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The answer to Syria is the OPCW, not reckless machismo

As US president Donald Trump hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping last night, he also launched a Tomahawk missile strike in Syria. (Facebook)

It was an impressive bit of dinner theater for Xi Jinping last night at Mar-a-Lago.

Less than three months into his presidency, Donald Trump has already deployed American force, launching a barrage of missiles against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The attack wasn’t a disaster — it didn’t appear this morning to have killed any civilians, it didn’t accidentally hit any stocks of sarin nerve gas. The strikes were well executed, and that’s to the credit of the US armed forces, US defense secretary James Mattis and US national security advisor H.R. McMaster. The strikes, which took place while Trump was hosting a dinner in Florida for the Chinese president, should put Xi on notice that the same fate could befall North Korea if Chinese diplomacy cannot retard or halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. (Though it might also put Kim Jong-un on notice that he should be more preemptive in his approach to international affairs in the Trump era).

Though it’s difficult, set aside how you feel about Barack Obama, on the one hand, and Trump, on the other hand. It’s possible to believe that in 2013, the United States and its European allies stood down from Obama’s ‘red line’ rhetoric because doing so facilitated the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons uqest to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Obviously, by 2017, it’s clear that Assad either produced new chemical weapons or never fully turned over 100% of his stocks back in 2013 and 2014. Either way, there’s a rational basis for responding with more force, and American officials on both the right and left (and many more US allies) are lining up to support Trump’s strikes in retaliation for the chemical warfare — including his 2016 presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state. In some ways, Trump’s step was a throwback to the Clinton administration, which routinely and liberally deployed missile strikes to send messages from Sudan to Iraq, long before the restraint of the Obama era and the full-barrel bluster of the Bush administration.

That still doesn’t mean it was the right step.

The international community’s chief goal now vis-à-vis chemical weapons should be forcing Assad to hand over the remaining stockpiles of any chemical weapons. That means getting OPCW on the ground (despite an ongoing civil war) to inspect and remove those weapons. But with so many more Russian troops on the ground in Syria today than in 2013, and with Moscow unhappy with Trump’s new approach, that will make it more difficult for the OPCW to maneuver, not less. That’s without getting into the issue of whether this hurts the ongoing US goal of defeating ISIS (hint: it does). That’s without getting into the constitutionality of the strikes without congressional approval.

Moreover, what happens if Assad (or someone among the pro-Assad forces) decides to gas 100 more people next week? Or 100,000 people? Will Trump escalate strikes? If you’re as brutal as Assad, it’s worth losing an airstrip that Russian forces can easily rebuild in a month.

Then what?

In short, it’s very easy to see how Trump could be forced to escalate, which could embolden North Korea. US military assets aren’t unlimited, and getting bogged down in Syria within his first 100 days as president would leave Trump far fewer military options (including not just actual force, but the threat of force) in dealing with the North Korean problem.

Bulgaria’s Borissov (and EU) gets reprieve from dissatisfied voters

Leading EU officials will be relieved that Boyko Borissov is likely to begin a third stint as prime minister, but Bulgaria faces lingering concerns about its economy and corruption. (Facebook)

It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years since the last election, but Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov’s center-right party won just about the same percentage of the vote that it did in 2014 — around 32.7%. 

That performance was good enough for an 11-seat increase in the National Assembly (Народно събрание), making Borissov more likely than not to retain the premiership. It’s a remarkable turnaround after Borissov, dogged by allegations of corruption within his government and after his party suffered a humiliating defeat in last November’s presidential election, resigned earlier this year and triggered snap elections.

If he can form a governing coalition, it would be Borissov’s third non-consecutive stint as prime minister, his first coming in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2009. At a time when Russian president Vladimir Putin is working to undermine European democracy, top European leaders and EU officials alike view Borissov as a soothing center-right ally firmly devoted to European integration. EU leaders will certainly far prefer a Borissov government with Bulgaria set (for the first time) to assume the six-month rotating EU presidency in early 2018.

As both an EU and NATO member, Bulgaria is a key ally on the eastern periphery of the European continent. It’s a northern neighbor of the economically depressed Greece and the increasingly autocratic Turkey and just across the Black Sea lies a divided Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea. These days, it’s an increasingly tough neighborhood. Despite European anxieties about reliance on Russian natural gas, Borissov last year was already considering the resurrection of the on-again, off-again South Stream gas pipeline from Russia (talks began in 2006, but ended after Borissov won the 2014 election), even as the country’s new president called for better relations with Russia. While the number of ethnic Russians in Bulgaria is negligible (far less than ethnic Turks, which comprise nearly 9% of the population), a large majority of Bulgarians belong to the Orthodox church, sharing important cultural touchstones with Russia.

Earlier this year, voters seemed likely to punish his party, the center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB, Граждани за европейско развитие на България) for years of economic malaise and widespread corruption. GERB’s presidential candidate last November, Tsetska Tsacheva, the former chair of the National Assembly, lost a second-round runoff by a 23% margin to Rumen Radev, an independent and former Bulgarian Air Force commander endorsed by Bulgaria’s center-left.

At the time, coming days after Donald Trump’s successful, if once implausible US presidential campaign, Radev’s victory was yet another incremental geopolitical victory for Russian president Vladimir Putin, given Radev’s call for closer ties with Russia. Indeed, Tsacheva’s defeat was the proximate cause for Borissov’s resignation.

Instead, after the March 26 elections, GERB won 95 seats, the largest bloc in the National Assembly. Continue reading Bulgaria’s Borissov (and EU) gets reprieve from dissatisfied voters

Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

Across Europe, support for Trump-style populists is falling, even though many European populists were growing long before Trump entered the political scene. (123RF / Evgeny Gromov)

If there’s one thing that unites Europeans, it’s the concept that they are better — more enlightened, more cultured and more sophisticated — than Americans.

That was especially true during the presidency of George W. Bush, when France, Germany and other leading anchors of the European Union vociferously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. In 2002, it sometimes seemed like German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was running against Bush, not against his conservative German challenger, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber.

Europeans might be leaning in a similar direction in the Trump era, even though it’s hardly been a month since Donald Trump took office. In the days after Trump’s surprise election last November (and after the Brexit vote last summer), populists like Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France had reason to believe that Trump’s victory would give political tailwinds to their own electoral efforts in 2017.

If anything, however, Europeans are pulling back from populism in the first months of 2017. As four of the founding EU countries gear up for elections in the coming months — the first will be The Netherlands in just nine days — the threat of a Trump-style populist surging to power seems increasingly farfetched.

Maybe Europeans simply outright disdain what they perceive as the vulgar, Jacksonian urges of American voters. Maybe it’s shock at the way Trump’s inexperienced administration has bumbled through its first 40 days or the troubles of British prime minister Theresa May in navigating her country through the thicket of Brexit and withdrawing from the European Union.

More likely though, it could be that Trump’s oft-stated criticism of NATO and praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin have finally shaken Europeans out of the fog that’s gathered for 70 years under the penumbra of pax Americana. Even as officials like US vice president Mike Pence and US defense secretary James Mattis reassure European allies that the United States is committed to the trans-Atlantic security alliance, Trump continues to muse about NATO being obsolete (as recently as the week before his inauguration). Furthermore, the America-first nationalism that emerged from Trump’s successful campaign has continued into his administration and promises a new, more skeptical approach to prior American obligations not only in Europe, but worldwide. Just ten days into office, Trump trashed the European Union as a ‘threat’ to the United States, only to back down and call it ‘wonderful’ in February. Breitbart, the outlet that senior Trump strategist Stephen Bannon headed until last summer, ran a headline in January proclaiming that Trump would make the European Union ‘history.’

All of which has left Europeans also rethinking their security position and considering a day when American security guarantees are withdrawn — or simply too unreliable to be trusted.

Arguably, NATO always undermined the European Union, in structural terms, because NATO has been the far more important body for guaranteeing trans-Atlantic security. Though Federica Mogherini is a talented and saavy diplomat, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy is far less important to trans-Atlantic security than the NATO secretary-general (currently, former Norwegian prime minster Jens Stoltenberg). While the stakes of EU policymaking — trade, consumer and environmental regulation, competition law and other economic regulation and a good deal of European fiscal and monetary policy — aren’t low, they would be higher still if the European Union, instead of NATO, were truly responsible for European defense and security. That’s perhaps one reason why the European Union has been stuck since the early 2000s in its own ‘Articles of Confederation’ moment — too far united to pull the entire scheme apart, not yet united enough to pull closer together.

Perhaps, alternatively, it has nothing to do with blowback to Trump or Brexit, and voters in the core western European countries, which are accustomed to a less Schumpeterian form of capitalism, are simply more immune to radical swings than their counterparts subject to the janglier peaks and valleys of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It’s not too much to think that, possibly, in the aftermath of both Brexit and Trump’s election, core Europe, unleashed from the toxic dynamic of British euroscepticism and emboldened to forge new relationships from outside the American security aegis, may be finding a new confidence after years of economic ennui.

Nevertheless, populists across Europe who tried to cloak themselves in the warm embrace of Trumpismo throughout 2016 are increasingly struggling in 2017. A dark and uncertain 2016 is giving way rapidly to a European spring in 2017 where centrists, progressives and conservatives alike are finding ways to push back against populist and xenophobic threats.  Continue reading Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

Low-key Kislyak lies at the heart of Trump’s ongoing Russia mystery

Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak lies at the heart of the mysteries surrounding ties between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. (Sputnik)

He’s served as the Kremlin’s man in Washington since 2008.

But only now has Sergey Kislyak, the low-key Russian ambassador to the United States, started making headlines as the person no one in the Trump administration seems to remember meeting.

It’s not a crime for a sitting US senator to meet with the ambassador of a country that sits on the UN security council, even one that’s sometimes , like Russia. It might not even, as a technical matter, be perjury, that US attorney general Jeff Sessions ‘forgot’ about the two conversations he is now reported to have had with Kislyak in 2016 at the height of the presidential election campaign.

So who is the old Russian hand at the center of a controversy that’s already claimed the resignation of Mike Flynn, the retired general who is no longer national security advisor, and might claim Sessions as well?

Kislyak is a longtime career diplomat who speaks fluent English and French. In contrast to Russia’s long-serving foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the burlier and less polished Kislyak mostly avoids the spotlight. If reports are true, Kislyak is already a lame-duck ambassador — Moscow is reportedly readying a more hard-line figure, deputy prime minister Anatoly Antonov, to replace Kislyak.

One of the mysteries of the current brouhaha over the Trump campaign’s ties to Kremlin officials is the disconnect in December between Kislyak’s initial anger over the outgoing Obama administration’s additional sanctions (related to increasing indications that Russia attempted to use cybertricks to interfere with the US election) and the Kremlin’s more relaxed response a day later — after nearly a half-dozen calls between Flynn and Kislyak:

The concerns about the contacts were cemented by a series of phone calls between Mr. Kislyak and Michael T. Flynn, who had been poised to become Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. The calls began on Dec. 29, shortly after Mr. Kislyak was summoned to the State Department and informed that, in retaliation for Russian election meddling, the United States was expelling 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives and imposing other sanctions. Mr. Kislyak was irate and threatened a forceful Russia response, according to people familiar with the exchange.

But a day later, Mr. Putin said his government would not retaliate, prompting a Twitter post from Mr. Trump praising the Russian president — and puzzling Obama White House officials. On Jan. 2, administration officials learned that Mr. Kislyak — after leaving the State Department meeting — called Mr. Flynn, and that the two talked multiple times in the 36 hours that followed. American intelligence agencies routinely wiretap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, according to multiple current and former officials.

So who is Kislyak and how did he come to be the Kremlin’s envoy to Washington for a decade?

Continue reading Low-key Kislyak lies at the heart of Trump’s ongoing Russia mystery

Full investigation now the only way to clear Trump White House on Russia quid pro quo

The now-famous mural of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius.

With national security advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation and new reporting from The New York Times that Trump campaign officials had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials, it is time to ask the fundamental question about this administration’s underlying weakness over Russia:

Was there a quid pro quo between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to help Trump win?

No one wants to believe this, of course, and it is an important moment to give Trump as many benefits of the doubt as possible. It is probably true that Trump would have defeated Hillary Clinton without any Russian cyber-shenanigans (though of course Richard Nixon would have easily defeated George McGovern in 1972 without ordering a break-in at the Watergate Hotel). It is also true that the leaks coming from the intelligence community could represent a serious threat to civil liberties, though it is not clear to me whether this information is coming directly from the intelligence community or secondhand from any number of potential investigations. There are many ‘known unknowns’ here, and there are potentially even more ‘unknown unknowns.’

But here is what we think that we know, as of February 15: Continue reading Full investigation now the only way to clear Trump White House on Russia quid pro quo

Flynn resignation offers Trump administration a crucial restart

Michael Flynn has resigned as national security advisor. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

On the 25th day of the Trump administration, its national security adviser, retired general Michael Flynn, was forced to resign.

The final blow came from reports that the Trump administration learned last month that the US Department of Justice warned that Flynn could be susceptible to blackmail from the Kremlin. The resignation also followed reports that Flynn misled US vice president Mike Pence and others about the extent of his discussions during the presidential transition with Russian counterparts regarding the lifting of the Obama administration’s sanctions on Moscow.

Some quick thoughts.

Continue reading Flynn resignation offers Trump administration a crucial restart

As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

Martin Schulz, formerly the European Parliament president, has returned to German domestic politics in recent weeks. (Facebook)

For the past two elections, Germany’s center-left has tried to stymie chancellor Angela Merkel with two jowly, doughy figures compromised by high service in Merkel-led ‘grand coalition’ governments. 

And for the past two elections, Germany’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has won a smaller share of the vote than at any other time in postwar German history.

For months, it appeared that the Social Democrats were set to sleepwalk into making the same error in 2017.

With the federal election formally set for September 24, it seemed that the SPD would choose as its candidate for chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the economy minister who serves as vice chancellor in the current Große Koalition and who has served as the party’s official leader since 2009.

Though polls showed Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), in power since 2005, losing some ground to the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), they still maintained a consistent lead of anywhere from 11% to 17% against the Social Democrats. With Gabriel at the helm, the SPD seemed content to lose another election to Merkel, perhaps willing to suffer as the junior partner in her fourth-term governing coalition or otherwise in complete opposition.

So it was a surprise to see Gabriel on Tuesday bow out of competition to lead his party into the 2017 elections and instead endorse Martin Schulz, who stepped down as the president of the European Parliament just weeks ago to return to German politics. Continue reading As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Chrystia Freeland transitioned only four years ago from journalism to politics, but she’s now Canada’s top diplomat. (Facebook)

If there’s a polite Canadian way to let Donald Trump just what Canada’s government thinks of the incoming US president with just over a week before his inauguration, it must certainly be this:

Promoting to the rank of foreign minister — Canada’s chief diplomat and the key official tasked with US relations — a former journalist who has championed free trade, who last year finalized a landmark free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union and whose writings on Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea so offended Russian officials that they placed her on a sanctions list and banned her from setting foot on Russian soil.

Meet Chrystia Freeland.

Like prime minister Justin Trudeau, Freeland is technically very new to elective politics, entering the House of Commons after winning a by-election in Toronto only in 2013. But also like Trudeau, she’s spent her entire adult life steeped in Canadian and global politics.

As recently as last week, Freeland held up Canada as country open to both immigration and trade and a bulwark against rising populism and protectionism in the United States and Europe. As Trump prepares to take power to the south, and as a Conservative MP, Kellie Leitch, tries to win her own party’s leadership with an anti-immigrant and anti-elite message, voters haven’t lost faith in Trudeau’s approach. His post-election honeymoon is continuing into its 15th month, as the Liberal Party continues to enjoy a wide double-digit polling lead.
Continue reading Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Karlov assassination in Ankara stuns world amid global leadership vacuum

An AP photo shows the gunman who shot and killed Russia’s ambassador to Turkey on Monday. (AP)

Yesterday was the anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s birth date in 1883. 

It was his assassination by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 that set off a chain reaction leading to World War I.

The world is, rightly, alarmed today with the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, who had served in one of his country’s most delicate diplomatic roles since 2013 and whose experience included long stints in North Korea, including as ambassador from 2001 to 2006.

The gunman reportedly shouted ‘Allahu akbar,’ and ‘Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria!’ as he shot Karlov from behind at a gallery exhibit of Turkish photography.

The assassination comes at a crucial time for relations between Russia and Turkey. Karlov’s killing could immediately chill the fragile diplomatic gains of the last half-year, however, especially at a time when no one really knows what kind of global leadership that president-elect Donald Trump will provide after his inauguration in just over a month in the United States. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly praised Putin as a strong leader and promised to escalate US efforts to push back against ISIS in eastern Syria.

But no one should start preparing for World War III just yet.

Much now depends on how Putin responds — and how nationalist hard-liners within Russia also respond — considering that the gunman seems to have acted with the precise aim of destabilizing the Russia-Turkey relationship. Though Russian nationalists are wary of Turkey, they’re far more hostile to the threat of Islamic extremism. Moreover, the two countries have found common ground when it comes to the threat of Islamic extremism. Karlov’s assassination might ultimately Turkey and Russia together more closely Turkey in efforts to eradicate ISIS and other jihadist elements in the Middle East. The incoming Trump administration would almost certainly welcome and join that common front.

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RELATED: Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin

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If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s worth noting that the two countries have been moving closer together after last summer’s coup attempt against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Relations hit their worst point in December 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border. Today, a year later, relations are much improved, if still strained. That means that the diplomatic channels between the two countries are far more open to deal with a trauma like Karlov’s assassination.  Continue reading Karlov assassination in Ankara stuns world amid global leadership vacuum

Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State; he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration.

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is rumored to be Donald Trump’s pick to serve as Secretary of State.

In a ‘normal’ presidential administration, nominating the CEO of one of the world’s leading oil companies as the chief diplomatic officer of the United States would be a maverick, refreshing and, perhaps, inspiring choice.

After all, it takes some diplomatic skill to navigate the tangled shoals of doing business in some of the world’s leading oil producers, and foreign policy mandarins in Washington certainly have no monopoly on international affairs. As CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson has embraced the need for alternative energy sources, he has demonstrated that he understands the global challenges of climate change, and he has been a canny and creative executive. He’s obviously a very intelligent guy.

In Donald Trump’s administration, however, Tillerson would be a disastrous choice — for at least two reasons.

The first is the hulking brown bear in the room. Continue reading Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State; he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration.

Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's governor Ramzan Kadyrov face "votes" on Sunday. (AFP)
Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov won their respective “elections” on Sunday. (AFP)

Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.chechnyaRussia Flag Icon

Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the  state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time. 

Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.

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The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump). 

Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.

As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia's long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)
As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)

Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).

For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.

Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).

The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).

Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)
Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)

For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.

Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion.  Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Muhummad Yunus is exactly the person Clinton should have been meeting

Hillary Clinton met with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammed Yunus in Dhaka as US secretary of state. (AFP)
Hillary Clinton met with Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammed Yunus in Dhaka as US secretary of state. (AFP)

It’s only Tuesday, but it has not been the best week for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. USflagbangladesh flag icon

Just a day after reports that the FBI discovered nearly 14,900 emails that Clinton should have turned over as work-related emails to the State Department (she turned over 30,000 and marked the rest as private), the Associated Press reported on Tuesday afternoon that, in an analysis of 154 private individuals that Clinton met while secretary of state, 85 of them were at least one-time donors to the Clinton Foundation, an international health charity organization — if true, that means that around 55% of her meetings with non-government and non-foreign officials were with Clinton Foundation donors.

First, it’s unlikely that Clinton, in four years at State, met just 38 people on average annually from the private sector, so there’s so doubt about whether the AP’s denominator is accurate. Secondly, without any other proof, a meeting is not anything more than just a meeting, especially after a thoroughgoing investigation from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation almost certainly reviewed the question of quid pro quo corruption. Third, it’s credible that many private-sector actors (especially wealthy individuals with storied careers in academia, finance, technology or otherwise) might have given money to a high-profile charity like the Clinton Foundation. Finally, and most importantly, while Clinton is not exactly a paragon of government ethics, it beggars belief that she would sabotage her own obvious 2016 presidential hopes by engaging in crude pay-to-play corruption.

It’s true that both Hillary Clinton and her husband have both shown ridiculously poor ethical judgment when entrusted with power, and it was only in July that FBI director James Comey (narrowly) declined to recommend criminal charges for Clinton’s handling of classified information on a home server that she used for email while at State. Both Clintons, already wealthy from book royalties, have also shown reckless greed in taking millions of dollars in speech fees from corporate and foreign interests since leaving office.

But short of one truly horrific example, and a particularly immature staffer in Doug Band, there’s not a lot of scandal involving the Clinton Foundation. (The example, reported last year to surprisingly little fanfare, involves a murky Canadian financier named Frank Giustra, a leading figure in a sale of a uranium company, Uranium One, that won approvals from State and numerous other US agencies. The deal, ultimately, handed over rights of one-fifth of US uranium reserves first to Kazakh and then to Russian control).

By and large, the Clinton Foundation a charity that leverages the Clinton family’s name and experience toward better global health outcomes. In that sense, it’s no different, really, than the Carter Center or any other private-public effort that a former US president undertakes.

In politics, though, especially in the crucible of US election-year politics less than 80 days from a presidential election, reality is less important than perception. And Clinton most certainly has a perception problem with the Clinton Foundation and the idea that it’s become a pay-for-play racket. Moreover, the Clinton Foundation gets generally great marks from charity scorecard watchdogs like Charity Watch. Despite the phony statistics of right-wing news media, the Clinton Foundation spends an admirably 88% of donations on programming.

But the most especially ridiculous aspect of the latest uproar over the Clinton Foundation is that one of those 85 individuals that Clinton met is Muhammad Yunus, the former head of Grameen Bank. Frankly, it would have been diplomatic malpractice not for Clinton to have met Yunus during her time at State, when Yunus was increasingly under attack from his own government.

By 2011, Bangladesh’s increasingly autocratic and corrupt leader, Sheikh Hasina, had expelled Yunus and fully expropriated Grameen Bank. Though the Bangladeshi government once tried to accuse Yunus himself of embezzlement, it eventually ousted him from Grameen on the basis that, then at age 72, he exceeded the retirement age. Continue reading Muhummad Yunus is exactly the person Clinton should have been meeting

Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)
Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)

Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria, has become in August the center stage for one of the most tragic urban battles of the country’s five-and-a-half year civil war.freesyria Syria Flag Icon

The first battle of Aleppo that began in July 2012 and lasted for months, brought some of the worst of the earliest fighting to an industrial and cultural capital home to some 2.5 million Syrians before the war.

By early 2013, after thousands of deaths and widespread urban destruction (including parts of Aleppo’s old city and the Great Mosque of Aleppo), a stalemate developed between the eastern half, controlled by various Sunni rebel groups and the western half, controlled by the Syrian army that supports president Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, rebel forces — including the hardline militia formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — broke through to Ramouseh, a key sector in the southwest of the city. Among other things, Ramouseh is home to some of the most important bases in the area for the Syrian army. More importantly, the rebel offensive hoped to open and secure a corridor between the besieged eastern half of Aleppo to other rebel-controlled areas to the south of Aleppo that could provide a pathway to food, water, power and other supplies to the rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo.

As of last week, the rebels had the upper hand after pushing into Ramouseh. Over the weekend, however, the Syrian army reclaimed some of its territory and effectively halted the rebel advance with punishing support from the Russian military.

(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)
(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)

Meanwhile, civilians across Aleppo (in both the government- and rebel-controlled areas) face a growing risk of a humanitarian crisis, lacking access to basic necessities like electric power, food and water in fierce summertime conditions. Intriguingly, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu also claimed over the weekend that Russian and U.S. forces were close to taking ‘joint action’ on Aleppo. It’s odd because Russian president Vladimir Putin firmly backs Assad, while US officials have expressed the view that Assad’s departure alone can bring about a lasting end to the civil war. One possibility is a pause in hostilities to allow aid workers to provide food, water and medical care to civilians caught in what has become one of the deadliest battles in the Syrian civil war to date.

As the battle for Aleppo dominates headlines about Syria’s war, it is quickly becoming a symbolic fight for Syria’s future. Continue reading Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Reccep Tayip Erdoğan met at the G-20 summit, which took place in Turkey, last November. (Facebook)
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Reccep Tayip Erdoğan met at the G-20 summit, which took place in Turkey, last November. (Facebook)

It’s clear that things are looking up for the bilateral relationship between Russia and Turkey.Russia Flag IconTurkey

At the beginning of last December, the two countries locked into a troubling standoff after Turkey shot down a Russian airplane that had repeatedly crossed into Turkish airspace. The diplomatic standoff came at a time when Russian president Vladimir Putin was using Russian military force to boost the efforts of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to push back Sunni rebel forces. In response, Putin slammed trade restrictions against Turkey.

A lot can happen, however, in nine months, and yesterday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveled to Moscow to mend somewhat broken relations with Putin, who announced that the country would slowly lift economic sanctions against Turkey on the path to restoring normalized relations.

Erdoğan, last month survived a coup attempt from within elements of the Turkish military that, for a few hours at least, seemed like it had some chances of success. The first world leader to call Erdoğan to pledge his support?

Putin.

With Erdoğan placing blame for the coup on the shoulders of Fethullah Gülen (who lives in exile in Pennsylvania) and his Gulenist followers in Turkey, the crackdown has been swift and deep. In the past four weeks, Erdoğan has purged many Turkish institutions of tens of thousands of officials suspected of having any ties to Gulenism. That includes the military and the police forces, but also over 20,000 private school teachers, 10,000 education officials and agents within other government ministries. Erdoğan has also ordered the shutdown of around 100 media outlets, which echoes a decision earlier in March to seize Zaman, one of Turkey’s most popular independent newspapers.

Last May, prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned after a series of files (the so-called ‘Pelican Files’) were released to the public and that showed the former foreign minister, who led the governing Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) to a minority victory in June 2015 and a majority victory in November 2015, was increasingly uncomfortable with Erdoğan. His misgivings included both the push to concentrate power within the Turkish presidency (following Erdoğan’s shift from prime minister to president in 2014) and with the increasingly militant approach to Turkey’s Kurdish population — after over a decade of progress for Kurdish minority rights and a detente with the PKK, a militant, communist Kurdish militia.

Binali Yıldırım, the new prime minister, formerly a transport, maritime and communications minister and a loyal Erdoğan supporter, has been far more willing to countenance the shift from a powerful parliamentary government to a presidential one.

It has been clear since the late 2000s that Erdoğan was not the pure democrat that his supporters (and many sympathizers in the United States and Europe) once believed, and it’s been clear since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 that Erdoğan has no respect for the kind of liberal freedoms — expression, assembly, press, speech and otherwise — that are so important to a functioning democracy. In the wake of the July coup attempt, Erdoğan’s instinct towards the authoritarian has only sharpened. (Though, to be fair, imagine the kind of response that would follow from an American president if a military coup managed to shut down New York’s major airports, take control of public television and bomb the US Capitol).

That his first post-coup visit abroad was to Russia to visit Putin will, of course, be a source of increasing anxiety among US and European officials, who need Erdoğan’s assistance on at least two fronts: first, stemming the flow of migrants from Syria that cross through Turkey en route to Europe and, second, facilitating US, European and NATO efforts to weaken and ultimately displace ISIS from their territorial berth in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Continue reading Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin

NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war

Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.
Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.

The theme of this week’s convention could have already been ‘I Took a Pill in Cleveland,’ because it’s clearly more Mike Posner than Richard Posner.Russia Flag IconUSflag

All eyes last night were on Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who lost the Republican nomination to Donald Trump and, notably, Cruz’s pointed refusal to endorse his rival in a rousing address that is one of the most memorable convention speeches in recent memory. Trump’s allies instructed delegates to boo Cruz off the stage, and they spent the rest of the night trashing Cruz for failing to uphold a ‘pledge’ to support the eventual nominee.

But shortly after Cruz’s speech, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times published a new interview with Trump about foreign policy, in which he indicated that he would be willing as president to break a far more serious pledge — the mutual collective defense clause of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty that essentially undergirds the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the organization that has been responsible for collective trans-Atlantic security since 1949:

Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

“If they fulfill their obligations to us,” he added, “the answer is yes.”

Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be the first time that a major candidate for president had suggested conditioning the United States’ defense of its major allies. It was consistent, however, with his previous threat to withdraw American forces from Europe and Asia if those allies fail to pay more for American protection.

The comments caused, with good reason, a foreign policy freakout on both sides of the Atlantic. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, ‘It’s Official: Hillary Clinton is Running Against Vladimir Putin.’ In The Financial Times, a plethora of European officials sounded off a ‘wave of alarm.’

In successive waves, NATO’s core members expanded from the United States and western Europe to Turkey in 1952, to (what was then) West Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, the new eastern and central European Union states in 1999 and 2004 (which include three former Soviet republics, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), and Albania and Croatia in 2009. Of course, many of the more recent NATO member states spent the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain subject to Soviet dominance.

Above all, so much of eastern Europe joined NATO to protect themselves from Russian aggression in the future. Article Five provides that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries, entitling the NATO country under attack to invoke the support of all the other NATO members. This has happened exactly once in NATO’s decades-long history, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

It’s not the first time Trump has slammed NATO during the campaign; he called it ‘obsolete’ in off-the-cuff remarks at a town hall meeting in March:

 

“Nato has to be changed or we have to do something.  It has to be rejiggered or changed for the better,” he said in response to a question from an audience member.  He said the alternative to an overhaul would be to start an entirely new organisation, though he offered no details on what that would be.

He also reiterated his concern that the US takes too much of the burden within NATO and on the world stage. “The United States cannot afford to be the policeman of the world, folks.  We have to rebuild this country and we have to stop this stuff…we are always the first out,” he offered.

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump's criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump’s criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)

The latest attack on NATO and, implicitly, the international order since the end of World War II, came just days after NATO’s secretary-general, former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, announced a new plan for NATO cooperation on the international efforts to push back ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Stoltenberg, it’s worth noting, is the first NATO secretary-general to come from a country that shares a land border with mainland Russia. So he, more than anyone, understands the stakes involved.  Continue reading NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war