecessor in terms of diplomatic dialogue.


--o--


UKRAINE-RUSSIA: FROZEN CONFLICT?

Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to Ukraine was widely described as a gesture of support from the US for Ukraine against Russia. Blinken’s presence was of course appreciated by Ukrainian authorities, but there was some evident disappointment at the lack of an unambiguous US support for Ukraine’s accession to NATO and over the guarded commitment to defend Ukraine against possible direct Russian military actions. The frustration would have been compounded later on by the above-mentioned relatively

businesslike meeting between Blinken and Lavrov. The disappointment was confirmed even more clearly by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba’s complaint at Ukraine not being invited to the upcoming NATO Summit in June.




President Zelenskyy, Secretary of State Blinken, Kyiv, May 2021
© President of Ukraine Website



The restoration of a form of normal dialogue between the US and Russia tends to revive the longstanding fear in Ukraine that a solution to the Ukraine-Russia conflict might be devised without Ukraine. It also raises the more fundamental question about what the US interests are in connection with Ukraine. If, as many would argue, Ukraine matters to the US for the problem it creates for Russia, it is tempting to think that there is little incentive for the US to resolve the conflict. A status quo that keeps Russia under Western sanctions is not such a bad thing after all. Besides, while a solution could be found to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine through some creative interpretation of the Minsk Accords, a solution to the issue of Crimea is far more elusive. It is clear Russia will not give Crimea to Ukraine a second time, no matter who is in charge in Russia. It is also clear that Ukraine is in no position to abandon its rights on Crimea.


US insistence on Ukraine pursuing its fight against corruption and in favour of rule of law seems to have been a key issue in Secretary Blinken’s discussions in Kyiv. Lack of progress was even invoked by a State Department spokesperson to explain the door to NATO not being completely opened: “Ukraine still must "implement the reforms necessary to build a more stable, democratic, prosperous and free country.” There was also some unpleasantness when the US recently remonstrated about the unorthodox replacement of the head of Naftogaz the national natural gas company. Beyond the unanimous support for the fight against corruption, differences of opinion remain between the US and Ukraine on economic management and reform. This does not affect the US political commitment to Ukraine but complicates economic cooperation discussions.


As for Russia’s interests, a hard look at the conflict with Ukraine also suggests that the status quo is not a bad option. In principle, a country that is not in full control of its territory cannot enter the NATO defensive alliance. The Ukraine-related sanction régime has become a new normal. Provided the level of armed conflict is kept under control and there is relative quiet in the rebel regions of Eastern Ukraine, there is no rush to find a solution. Besides, trade between Russia and Ukraine has decreased but it is still very substantial, a rather striking paradox for countries at war.


--o--


OUT WITH THE OLIGARCHS

The recent move by President Zelenskyy to “de-oligarchise” Ukraine has been welcomed at home and abroad. Oligarchic rule in Ukraine is a serious issue. It is widely resented. Going after the oligarchs is a popular move. Zelenskyy’s intention is to propose legislation that would curtail the political influence of oligarchs and eventually target their economic assets if they do not desist. Comparisons have been made with Vladimir Putin’s handling of oligarchs during his first presidential mandate in the early 2000s. The proposed Ukrainian legislation that would first tag oligarchs before going for their assets may be more consistent with the rule of law but would be subject to endless legal challenges. To deprive Ukrainian oligarchs of the fundamental right to be politically active is likely to be electorally rewarding but far more complicated than Zelenskyy would hope.


Even before the proposed legislation on oligarchs is tabled, Zelenskky is taking action against Viktor Medvedchuk the pro-Russia oligarch and personal friend of Vladimir Putin. In February, Zelenskyy closed three television stations believed to be owned by Medvedchuk. The latter has now been accused of treason over business deals in Crimea and is under house arrest. By applying a war-time logic to the treatment of Medvedchuk, Zelenskyy may be getting rid of some unwanted media coverage, earning some points with more nationalist elements as well as positioning himself as a tough guy in his discussions with Russia.



Oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk

--o--


TUNNEL VISION AND EMPTY SKY OVER BELARUS

During Soviet times and before politically correct discourse, it was common to refer to less urbane political leaders as cunning peasants. Alexander Lukashenko, the erstwhile President of Belarus, might pretend to the title were it not for the fact that from the early days of his presidency he was described as “your uncle who could not even run his collective farm”. Yet calling him names does not really explain what we perceive as the insanity of hijacking a foreign civilian aircraft under false pretext in order to arrest an opposition journalist. Lukashenko is not unintelligent but,as Artem Shreibman of the Moscow Carnegie Center observed, the events of recent months have increased the Belarus leadership’s tunnel vision: what matters is to

deal with political enemies such as Roman Protasevich.


It has also been observed that similar or quasi-similar actions have been taken by other state players in the past. Would our collective outrage be selective? Maybe. Yet, hijacking the aircraft of a friendly country to kidnap an individual and blatantly lying about it is pushing the audacity to a point seldom reached in recent history. Besides, there is nothing left in doubt about either the intentions or the facts themselves. There is an “in your face” element here that elicits a strong reaction.The May 23rd forced landing of the passenger plane carrying Protasevich from Greece to Lithuania in Minsk airport was interpreted by the European community as the final fiasco of the Lukashenko regime.


The Belarus leader’s not so credible justifications were, in general supported by Russia, China and some other countries in the Commonwealth of the Independent States and even Turkey. At his subsequent meeting in Sochi with Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko heartily agreed with Putin’s remarks at the lack of outrage over the April 2015 incident during which the presidential airplane carrying back home Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, was forced to land in Vienna on American request. Americans suspected that Edward Snowdon could have been on board the aircraft. He was not.


President Lukashenko, Nikolai Lukashenko, President Putin
Sochi, May 2021 



Putin supported his Belarus colleague and requested a full international investigation of the latest incident that culminated in the arrest of Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Meanwhile most Western airlines are circumventing Belarus airspace after the incident. Protasevich is the leading Belarus opposition activist and a journalist. According to an official Belarus newspaper "Belarus Today" Protasevich served with the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian battalion Azov in the war against separatists in Donbass. That was not confirmed, but there is now in Ukraine a growing sense of unease over the future of relations with Belarus.


In general Lukashenko is about to lose the last remnants of his independence and any room for maneuver. Only recently he could play several rather primitive games between Russia and the West in an attempt to squeeze assistance from both sides. Although Lukashenko always prides himself on his independence, his call on Vladimir Putin looked like the rambunctious student coming to meet the teacher. From now on Lukashenko belongs to his true masters in the Kremlin and closer

association between Belarus and Russia is imminent. Lukashenko’s son is a student in Moscow. That, of course, would unavoidably feed rumours of Lukashenko himself eventually moving to Russia.


The Belarus aircraft hijacking incident revealed a practice that was widely suspected, gave rise to some mild Russian displeasure and was concomitant with a decision that surprised Canadians working with Belarus.

.

It was noted that they may have been up to four Belarus KGB agents in the aircraft with Protasevich on board. They would have been tailing him in Greece and the rest of Europe. This would confirm that the Belarus leader will not spare any expense to keep tabs on his enemies living abroad and will not be constrained by legal limits to the conduct of police agents on foreign soil.


The widespread official Russian media coverage initially spent a lot of time on the fate of Protasevich’s girlfriend, a Russian citizen. Russian media tends to obsess with the possible involvement of Russian nationals in any international incident or disaster. The heavy coverage in this case and the focus on the Russian national were a subtle way of expressing irritation while avoiding condemnation. Putin raised the Sapega case with Lukashenko who had to endeavour to look more closely into the matter.


Three days after the hijacking incident the Belarus Foreign Ministry closing announced the closing of the Belarus Embassy in Canada, leaving many puzzled about the meaning of the decision that was purported to have been made the day before the hijacking incident. In the last few years the Embassy had been very active and effective in promoting political dialogue and trade relations with Canada, things that support the opening of Belarus to the rest of the world. In the more distant past it was also keeping tabs on Belarus émigrés in Canada. There would not seem to be obvious financial reasons for the closing, fueling even more speculation.


--o--


US/GERMANY


The US formally blacklisted more than a dozen Russian ships involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, days after exempting the pipeline's Russian operator and CEO.


The widely expected move, announced late on May 21 by the U.S. Treasury Department, came under harsh criticism from congressional Republicans about the White House's earlier announcement that it would not include the pipeline's Russian-owned operator in the new sanctions. Nearly complete, the Baltic Sea pipeline will bring Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing land routes through Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries.


It is not the illogical idea that gas going to Germany through Ukraine rather than the Baltic Sea does not create German dependence on Russian energy supplies that carried the day. It would seem that Secretary of State Blinken’s view that, in dealing with Russia, it is more important to avoid continuing confrontation with a close ally as Germany, spying notwithstanding, than to pretend supporting other allies.


--o--



EUROPEAN UNION/CHINA


The European Parliament has voted to stop a massive investment deal with China, a move following tit-for-tat sanctions and a prolonged dispute over Beijing's treatment of its Uyghur and Muslim population in Xinjiang Province.


In order for the investment deal to come into effect, it must be ratified by the European Parliament. But under a resolution passed on May 20th, European lawmakers have demanded that "China lift the sanctions before parliament can deal with the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI)."


The motion to freeze the deal was overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 599-30, with 58 abstentions. Some legislators signaled that they won't support the agreement even if China lifts its sanctions, which were imposed in March against five members of the European Parliament and various institutions.


The vote is a blow to hope that the European Union-China deal,

championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and hammered out through seven years of negotiations, could be ratified in the coming months. Instead, the outcome is another sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and China.


--o--



US/ISRAEL: EXIT NETANYAHU

Recent events in Israel led to street protests in London, New-York and Montreal, among others. Some of them were filled with strong anti-Israel and anti-semitic overtones. Despite all of this there was a clear and unmistakable official support for Israeli actions from various European countries and most importantly the US.


As the ceasefire was in effect Joe Biden said the following: "My party still supports Israel. Let's get something straight: until the region says unequivocally they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace". He added his support for a two-state solution but the message was clear.


The US also blocked three different UN Security Council statements calling for an immediate halt to the fighting without mentioning Hamas or the rockets from Gaza.


From Netanyahu's Facebook Page



The recent confrontation between the Gaza-based Palestinians and Israel confirmed to many in Israel and elsewhere the Netanyahu view that Hamas is an Iran-supported terrorist threat against which Israel, in US words, has the right to defend itself. This, however, would not seem enough to keep Netanyahu in power any longer. He is now expected to lose his job as Prime Minister and to face prosecution on a number of charges, including fraud.


The political leaders that are expected to replace Netanyahu will not have different views on most issues, including Hamas. They, however, maybe less intransigent on Iran. They may also shun Netanyahu’s power-clinging messianistic tendencies.The first advantage though is that they will not have to carry the heritage of Netanyahu’s close friendship with Donald Trump and of his overly frequent contacts with Vladimir Putin in their

conversations with the Biden administration. The latter would welcome the changes and seems to have given it its blessing.


Antony Blinken and Yair Lapid, May 26th
From Yair Lapid's Facebook Page







PERSON OF THE MONTH: ANGELA MERKEL




German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have been our person of the month before, but her departure in a few months offers the opportunity to observe that she could also be regarded as person of the decade. Born in East Germany, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, she is a true scientist, but even more important and unusual for a politician, an individual with a critical mind and one who has no qualms about going against prevailing views. She has been effective at dealing equally with strong men such as Putin and fools such as Trump. Putin would seem to have kept great respect for Merkel as an engaged interlocutor and one with a good understanding of post-communist societies. Trump was known to despise her as a woman who was far more knowledgeable than him and who could

stand up to him, including on issues such as Nord Stream 2.


She will be remembered for opening Germany to refugees in a manner that

was not necessarily popular.


In the context of more recent events, she may also be remembered as the head of state who expressed doubts about the idea of lifting patents on COVID vaccines. As a scientist, she would have understood the complexity of the process and the risks associated with changing the rules of the game. As a manager, she would have seen that the availability of the vaccine in developing countries was a matter of cost and manufacturing capacity, with intellectual property issues only one part of the equation. As a politician, she would also surmised that making Western vaccines less expensive was a way of curtailing the much cheaper Russian vaccines eventually produced under licence in India, South Korea and Serbia.


Recent revelations that the US may have used Denmark connections to

spy on Merkel are not the first time such allegations are made. Beyond breaking the rules of “not spying on friends” the incident would confirm that the US acknowledged she was her own person and they could not control her.


--o--


BRIEFLY NOTED


ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN

Russia came out with a proposal to set up a joint commission to demarcate the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, amid renewed Yerevan-Baku tensions over the past week over an alleged Azerbaijani military incursion.


Armenia has accused Azerbaijani troops of crossing several kilometers into its Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces and trying to stake a claim to territory.


Azerbaijan insists that its troops did not cross into Armenia and simply took

up positions on the Azerbaijani side of the frontier that were not accessible in winter months.


The border dispute emerged months after the two South Caucasus neighbors ended a six-week war over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.


The conflict, which claimed some 6,000 lives, ended in November with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire that saw Armenia ceding swaths of territory that ethnic Armenians had controlled for decades.


The announcement came during Lavrov's visit to Tajikistan on May 19th. Russian Foreign Minister said Moscow had proposed setting up a joint Armenian-Azerbaijani border commission, with Russia possibly participating as a "consultant" or "mediator."


The announcement came during Lavrov's visit to Tajikistan on May 19th.

Russian Foreign Minister said Moscow had proposed setting up a joint Armenian-Azerbaijani border commission, with Russia possibly participating as a "consultant" or "mediator."



LATVIA

Latvia has recognized the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide, drawing an angry response from Turkey. The Baltic nation’s parliament passed a resolution on May 6 condemning and recognizing the tragedy with 58 of 100 lawmakers voting for the measure.


The Turkish Foreign Ministry slammed the decision as a "null and void attempt to rewrite history for political motives."


National governments and parliaments in some 30 countries have formally recognized the Armenian Genocide.


KAZAKHSTAN


Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has signed into law a long-debated and sensitive bill that bans selling and leasing agricultural land to foreigners in the oil-rich Central Asian state.


According to the law, foreigners, stateless individuals, foreign companies, Kazakh companies with foreign ownership, international organizations, and scientific groups that have the involvement of foreign countries cannot own or lease agricultural land in Kazakhstan.


The bill was proposed by Toqaev in February as a five-year moratorium on

selling and leasing Kazakh agricultural land to foreigners introduced in 2016 amid mass protests was expected to expire later in summer.


The moratorium was announced after thousands demonstrated in unprecedented rallies across the tightly controlled country, protesting the government's plan to attract foreign investment into the agriculture sector by opening up the market.



UKRAINE

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called Moscow’s recent move to distribute Russian passports to residents in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, jointly known as Donbas, "a big problem" and the first step toward the annexation of the area.


Speaking at a wide ranging press conference on May 20th to mark his second year in office, Zelenskiy said resolving the ongoing conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces in the Donbas, the "de-occupation" of Russia-annexed Crimea, and the continuation of the fight against oligarchs remain his priorities.


According to the official TASS news agency, more than 527,000 Russian passports have been distributed in the Donbas since April 2019.



BELARUS

A Belarusian political activist who was sentenced in January to five years in prison for participating in anti-government protests has reportedly died.The precise circumstances of Vitold Ashurak’s death were not immediately clear. The news website Onliner and other media said he suffered a heart attack in a prison facility in eastern Belarus.


Ashurak, 50, was a member of the Belarusian Popular Front opposition

party and a coordinator of the For Freedom movement.


At a closed-door trial in January, a court found him guilty of gross violations of public order and violence against police. Exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya condemned prison authorities for allowing Ashurak’s death.


Tsikhanouskaya has called for new elections, something Lukashenka has refused to agree to. The European Union and the United States have sanctioned Lukashenka and dozens of officials and businessmen with asset freezes and visa bans. In response to Ashurak's death, European Union spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc demands the immediate release of all political prisoners.



RUSSIA


Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that Moscow would "knock

the teeth out" of any country that tried to take pieces of his country's vast territory.


Putin made the remarks on May 20th during a televised virtual meeting of the National Security Council, saying that foreign efforts to contain Russia date back centuries.


"Everyone wants to bite us somewhere or to bite off something from us. But they -- those who are going to do it -- should know that we will knock their teeth out so that they cannot bite," the Russian leader said. "This is quite obvious, and the key to this is the development of our armed forces.”


Putin also said that Western sanctions against Russia are continuing a longtime historic trend of containing a powerful rival and alleged that some critics of Moscow whom he didn't name have argued that it's unfair for Russia to keep its vast natural riches all to itself.


"Even after we lost one-third of our potential" when former Soviet republics became independent after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, "Russia is still too big for some," Putin said during the meeting.



IRAN

Iran has been using Bitcoin mining to evade crippling U.S. sanctions on its economy, according to a new study. Blockchain analytics firm Elliptic estimates that around 5% percent of global Bitcoin mining takes place in Iran, allowing the country to earn hundreds of millions of dollars in cryptocurrencies that can be used to purchase imports and bypass sanctions.


U.S. sanctions have severely affected Iran’s banking sector and prevented the country from exporting oil, which accounts for 70 percent of the country's revenues.


Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are created through a process known as

mining where powerful computers compete to solve complex mathematical formulas or puzzles. The process requires huge amounts of electricity. Iran’s crypto mining industry has grown in recent years, with the government providing the industry with cheap electricity and demanding that it sells mined bitcoins to the central bank.This also attracted Chinese investors.


--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, has 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, April 30, 2021

Issue 52

THE BRETON/GEROL NEWSLETTER


RUSSIA AND THE EURO-ATLANTIC POWERS: CAN IT GET WORSE?

Russia’s relations with the West, particularly with the United States plummeted to new lows in 2021. This level of mutual misunderstanding was not seen even during the original Cold War. After years of deteriorating relations, sanctions, tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions, and an escalating rhetoric many in Russia are asking if some form of direct conversation may create even more tensions and conflict.

Events have cascaded over the past month. Russia’s treatment of imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny, who has been sent to a prison hospital amid reports of failing health, underlines the sharp differences of perception between Russia and the West over human rights matters. The Russian military buildup near Ukraine has illustrated that the conflict in the Donbass region might explode at any time, possibly even dragging Russia and NATO into direct confrontation. As Russia brought 20% of its armed forces on the border with Ukraine in an unprecedented show of force by the second most powerful army in the world, it reaffirmed its support for the rebel regions and reminded Ukraine and NATO what they are up against.

©Biden/Facebook
After calling Putin "a killer", not the most diplomatic statement from the American president, Joe Biden surprised the Kremlin by proposing a “personal summit” to discuss the growing list of US-Russia disagreements. US expectations maybe limited, but that kind of meeting comes with the job. The question is whether a real dialogue can proceed despite the anti-Russia posturing by Biden himself and by the US political establishment in general.

The list of disagreements is very long. Taking into consideration the never-ending American tendency to see the world in the binary good guys vs bad guys framework, which is evident from the American approach to conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Belarus, and Russia's "under siege" mentality and its decreasing clout in the world, there is little chance for optimism.

©President of Russia Website
The day after Biden talking to Putin on the phone Washington imposed a package of tough sanctions against Russia, for its alleged SolarWinds hacking and interference in the 2020 US presidential elections, infuriating Moscow and drawing threats of retaliation. The Kremlin had previously ordered Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. to return home for intensive consultations, an almost unprecedented peacetime move. Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that John Sullivan, the US ambassador to Moscow, should likewise go back to Washington to cool down. The Ambassador left shortly after.

There is a growing realization in Moscow, and it is not easy to refute, that the growing madness of internal American politics preoccupied with identity politics is spilling out into the US foreign policy. China with its genocidal concentration camps and its open aggression against Taiwan and neighbouring countries draws by far less ire of the US administration (or legacy media) than the fate of Navalny who, though unjustly imprisoned, keeps texting from jail on a regular basis. With all Russian human rights problems, the real communist dictatorship with all real brutality and murder (on rather mass scale) is China. Ingrained perceptions, business interests and even the desire to avoid the hint of perceived racism make it more politically expedient and convenient to target Russia. 

There is a growing sense in Moscow that the downward spiral of East-West ties has reached a point of no return, and that Russia should consider abandoning hopes of reconciliation with the West and seek permanent alternatives: perhaps in an intensified compact with China, and targeted relationships with countries of Europe and other regions that are willing to do business with Moscow.

--o--

ARMENIA, THE GENOCIDE

U.S. President Joe Biden recognized the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide, following calls for the move by more than 100 US lawmakers.

The recognition, promised by Biden during the presidential campaign for the November election he won, is largely symbolic but is likely to anger Turkey and step up already high tensions between the two NATO allies. Avoiding angering Turkey was the main factor in previous US reluctance to recognize the genocide.

©Armenian Genocide Museum


Biden used the word "genocide" as part of a statement on April 24th when annual Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day commemorations are held around the world.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has condemned what he called crimes against "civilization" and demanded an apology from Turkey as Armenia, amid coronavirus restrictions, marked the 105th anniversary of the World War I-era massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

--o--

TURKEY, WHO ARE YOU?

Turkey is emerging as an important actor in world politics, exerting growing influence both in its immediate region and beyond.  Undoubtedly, the man who deserves credit for this is its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkey is a key member of NATO (on paper it has the second largest military within the alliance) and a member of several European organizations. It is growing more confident and is asserting more independent foreign policy positions. Turkey is involved in many conflicts near and far from its borders: Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, and to a lesser non-military extent with Greece and Israel. Though a member of NATO it recently purchased an advanced S-400 Mobile Missile System from Russia, which triggered ire of the US. The US threatened to withhold the sale of F-35's to Turkey. Just recently Turkey offered a compromise: not to fully activate the S-400 system. In any case, Turkey is in the news frequently as it tries to reassert itself as major regional and even a world power.

In this light it would be interesting to see to what extent Turkey will unleash its anger at Joe Biden's recognition of Armenian genocide and how it will influence US-Turkey relations. In a way it will be a test and the world will see if Turkey really has matured into a major power or it will throw the usual tantrums of an insecure state.

©Erdogan/Facebook


Some suggest Turkey is pursuing a "neo-Ottomanist" agenda. This maybe a moot point but one should remember that Turkey as a national entity is still relatively young. Without harbouring credible territorial ambitions, it may entertain the desire to have a zone of influence that extends to nearby historic Ottoman territories. It also has to contend with a large Kurdish minority that never received the nation-state it was promised after World War I. The fact that it has moved away from Kemal Ataturk's vision of strictly secular Turkey towards a more Islamic one is clear. Erdogan's Turkey supports Hamas in Gaza, has very close ties with radical Islamists in Syria and even secretly cooperates with Iranian intelligence.

At times, this competes and creates tensions with the West. However lately it has managed to upset Russia with its open support and participation (on the level of advisors and weaponry) in the Azeri war against Armenia but also sales of weapons to Ukraine. Russia and Turkey have fought many wars against each other (12 to be exact since 1568) so Russia has no illusions about Turkey's objectives in the Caucasus and Crimea. Turkey is also keenly aware of the fact that Russia is still a military heavy weight and a nuclear super-power, so it plays very safe on this front. Turkey also has significant investments in Russia as well as major trade and tourism concerns.  

Occasionally Turkey threatens to withdraw from NATO to further its regional ambitions but as it stands today it seems it has reached limits of its capabilities. The Turkish economy is in decline and the population in large cities very much like to see Erdogan go.

However, with the less assertive Europe and America which is withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan, Turkey will continue to be a local powerhouse and an irritant to both the West and Russia.

--o--

 CZECH SPY THRILLER

On October 16th, 2014, a large ammunition depot, located on private land in the middle of nowhere in the Western part of the Czech Republic was blown up. Two guards lost their lives. The initial investigation found out that the weapons stored inside the warehouse belonged to a notorious Bulgarian arms dealer nicknamed Yemelian. Several years later in the interview with a reporter from the New York Times Yemelian admitted that the weapons stored there were purchased for the Ukrainian volunteer battalions fighting pro-Russian separatists in Donbass.

The authorities in Prague had its suspicions but there was little evidence. However, it is also possible that for political reasons the revelation was delayed for a more opportune time. On April 17th of this year, however, Czech officials made a stunning allegation, drawing a direct line between the explosions and the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU, specifically a division known as Unit 29155. That Unit is widely suspected in Salisbury's poisoning of Sergei and Julia Skripal with the nerve agent called Novichok. Both survived but have not been seen since then.

Czech counterintelligence service recently established, by discovering photocopies of passports belonging to two Tajik citizens, that they had visited the arms depot shortly before it was blown up and looked exactly like the two suspects in the Skripal poisoning affair. According to the British and Czech intelligence services they belong to Unit 29155.

©RFE/RL


"There is unequivocal evidence about the involvement of officers of the Russian intelligence service GRU in the explosion of the ammunition depot,” Prime Minister Andrej Babis told an unusual night news conference on April 17th. He also said 18 Russians working at the Russian Embassy were being expelled. “The Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must react accordingly to those unprecedented revelations,” he said.

Consequently, out of 23 Russian diplomats in Prague 18 were expelled and 95 Czech employees of the Russian embassy lost their jobs. Moscow retaliated asymmetrically by expelling 20 Czech diplomats.

The story took an unusual twist when suddenly Czech president Milosh Zeman came up with a statement alluding to the fact that maybe there could be other explanations for the 7-year-old explosion. He did not elaborate further but promised that all materials of the investigation will be eventually made public.

In the circumstances, even though the Czech Republic has been severely affected by COVID-19, it has now refused to consider the application for the registration of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

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UKRAINE: SEARCHING FOR THE RIGHT SCENARIO

For many Western analysts and government officials, the recent escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia and especially the massive deployment of Russian troops all along the Ukraine-Russia border could only be explained by Russia’s desire to threaten and possible even invade Ukraine. The fact that the escalation of tension was inconsistent with both Ukrainian and Russian year-long efforts to maintain a working cease-fire along the line separating the rebel regions of Eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country was not addressed. Beyond general Russian aggressive intentions for the region, observers could offer no specific explanation for the timing and the scope of the Russian troop deployment.  The claim from some Russian quarters that the crisis was triggered by a Zelenskyy decree that makes retaking the Russian-annexed territory of Crimea official Ukrainian state policy does not stand up to close examination.

President Zelenskyy’s own professed commitment to the pursuit of a permanent cease-fire in Eastern Ukraine would make it highly unlikely for him to do anything to disrupt the current military standoff. On the other hand, as commander-in-chief, he has to direct Ukrainian Armed Forces and cannot be seen as retreating. As Dmitri Trenin from the Moscow Carnegie Centre suggested, it looks as though some time in February he authorised the re-deployment of Ukrainian troops and heavy equipment in greater proximity to the conflict zone. The lesser distance between conflicting entities was bound to create some new skirmishes even if Ukrainian troops were on order not to shoot first. It would also seem that there were some on the Ukrainian side that found inspiration in the quick victory of Azerbaijan in its recent conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. If the opposing side consisted only of local militias and Russian “irregulars”, some may have started thinking that a quick military advance might be possible. This is what Dmitry Kozak, Russian representative in the peace negotiations, referred to when he said that the Ukrainian authorities were like “children playing with matches”.

©President of Ukraine Website


The movement of Ukrainian troops would obviously have become known to Russia. The reaction could have been proportional, but it was not. Yet, as with Ukraine, the reaction was not to start shooting but to re-deploy troops. The re-deployment was massive. Its detection was un-avoidable. The point was to send a message to Ukraine and her supporters that Russia would massively intervene if the rebel regions came under attack. That was perfectly understood in Kyiv. Dmitri Trenin rightly observed the massive troop deployment was probably the best way of avoiding a real war down the road. Making clear the plausible Russian response seems to have been achieved. The Russian troops have returned to their home bases.

The disproportional Russian response carried a reputational risk by reinforcing in Western public opinion the image of Russia as a potential aggressor. There was obviously little concern among the Russian leadership about this: that battle is already lost in any event.

There may have been no military gain in this episode for President Zelenskyy’s. There was however a clear political advantage. At home, it served to buttress his nationalist credentials. On the international front, Zelenskky got all the expected reactions from Western governments in support of Ukraine thus amassing some intangible ammunition and moral support for his next encounter with President Putin some time in the next few weeks.   

Zelenskyy has also appealed to the U.S. and Europe to expedite Ukraine’s membership in NATO, which Russia has long described as a “red line” that would lead to war. Top Kremlin official Dmitry Kozak even warned that if conflict erupts, it could be “the beginning of the end of Ukrainian state.

Ultimately though, there was a lot of noise but limited new damage done. As Zelenskyy, dressed in full military gear, was seen visiting Ukrainian troops in the conflict area one could not avoid the observation that the President was reverting to his previous profession and playing a part in a scenario from which he could improve his own position.

©President of Ukraine Website


In the days following the withdrawal of Russian troops Zelenskky repeated his call or changes to the Minsk process to be made more flexible. He also added the suggestion that to achieve progress he might be useful to add powerful players such as the US, the UK and Canada. He did not explain however why Russia would ever agree to amend the Minsk process or to include the strongest supporters of Ukraine in the negotiation process other than to provide cover for himself should he wish to make any compromise.  As for Canada specifically, it is hard to see what it could contribute at this late stage other than to continue its support for the modernisation of the Ukrainian military and improve it assistance to overall reform processes.

Unlike some of his foreign supporters Zelenskky no longer simply calls for the implementation of the Minsk Accords but rather for their updating. He knows that the Accords in their current state are unacceptable to Ukrainian public opinion. He has expressed the desire to bring back the population of the rebel regions into the Ukrainian polity, but he refuses to engage directly with the representatives of these regions because they continue to be labeled as terrorists. The only way out is through a negotiation with Russia, and with Vladimir Putin. He can have his European and North American friends put all the political pressure they can on Russia, he still must come up with something that will move Putin to an acceptable compromise. At this time, it might only be possible to come up with additional arrangements that would be seen as complementing the Minsk Accords and that might firm up ceasefire arrangements as well as facilitate a progressive return to normalcy in the conflict area.

It is worth noting that Dmitri Gordon, one of the leading Ukrainian political observers has expressed strong reservations about the usefulness of a Zelenskky-Putin meeting in the current environment. For Zelenskyy, negotiating with Putin and convincing his own people would seem equally daunting challenges. He will need the help of his foreign supporters on both accounts.  

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 PERSON OF THE MONTH: JOHN KERRY

© Kerry/Facebook


Former Senator and presidential candidate John Kerry is the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. It is a position in the Executive Office of the President of the United States with authority over energy policy and climate policy. He played a key role in bringing together 40 heads of state for two days of virtual climate talks earlier this month. The summit focused on what nations need to do to curb planet-warming emissions. Kerry also called the summit a historic economic opportunity.

John Kerry was born in 1943. In 1966 graduated from Yale and joined the U.S. Army. He fought   in Vietnam between 1968 and 1969 for 4 months in total. He participated in intense combat on several occasions as a commanding officer of a river bound swift boat. He was twice wounded and earned two Purple Hearts, Bronze and Silver Stars.

Kerry’s international climate efforts have been helped by his hard-earned stature in diplomatic circles. Aside from serving as Obama’s secretary of state, he had a long career as a U.S. senator and was the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee. He is a seasoned diplomat with years of political experience rivaled only by his direct boss, President Biden. John and Joe know each other well. Both come from Obama's team and obviously he has Biden's ear but must be subtle enough not to step on current Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s toes.

Considering how popular the whole climate change issue is in the Western world, especially among people under 35, Kerry's position in the government, coupled with his experience, carries a lot of weight and he is directly in charge of a plan to tackle climate change.

When John Kerry is in Washington, he has his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House and at the State Department, his former stomping grounds, where he has a sizable staff. There is little doubt that he is advising the president on the ongoing talks with Iran since it was him who signed the deal with Iran on July 14th, 2015, the deal Donald Trump withdrew from and the deal Joe Biden is trying to resurrect.

At the end of his political career John Kerry came back in a big way. If he can do something about what many see as humanity's existential threat, history will be kind to him.

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BRIEFLY NOTED


RUSSIA 1: PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS

Some observers continue to affirm that President Putin does not care so much about the internal affairs of Russia but would have greater interest in international relations. The April 2021 Address by President Putin once again confirms that this is not entirely correct. In his latest address, Putin devotes a lot much time to internal matters than to international ones.

The address also reveals a certain frustration on the part of the President at the slow implementation of some government programs. This fuels the debate about the real extent of Putin’s power. The matter is not whether Putin is an authoritarian leader but whether any Russian president or leader can bring the large federal bureaucracy and the many regional managers into effective action. There are intrinsic limits as to what can be achieved by instructions. No matter how powerful he might be, he is clearly feeling these limits and talking about it year after year. Scholars studying Russian history may recognize a long-standing “conservative” pattern of inertia and resistance to change.


RUSSIA 2: THE RED LINES

In his address Putin cautioned other international players not to cross Russia’s red lines, or else. Neither Putin nor his Press Secretary were willing to provide specific details as to what the red lines maybe. Ukraine membership of NATO comes to mind, but was not mentioned, purposefully creating uncertainty about the exact location where the red line might pass.


RUSSIA 3: MILITARY DISCIPLINE

 A Russian military appeals court in Siberia has upheld the sentence of Private Ramil Shamsutdinov, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison in January for killing eight fellow servicemen in a rampage he says was the result of hazing he faced in the army.

The lawyers said that it was not immediately clear if there would be a further appeal by the        victims' relatives, some of whom had appealed the sentence as too lenient.

Shamsutdinov's defense team has said their client went on a shooting spree in October 2019, killing eight -- including two high-ranking officers -- in the town of Gorny in the Zabaikalye region after being tortured and beaten by other soldiers and officers during his induction into service.

In late December 2020, a jury found Shamsutdinov guilty of murder and attempted murder, but also said he deserved leniency, which according to Russian law meant his sentence should not exceed 13 years in prison. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to 24 years in January, while some of the victims' relatives sought life in prison for him.

In recent years, photos and video footage have been posted online by members of the Russian military that show the severe bullying of young recruits as they are inducted into the army.


RUSSIA 4: FREEDOM OF RELIGION

An independent bipartisan advisory body has reiterated its call for the U.S. State Department to add Russia to its register of the world's "worst violators" of religious freedom, a blacklist that already includes Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and six other countries.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), created by Congress to make recommendations about global religious freedom, proposes in its annual report released on April 21st that Russia, India, Syria, and Vietnam be put on the "countries of particular concern" list, a category reserved for those that carry out "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of religious freedoms. The blacklisting paves the way for sanctions if the countries included do not improve their records.

A total of 188 criminal cases alone were brought against the banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, while there were 477 searches of members' homes, with raids and interrogations including "instances of torture that continue to go uninvestigated and unpunished." Although Russian authorities may overextend the reach of anti-extremism and anti-terrorism laws to deal with some Muslim groups, there are also cases in predominantly Muslim areas, such as Chechnya, where regional powers enforce a stringent version of Islam.

Russia officially recognizes four traditional religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. Other than the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the groups that encounter the greatest difficulties are the evangelicals who try to engage in active missionary work. 


RUSSIA/BELARUS

In his April address, Putin also mentioned the recent alleged US-sponsored assassination attempt against President Lukashenko of Belarus. He rightly observed that the affair was barely noticed outside of Belarus and Russia. Lack of interest elsewhere might be explained by the impression that nothing of the kind could happen in a heavily policed state such as Belarus and that it was, in the words of an opposition leader, a provocation.


BELARUS

The new U.S. ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, has met with exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, just ahead of talks between authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The meeting took place on April 21st in Vilnius, the capital of neighboring Lithuania, where former presidential candidate Tsikhanouskaya moved under pressure from the Belarusian authorities shortly after Lukashenka claimed victory in a widely disputed presidential election in August 2020.

Fisher met with Tsikhanouskaya on the eve of the meeting between Putin and Lukashenko in Moscow, during which the two were expected to discuss further deepening the ties between the countries. Although for different reasons and with different objectives, Lukashenko remains under pressure from both sides, but seems intent on biding his time.

 

CANADA-TURKEY

Canada has halted some military exports to NATO ally Turkey after a probe confirmed Canadian drone technology was used by Azerbaijan in last year’s fighting with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Canada suspended military export permits to Turkey last October pending an investigation into allegations Canadian technology was misused when the Turkish military provided armed drones to support Azerbaijan.

“Following this review, which found credible evidence that Canadian technology exported to Turkey was used in Nagorno-Karabakh, today I am announcing the cancellation of permits that were suspended in the fall of 2020,” Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said in an April 12th statement. “This use was not consistent with Canadian foreign policy, nor end-use assurances given by Turkey,” he added.

 

ISRAEL

According to the Israeli army, Syria fired a missile at an Israeli Air Force jet, missed its target and landed near Dimona on April 22nd.

The Israeli interceptor failed to shoot the missile down. Syria reported that an Israeli strike near Damascus injured four soldiers in response.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the missile strike or comment from Iran. But on Saturday, Iran’s hard-line Kayhan newspaper published an opinion piece by Iranian analyst Sadollah Zarei suggesting Israel’s Dimona facility be targeted after the attack on the nuclear facility in Natanz. Zarei cited the idea of “an eye for an eye” in his remarks.

The Dimona reactor is the heart of the super secret Israeli nuclear program. According to the CIA estimate Israel possesses between 200 and 400 nuclear warheads. Israel is the only country in the world that practices "nuclear ambiguity" i.e. it neither confirms nor denies having nuclear weapons.


KYRGYZSTAN

Four patients are being treated in hospitals in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, after consuming a toxic root that had been promoted by President Sadyr Japarov as an "effective" cure to treat COVID-19.

Doctors said on April 21 that Duishon Abdyldaev, 63, was being treated for poisoning with aconite root at the National Cardiology and Therapy Center, while three other patients whose identities were not disclosed were being treated for poisoning with the highly toxic root at the toxicology department of the Bishkek Trauma and Orthopedic Center.

On April 15, Japarov said in a post on Facebook that the root had proven to be an "effective" method to treat COVID-19.

The entry contained a video showing men without protective equipment bottling a solution with extracts from the aconite root, warning that drinking the solution while it is cold might result in death.

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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, has 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.