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|
“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.
THE ASTRONAUT, BETTER THAN THE STAR
|Foreign Ministers Garneau and Lavrov, Reykjavik, May 2021|
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.
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.
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.