Nikola Mikovic – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 21 Feb 2022 05:24:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.8 The Ukraine Crisis and Lessons from the Balkans https://www.juancole.com/2022/02/ukraine-lessons-balkans.html Mon, 21 Feb 2022 05:08:42 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=203081 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – A large scale conflict seems to be on the verge of breaking out between Western-backed Ukraine and two Russian-sponsored, breakaway republics, the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. Tensions in the coal-rich Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine remain high, and though diplomacy may have postponed a full-scale war, the outbreak of one cannot be ruled out.

On February 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron reportedly agreed to try to secure a ceasefire in the Donbass where shelling along the entire front line dramatically increased over the past few days. The self-proclaimed republics have started mass evacuation of the civilian population, allegedly fearing of an “imminent” Ukrainian military offensive.

Ever since Russia issued an “ultimatum” to the United States in December 2021, demanding an end to NATO expansion eastward, many American analysts and politicians have been speculating about on which day o a Russian invasion of the Eastern European country may begin. After Russia did not attack Ukraine on February 16, as the US President Joe Biden had predicted, the Kremlin officials as well as the Donbass leaders started playing the same game – accusing Ukraine of planning to launch an imminent military offensive against the Russian proxies.

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine can intensify their offensive on the night of February 21 near Donetsk and Lugansk”, said Viktor Vodolatsky, a high-ranking Russian lawmaker, stressing that the Ukrainian Army is “moving towards the self-proclaimed republics”.

Many other Russian politicians insist that a large-scale war could come at any time. Alexander Borodai who served as the first prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and is now a member of the Russian Parliament, claims that a war between Russia and Ukraine is inevitable. It is worth remembering that in 2015 Borodai said that Russian actions in the southeast of Ukraine were a “false start”. Does that mean that in 2022 the Kremlin could capture not just the Donbass, but also other Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine?

According to the Russian political and military analyst Yuriy Podolyaka, tensions in the region will reach its climax on February 21 and 22, while in December 2021 Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Russian systemic opposition Liberal Democratic Party, said that the war will break out on February 22 at 4 AM.

What Russian and Western analysts and politicians have in common is that they both seem to enjoy speculating about the exact date Russia and Ukraine could start a war. But what if they prove to be wrong again?

There are fears in the West that the Russian President Vladimir Putin could seize the entire Ukraine, as well as the Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia – and even try to destabilize the Balkans. Such actions, however, do not seem to be realistic, especially in the Balkans – a region in southeastern Europe that is heavily in the United States’ and the European Union’s geopolitical orbit.

It is entirely possible, however, that Putin could try to fabricate a humanitarian crisis in the Donbass. Indeed, Putin has already started accusing Ukraine of committing “genocide” in the Donbass, and Russian media now focus on a “refugee crisis”, given that thousands of people from the region have been evacuated to Russia. Such a narrative – well-known in the Balkans where the West used the same tactics in the 1990s to demonize the Serbs – could eventually serve as a pretext for a military campaign against Ukraine.

To this day, however, Putin continues to call Ukrainians “brotherly people”, although he refuses to return the coal-rich Donbass region and gas-rich Crimea to “brotherly” Ukraine. Instead, Moscow has deployed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border, most likely in an attempt to send a message to Kiev and Washington that Russia will intervene in case Ukraine launches a military offensive in the Donbass.

If a large-scale war really breaks out, the Donbass republics can count on Serbian volunteers, who already fought on the pro-Russian side in 2014, while fighters from Croatia could yet again join the neo-Nazi Ukrainian Azov battalion. There are also rumors that mercenaries from other Balkan nations could go to the front line in Eastern Ukraine, although not many people in the region are particularly eager to fight in what looks to be a proxy war between Russia and the United States on the Ukrainian territory.

Officially, Serbia calls on both Russia and Ukraine to resolve the crisis by diplomatic means, while the President of Croatia Zoran Milanovic threatens to recall all troops from NATO forces in Eastern Europe in case a conflict between Moscow and Kiev escalates. In other words, Serbia and Croatia are seeking to preserve good ties with both Russia and Ukraine. However, if the West puts enough pressure on the two countries, Belgrade and Zagreb will have to openly side with Kiev.

Meanwhile, the Balkan nations, as well as the rest of the world, will wait to see if apocalyptic predictions of a major war in Europe will come true.

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Despite the U.S. Hype about an “imminent” Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is not Ready to Risk War https://www.juancole.com/2022/02/imminent-invasion-ukraine.html Thu, 03 Feb 2022 05:08:20 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=202768 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – Russia seems to be giving up on the “ultimatum” it issued to the United States in December. After Washington and its allies said no to Moscow’s security demands, the Kremlin started to soften its rhetoric regarding a potential NATO expansion eastward.

Western media, however, keep spreading rumors of an “imminent” Russian invasion of Ukraine, even though both Moscow and Kiev claim that they do not intend to start a war. Reports suggest that Russia has begun withdrawing some of its troops from the Ukrainian border, after the Russian Army completed its military exercises in the region. More importantly, Lieutenant General of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Mikhail Zabrodsky, who is also a member of the country’s parliament, said that Ukraine is not ready for large-scale hostilities.

It is entirely possible that both sides are bluffing, although at this point Russia does not seem to have enough troops on the border with Ukraine to launch an invasion. It is believed that Moscow has massed 120.000 troops near its neighbor, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba insists that such a number is insufficient for a full-scale offensive

“We can say 100 times a day invasion is imminent, but this doesn’t change the situation on the ground”, Kuleba said.

Indeed, with 120.000 troops Russia is unlikely to invade the second largest country in Europe. Ukraine is around the same size as Texas, but unlike the oil-rich state, the Eastern European nation does not have any significant natural resources. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Russia already achieved its military and political goals in 2014 when Moscow incorporated Crimea – with its significant gas reserves – into the Russian Federation. The Kremlin, through lucrative oligarchic schemes, de facto controls coal production in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbass region, which means that an invasion of Ukraine would be an unnecessary expense for Moscow.

If, however, Western-backed Ukraine eventually attempts to restore its sovereignty over the Donbass by force, Russia could intervene to protect its proxies – the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. All political parties in the Russian Parliament (State Duma) openly support the Donbass republics, and on February 14 they are expected to officially call on the President Vladimir Putin to recognize the independence of those Russia-backed entities.

In Russian politics, it is the President, rather than Parliament, that has the last say. Given that Putin and other Kremlin officials have been trying to reach a compromise with the West over Ukraine for almost two months, it is quite possible that the Duma appeal for the recognition of the Donbass republics is yet another Putin’s attempt to make a deal with his Western partners. The problem for Moscow, however, is that Western policy makers and strategic planners do not take Russia’s tricks, threats, demands and red lines seriously any more.

Russia issued a list of security demands to the United States and NATO in December, and it took more than a month for Washington and Brussels to send a written response to Moscow. Although the answer to Russia’s proposals was “no,” the Kremlin still continues to hold talks with the West. On February 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the Ukraine crises over the phone, while British defense and foreign secretaries are expected to visit Moscow later this month.

At the same time, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Poland and the Baltic countries, continue to supply tons of weapons to Ukraine. More importantly, Ukraine, Poland, and the UK plan to form a trilateral alliance, which will put Russia in a very difficult position. An attack on Ukraine will be viewed as an attack on NATO members Poland and Great Britain, and even a limited military assistance to the Donbass republics will result in severe anti-Russian sanctions.

London has already announced sanctions on the Russian oligarchs who live and have properties and assets in the UK. The Kremlin, for its part, promised retaliatory measures, although it remains unclear how Russia could respond to such an action. British oligarchs do not hold their money in Russian banks, nor do children and grandchildren of the British officials live and study in Russia. Thus, the Kremlin’s announcement appears to be another empty threat.

In January, Russia sought the withdrawal of NATO forces and weapons from Romania and Bulgaria, but after it became obvious that the US-dominated alliance does not intend to back down, the Kremlin changed the tone. On February 1, Moscow clarified that it actually did not want Bulgaria to leave NATO. Because of such political flip-flops, Russia looks weak in the eyes of the Western strategic planners.

The West now threats to ban Russian banks from SWIFT – the international payment system used by banks around the world – but Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev believes the country can do without dollar payments if necessary, replacing them with payments in euro or yuan. The Kremlin has been using the same notion for years, although in reality Russia’s economy remains heavily linked with the current global finance system.

The very fact that Russia’s truck producer KAMAZ refused to produce military equipment to avoid Western sanctions, clearly suggests that Moscow is not ready for a serious confrontation with the United States and NATO over Ukraine. Even if a proxy war in Eastern Europe eventually breaks out, it will likely be a limited confrontation.

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Is Turkey’s Erdogan looking for leverage over Putin in Ukraine? https://www.juancole.com/2022/01/turkeys-erdogan-leverage.html Tue, 04 Jan 2022 05:08:50 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=202187 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – In case of war between Russia and Ukraine, Turkey – Moscow’s strategic frenemy – would undoubtedly side with Kiev. Even though a wide-scale conflict has not yet started, Ankara is already trying to strengthen its political positions in the Black Sea region.

Rumors are flying that Turkey plans to take part in a military operation against Russia-backed forces in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. According to unconfirmed reports, Turkey will lead the NATO action and will help Ukrainian Army capture the territory that has been under control of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic since 2014.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, has warned that the conflict in the Donbass should not be resolved by military means, otherwise there would be “grave consequences” for Ukrainian statehood. Such a statement is a clear demonstration to both Kiev and the West that Russia intends to intervene if Ukraine launches a large-scale military offensive against Moscow’s proxies. But would Russia really dare to react if NATO troops take part in such an operation?

Although such a scenario does not seem very probable, given that the United Kingdom has already pointed out that it would not fight Russian troops on Ukrainian soil, it is entirely possible that certain Western private military companies would deploy their contractors to the Eastern European country. Turkey, for its part, would unlikely openly interfere in a potential conflict, but Ankara has already signaled that it has no intention to abandon its military cooperation with Ukraine.

“We will not ignore our principles and our close relations with Ukraine just because we have extensive relations with Russia,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on December 24.

Indeed, Ankara has already supplied Kiev with sophisticated Bayraktar drones that proved to be a game changer in the 44-day war fought between Russia’s nominal ally Armenia and Turkey-backed Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020. Interestingly enough, Moscow is reportedly now also interested in purchasing Turkish-made unmanned aerial systems, and Turkey sees no issue in selling drones to Russia. In other words, Ankara aims to sell weapons to both sides and maximally benefit from a potential war.

Despite huge economic problems and currency crisis, Turkey apparently does not plan to give up its geopolitical ambitions. Ankara aims to preserve good ties with both Moscow and Kiev, and Turkish leaders are quite aware that, even if a war eventually breaks out and Erdogan continues to provide military support to Ukraine, the Kremlin will not abandon its lucrative energy projects in Turkey. Thus, Moscow may strongly condemn Turkish arm sales to Ukraine, but in reality Russia will do nothing to prevent such a cooperation.

According to reports, Turkish special forces have been training Ukrainian military, preparing it for “unconventional warfare” since 2016. The two countries have been strategic partners since 2011. In 2019 Ukrainian Armed Forces purchased six Bayraktar drones and three ground control stations from Turkey, and in September 2021 the two nations signed a Memorandum on construction of joint drone training and testing center. Although Russian officials insist that any expansion of NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine would cross the Kremlin’s “red lines”, Moscow is taking no steps to stop the second largest NATO army from strengthening military ties with Kiev.

Instead, Russia is likely planning to turn Syria’s Qamishli Airport, located right on the country’s border with Turkey, into a new permanent air base. Besides Syria, Russia already has military bases in Armenia, the self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia, as well as in Crimea, which means that Moscow now has a ring of bases that halfway encircle Turkey. That, however, does not mean that the two countries will ever fight a direct war. The Kremlin’s actions in Syria, and Turkish ties with Ukraine, could be interpreted as part of a “pragmatic situational partnership” between Moscow and Ankara, in which Kiev and Damascus are used merely as instruments.

Turkey is treating Syria’s Idlib province the similar way Russia treats the Donbass. Ankara has de facto created a state within the state on the territory controlled by its proxies in northwest Syria, and has no intention to withdraw its troops from the region any time soon. The difference, however, is that the Donbass, unlike Idlib, has significant coal reserves, but when it comes to energy Turkey seems to have another trump-card against Russia. In July 2021, Turkey has discovered 135 billion cubic meters of natural gas in the Black Sea, which means that Ankara can reduce its dependence on Russian gas, at least to a certain degree. Moreover, Turkey has shared data on its discoveries with US energy majors Chevron and Exxon Mobil, which indicates that Russia’s energy giants will not take part in this lucrative business.

Is that one of the reasons why tensions, although at a lower political level, between Moscow and Ankara started to grow? Recently a park named after Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev was opened in the Turkish city of Kerfez in the north-west of the country, which was seen as a clear provocation in Moscow. As a result, Head of the Russia’s Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov threatened to respond to the Turkish authorities in a similar way – by erecting a statue of the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Abdullah Ocalan, in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.

It is not very probable, however, that his threat will ever be carried out, since “mutually beneficial cooperation” with Turkey seems to be the Kremlin’s priority. But Russian ambivalence regarding Turkish-Ukrainian military ties could very well give Ankara the upper hand in its future relations with the Kremlin.

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After America: The Russo-Turkish Tango in Afghanistan https://www.juancole.com/2021/12/america-turkish-afghanistan.html Thu, 02 Dec 2021 05:08:56 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=201564 The Kremlin is making overtures to the new Taliban government in Afghanistan. On October 21, at a meeting of the Valdai Club, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia is close to removing the Taliban from the list of terrorists, which could be interpreted as part of the Kremlin’s hot and cold game with the Taliban. In the medium term, Russia will likely engage but remain standoffish, waiting to see if the Taliban have changed for real.

Russia could face strong competition in the war-torn nation, given that Turkish diplomats are actively negotiation with the Taliban government, trying to strengthen Turkey’s position in the region. Ankara has not given up on its desire to take over Kabul Airport, even though Turkish troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August. Thus, for the foreseeable future, Russia and Turkey are expected to continue struggling for influence in the “Graveyard of Empires”.

Moscow does not officially recognize the new Afghan rulers, but is looking for ways to strengthen its position in the war-torn country. On November 18, three Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft from the Russian Aerospace Forces delivered over 36 tonnes of humanitarian supplies to Kabul, and on December 1 Russia delivered another aid shipment to Afghanistan. In addition, Russian journalists seem to be very active in Kabul.

On November 28, Russian web portal Octagon Media interviewed the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid who indirectly recognized Crimea as part of the Russian Federation: “If the people in Crimea want to live in Russia, we agree with them”, said Mujahid. Such a statement could be interpreted as an offer to the Kremlin: the Taliban will formally recognize Crimea if Moscow recognizes the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The Taliban are going farther with this statement than Turkey has been willing to, since Ankara has declined to recognize Russia’s claim to Ukrainian territory. Indeed, Turkey is seeking better relations with the Ukraine, and reportedly plans to build a factory there to produce Bayraktar drones. Kiev has recently used the Turkish-made unmanned combat aerial vehicle against Russia’s proxies in the Donbass, but this move has so far not had a serious impact on Russo-Turkish relations, though there is no doubt the two countries are frenemies on several fronts, from Ukraine to Afghanistan.

Russia is unlikely to rush to make any deals with the Afghan group. Mujahid’s statement could be interpreted as an updated version of the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s position regarding Crimea. In 2014 Karzai openly backed Moscow’s incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation, saying that Afghanistan respects the free will of the people of Crimea to decide about their own future. Given that the Taliban, unlike the Karzai administration, has not been internationally recognized, a potential Taliban formal recognition of Crimea would not have a significant importance for Moscow.

In addition, Mujahid pledged to Russian journalists, “We will never allow a threat to your country from Afghanistan”, said Mujahid to the Russian journalists, emphasizing that the Taliban is trying to resolve the issue of the Islamic State- Khorasan Province militants operating in Afghanistan, which is something that worries Russia’s allies in Central Asia.

According to Serhiy Danilov, Deputy Director of the Ukrainian Center for Middle East Studies, the Kremlin is playing a dirty game with the Taliban.

“On the one hand, Russia acts as the Taliban lobbyist, promising to support the group without formal recognition of their rule. On the other hand, Russia flirts with anti-Taliban opposition based in Tajikistan”, Danilov said, pointing out that Moscow is using the Taliban to achieve its own propaganda goals.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Ruptly: “Afghanistan: Russian Defence Ministry aircraft deliver 36 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Kabul”

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Are Putin and Lukashenko trying to Divide Europe by sending over Iraqi, other Muslim Refugees? https://www.juancole.com/2021/11/lukashenko-trolling-refugees.html Tue, 09 Nov 2021 05:08:36 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=201107 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – Thousands of migrants from Iraq, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries, are attempting to breach a razor wire fence at the border between Belarus and Poland. Their final destination is Germany, and possibly other rich member-states of the European Union. But why are they trying to illegally enter the EU from the nation that has often been dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship”?

Following the controversial presidential election in August 2020 and the crackdown on anti-government protesters, the European Union started imposing sanctions on Belarus and its President Alexander Lukashenko. Relations between Brussels and Minsk went from bad to worse. In May, after Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair plane, flying from Athens to Vilnius, to land in the Belarusian capital, which resulted in the imprisonment of a dissident activist Roman Protasevich, the EU announced additional package of sanctions against the Eastern European nation.

Lukashenko, for his part, threatened to allow migrants and drugs to pour into Western Europe if sanctions are imposed on his country. In short order, he really allowed thousands of Middle Eastern asylum seekers to illegally cross the border between Belarus and EU member Lithuania. And that was the beginning of the migrant crisis.

Given that most migrants were from Iraq, the EU pressured Iraqi leaders to suspend direct flights between their country and Belarus, but that did not prevent Lukashenko from keep providing “asymmetric response” to Western sanctions. Migrants are now arriving to the former Soviet republic mostly via Istanbul and Dubai, and Minsk reportedly plans to increase number of flights from the Middle East to Belarus. Moreover, it is entirely possible that migrants will soon have the opportunity to fly not only to Minsk, but to other Belarusian cities as well. But who are the migrants and where do they come from?

According to reports, most of the illegal migrants trying to get to the European Union through Belarus are Iraqi citizens – Kurds and Arabs. There are also residents of Syria, Congo and Cameroon. They arrive to the capital of Belarus mainly from three cities on the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan: Erbil, Shiladze and Sulaimaniya.

“Many of us have brought families. I have six kids. All of them are little. There is no food, milk, diapers for them. We have no firewood to warm us up, no tents to shelter us from rain and they don’t let us into Europe”, Belarus’ state-owned BelTA News Agency quoted an unnamed migrant on the Belarusian-Polish border.

In neighboring Lithuania migrants have staged a protest in a refugee reception center demanding to be allowed to leave for Germany and other countries of the European Union. Brussels has, however, accused Lukashenko of facilitating the influx of migrants in retaliation against sanctions, while German special services reportedly claim that about 800-1000 illegal migrants arrive to Belarus from the Middle East on a daily basis.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Kurdistan Regional Government, most likely under another EU pressure, recently ordered Belarus to shut down its consulates in Baghdad and Erbil. Such a move will, however, unlikely stop mass migrations of Iraqis to Belarus – a country they see as a route toward Western Europe in quest for a better life. Although for them Poland is merely a transit nation on their way to Germany, Warsaw has deployed 12,000 troops to the Belarusian border in order to prevent migrants from entering the EU. Some Belarusian analysts claim that Poland is trying to increase its importance in the region, and draw more attention to itself, especially from its ally, the United States.

“In the name of human rights NATO countries bombed Libya, Iraq, and Syria, and arranged the Arab Spring. In the name of human rights they killed local people, destroyed their nations, peace and stability. Now local people are migrating from the states the West has destroyed to the countries that talk so much about human rights and liberalism”, said Piotr Petrovsky, analyst with the Belarusian public association Belaya Rus.

Some Western analysts, in contrast, claim that the mastermind of the migrant crisis is Russian President Vladimir Putin, rather than Belarusian leader. They believe that Putin uses thousands of desperate migrants to drive a wedge between the EU. Indeed, it is very probable that Lukashenko got the green light from the Kremlin to stage a migrant crisis on the EU borders, but it is wrong see Belarusian President through the prism of Vladimir Putin, or to think of him as Putin’s puppet. The two leaders have a history of disputes and odds, and even though sanction-hit Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia, Lukashenko still struggles to preserve as much sovereignty as possible.

Thus, if the West eventually pressures Putin to stop Lukashenko’s actions on Belarus – EU border, the Belarusian leader – quite aware that Brussels will not lift any sanctions, since that would be a clear demonstration of weakness – will likely seek certain concessions from Moscow in order to end the influx of migrants. Meanwhile, he is expected to continue using refugees as a political weapon against the EU, which is a model that has already been applied by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and that has proved to be very efficient.

According to the migrants’ estimates, about 3,000 asylum seekers from the Middle East remain concentrated on Belarusian-Polish border. There are many children in the crowd, and the number of asylum seekers is expected to grow. Some reports suggest that Minsk is trying to strengthen political ties with various Middle Eastern countries in an attempt to destabilize eastern EU members. For instance, on November 3, Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Nikolai Borisevich met with the Syrian Ambassador to Minsk Mohammad al-Umrani, and they discussed further mutual support in the international arena.

The Ambassador expressed gratitude for the humanitarian assistance provided by the Republic of Belarus to the Syrian people. Indeed, Belarus is actively assisting the Syrian people who are trying to reach the EU, while the United States calls on Belarusian leader to “immediately halt his campaign of orchestrating and coercing the illegal flow of migrants across his country’s border into Europe.”

The US call will, however, have very little affect on Lukashenko’s policy, unless the CIA Director Bill Burns, who recently met with Putin in Moscow, urged Russian leader to demand Belarusian President to end the border crisis. Migrants may arrive to the EU from Belarus, but politically, the West is quite aware that the road to Minsk may well run through Moscow.

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Bonus Vidoe added by Informed Comment:

Channel 4 News: “Poland steps up patrols as migrants attempt to cross border with Belarus”

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Are the Taliban Russia’s Problem now? Moscow Rushes to Arm Tajikistan https://www.juancole.com/2021/09/taliban-russias-tajikistan.html Tue, 28 Sep 2021 04:08:27 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=200305 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – Tensions rise between the Taliban – the de facto rulers of Afghanistan – and neighboring Russia-backed Tajikistan. The radical group accuses the former Soviet republic of interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, and is deploying fighters on the Afghan – Tajik border, while Moscow keeps providing military equipment to its ally. How likely is a large-scale escalation in Central Asia?

According to the Taliban spokesman and Afghanistan’s Acting Deputy Information Minister Zabihullah Mujahid, the militant group has sent thousands of fighters to the Afghan province of Takhar, which borders Tajikistan, “to eliminate security threats and other potential threats” from the neighboring country. The Tajik authorities, on the other hand, claim that they “control the actions of extremist groups on the other side of the border.”

“As far as we know, thousands did not arrive, but even if ten people get together, we will perceive it as a threat and will act in accordance with reality”, the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty quotes an anonymous Tajik border guard.

At the same time, the Taliban denies that its militants are plotting ways to infiltrate into Tajikistan, although Ghani Baradar, the acting first deputy prime minister of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, accused Dushanbe of interfering in Afghan affairs.

“For every action there is a reaction”, Baradar said in an interview with Al Jazeera TV channel.

Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon recently ordered the deployment of 20,000 additional troops on the border with Afghanistan, and Dushanbe conducted a nationwide military drill involving some 230,000 troops. The former Soviet republic is a member of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The Taliban, for its part, fears that Tajikistan – one of the few neighbors of Afghanistan that has openly stated that it does not intend to recognize the Taliban government – could use ethnic Tajiks living in the war-torn nation as an instrument against the new Afghan authorities. It is believed that theTajiks comprise about 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population, making them the largest group in the country after the Pashtuns. Rahmon has repeated on several occasions that an inclusive government should be formed in Afghanistan and Tajiks, along with other ethnic groups in the country, should take a worthy place in public administration.

“Tajikistan will not recognize any other government in Afghanistan formed through oppression and persecution, without taking into account the position of the entire Afghan people, all of its national minorities”, the Tajik President said, pointing out that an inclusive government with the participation of ethnic Tajiks must be formed as quickly as possible.

Rahmon, having ruled the Central Asian country for thirty years, is trying to act as the main protector of ethnic Tajiks. However, not all Afghan Tajiks, including those living in Panjshir — where the anti-Taliban opposition has found refuge — look to Tajikistan for support. Many of them have reportedly sided with the Taliban, and Dushanbe fears that the new Afghan rulers could use one of their proxies as a tool against Tajikistan. Presently, the biggest threat for the Tajik authorities is not the Taliban itself, but Jamaat Ansarullah – also known as Ansarullah or Ansorullo – which they often call the “Tajik Taliban.” The organization was founded in 2010 by Amriddin Tabarov, who had been a field commander for anti-government Islamist forces during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. Ansarullah is believed to have links with other militant groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as with Al-Qaeda.

Some Russian analysts claim that the Ansorullah militants could carry out a terrorist attack in Tajikistan with the Taliban’s indirect support. The Afghan group, however, promised to prevent such actions, but Tajikistan does not seem to trust the Taliban, and has closed the border with Afghanistan. But is that a long-term solution?

“Someday it will be necessary to open the border. It is impossible to keep it closed all the time. Sooner or later the Tajik authorities will be forced to negotiate. It is probably just a matter of time”, said Temur Umarov, Research Consultant at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Tajikistan is the only CSTO member that borders Afghanistan. Some Russian experts claim that the country is “not capable to defend itself” against a potential Taliban incursion, and is heavily dependent on the Russian support. That is why Russia keeps arming Tajikistan, and is also strengthening its military base in the former Soviet republic. Tajik authorities openly say that they need Russian weapons to “neutralize the threat from the territory of neighboring Afghanistan”, and back in July the Kremlin promised to help Tajikistan in case the Taliban attacks Moscow’s ally. That, however, does not mean that Russia aims to invade Afghanistan. According to Vladimir Dzhabarov, the deputy head of Russia’s Upper House’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Moscow can prevent a potential Taliban aggression on Tajikistan without deploying troops to the “graveyard of the empires”.

“I think the Taliban have studied in detail the ‘Syrian lessons’ and know the capabilities of Russia in terms of delivering pinpoint missile strikes”, Dzhabarov emphasized.

At this point, however, such a development of events does not seem very realistic, although the Kremlin is expected to continue to strengthen the military potential of Tajikistan. A potential but not very probable escalation in the region would almost certainly result in an increased Russian influence in Central Asia.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

RFE/RL: “Afghan Students In Tajikistan Face An Uncertain Future”

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Will Russia use Taliban Resurgence to Reassert itself in Central Asia? https://www.juancole.com/2021/08/taliban-resurgence-reassert.html Mon, 16 Aug 2021 04:08:23 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=199520 Belgrade (Informed Comment) – While many Western countries closed their embassies in Kabul, Russian diplomats decided to stay in Afghanistan. The Taliban – a radical movement that effectively took over the country following the US withdrawal – reportedly promised to guarantee the safety of the Russian embassy in the Afghan capital. What is the future of the Russo-Taliban relations?

Although the Kremlin declared the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2003, such a move did not prevent the country’s officials from holding several very important meetings with the Afghan movement. During its recent Moscow visit, the Taliban delegation assured the Russian policy makers that it will not threaten neighboring ex-Soviet Central Asian states.

“They have stated very clearly that they have no plans to create problems for Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors, and that they will continue to fight ISIS uncompromisingly”, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, calling the Taliban leaders “reasonable people”.

That, however, does not mean that the Kremlin really trusts the Afghan movement. Russia and its Central Asian ally Tajikistan, as well as Uzbekistan, have recently conducted military drills at Harb-Maidon firing range which is located some 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the Tajik border with Afghanistan. It was a clear warning to the new Afghan rulers not to cross Moscow’s “red lines” and attempt to destabilize the region that has traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence.

“Russia needs to prepare for very big problems. Flirtations of Russian diplomacy with the Taliban will not lead to anything good in the end. The likelihood of radicalization of the Russian-speaking Muslims increases, as well as the threat of potential terrorist attacks”, said Andrei Serenko, an expert at Moscow’s Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan

Indeed, one of the Taliban commanders told CNN that “the Islamic law will come not to just Afghanistan, but all over the world.” Such a rhetoric is a reminiscent of the Marxist concept of the World Revolution that will eventually overthrow capitalism in all countries, but at this point it is not very probable that the Taliban will attempt to overthrow secular regimes in Central Asia, or to pose a threat to Russia’s national security. Although some media tend to portray the Taliban as a Pan-Islamic organization, in reality it is rather a Pashtun nationalist movement whose goals are largely limited to the territory of Afghanistan, which means that the group will unlikely engage into any military adventures in the Afghan neighborhood. Its leaders are aware that the Taliban lost control over the country in 2001 as a result of the group’s links with Al-Qaida, which was allegedly the main driver of the US decision to invade Afghanistan. One of the lessons the Taliban seems to have learned is that it should not allow international jihadist groups to use Afghanistan as a base. That is why the Afghan movement reportedly promised Russia that it will fight the Khorasan group – a branch of Islamic State (ISIS) that is active in Central Asia.

There is no doubt that the Kremlin will use the situation in Afghanistan as a pretext for strengthening its positions in the region. Some Russian officials have already said that the settlement of the situation in “the graveyard of empires” requires a bigger role of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in order to prevent the Taliban from even thinking about destabilization of neighboring countries. That is why the Kremlin recently announced that it would reinforce its military base in CSTO member Tajikistan, and it is entirely possible that Russia will attempt to make deals with other regional actors in order to put an additional pressure of the Taliban and discourage it from any potential actions in Central Asia.

“I think that in the near future representatives of the region’s defense ministries will meet in order to develop common approaches and a common policy to assist Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to secure their borders with Afghanistan”, said Viktor Vodolatsky, First Deputy Chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Committee on CIS Affairs and Eurasian Integration.

Some analysts in Russia fear that the Taliban’s victory could have an impact on the global drug trade. Alexander Lavrentyev, former Deputy Chairman of the Warriors-Internationalists Affairs Committee, claims that the Taliban is involved in drug trafficking and has created routes for the drug trade with Pakistan and Tajikistan.

“There is a poppy growing there, and there is a well-known path for transporting drugs. And drugs are not for internal use. ‘Let the foreigners poison themselves’ is what the Taliban leaders say”, Lavrentyev emphasizes.

On the other hand, Zamir Kabulov, Russian Presidential envoy to Afghanistan, is confident that the Kremlin will have friendly relations with the future leadership of Afghanistan.

“I not only hope, I am sure of this”, Kabulov, who met with the Taliban leaders on several occasions, told Russia’s leading news agency TASS.

For the time being, Russia will unlikely rush to formally recognize the Taliban, or to remove the group from its list of terrorist organizations, although it will certainly work with the new Afghanistan’s authorities. In the short to mid-term, Moscow is expected to adapt to Afghanistan’s changing developments to preserve its security interests in the region. In the distant future, however, options that are currently unthinkable – for instance, Russia and the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan becoming “strategic partners” – could be on the table.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CNA: “US, China, Russia and Pakistan holding talks on deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan”

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Does Renewed fighting in Syria’s Deraa, Birthplace of the Revolution, Show Russia’s Weakness? https://www.juancole.com/2021/08/fighting-birthplace-revolution.html Thu, 05 Aug 2021 04:04:51 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=199299 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – Russia is making an effort to prevent wide-scale hostilities in Syria’s southern province of Deraa. The Kremlin reportedly aims to increase its influence in the war-torn country, but recent clashes in Deraa al-Balad – a southern district of Deraa city – between the Moscow-backed Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and former rebels threaten to undermine the so-called reconciliation process in the south of Syria.

According to government sources, the former opposition that controlled Deraa until 2018 attacked Syrian military at the end of July and captured at least 25 troops. In 2018, the Russia-backed Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had taken control of the governorate, striking a symbolic blow to the uprising born there in 2011. As a result of the militia strike, the Syrian Arab Army blocked off the area and called on the militants to surrender and raise the Syrian flag over the Al-Omari Mosque in the town of Bosra near the country’s border with Jordan. Reports suggest that Russian attempts to establish a ceasefire failed, and the SAA forces started shelling Deraa al-Balad.

It is worth noting that fierce clashes broke out just days after Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. However, incidents in the south of Syria started occurring a couple of years ago. For instance, there were reports suggesting that an explosive device detonated on the route of a convoy of the Russian military police in Deraa province in November 2020. Also, another explosion hit Deraa this year on May 26, which is when Syria held controversial presidential election. Ever since, situation in the Deraa governorate has been very tense.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, Deraa remains an area of secondary importance for the Russian military operating in the Middle Eastern country. One of Moscow’s primary goals in Syria is to modernize the northeastern port of Tartus, which is Russia’s only door opened to the Mediterranean. It is believed, however, that one of Russia’s priorities in southern Syria is to limit the Iranian influence, and at the same time to find a solution to the growing outbreaks of protest.

Back in June it became obvious that situation in Deraa is critical and that local economy is on the verge of collapse. According to reports, the region was faced with shortage in medicines, fuel, bread and drinking water, as well as power outages. Indeed, a weak economy, endemic corruption and restrictions on smuggling on the border with Jordan have caused discontent among former rebels.

Damascus, on the other hand, appears to see the situation in the south from the purely political perspective, and keeps using the old repressive tools.

“The efforts of the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic have stabilized the situation in Deraa”, said Counter Admiral Vadim Kulit, deputy chief of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Parties in Syria.

But economic circumstances in the region are unlikely to improve any time soon, which means that tensions in the “birthplace of the Syrian revolution” are expected to grow. There are even fears that full-scale hostilities in Deraa will eventually resume.

Unlike most other Syrian regions that were recaptured by the Syrian Arab Army in 2018, and where anti-government fighters mostly have been evacuated to the northern Idlib Province, in Daara, under a Russia-brokered deal, they were allowed to stay and take part in the “reconciliation process”. According to the deal, they had to hand over heavy weaponry to the SAA, but not small arms. Moreover, the Russians and the former rebels agreed that all detainees must be released, oppositionists and dissidents could freely return to their homes, and young people would not be conscripted into SAA units fighting in Idlib.

However, on June 24, Syrian government forces began to impose their siege on the neighborhoods of Deraa al-Balad after the residents reportedly refused to hand over small individual weapons and automatic machine guns to the SAA and the Russian military police. It is worth remembering that in June 2020 the Russian military opened a center in Deraa, allegedly in order to receive information from the locals about their relatives who are being held detained by the Syrian authorities. Still, some locals are skeptical regarding the Russian ambitions in the province.

“The Russian military received lists of detainees two years ago, but nothing has changed, and the opening of the center is just an excuse to increase the Russian presence in the region, says local lawyer Adnan Masalmeh.

Colonel Fateh Hasun, one of the commanders of the Syrian opposition, reportedly told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that Moscow failed to fulfill its obligations to the people of Deraa.

“This is not a deception, but simply a Russian retreat before the regime and Iran. Let this serve as a warning to those who consider Russia a guarantor of the peace process”, said Hasun.

The Kremlin, for its part, opposed the SAA operation in Deraa, but Damascus conducted it nevertheless, although an influential Russian military officer, Alexander Zorin, reportedly warned Syrian authorities that Moscow would not provide air support to the Syrian army in case of a large-scale offensive in the former opposition stronghold.

Given that Deraa has largely boycotted the recent presidential election, the Assad government sees the former rebels as “terrorists who thwarted a reconciliation deal”. Thus, it is entirely possible that, sooner or later, the SAA will attempt to crush the opposition forces in the south once and for all, with or without Russian help.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Heavy clashes grip southern Syria’s Deraa province, monitor says”

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Waiting for US withdrawal, is Russia eyeing Iraq’s oil? https://www.juancole.com/2021/07/waiting-withdrawal-russia.html Mon, 12 Jul 2021 04:04:55 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=198858 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – When the George W. Bush administration launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003, many believed the campaign’s main goal was to gain control of the country’s oil. Almost two decades later, most U.S. oil corporations have exited Iraq and the last major, ExxonMobil, appears to be on the way out, as well. Now Russian energy companies are developing their business in the Middle Eastern nation.

Russia continues strengthening its economic and political ties with Iraq. The two countries have recently intensified their military-technical cooperation. According to reports, Baghdad is interested in purchasing Russian S-300 and S-400 defense systems, as well as Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jets. It remains to be seen, however, if the United States – still a major foreign actor operating in Iraq – will attempt to prevent such a trade. Moscow, for its parts, hopes that the American forces will soon withdraw not only from Iraq, but also from Syria, which could give Russia the upper hand in the region. Meanwhile, even if Baghdad manages to provide funds for arms business with the Kremlin – which at this point does not seem very probable given that the Middle Eastern nation is going through an acute economic and financial crisis – there is no guarantee that Russia and Iraq will materialize their cooperation.

Following the US assassination of an Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani in early 2020, the head of the security committee in the Iraqi parliament, Muhammad Rida openly admitted that “the United States always stands against Iraq’s possession of the S-400 defense systems”.

“Iraq must convince the US side to buy this defense system from Russia”, Rida pointed out, emphasizing that the share of Russian weapons in the Iraqi Armed Forces should exceed 50 percent.

During the Soviet era, Baghdad was actively buying weapons from Moscow, but after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq started purchasing all sorts of military equipment from the United States. In 2012, however, Russia and Iraq have reportedly signed a contract worth $4.2 billion, which included the delivery of 36 Russian attack helicopters to Baghdad, as well as Pantsir-S anti-aircraft systems. It is worth noting that the Kremlin plans to export weapons for $15 billion to various countries by the end of the year, and for Moscow Iraq is certainly a significant a client. Therefore, it is not surprising that Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, who is also co-chairman of the Russian-Iraq Commission on Trade, Economic and Scientific-Technical Cooperation, visited Baghdad in April 2021 and discussed not only weapons sales with the Iraqi officials, but also energy issues.

Indeed, energy is one of the most important aspects of the Kremlin’s interests in Iraq. Lukoil – Russia’s second largest oil producer – has been operating in Iraq since 2014 when commercial oil production was commenced at the West Qurna-2 field, located in the southern part of Iraq, 65 kilometers north-west of Basra. West Qurna-2 is one of the largest oil fields. In 2016, the Russian oil corporation discovered the Eridu field in the south of Iraq, which is believed to be the largest discovery in the Iraqi oil sector in the past 20 years. To this day, Lukiol is actively involved in drilling at Eridu field.

Besides Lukoil, Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom is interested in expanding its operations in Iraq, primarily in Mansuriyah gas field near the Iranian border. Gazprom Neft, a subsidiary of Gazprom, already operates in Badra oil field – one of the most important elements in Iraq’s energy system – situated in the Wasit Province of eastern Iraq. It is also involved in oil production at Sarqala field, located in the Iraqi Kurdistan. The company holds a participating interest of 40 percent in the Garmian block and 80 per cent in the Halabja and Shakal blocks of the Sarqala oil field, even though the energy-rich Kurdistan Region has been closely aligned to the United States since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. It is worth point out that Russia was the only major world power that did not oppose the 2017 controversial referendum, saying it understood Kurdish aspirations for independence. Thus, it is unlikely to be a pure coincidence that Russian energy companies Tatneft and Zarubezhneft have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kurdistan Region’s authorities.

According to Igor Yushkov, an expert of the Russian National Energy Security Fund and the Financial University under the government of the Russian Federation, Iraq is facing a “depoliticization of its energy sector,” and the United States has ceased to perceive the country as a significant instrument for pressuring other global oil producers. That is why in Iraq, and especially in Iraqi Kurdistan, European and Asian companies such as BP, Italian Eni, Chinese CNPC and Russia Lukoil dominate the energy business.

“Iraq is attractive for Russian companies not only in terms of the oil market, but also in terms of gas”, said Ilham Shaban, director of the Centre for Oil Studies Caspian Barrel.

“If the Iraqi government’s gas development program is successfully implemented, in the long run the country can become the second gas power in the world” Shaban concluded.

At this point, however, Russian corporations operating in the Middle Eastern nation focus mostly on oil, although Russia’s state-owned company Rosatom and the Iraqi authorities are discussing the possibility of cooperation in various areas of peaceful nuclear projects. By 2030 Russia could take part in building nuclear power plants in Iraq to meet the country’s demand for electricity, given that it is presently being imported from neighboring Iran.

If the United States, pressured by the Iranian proxies, eventually completely withdraws its troops from Iraq, Russia’s influence in the country is expected to grow. Still, aware that Russo-Iranian partnership is rather fragile, Washington might expect from the Kremlin to create a balance and de facto limit the Iranian economic and military presence in the post-US Iraq.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Iraq town decries deadly effects of oil production pollution”

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