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Syria, Turkey, Russia and the Kurds: the struggle for Afrin

Russia tries to broker a diplomatic solution to the Afrin conflict

Alexander Mercouris

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The complexities of the fighting in Afrin have – unsurprisingly – confounded most people, to the points where understanding of what is actually going on there is becoming very difficult and is causing much misunderstanding.

Deciphering Russian policy with respect to the Afrin conflict between Turkey and the Kurds is causing special problems.

The most common view I have seen is that Turkey attacked the Kurds in Afrin with Russia’s agreement, with some speculating that the Russians are using the Afrin conflict to drive a wedge between Turkey – a NATO member state – and the US, which is backing the Kurds.

This has supposedly pitted the Russians against the Syrian government and Iran.

The recent movement of Syrian troops into Afrin has even led to some talk of Syria and Iran being now pitted in a conflict in Afrin alongside the Kurds against a supposed “Russian-Turkish” alliance.

This is often accompanied with talk that President Assad has made a serious mistake by sending his troops to fight alongside the Kurds in Afrin.  Supposedly the Syrian military without the support of Russia is incapable of defeating the Turkish military and is risking a serious defeat by fighting the Turks alongside the Kurds in Afrin.

In my opinion this analysis is wrong, and in this article I shall attempt to show why.

Before I do so however there are four key points I must make, without a proper knowledge and understanding of which any analysis of the recent moves in the Afrin conflict must fail.

4 key points about the Afrin crisis

(1) The ‘Russian-Turkish’ alliance in Syria does not exist.

Whilst the Russians and the Turks are in constant contact with each other, and whilst economic relations between Russia and Turkey are becoming ever closer, it is a fundamental mistake to think that Russia and Turkey are pursuing the same goals in Syria, as they would be doing if they were genuinely allies of each other.

On the contrary, the reason why contacts between the Russians and Turks over Syria are so intense is precisely because they have to negotiate constantly with each other because their aims in Syria are completely divergent.

(2) Whatever other criticisms may be made of him, President Assad has repeatedly shown over the course of the Syrian conflict that he is (i) in full control of the Syrian government and military; and (ii) an exceptionally skilful, realistic and well-informed politician and war leader.  He is also by now highly experienced.

It could hardly be otherwise.  After seven years of intense conflict President Assad would not still be leading Syria if he was not all those things.

(3) Having intervened in Syria in 2015 to save President Assad and his government, the Russians are not going to abandon him now when he is on the brink of victory and any thought that they might be thinking of doing so should be firmly put aside.

(4) In the de facto alliance which exists between Russia and Syria, Russia is immeasurably the stronger party.  That means that whilst the Russians have to listen carefully to what President Assad and the Syrians tell them, and to take their concerns into account, in the end it is the Syrians who must accommodate themselves to whatever the Russians decide.

Russian objectives in Syria and the Russian alliance with the Syrian government

Points (3) and (4) inevitably lead to a discussion of Russian objectives in Syria.

Especially now that Russia has committed itself to establishing substantial military bases in Syria the Russians need a Syria which is (1) peaceful and stable, so that it is in a position to safeguard the bases; and (2) friendly to themselves.

Beyond that there is for the Russians the question of their overriding objective in intervening in Syria in the first place.  That was done – as the Russians have said repeatedly – in order to achieve a Syria free of Jihadi terrorist influence, so that it cannot threaten Russia.  Only a strong and stable Syrian government in full control of all of Syria’s territory which is friendly to Russia can achieve this.

If it was not obvious to the Russians before, it is certainly obvious now, that President Assad is the only Syrian political leader who has the skill, legitimacy, support and authority within Syria to deliver all these things.  No substitute or replacement to him has emerged, because none exists.  That guarantees that Russia will stick by him.

To the extent that Russia is allied to any party in the Syrian conflict it is therefore with President Assad and his government.

Evidence for the existence of that alliance is there for all to see in the joint military operations the Syrian military and the Russians conduct together – as for example currently in eastern Ghouta – and in the obvious coordination that goes on between them on political and diplomatic questions.

That does not of course mean that disagreements between the Russians and President Assad’s government do not from time to time arise.  The Russians are known for example to believe that President Assad and the Syrian government should be more accommodating than they have been up to now towards the Kurds.

However the existence of these disagreements should not obscure the fact that on all major issues the Russians and the Syrians work together with each other, and that they are pursuing a common objective in Syria, which is the restoration of the Syrian government’s authority over the whole of Syria’s territory.

Given the presence of US and Turkish troops on Syrian territory, achieving that objective requires considerable diplomatic manoeuvring and finesse if an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict is to be avoided.  However that flexibility in achieving that objective should not cause confusion about what that objective is.   It is a major error to misconstrue tactical moves that the Russians and the Syrians must from time to time make as signs that they are giving up on their joint objective.  On the contrary they are steps towards achieving it.

Once all these points are understood it becomes possible to decipher the recent moves in the Afrin conflict correctly.

Origins of the Afrin conflict in the US’s Plan C

The conflict has its origins in what I have called the US’s Plan C: the US plan to create a powerful quasi-independent and heavily armed Kurdish statelet in northern Syria so as to undermine the Syrian government and to prevent the Syrian government from regaining control of all of Syria’s territory.

As I have previously pointed out, Plan C was hatched by a small group of powerful insiders within the US bureaucracy – President Trump’s National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster seems to have played a key role – and has never been properly discussed or thought through.

The result is that the inevitable strong reaction of Turkey to Plan C – ie to the creation of a heavily armed YPG led Kurdish statelet on its southern border – was grossly underestimated, so that the Turkish military intervention in Afrin and the Turkish demands for a US and Kurdish withdrawal from the strategically important town of Manbij seems to have taken the US by surprise.

Characteristically, despite the increasingly dangerous Turkish moves, the powerful insiders within the US bureaucracy who hatched Plan C have far too much invested in it to draw back, so that despite President Trump’s publicly expressed doubts and Turkey’s growing anger the US continues to pursue Plan C by continuing (despite denials) to arm the Kurds.

That all but guarantees that the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds – and between Turkey and the US – in Syria will continue and will escalate.

The only way that can be prevented is if the Kurds can be persuaded to change their position by distancing themselves from the US and by withdrawing themselves from involvement in the US’s Plan C.

Turkey’s attack on the Afrin and objectives in Syria

Turkey and President Erdogan for their part are making use of the conflict in Afrin not only to prevent the US backed YPG led Kurdish statelet in northern Syria from emerging but in order to pursue their own wider objectives in Syria.

These are to create a zone of territory in northern Syria under effective Turkish control which will act as a safe area for Turkey’s anti-Assad Jihadi proxies.

The Turkish incursion into northern Syria in August 2016 (Operation Euphrates Shield) was in furtherance of this objective, and the latest Turkish advance into Afrin (Operation Olive Branch) is a continuation of it.

The ongoing deployment of convoys of Turkish troops to the Jihadi controlled Syrian province of Idlib – which is clearly intended to block the advance of the Syrian army – is also being undertaken to achieve this objective..

That the Turkish attack on Afrin ultimately targets the Syrian government as much as it does the Kurds was in fact made clear in interviews given to the Guardian by the anti-Assad Arab Jihadi fighters who are participating alongside the Turkish army in the Afrin operation.

See for example this highly revealing discussion of Jihadi objectives in fighting alongside Turkey in Afrin in this Guardian article dated 27th January 2018

The decision to cross over into Syria, and directly intervene in the seven-year-long civil war, has underlined the depth of Turkey’s concern about Kurdish fighters inside Syria. But it has also thrown Ankara’s ambitious training project into relief. According to rebel commanders, Turkey has for nearly two years been supporting the build-up and training of a unified army in Syria capable of resuming the battle against President Bashar al-Assad, now in the ascendant in the long civil war.

The genesis of the idea came in the opening months of Turkey’s first military campaign into Syria, when it launched Operation Euphrates Shield in the summer of 2016. Its troops had orders to both oust Isis from key border towns and limit the Kurdish militias’ westward expansion.

After taking the town of Jarablus near the border, Turkey sought to augment the Euphrates Shield forces – a disparate coalition of rebel militias – with a cadre of trained fighters to tackle Isis and guard the frontiers against Kurdish forces.

Rebel officials say the training programme has continued, building up Euphrates Shield into a force of 10,000 to 15,000 battle-ready soldiers, with an additional 10,000 recent recruits. After major military losses to Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, the rebels see this force as a lifeline that could allow them to relaunch their waning insurgency. That rebel army, they say, could wage a campaign to eliminate al-Qaida-linked fighters who dominate the opposition-controlled province of Idlib, and go on to fight Assad again.

“We cannot accept military defeat, we have to reinforce and start over,” said one rebel official. “Euphrates Shield is against both terrorism and the regime, and it is the first step to build a state.” But their prime aim of unseating Assad seems increasingly divergent from their Turkish patrons’ focus on attacking Kurdish troops, meaning the force may ultimately amount to nothing but another proxy militia under a foreign power’s command – much like most other groups fighting in Syria…..

Turkey has quietly continued to support the project as it has grown into multiple divisions led by Syrian commanders who coordinate with Turkish officers, and who are spearheading the campaign in Afrin now. Therein lies the dilemma of the rebels leading the ground assault. Abandoned by all their international allies, they see no choice but to follow Turkey’s lead.

While they agree with the rationale of the Afrin campaign, they also hope that taking the Kurdish enclave will open up a ground corridor into Idlib that would allow the national rebel army its first test against their greatest enemies – Assad’s regime, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former wing of al-Qaida in Syria. Turkey has given them no promises of support for this. Its actions after the Afrin campaign will determine whether it has helped build up the rebel army to be its own proxy force, or to fight against the regime.

“We have to play on the differences between global powers negotiating in Syria,” said one rebel commander, whose group is not in Afrin but intends to join the national rebel army. “It is a strategic interest to open the ground corridor into Idlib, and it coincides with Turkish interests.”

(bold italics added)

These words not only give insight into the motives of the Turkish backed Jihadi forces fighting in Afrin.  They also show the suspicions they have towards President Erdogan and the Turkish government.

However the overall objective is clear enough, and it is also clear that Turkey backs it.  It is to take over Afrin and then use Afrin along with Jarablus (the latter captured by the Turkish army in August 2016 at the outset of Operation Euphrates Shield) as stepping stones towards establishing a Turkish backed Jihadi protectorate over Idlib province (currently a contested zone between ISIS and Al-Qaeda), which can then be used as launch pad for a renewed Jihadi offensive against the Syrian government.

Moreover it seems that a very large Jihadi force numbering up to 25,000 men is being built up with Turkish help to put this plan into effect.

This article in the Guardian vindicates the analysis of the motives behind Turkey’s 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield made at the time by the independent analyst Mark Sleboda (see my discussion made at the time here).

Just as Mark Sleboda said, far from Operation Euphrates Shield being aimed primarily at ISIS and the Kurds – as President Erdogan led everyone at the time to believe – its primary purpose was to rescue the Jihadi insurgency by bringing it under Turkish control, and rebuilding it in a Turkish controlled and Turkish protected safe area in northern Syria under the supervision of the Turkish army.

The current Turkish operation against the Kurds in Afrin is explicitly said by the Turkish backed Jihadi fighters to be in further pursuit of this plan.

The Syrian government and the Kurds: cutting deals with each other

This is what explains the recent deployment of Syrian forces to Afrin, and the Syrian government’s strong opposition to the Turkish operation in Afrin.

Though the Syrian government is obviously deeply concerned about the recent alignment of the Kurdish militia with the US and is determined to do all it can to end it, the Kurdish militia is not an existential threat to the Syrian government or to the Syrian state in the way that the Jihadi groups that Turkey backs are.

Whilst the establishment of a US backed Kurdish statelet in northern Syria would be a major blow to the Syrian government, there is no possibility of the Kurdish militia taking over the whole of Syria or marching on Damascus.

By contrast the Jihadi fighters currently fighting alongside the Turkish army in Afrin make no secret that that is precisely what their ultimate objective is.

For that reason it is overwhelmingly in the interests of the Syrian government to prevent the Turkish army from taking over Afrin, and that is why the Syrian government has facilitated the transfer of Kurdish fighters from other areas of Syria to Afrin, and why it has now deployed pro-government militia forces there.

This deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin in fact achieves for the Syrian government a multiplicity of purposes:

(1) It makes it more difficult for the Turkish army to conquer Afrin, something which it is in the Syrian government’s overwhelmingly strong interest to prevent;

(2) It re-establishes a Syrian government presence on the ground in Afrin, furthering the Syrian government’s ultimate objective of re-establishing itself across all of Syria’s territory; and

(3) Despite the YPG’s denials, it is overwhelmingly likely that some sort of deal has been done, enabling the Syrian government to take over territory from the YPG in return for its help in Afrin.

Already there are reports that the YPG has surrendered control of several districts in Aleppo province to the Syrian army.

Assuming that these reports are true – and video footage suggests that they are – then this is probably only the first of many concessions the Kurdish militia has been obliged to make to the Syrian government in order to secure its support in Afrin.  There are now even reports – published by the normally reliable Al-Masdar news agency – that the Kurds are about to hand over to the Syrian military the key town of Manbij, which is a declared objective of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch.

What then of the fears which are widely expressed that the entry of Syrian militia forces into Afrin is a foolhardy step, setting the scene for an all-out clash between the Turkish military and the Syrian army, which the Syrian army cannot win?

An assessment of those risks requires a discussion of Russian policy in the Afrin crisis.

Russia and Afrin: brokering a compromise?

Any discussion of Russian policy in the Afrin crisis needs to begin with two of the points I made previously:

(1) that it is strongly in Russia’s interests that the Syrian government re-establish its authority across the whole of Syria, and that this is now Russia’s primary objective in the conflict; and

(2) that in the de facto alliance between the Syrian government and Russia it is Russia which is overwhelmingly the dominant partner to whose opinions the Syrian government must defer.

These facts taken together with the fact that President Assad has repeatedly shown a keen understanding of Syria’s need to work with the Russians makes it all but inconceivable that the deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin was undertaken by the Syrian government without Russia’s agreement.

That Russia has approved the Syrian government’s decision to send pro-government militia forces to Afrin has now been confirmed by the presence of Russian troops escorting the pro-government militia forces as they redeploy to Afrin in order to deter attacks on them by the Turkish military.

Here is how the reliable and well-informed Al-Masdar news agency has reported the Russian deployment

The 3rd batch of Syrian popular forces made it into the northwestern city of Afrin through al-Ziyara crossing to help defend the predominantly-Kurdish region from the Turkish aggression.

The first two batches have entered Afrin during the past few days as per an agreement concluded earlier between the Syrian government and Kurdish factions.

 Last month, Turkey and its proxy militants have launched a full-scale offensive on Afrin region with the aim to ‘liberate the area from the terrorist Kurdish militiamen”.

The arrival of the Syrian forces will definitely make things harder for the already troubled Turkish-backed militants who failed to make substantial gains on the ground.

Meanwhile, members of the Russian military police were seen escorting the convoys at the Ziyara crossing in order to prevent the Turkish military from targeting the crossing as it was the case a few days ago when the 1st batch arrived.

(bold italics added)

Obviously the Russians have no more wish to see Afrin become a Turkish controlled base area for a Jihadi army capable of threatening the Syrian government than the Syrians themselves do.  That the Russians are therefore quietly assisting in the deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin in order to prevent that happening should not be a surprise.

What is true – and what is the source of much of the confusion – is that the Russians have to play their cards very carefully.

The fundamental weakness of the Russians’ Syrian strategy is that they need President Erdogan’s cooperation in order to stabilise Syria and to bring the conflict there to an end.  At the same time the Russians have to work with the fact that President Erdogan’s objectives in Syria – of which the Russians are of course fully informed – are diametrically opposite to their own.

This is what creates the strange shadow-boxing between the Russians and Turkey in Syria, with the Russians and the Turks needing at all times to appear to be on the best of terms with each other even as they constantly manoeuvre against each other for advantage.

It is this tortuous approach which explains why the Russians initially approved the Turkish attack on the Kurds in Afrin but have now approved a Syrian government move intended to thwart that attack.

The Russians will however be anxious to prevent an open clash between the Turkish and Syrian militaries from taking place in Afrin.

The Russians and the Syrian government are of course fully aware that in any one to one clash between the Turkish and Syrian militaries the advantage lies with the Turkish army.  The Russians would be loathe to see such a clash happen not just because it is likely that the Syrian military would be defeated, but because were it to happen they would come under immense pressure from Syria and Iran to come to the Syrian army’s aid.

Were they to do so their relationship with President Erdogan and Turkey would however be damaged probably beyond repair, thereby ending any prospect of their securing President Erdogan’s help to end the conflict in Syria.

This explains the understated nature of Russia’s moves.

It is known that the Russians tried to preempt Turkey’s Afrin operation by trying to persuade the Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian government.  The Kurds however refused, so when the Turks attacked the Russians gave them the green light.

Now that the Kurds in Afrin are coming under pressure they have been forced to turn to the Syrian government.  The Russians have therefore given the Syrian government the green light to deploy its forces there.  At the same time they have almost certainly brokered an agreement whereby the Kurds in return for Syrian help will surrender districts they control in Aleppo and the town of Manbij to the Syrian government.

At the same time the Russians – anxious to maintain a dialogue with President Erdogan and to help him save face – have ensured that the Syrian deployment to Afrin is of a limited nature, being made up exclusively of pro-government militia forces, with no involvement by the Syrian army

The Al-Masdar news agency has confirmed that no Syrian troops are actually present in Afrin, showing that the deployment of pro-government militia forces to Afrin is intended first and foremost as a piece of positioning in advance of negotiations

No Syrian Arab Army (SAA) troops have entered the Afrin region of Aleppo, a military source in Aleppo told Al-Masdar News on Saturday morning.

According to the military source, the Syrian Army has been ordered to remain in Aleppo city and absent from the Afrin front.

The source added that the Syrian Army agreed to stay out of the battle after the Russian military held a meeting with their Turkish counterparts.

While the Syrian Army is absent from Afrin, the pro-government National Defense Forces (NDF) have entered this region to aid the Kurdish-led YPG.

The NDF coordinates with the Syrian Army, but they are not an actual branch of the military, which means they can operate autonomously if need be.

(bold italics added)

Russia’s plan

It is not in fact difficult to see what the Russian plan is.

Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch has now brought the whole of the border area in northern Afrin under Turkish control.

The Russians are now doubtless telling the Turks that this has achieved for Turkey its primary objective, which is to prevent the movement of Kurdish YPG and PKK fighters and supplies from Afrin into Turkey.

However the Russians are doubtless also telling the Turks that further advances deeper into Afrin would be unwise since they will meet with increased resistance not just from the Kurds but from forces loyal to Damascus. They will point to the presence of pro-government militia forces in Afrin to reinforce their point.

Having secured the border, they will be saying to Erdogan and to the Turks that it is now in Turkey’s interests to declare victory and stop.

As for the Kurds, the Russians will be reminding them that when they came under attack from Turkey their US ‘allies’ were nowhere to be seen, so that they had to look for help to the Syrian government and to Russia.

It is not therefore in the Kurds’ interests to get enmeshed in the US’s Plan C.  Better for them to come to terms with the Syrian government – which means accepting its authority – whilst relying on the help of Russia to secure such terms for them as it can.

The Russians will be reminding the Kurds that Russia has always been sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations, and they will be advising the Kurds to listen to Russia’s advice as advice coming from a friend.

As for the Syrian government, any agreement with the Kurds and with Turkey which detaches the Kurds from the US and which results in the establishment of a Syrian government presence in areas formerly under Kurdish control would be for it a good thing, advancing the Syrian government’s eventual goal of re-establishing its control over all of Syria’s territory, whilst if Turkish plans to establish a safe zone for Turkey’s Jihadi proxies in northern Syria can be prevented, then that would be even better.

The Russians will not only be telling the Syrians all this; they will also be telling the Syrians that accepting a limited and ultimately temporary presence of Turkish troops in northern Afrin and making some minor concessions to the Kurds on questions of cultural autonomy and local government is a small price to pay in order to achieve it.

Will it work?

Any negotiation involving President Erdogan and the Kurds is fraught with difficulty.

Both have maximalist objectives – in President Erdogan’s case for the establishment of a Jihadi dominated Islamist state in Syria under Turkish control, in the case of the Kurds for self-rule in an independent Kurdish state – to which they are emotionally deeply committed, and which they are very reluctant to give up.

Moreover there is the further complicating factor that neither President Erdogan nor the Kurds can be trusted to keep whatever agreements they make.  That means that any agreement made with them requires constant effort to be kept effective.

Against this both President Erdogan and the Kurds find themselves in increasing difficulties.

For President Erdogan, whilst Operation Olive Branch has made some important advances in Afrin, it has done so at the price of heavy losses, and against combined Russian, Syrian and Kurdish opposition it is likely to run into increasing difficulties.

President Erdogan must also worry about Turkey’s rapidly deteriorating relations with the US, and may calculate that Turkey therefore needs at least the appearance of a good relationship with Russia in order to protect itself from the US.

Over and above these considerations, following the incident of the downing of the Russian SU-24 President Erdogan knows very well the heavy price Turkey will pay if it crosses Russia.  With Turkey’s economy showing signs of overheating, and heavily dependent on Russia, he has every incentive to keep relations with Russia on track.

As for the Kurds, their recent setbacks in Afrin have shown them that for all their bragging they cannot take on the Turkish military by themselves, and that in a showdown with Turkey they cannot rely on the US to save them.

Both President Erdogan and the Kurds therefore have reasons to draw back, though whether the Russians can persuade them to do so is another matter.

Having said this, both President Erdogan and the Kurds have shown themselves to be willing to make compromises in the past, so the possibility that they can be persuaded to do so again should not be completely discounted.

What is beyond dispute is that Russian diplomacy is working flat out to achieve that very thing.

Not only is the Russian military talking to the Turkish military on the ground, but Alexander Lavrentyev, a top Russian diplomat and President Putin’s personal envoy, has just met with President Assad in Damascus, whilst President Putin and President Erdogan have again spoken to each other, as the Russians gear up for the summit they are trying to convene between President Putin of Russia, President Erdogan of Turkey and President Rouhani of Iran in Istanbul.

Much now rides on the success of this summit.  However the possibility of a breakthrough is there.

Of course if that happens it will be the final end of the US’s Plan C, and the beginning of the end of the war in Syria.

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Ukraine Wants Nuclear Weapons: Will the West Bow to the Regime in Kiev?

Efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation are one of the few issues on which the great powers agree, intending to continue to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and to prevent new entrants into the exclusive nuclear club.

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Authored by Federico Pieraccini via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The former Ukrainian envoy to NATO, Major General Petro Garashchuk, recently stated in an interview with Obozrevatel TV:

“I’ll say it once more. We have the ability to develop and produce our own nuclear weapons, currently available in the world, such as the one that was built in the former USSR and which is now in independent Ukraine, located in the city of Dnipro (former Dnipropetrovsk) that can produce these kinds of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Neither the United States, nor Russia, nor China have produced a missile named Satan … At the same time, Ukraine does not have to worry about international sanctions when creating these nuclear weapons.”

The issue of nuclear weapons has always united the great powers, especially following the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The decision to reduce the number of nuclear weapons towards the end of the Cold War went hand in hand with the need to prevent the spread of such weapons of mass destruction to other countries in the best interests of humanity. During the final stages of the Cold War, the scientific community expended great effort on impressing upon the American and Soviet leadership how a limited nuclear exchange would wipe out humanity. Moscow and Washington thus began START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) negotiations to reduce the risk of a nuclear winter. Following the dissolution of the USSR, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances persuaded Ukraine to relinquish its nuclear weapons and accede to the NPT in exchange for security assurances from its signatories.

Ukraine has in recent years begun entertaining the possibility of returning to the nuclear fold, especially in light of North Korea’s recent actions. Kim Jong-un’s lesson seems to be that a nuclear deterrent remains the only way of guaranteeing complete protection against a regional hegemon. The situation in Ukraine, however, differs from that of North Korea, including in terms of alliances and power relations. Kiev’s government came into power as a result of a coup d’etat carried out by extremist nationalist elements who seek their inspiration from Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. The long arm of NATO has always been deeply involved in the dark machinations that led to Poroshenko’s ascendency to the Ukrainian presidency. From a geopolitical point of view, NATO’s operation in Ukraine (instigating a civil war in the wake of a coup) follows in the footsteps of what happened in Georgia. NATO tends to organize countries with existing anti-Russia sentiments to channel their Russophobia into concrete actions that aim to undermine Moscow. The war in the Donbass is a prime example.

However, Ukraine has been unable to subdue the rebels in the Donbass region, the conflict freezing into a stalemate and the popularity of the Kiev government falling as the population’s quality of life experiences a precipitous decline. The United States and the European Union have not kept their promises, leaving Poroshenko desperate and tempted to resort to provocations like the recent Kerch strait incident or such as those that are apparently already in the works, as recently reported by the DPR authorities.

The idea of Ukraine resuming its production of nuclear weapons is currently being floated by minor figures, but it could take hold in the coming months, especially if the conflict continues in its frozen state and Kiev becomes frustrated and desperate. The neoconservative wing of the American ruling elite, absolutely committed to the destruction of the Russian Federation, could encourage Kiev along this path, in spite of the incalculable risks involved. The EU, on the other hand, would likely be terrified at the prospect, which would also place it between a rock and a hard place. Kiev, on one side, would be able to extract from the EU much needed economic assistance in exchange for not going nuclear, while on the other side the neocons would be irresponsibly egging the Ukrainians on.

Moscow, if faced with such a possibility, would not just stand there. In spite of Russia having good relations with North Korea, it did not seem too excited at the prospect of having a nuclear-armed neighbor. With Ukraine, the response would be much more severe. A nuclear-armed Ukraine would be a red line for Moscow, just as Crimea and Sevastopol were. It is worth remembering the Russian president’s words when referring to the possibility of a NATO invasion of Crimea during the 2014 coup:

“We were ready to do it [putting Russia’s nuclear arsenal on alert]. Russian people live there, they are in danger, we cannot leave them. It was not us who committed to coup, it was the nationalists and people with extreme beliefs. I do not think this is actually anyone’s wish – to turn it into a global conflict.”

As Kiev stands on the precipice, it will be good for the neocons, the neoliberals and their European lackeys to consider the consequences of advising Kiev to jump or not. Giving the nuclear go-ahead to a Ukrainian leadership so unstable and detached from reality may just be the spark that sets off Armageddon.

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Mike Pompeo lays out his vision for American exceptionalism (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 158.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and International Affairs and Security Analyst via Moscow, Mark Sleboda take a look at Mike Pompeo’s shocking Brussels speech, where the U.S. Secretary of State took aim at the European Union and United Nations, citing such institutions as outdated and poorly managed, in need of a new dogma that places America at its epicenter.

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Speaking in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unwittingly underscored why nobody takes the United States seriously on the international stage. Via The Council on Foreign Relations


In a disingenuous speech at the German Marshall Fund, Pompeo depicted the transactional and hypernationalist Trump administration as “rallying the noble nations of the world to build a new liberal order.” He did so while launching gratuitous attacks on the European Union, United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—pillars of the existing postwar order the United States did so much to create. He remained silent, naturally, on the body blows that the current administration has delivered to its erstwhile allies and partners, and to the institutions that once upon a time permitted the United States to legitimate rather than squander its international leadership.

In Pompeo’s telling, Donald J. Trump is simply seeking a return to the world that former Secretary of State George Marshall helped to create. In the decades after 1945, the United States “underwrote new institutions” and “entered into treaties to codify Western values of freedom and human rights.” So doing, the United States “won the Cold War” and—thanks to the late President George H. W. Bush, “we won the peace” that followed. “This is the type of leadership that President Trump is boldly reasserting.”

That leadership is needed because the United States “allowed this liberal order to begin to corrode” once the bipolar conflict ended. “Multilateralism has too often become viewed as an end unto itself,” Pompeo explained. “The more treaties we sign, the safer we supposedly are. The more bureaucrats we have, the better the job gets done.” What is needed is a multilateralism that once again places the nation-state front and center.

Leave aside for the moment that nobody actually believes what Pompeo alleges: that multilateralism should be an end in itself; that paper commitments are credible absent implementation, verification, and enforcement; or that the yardstick of success is how many bureaucrats get hired. What sensible people do believe is that multilateral cooperation is often (though not always) the best way for nations to advance their interests in an interconnected world of complicated problems. Working with others is typically superior to unilateralism, since going it alone leaves the United States with the choice of trying to do everything itself (with uncertain results) or doing nothing. Multilateralism also provides far more bang for the buck than President Trump’s favored approach to diplomacy, bilateralism.

Much of Pompeo’s address was a selective and tendentious critique of international institutions that depicts them as invariably antithetical to national sovereignty. Sure, he conceded, the European Union has “delivered a great deal of prosperity to the continent.” But it has since gone badly off track, as the “political wake-up call” of Brexit showed. All this raised a question in his mind: “Is the EU ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats and Brussels?”

The answer, as one listener shouted out, is “Yes!” The secretary, like many U.S. conservative critics of European integration, is unaware that EU member states continue to hold the lion’s share of power in the bloc, which remains more intergovernmental than supranational. Pompeo seems equally unaware of how disastrously Brexit is playing out. With each passing day, the costs of this catastrophic, self-inflicted wound are clearer. In its quest for complete policy autonomy—on ostensible “sovereignty” grounds—the United Kingdom will likely have to accept, as the price for EU market access, an entire body of law and regulations that it will have no say in shaping. So much for advancing British sovereignty.

Pompeo similarly mischaracterizes the World Bank and IMF as having gone badly off track. “Today, these institutions often counsel countries who have mismanaged their economic affairs to impose austerity measures that inhibit growth and crowd out private sector actors.” This is an odd, hybrid critique. It combines a shopworn, leftist criticism from the 1990s—that the international financial institutions (IFIs) punish poor countries with structural adjustment programs—with the conservative accusation that the IFIs are socialist, big-government behemoths. Both are ridiculous caricatures. They ignore how much soul-searching the IFIs have done since the 1990s, as well as how focused they are on nurturing an enabling institutional environment for the private sector in partner countries.

Pompeo also aims his blunderbuss at the United Nations. He complains that the United Nations’ “peacekeeping missions drag on for decades, no closer to peace,” ignoring the indispensable role that blue helmets play in preventing atrocities, as well as a recent Government Accountability Office report documenting how cost-effective such operations are compared to U.S. troops. Similarly, Pompeo claims, “The UN’s climate-related treaties are viewed by some nations simply as a vehicle to redistribute wealth”—an accusation that is both unsubstantiated and ignores the urgent need to mobilize global climate financing to save the planet.

Bizarrely, Pompeo also turns his sights on the Organization of American States (OAS) and the African Union (AU), for alleged shortcomings. Has the OAS, he asks, done enough “to promote its four pillars of democracy, human rights, security, and economic development?” Um, no. Could that have something to do with the lack of U.S. leadership in the Americas on democracy and human rights? Yes. Might it have helped if the Trump administration had filled the position of assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs before October 15 of this year? Probably.

Equally puzzling is Pompeo’s single line riff on the AU. “In Africa, does the African Union advance the mutual interest of its nation-state members?” Presumably the answer is yes, or its members would be headed for the door. The AU continues to struggle in financing its budget, but it has made great strides since its founding in 2002 to better advance security, stability, and good governance on the continent.

“International bodies must help facilitate cooperation that bolsters the security and values of the free world, or they must be reformed or eliminated,” Pompeo declared. Sounds reasonable. But where is this “free world” of which the secretary speaks, and what standing does the United States today have to defend, much less reform it? In the two years since he took office, Donald Trump has never expressed any interest in defending the international order, much less “returning [the United States] to its traditional, central leadership role in the world,” as Pompeo claims. Indeed, the phrase “U.S. leadership” has rarely escaped Trump’s lips, and he has gone out of his way to alienate longstanding Western allies and partners in venues from NATO to the G7.

When he looks at the world, the president cares only about what’s in it for the United States (and, naturally, for him). That cynicism explains the president’s deafening silence on human rights violations and indeed his readiness to cozy up to strongmen and killers from Vladimir Putin to Rodrigo Duterte to Mohammed bin Salman to too many more to list. Given Trump’s authoritarian sympathies and instincts, Pompeo’s warnings about “Orwellian human rights violations” in China and “suppressed opposition voices” in Russia ring hollow.

“The central question that we face,” Pompeo asked in Brussels, “is the question of whether the system as currently configured, as it exists today—does it work? Does it work for all the people of the world?” The answer, of course, is not as well as it should, and not for nearly enough of them. But if the secretary is seeking to identify impediments to a better functioning multilateral system, he can look to his left in his next Cabinet meeting.

“Principled realism” is the label Pompeo has given Trump’s foreign policy. Alas, it betrays few principles and its connection to reality is tenuous. The president has abandoned any pursuit of universal values, and his single-minded obsession to “reassert our sovereignty” (as Pompeo characterizes it) is actually depriving the United States of joining with others to build the prosperous, secure, and sustainable world that Americans want.

“Bad actors have exploited our lack of leadership for their own gain,” the secretary of state declared in Belgium. “This is the poisoned fruit of American retreat.” How true. Pompeo’s next sentence—“President Trump is determined to reverse that”—was less persuasive.

 

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Russia calls on US to put a leash on Petro Poroshenko

The West’s pass for Mr. Poroshenko may blow up in NATO’s and the US’s face if the Ukrainian President tries to start a war with Russia.

Seraphim Hanisch

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Russia called on Washington not to ignore the Poroshenko directives creating an active military buildup along the Ukrainian-Donbass frontier, this buildup consisting of Ukrainian forces and right-wing ultranationalists, lest it “trigger the implementation of a bloody scenario”, according to a Dec 11 report from TASS.

The [Russian] Embassy [to the US] urges the US State Department to recognize the presence of US instructors in the zone of combat actions, who are involved in a command and staff and field training of Ukraine’s assault airborne brigades. “We expect that the US will bring to reason its proteges. Their aggressive plans are not only doomed to failure but also run counter to the statements of the administration on its commitment to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine by political and diplomatic means,” the statement said.

This warning came after Eduard Basurin, the deputy defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic noted that the Ukrainian army was massing troops and materiel for a possible large-scale offensive at the Mariupol section of the contact line in Donbass. According to Basurin, this action is expected to take place on 14 December. TASS offered more details:

According to the DPR’s reconnaissance data, Ukrainian troops plan to seize the DPR’s Novoazovsky and Temanovsky districts and take control over the border section with Russia. The main attack force of over 12,000 servicemen has been deployed along the contact line near the settlements of Novotroitskoye, Shirokino, and Rovnopol. Moreover, more than 50 tanks, 40 multiple missile launcher systems, 180 artillery systems and mortars have been reportedly pulled to the area, Basurin added. Besides, 12 BM-30 Smerch heavy multiple rocket launchers have been sent near Volodarsky.

The DPR has warned about possible provocations plotted by Ukrainian troops several times. Thus, in early December, the DPR’s defense ministry cited reconnaissance data indicating that the Ukrainian military was planning to stage an offensive and deliver an airstrike. At a Contact Group meeting on December 5, DPR’s Foreign Minister Natalia Nikonorova raised the issue of Kiev’s possible use of chemical weapons in the conflict area.

This is a continuation of the reported buildup The Duran reported in this article linked here, and it is a continuation of the full-scale drama that started with the Kerch Strait incident, which itself appears to have been staged by Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko. Following that incident, the president was able to get about half of Ukraine placed under a 30-day period of martial law, citing “imminent Russian aggression.”

President Poroshenko is arguably a dangerous man. He appears to be desperate to maintain a hold on power, though his approval numbers and support is abysmally low in Ukraine. While he presents himself as a hero, agitating for armed conflict with Russia and simultaneously interfering in the affairs of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church, he is actually one of the most dangerous leaders the world has to contend with, precisely because he is unfit to lead.

Such men and women are dangerous because their desperation makes them short-sighted, only concerned about their power and standing.

An irony about this matter is that President Poroshenko appears to be exactly what the EuroMaidan was “supposed” to free Ukraine of; that is, a stooge puppet leader that marches to orders from a foreign power and does nothing for the improvement of the nation and its citizens.

The ouster of Viktor Yanukovich was seen as the sure ticket to “freedom from Russia” for Ukraine, and it may well have been that Mr. Yanukovich was an incompetent leader. However, his removal resulted in a tryannical regíme coming into power, that resulting in the secession of two Ukrainian regions into independent republics and a third secession of strategically super-important Crimea, who voted in a referendum to rejoin Russia.

While this activity was used by the West to try to bolster its own narrative that Russia remains the evil henchman in Europe, the reality of life in Ukraine doesn’t match this allegation at all. A nation that demonstrates such behavior shows that there are many problems, and the nature of these secessions points at a great deal of fear from Russian-speaking Ukrainian people about the government that is supposed to be their own.

President Poroshenko presents a face to the world that the West is apparently willing to support, but the in-country approval of this man as leader speaks volumes. The West’s blind support of him “against Russia” may be one of the most tragic errors yet in Western foreign policy.

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