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Russia is playing a powerful role in Syria, but it has competition

Putin needs help from other neighboring powers to resolve the conflict once and for all

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(Al-Monitor) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared “a complete victory” over the Islamic State (IS) on both banks of the Euphrates River in Syria. He announced Dec. 6 that the military operation in the area is now finished, and focus will switch to a political process in Syria that will eventually involve presidential and parliamentary elections, Putin added.

His announcement, as well as his bid for a fourth term as president, were sidelined in the media by US President Donald Trump’s controversial same-day statement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. Yet there’s no shortage of stories describing the multiple challenges Moscow now faces in Syria, from setting up the Syrian National Dialogue Congress (which is supposed to be held this month) and handling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to ensuring an “Iran-free” post-war Syria or granting broader autonomy to the Kurds.

Some observers are concerned Russia might further “hijack” Syria’s settlement process. Others, including Russia itself, argue that Moscow’s role will gradually diminish now that other parties with a lot more at stake — Turkey and Iran in particular — will be coming to the forefront.

Ironically, those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive scenarios. Even though Russia’s current role in the process is still controversial, it’s objectively necessary. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United States — each due to their own reasons and motives — simply cannot do what Russia is doing: coming up with different ideas to move the political process forward, and working with all sorts of local and regional players opposed to one another. Some are forced to work with Moscow, not having other viable alternatives. Others genuinely see Russia as their go-to representative. Whether accurately or erroneously, they believe Russia can deliver whatever they’re asking for.

Even though Russia’s current role in the process is still controversial, it’s objectively necessary.

Moscow is partly to blame for setting the bar high for their perceptions. In recent years, Putin has convinced much of the world of Russia’s omnipotence in Syria and across the Middle East, elbowing his way to lead the process. Many in the region now have a rather inaccurate view of Russia’s situation in Syria.

One of these “perception traps” is the belief that Moscow is in control of the Assad government. In the absence of other leverage over Assad, Western and regional governments continue to appeal to Russia to work its influence, which it has been doing with random successes. The truth is, two years into Russia’s direct involvement in the Syria conflict, it’s still impossible to assess to what degree Assad is under Moscow’s control. Russia has palpable influence in some major areas, such as the military and intelligence. Russian military instructors are training the Syrian army, Russian officers have planned major offenses for government forces and in private chats, and Russian diplomats would say Assad is listening to what the Kremlin has to say. At the same time, Moscow has no illusions about Assad’s personal loyalty or his ambitions to keep his power, despite Russian efforts for a political settlement and talks with the opposition.

Moscow still doesn’t regret its decision to prop up Assad, simply because it never changed its mind about how Syria might have looked now, if Assad had been forced out of power six years ago. But, at times, Russia arguably does seem to wish it was the sole decision-maker on Syria in its dealings with the opposition camp — including external actors — for it would have been a much more streamlined process.

But the reality is, while Russia is a principal actor, it cannot resolve the situation all alone, and the much-rumored divergence of interests in the coalition meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan, does indeed exist.

This leads to the second-biggest faulty perception, which is reflected in the positions of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States. They keep pushing Moscow to convince Tehran to abandon its goal of ensuring a stronghold for itself in Syria. The presumption that Russia has major influence over Iran probably stems from three things: the “alliance” the two have forged over the course of the war; their growing cooperation on important economic, infrastructural and regional issues; and their seemingly shared opposition to the United States.

Russia and Iran are “strategic singles” in the international and regional arenas, and each ultimately has a strong sense of self. But they share an affinity for the way things are shaping up in the Mideast, and they intend to have each other as partners rather than adversaries.

There’s not as much space between those two poles as some might think, however, and there’s a delicate balance that could be upset easily with a careless move by either party. Neither side wants to find out what the result of such a move might look like. That’s why Russia’s not willing to put pressure on Iran to leave Syria.

In the meantime, Russia and Iran are carefully approaching one another on other sensitive matters — in Syria and elsewhere — with each party learning and making important choices for itself through the lens of its own interests.

Moscow is very likely aware of Iran’s activities that Tehran’s opponents deem subversive and toxic. But as long as these activities don’t target Russian interests, Moscow doesn’t see a need to react harshly.

For example, Moscow no doubt is mulling Iran’s desire for a “Shiite corridor” stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon. Israel and Saudi Arabia see the idea as dangerous. But before reacting, Moscow will deconstruct this concept to distinguish Iran’s interests and determine its potential effects on Russia. Does Iran need a physical land corridor? If so, would that pose a threat to Russian military forces or its control over economic assets it has acquired in Syria? Perhaps Iran is only seeking a “virtual corridor” where its goal is political influence — in which case Moscow will also examine the idea with respect to its own opportunities.

Iran’s grip on political forces across the region and what appears to be the construction of a military facility in Syria — a site Israel recently targeted — suggest Tehran seeks both a physical and political corridor. Russia must determine what level of Iranian presence on the ground is acceptable. But even before that, Moscow needs a clear vision of what it wants for itself in Syria — what kind of presence it needs and how many commitments it’s willing to make.

Until Moscow has clear answers to these questions, it will continue to compartmentalize the issues and its relationships with regional players.

But then, getting too close with Iran could also jeopardize the relationship’s balance. When the United States or Israel has a beef with Tehran, they assume Russian will jump to Iran’s side. Yet Russia wants to avoid complicating its relations with the United States and Israel over Iran.

This highlights what is possibly the biggest problem of the Russian-Iranian partnership: lack of trust. There’s barely any trust between any set of players in the Middle East to begin with, and often even less with outsiders. Russia and Iran have a bad history with each other that shapes their perceptions and defines their political discourse. A retired Russian diplomat once remarked to Al-Monitor, “Putin enjoys good personal chemistry with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and seems to trust him more than he does the Iranians.”

So trust isn’t a given. It’s a political resource to be accumulated over a long period of time, patiently built through concrete actions. Russia and Iran have gained some of this through a number of joint economic initiatives and military interactions in Syria. The experiences weren’t always successful, so trust is still minimal, but at least now Moscow and Tehran have something on which to base their future work. They will try to maintain their balance, swaying on certain issues that won’t necessarily favor the other party. But the expectations of what Moscow can and cannot do regarding Iran should also be kept balanced.

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Photos of swastika on Ukrainian mall stairway creates a stir [Video]

Ukrainian nationalist press in damage-control mode to explain away the Nazi sign, but they forgot the name of the street the mall is on.

Seraphim Hanisch

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One of the aspects of news about Ukraine that does not make it past the gatekeepers of the American and Western news media is how a significant contingent of Ukrainian nationalists have espoused a sense of reverence for Nazis. The idea that this could even happen anywhere in the world in an open manner makes the claim seem too absurd to be taken seriously. Gone are the days when the Nazi swastika adorned streets and buildings in Europe. Right?

Well, maybe, wrong.

This was seen in Kyiv’s Gorodok (or Horodok, if you insist) Gallery, a shopping center in that city, located on Bandera Avenue.

The pro-nationalist news service UNIAN wasted no time going to press with their explanation of this incident, which admittedly may be accurate:

Children and teenagers who participated in the All-Ukrainian break dance festival held in the Kyiv-based Gorodok Gallery shopping mall were shocked to see a swastika image projected onto an LED staircase.

The mall administration apologized to visitors, explaining saying that their computer system had apparently been hacked.

“The administration and staff have no relation to whatever was projected onto the LED-staircase, and in no way does it support such [an] act. Now we are actively searching for those involved in the attack,” it said in a statement.

According to Gorodok Gallery’s administrative office, it was not the first time a cyber breach took place.

As reported earlier, Ukraine is believed to be a testing ground for cyberattacks, many of which are launched from Russia. Hackers have earlier targeted critical energy infrastructure, state institutions, banks, and large businesses.

This time, it appears, hackers aimed to feed the Kremlin’s narrative of “Nazis in power in Ukraine” and create a relevant hype-driving viral story for Russian media to spread it worldwide.

The Gorodok Gallery also apologized on its Facebook page and said that this was a result of hacking.

But what about the street that the mall is on? From the self-same Facebook page, this is what we see:


To translate, for those who do not read Ukrainian or Russian, the address says the following:

23 Steven Bandera Prospekt, Kyiv, Ukraine 04073

This street was formerly called “Moscow Avenue.” Big change, as we shall see.

Steven Bandera got his birthday designated as a national holiday in Ukraine last December. He is known in Ukraine’s history for one thing. According to the Jerusalem Post:

The street where the shopping mall is located is named for Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who briefly collaborated with Nazi Germany in its fight against Russia.

His troops are believed to have killed thousands of Jews.

Several Israeli papers picked this bit of news up, and of course, the reasons are understandable. However, for the West, it appears possible that this news event will largely go unnoticed, even by that great nation that is often called “Israel’s proxy”, the United States.

This is probably because for certain people in the US, there is a sense of desperation to mask the nature of events that are happening in Ukraine.

The usual fare of mainstream news for the West probably consists of things like “Putin’s military seizes innocent Ukrainian sailors in Kerch incident” or, “Ukraine’s Orthodox Church declared fully independent by Patriarch of Constantinople” (not that too many Americans know what a Constantinople even is, anyway), but the overriding narrative for the American people about this country is “Ukraine are the good guys, and Russia are the bad guys,” and this will not be pushed aside, even to accommodate the logical grievance of Israel to this incident.

If this article gets to Western papers at all, it will be the UNIAN line they adhere to, that evil pro-Russia hackers caused this stairway to have a swastika to provoke the idea that Ukraine somehow supports Naziism.

But UNIAN neglected to mention that the street name was recently changed to Stephan Bandera (in 2016), and no one appears to have hacked this. Nor does UNIAN talk about the Azov fighters that openly espoused much of the Nazi ideology. For nationalist Ukrainians, this is all for the greater good of getting rid of all things Russia.

A further sad fact about this is the near impossibility of getting assuredly honest and neutral information about this and other similar happenings. Both Ukrainian nationalists and Russian media agencies have dogs in the race, so to speak. They are both personally connected to these events. However, the Russian media cannot be discounted here, because they do offer a witness and perspective, probably the closest to any objective look at what is going on in Ukraine. We include a video of a “torchlight march” that took place in 2017 that featured such hypernationalist activity, which is not reported in the West.

More such reports are available, but this one seemed the best one to summarize the character of what is going on in the country.

While we do not know the motive and identities of whoever programmed the swastika, it cannot really be stated that this was just a random publicity stunt in a country that has no relationship with Nazi veneration.

The street the mall is on bears witness to that.

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Putin: If mid-range missiles deployed in Europe, Russia will station arms to strike decision centers

Putin: If US deploys mid-range missiles in Europe, Russia will be forced to respond.

RT

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Via RT…


If the US deploys intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Moscow will respond by stationing weapons aimed not only against missiles themselves, but also at command and control centers, from which a launch order would come.

The warning came from President Vladimir Putin, who announced Russia’s planned actions after the US withdraws from the INF Treaty – a Cold War-era agreement between Washington and Moscow which banned both sides form having ground-based cruise and ballistic missiles and developing relevant technology.

The US is set to unilaterally withdraw from the treaty in six months, which opens the possibility of once again deploying these missiles in Europe. Russia would see that as a major threat and respond with its own deployments, Putin said.

Intermediate-range missiles were banned and removed from Europe because they would leave a very short window of opportunity for the other side to decide whether to fire in retaliation after detecting a launch – mere minutes. This poses the threat of an accidental nuclear exchange triggered by a false launch warning, with the officer in charge having no time to double check.

“Russia will be forced to create and deploy weapon systems, which can be used not only against the territories from which this direct threat would be projected, but also against those territories where decision centers are located, from which an order to use those weapons against us may come.” The Russian president, who was delivering a keynote address to the Russian parliament on Wednesday, did not elaborate on whether any counter-deployment would only target US command-and-control sites in Europe or would also include targets on American soil.

He did say the Russian weapon system in terms of flight times and other specifications would “correspond” to those targeting Russia.

“We know how to do it and we will implement those plans without a delay once the relevant threats against us materialize,”he said.

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Russia’s Lukoil Halts Oil Swaps In Venezuela After U.S. Sanctions

Under the new wide-ranging U.S. sanctions, Venezuela will not be able to import U.S. naphtha which it has typically used to dilute its heavy crude grades.

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Via Oilprice.com


Litasco, the international trading arm of Russia’s second-biggest oil producer Lukoil, stopped its oil swaps deals with Venezuela immediately after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry and state oil firm PDVSA, Lukoil’s chief executive Vagit Alekperov said at an investment forum in Russia.

Russia, which stands by Nicolas Maduro in the ongoing Venezuelan political crisis, has vowed to defend its interests in Venezuela—including oil interests—within the international law using “all mechanisms available to us.”

Because of Moscow’s support for Maduro, the international community and market analysts are closely watching the relationship of Russian oil companies with Venezuela.

“Litasco does not work with Venezuela. Before the restrictions were imposed, Litasco had operations to deliver oil products and to sell oil. There were swap operations. Today there are none, since the sanctions were imposed,” Lukoil’s Alekperov said at the Russian Investment Forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Another Russian oil producer, Gazprom Neft, however, does not see major risks for its oil business in Venezuela, the company’s chief executive officer Alexander Dyukov said at the same event.

Gazprom Neft has not supplied and does not supply oil products to Venezuela needed to dilute the thick heavy Venezuelan oil, Dyukov said, noting that the Latin American country hadn’t approached Gazprom Neft for possible supply of oil products for diluents.

Under the new wide-ranging U.S. sanctions, Venezuela will not be able to import U.S. naphtha which it has typically used to dilute its heavy crude grades. Analysts expect that a shortage of diluents could accelerate beginning this month the already steadily declining Venezuelan oil production and exports.

Venezuela’s crude oil production plunged by another 59,000 bpd from December 2018 to stand at just 1.106 million bpd in January 2019, OPEC’s secondary sources figures showed in the cartel’s closely watched Monthly Oil Market Report (MOMR) this week.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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