Nikola Mikovic – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 09 May 2021 05:15:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.17 Trump Admin was OK with Russia Expansion in Mideast, but Biden just Blocked a Putin Base in Sudan/Red Sea https://www.juancole.com/2021/05/expansion-mideast-blocked.html Mon, 03 May 2021 04:04:05 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197580 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – United States and Russia are fighting for influence in the northeast African country of Sudan. Although Moscow planned to open a naval base in Port Sudan – the main Sudanese trading port on the Red Sea—there are indications that Khartoum changed its decision to host a Russian military facility after being pressured by Washington.

On November 16, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized his Ministry of Defense to sign the formal agreement with Sudan to create the permanent Russian military base in Sudan, guaranteeing Russia’s first substantial military foothold in Africa since the fall of the Soviet Union. The naval base, officially described as a material-technical support facility, was supposed to accommodate up to 300 military and civilian personnel, and also to berth up to four warships, including nuclear-powered vessels. Indeed, such a facility would strengthen Russia’s positions in Africa. The naval base would likely help Moscow establish control over the transit flows of oil that pass via pipelines through the region. The bulk of local oil fields are located in neighboring South Sudan, but its oil exports are almost entirely dependent on the Republic of Sudan. The only pipeline through which landlocked South Sudan can transport its energy passes through the territory of Sudan, its northern neighbor.

Moreover, a military presence in Sudan would provide Moscow an easier access to Syria’s Tartus – the only Russian base out of the post-Soviet space – in case NATO member Turkey eventually closes Bosphorus and Dardanelles for the Russian ships. Port of Tartus serves as the Russian Navy’s repair and replenishment facility and has played a major role in supplying Russian troops in the war-torn Middle Eastern country. An additional military facility in the Middle East would open up new opportunities for the Kremlin to expand its military and political influence in the region. Could that be one of the reasons why the United States reportedly got involved in the struggle for presence in Sudan?

On April 28, news broke out that Sudan has suspended the effect of its agreement signed with Russia to build a naval base in the country. Russia’s Embassy in Khartoum denied the reports, saying on its Facebook page that it “has not received any official notifications from the Sudanese side.”

“This agreement will enter into force only after both parties ratify it,” the Russian Embassy in Sudan wrote.

From the legal perspective, the agreement has not entered into force yet, and since the treaty has not yet been ratified, there is nothing to cancel. At this point, however, it is highly uncertain if the deal will ever be ratified. Some Russian experts already started blaming the United States for trying to sabotage Moscow’s arrangements with Khartoum.

“Washington has its own interests in the African country. It is worth recalling the recent history of US Navy ships which headed to Port Sudan after Russia announced its plans to build a military base there”, said Russian military expert Alexey Sukonkin.

Indeed, in January 2021, the Deputy Commander of AFRICOM for Civil-Military Cooperation Andrew Young and the head of the Naval Intelligence Directorate Rear Admiral Heidi Berg paid an official visit to Sudan. Also, on February 24, the American Military Sealift Command expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Carson entered Port Sudan, while on March 1 the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81) arrived in Port Sudan. In addition, on April 15 the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Russian business Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his network operating in Africa.

“This region is extremely important for Washington, and any actions of other countries or simply persons on the territory of Sudan are perceived very painfully in the White House”, said Sukonkin pointing out that sanctions on Prigozhin are an American attempt to oust Russia from Sudan.

From the Russian perspective, both Moscow and Khartoum are interested in opening a Russian naval base in the northeast African country, and the only ones who would not benefit from such an action are the Western nations because they would miss the possibility of increasing their influence in the region. Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty has recently published a reportage from Port Sudan, creating an image of the Sudanese who can’t wait to host the Russian troops. It was published just a week after the Russian reconnaissance ship Ivan Khurs reportedly entered the Port Sudan.

“Sudan is the very place where we need a naval base”, wrote Russian military expert Evgeniy Norin.

“The Red Sea is the main avenue of the world shipping, and where there is shipping, there are pirates, and in general all kinds of crime, from international slave trade to illegal arms trafficking. Our military presence aboard is not a matter of prestige”, Norin emphasized.

Although it is not yet clear if Moscow will be allowed to open a navy base in Sudan, the US is expected to either completely neutralize “the Russian threat” in this part of the world by pushing Khartoum into American geopolitical orbit, or to make a deal with the Kremlin and share the influence in the northeast African country. The problem for Moscow and Washington is that other actors are also interested in Sudan’s 1.5 million tons of proven uranium reserves. The global struggle for the Horn of Africa has just begun.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

AfricaNews: “Sudan reportedly suspends planned Russian naval base”

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Biden branded Putin a Murderer, but can he get out of Afghanistan without Russian Help? https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/branded-murderer-afghanistan.html Fri, 19 Mar 2021 04:04:45 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196728 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – Russia and the United States may be bitter geopolitical rivals, but sometimes, when they have a common interest they manage to act like partners. Even though the US President Joe Biden recently said that he believes his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is “a killer”, it did not prevent the American leader from sending the US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad to attend the Moscow summit on Afghanistan. What was the outcome of the peace talks held in the Russian capital, and what are Kremlin’s interests in the war-town country?

Russia is reportedly interested in a coalition transitional government in which the Taliban would take play a role commensurate with its real strength in Afghan society. There are, however, fears that the Kremlin’s actual goal in Afghanistan is to humiliate the US under Biden. Indeed, now that the Taliban is expected to return to power, it is quite questionable if America is ready to admit that thousands of US and Afghan troop, as well as large number of civilians, died in vain.

“It is important to sign an agreement that would serve the interests of all key ethnic and political forces of the country and determine the vector of its development,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at the meeting on Afghan peace with the participation of China, the US, Pakistan, Afghan parties, and Qatar.

He also emphasized that the Afghan parties interested in the national reconciliation can reach peace only through negotiations and compromises. Moscow seems to be trying strike a balance between all the different forces at play in Afghanistan. Prior to the conference, Afghanistan’s foreign minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar made it clear that it is not acceptable for Russia to treat Kabul and the Taliban as equal partners. The Kremlin, on the other hand, is aware that the Afghan government is far from being completely independent, which is why Russian diplomats prefer to speak not only with officials of the Afghan administration, but also with local leaders, including the Taliban – an organization that is officially banned in Russia.

“The Taliban adhere to the agreement they signed with the US in February 2020 almost flawlessly, which cannot be said about the Americans. Not a single American soldier has died since the deal has been reached, while the US troops repeatedly hit the Taliban under various pretexts,” said Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov a month before the Moscow forum.

The US faces a May 1 deadline to withdraw its remaining 2,500 soldiers from Afghanistan under a February 2020 deal reached between the Trump administration and the Taliban. Russian officials are not quite convinced that the US will really leave Afghanistan.

“What we see today is such a periodic ‘go-stay, stay-go’ politics”, said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, pointing out the seriousness of the situation with drug trafficking and drug production in Afghanistan which affects not only the war-torn country, but also neighboring countries that are Russia’s “closest friends” – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Besides security issues and drug trafficking, it remains unclear what Russia’s strategic goals are in Afghanistan. It is believed that Moscow is trying to seize the diplomatic initiative from the United States, and also to increase its influence in the region. But why?

Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, energy has been the major driver for Russia’s foreign policy. Afghanistan does not have any significant natural gas and crude oil reserves, which puts the country in a position of secondary importance for Moscow. Still, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, that will transport natural gas from the Galkynysh Gas Field in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then to India, could improve Afghan’s geopolitical position. Since the pipeline was to pass through Afghanistan, it was necessary for both, Russia and the United States, to work with the Taliban. The Afghan movement vowed to support and protect the pipeline in areas under its control, and Moscow and Washington are expected to keep maneuver between the interests of the Taliban and the Afghan government.

However, according to Russian political analyst Peter Akopov in order to leave Afghanistan relatively peacefully, the United States will need Russia’s help.

“If Washington deceives the Taliban – who already control three-quarters of the country’s territory – and does not withdraw its troops, they will resume full-fledged hostilities against both the Kabul government and the American occupiers. The Taliban will need firm guarantees from the great powers that the withdrawal of American troops will really take place – wrote Akopov for Russia’s state-owned RIA-Novosti news agency, explaining Russia’s role in the Afghan peace process.

In other words, Russia’s task seems to be to convince the Taliban that a possible US refusal to withdraw troops would be just a temporary measure, and that Washington certainly has a new deadline for the end of the occupation.

The declared goal of the United States and Russia in Afghanistan is the same – to prevent extremist groups from turning the country into a safe haven for global terrorism after the withdrawal of the American troops. It remains to be seen if Moscow and Washington will keep cooperating in this direction, now that relations between the two countries are at the lowest point since the Cold War.

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Biden says ‘tough’ to meet May 1 Afghanistan withdrawal deadline”

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In Challenge to U.S., Putin’s Eurasian Union seeks to Incorporate Iran https://www.juancole.com/2021/02/challenge-eurasian-incorporate.html Fri, 19 Feb 2021 05:04:08 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196223 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – Iran is hoping to join Russia-dominated Eurasian Union by the end of February. The Islamic Republic could also soon get a new rail connection with the Russian Federation, and such an action would additionally strengthen economic and political ties between the two countries. Such a major infrastructural project would violate the maximum U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, and offer the ayatollahs in Tehran an escape valve.

On February 10, Iran’s parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said that preparatory works for the Islamic Republic’s permanent membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is going to be done in two weeks. Upon his visit to Moscow he also said that he brought a “very important message” from Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The Leader emphasized on long-term coordination and strategic agreements with Russia. His message was of course broader, covering other issues, including economic and political ones, how to achieve agreements, future communications and policies between Iran and Russia”, said Qalibaf.

It is worth noting, however, that Qalibaf canceled his scheduled meeting with Putin after he refused to accept the health protocols to be followed during the meetings with the Russian leader. So Khamenei’s message has been delivered not to Putin directly, but to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev. According to reports, Russian authorities had demanded from Ghalibaf to first self-isolate for 15 days upon arrival to the Russian capital in order to meet with Putin, which is something that the Iranian official strongly opposed.

Still, it is unlikely that Putin’s overly cautious hygiene demands will have an impact on relations between Moscow and Tehran. Iran and Russia-led EAEU have already signed a free trade agreement in October 2018, which resulted in increased Islamic Republic’s exports to the EAEU member states significantly. The Eurasian Union was created on the basis of the Customs Union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus in 2014. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined the EAEU in 2015, and that is when the enlargement process stalled. Besides Iran, about 40 nations have also expressed a desire to develop trade and economic cooperation with the EAEU. However, one of the main problems for this Russia-dominated entity is the very slow progress towards its stated goals.

Iran’s potential membership in the EAEU would allow Tehran to neutralize, at least to a certain extent, the cost of the US sanctions, and also to force the US administration to be more flexible, especially when it comes to negotiations on the nuclear program. From a purely economic perspective, Iran’s access to Eurasian Union would strengthen business ties not only between Tehran and Moscow, but also between the Islamic Republic and other Russian allies. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the total turnover between Iran and the EAEU increased by two percent in 2020 and exceeded $2 billion. Food products and agricultural raw materials accounted for about 80 percent, or $939 million of the volume of supplies from the EAEU countries to Iran, more than half of which – $609 million – fell on grain. In turn, similar goods also accounted for most of the supplies from Iran to the Union – 68 percent or $575 million.

Besides joining the EAEU, Tehran could also benefit once a railway connection between Iran and Russia is established. According to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, a rail link will go through Nakhchivan – Azerbaijan’s exclave wedged between Armenia, Iran and Turkey.

“There will also be a rail link between Iran and Armenia. There will be a rail link between Turkey and Russia. Thus, all countries in the region will only benefit from this project”, said Aliyev discussing the Nakhchivan corridor scheme.

According to Vardan Voskanyan, Head of the Department of Iranian Studies at Yerevan State University, both Russia and Iran are interested in promoting this project. He says that in the past, the absence of good land transportation between Russia and Armenia negatively affected bilateral trade relations between the two allied countries.

For Russia, this road could serve as an alternative pathway to the markets of the Middle East, and Armenia could finally get a land link to the market of the Eurasian Union. One thing is for sure – the Nakhchivan corridor will negatively affect Western-backed Georgia which has for years benefited as an important regional transit country.

Both Russia and Iran could come out of these infrastructural improvements with a much strengthened hand in geopolitics. Once completed, the Nakhchivan corridor will provide Turkey the opportunity to have a direct railway route to Baku, which will strengthen Ankara’s influence in energy-rich Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea region. Compared to the existing Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which connects Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia, the road within the new corridor will be about 340 kilometers (211 miles) shorter. Russia, on the other hand, will get a railway link with Turkey and Iran, which has great potential primarily in light of the announced strengthening of trade and economic ties between Moscow and Tehran. Moreover, the Russian Federation will have an additional land link to its ally Armenia through Azerbaijan – a country that will play the role of a transport hub.

If Iran can join the burgeoning Eurasian economy, it may drastically weaken Biden’s hand and reduce pressure on Iran to deal with Washington.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

New China TV: “Iran, Russia to hold joint naval exercise in Indian Ocean: military official”

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How will Biden react to Putin arresting Navalny in Russia? https://www.juancole.com/2021/01/arresting-navalny-russia.html Wed, 20 Jan 2021 05:04:51 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195652 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – While the US remains preoccupied with the upcoming Joe Biden inauguration, Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months after he was allegedly poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. A Moscow judge has jailed him for 30 days pending trial until February 15. What will happen afterwards and how will the case of Navalny affect the US – Russia relations?

During the hearing in the police station, a portrait of Genrikh Yagoda, the head of NKVD secret service in 1934-36, was hanging on the wall. Such a detail could suggest that the Kremlin intends to get rid of the opposition activist by sentencing him and sending him to spend years in prison far from Moscow. On the other hand, if history is any guide, Navalny has already served several stints in jail in recent years for organizing anti-Kremlin protests, but at the end he was always released.

This time, the Kremlin critic was detained because of alleged violations of his 2014 suspended prison sentence for embezzlement. Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service has requested that a court revoke his suspended sentence in favor of a prison term. If the request is granted, Navalny will likely be jailed for 3.5 years.

Alexey Navalny, like many Western leaders, claims that the Kremlin planned to kill him in August 2020. According to German authorities, he was poisoned with the Soviet-style military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok while on a trip in Siberia. The Kremlin denied such accusations, saying it has seen no evidence that Navalny was poisoned.

“If the Russian special services had wanted to poison him, they would have taken it to the end”, said Russian President Vladimir Putin in December.

Although the Western mainstream media tend to portray Navalny as an “opposition leader”, in Russia he is more known as an influential blogger and anti-corruption activists. In addition, according to a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, Navalny’s approval ratings in Russia are very low – around 2 percent. The Kremlin critic might be popular in major cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but in the rest of the country he is overshadowed by the so called systemic opposition leaders – ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the communist Genady Zyuganov. Navalny can hardly be a leader of the non-systemic opposition, given that its structure is very heterogeneous – from far right to far left.

In any case, half of Russians reportedly believe that Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was either not poisoned or that his poisoning was stage-managed by Western intelligence services.

The European Union and the United Kingdom have already imposed restrictive measures against some Russian officials over their alleged involvement in the incident with Navalny. It is not improbable that the West will keep using the case of Navalny as an additional instrument against Russia.

“Russian authorities must immediately release Navalny and ensure his safety. Detention of political opponents is against Russia’s international commitments”, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter.

Also, Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor for President-elect Biden, called on Navalny to be released immediately and said those responsible for the poisoning must be held accountable.

“The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard”, wrote Sullivan on Twitter, which suggests that the Biden administration will likely continue pressuring Moscow and possibly imposing various sanctions on Russia, although at this point some hard measures such as suspending Russian banks from SWIFT do not look very realistic.

Still, the US under Biden is expected to attempt to attempt to block the construction of the Nord Steam 2 natural gas pipeline that would bring Russian energy to Europe, and possibly to confront Russia over its involvement in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, as well as in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria– conflicts that had become frozen in place.

Russian officials, on the other hand, say that they will not allow the US to talk down to them, while there are claims that the West fights the far right at the US Capitol while nurturing it everywhere else.

Indeed, while Western media and analysts often call Navalny a Russian “liberal politician”, some of his views can be described as anti-migrant and anti-Muslim. In Russia, he is viewed as a right-wing nationalist, rather than a pro-Western reformist. In Ukraine, there is no crucial difference between Navalny and Putin, given that both consider Crimea an integral part of the Russian Federation.

“I believe that, despite the fact that Crimea was captured in flagrant violation of all international norms, the reality is that Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation. And let’s not deceive ourselves. And I strongly advise Ukrainians not to deceive themselves”, said Navalny in 2014, strongly rejecting a possibility of returning the Peninsula to Ukraine.

The West, however, prefers to turn a blind eye on these aspects of Navalny’s politics, as long as he remains critical towards Vladimir Putin, who once called the opposition figure an “unimportant blogger”. Indeed, it is quite debatable whether Navalny’s Russia of the Future party can pass a five percent election threshold in September and become the only “non-systemic” opposition party in the Russian parliament. However, Navalny is still capable of inspiring medium to large-scale protests in Moscow.

“Don’t be afraid. Take to the streets, not for me, but for yourselves, for your future”, he said in a video address from the police station.

Ultimately, the 44-year old politician is not as unimportant as the Kremlin tends to portray him, but neither is he someone who can overthrow Putin, as some in the West may hope.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Reuters: “Who is Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny?”

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Will Syrian Kurds be crushed between the Russian Hammer and Turkish Anvil? https://www.juancole.com/2020/12/crushed-between-russian.html Tue, 22 Dec 2020 05:04:48 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195109 Major global actors in the Middle East are traditionally using the Kurds as bargaining chips for their own geopolitical trade. Russia is no exception. The Kurds of northern Syria could soon “fall victim” of the Russo-Turkish lucrative deals.

Moscow has reportedly recently asked Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an alliance composed of Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian militias, in which the Kurds predominate – to leave control of Ain Issa town in the north of the country to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in order to prevent a potential Turkey’s military operation in the region.

Turkey-backed militants, on the other hand, have announced preparations for an offensive on Ain Issa, in the area where Russian bases are located. According to reports, local Kurds are protesting in front of the Russian military facility, demanding from Moscow to intervene and stop Turkish aggression on the region.

The Kurds are again caught between two fires. They already found themselves in a very similar situation in 2018 when Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army launched a military operation Olive Branch against Kurdish militias in Afrin District in northwestern Syria. Since the Kurds could not count on the American or Russian assistance, they were forced to abandon Afrin after two months of heavy clashes.

“We had certain arrangements with Russia. But Russia suddenly disregarded these agreements and betrayed us. They have clearly sold us out”, said Sipan Hemo, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) commander in January 2018.

In November 2019 the Kurds felt betrayed by the US, since President Donald Trump unexpectedly agreed to withdraw American forces from areas along Syria’s border with Turkey. Such a move was seen in Ankara as a green light for Turkish invasion. Eventually, the Kurds had to make arrangements with Russia-backed Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in order to prevent further Turkish gains. Has the time come for the Kurds to agree on Russia’s terms and conditions on Ain Issa?

If the SDF fighters do not hand over the town to the SAA in the near future, Moscow and Damascus will likely “express grave concern” over Turkish actions in the region, but will do nothing to prevent Turkey-backed militants from capturing Ain Issa. After Ankara successfully completed its operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, it is now looking for an excuse to start another intervention in its zone of influence.

The Kurds are certainly an easy target. Ain-Issa – situated to the east of the Euphrates River at the junction of routes connecting Qamishli to the east, Raqqa to the south, Kobani to the northwest and Manbij to the west – is an interesting point for the Turks because it allows them to take control of the strategically important M-4 highway. However, if the Kurds surrender to the Syrian Arab Army, Russian military will likely be deployed north of the town, and additional SAA forces will be deployed in the city to prevent any potential Turkish incursions in the region. In other words, if the Kurds find a common language with Damascus and accept the conditions of Russia, any attempts of the Turkey-backed militants to storm Ain-Issa could lead to a potential confrontation with the Syrian Arab Army that would be supported by the Russian Air Force.

From the Russian perspective, if the SDF refuses to hand over the town to Assad, it will be another evidence that the Kurdish leadership still relies on Washington, which means that the Kurds do not deserve Russian trust. Both Russia and its frenemy Turkey see the Syrian Kurds as a long hand of the United States in the northeast of the country, and also as an obstacle for achieving their own long-term interests in the region. Moreover, some Russian analysts claim that the Kurds blame anyone for what is happening, but not themselves.

As Nikita Isaev, director of the Kremlin-close Institute for Current Economic Research, pointed out in October 2019, “now that everyone has turned away from the Kurds, they will be able to count only on the active neutrality of Russia”. Namely, the Kremlin aims to portray Turkey as a bad cop, Assad as a good cop, and the Russian Federation as a mediator.

Still, some Kurdish leaders are quite aware of the Russian role in the region. Hushan Darwish, a member of the Democratic Syrian Assembly in Iraqi Kurdistan, said that “Russia is responsible for what happened, since it is the guarantor of the ceasefire.”

“Russia’s silence raises questions”, Darwish said talking about Russian request to hand over Ain Issa to the Syrian government.

Indeed, if the Turkey-backed forces manage to capture Ain Issa, the project of an independent Syrian Rojava will likely be doomed, which means that, at this point, an alliance with Damascus could be the lesser of two evils for the Kurds in northeastern Syria. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is a message that RIA FAN, a Russian news agency based in St. Petersburg, is sending to the Kurds.

Featured photo h/t Wikimedia.

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Did Peace just Break out in the Caucasus or Did Russia Strong-Arm Armenia into its Orbit? https://www.juancole.com/2020/11/caucasus-russia-armenia.html Wed, 11 Nov 2020 05:04:39 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=194362 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – The war in Nagorno-Karbakh is over. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev signed an agreement that effectively ended hostilities between the two countries over the disputed mountainous region. The deal was brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who managed to preserve the role of the regional arbiter, although Moscow will now have to reckon with the growing influence of Turkey in the Caucasus.

According to the document, Armenian forces will have to withdraw from significant portion of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh – internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenians backed by Yerevan for the past 26 years – and almost 2000 Russian peacekeepers will be deployed to the region. Their main task will be to protect a five kilometer-wide Lachin corridor, which is the major link between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

“This is not a victory but there is not defeat until you consider yourself defeated”, said Pashinyan calling the deal “extremely painful” for Armenian people.

Indeed, many Armenians see the agreement as capitulation to their archenemy Azerbaijan. That is why angry crowd stormed the government and the parliament buildings in Yerevan hours after the deal was announced. There are rumors that Pashinyan fled to Russia, and that Armenia could face a coup, but given that the military said it would follow the orders from the country’s leadership, at this point such an option does not seem very probable.

After Russia refused to interfere in the conflict, Armenia-backed Artsakh forces suffered heavy defeats on a daily basis. According to Pashinyan, he was told to sign a truce with Azerbaijan by leaders of Armenian armed forces, who explained that their resources were depleted. It is, however, widely believed that the Kremlin put enormous pressure on Armenian leadership not only to surrender Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, but also to guarantee the safety of transport links between southwest Azerbaijan, south Armenia and Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhichevan. According to the agreement signed by Putin, Pashinyan and Aliyev, the Nakhichevan corridor will be secured by the Russian Security Service which means that Armenia will de fact lose its sovereignty over this road that lies in the south of the country, along the Iranian border.

The Kremlin propagandists and Russian officials claim that Putin prevented an Armenian military defeat by forcing Pashinyan to sign an “extremely painful” agreement with Aliyev. Still, even if even if Yerevan lost Nagorno-Karabakh on the battlefield, it is unlikely that Azerbaijan would dare to attack Armenia in order to capture the Nakhchivan corridor, since such an action would force Russia – Yerevan’s ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – to actively defend Armenia. In other words, Russia pushed its ally to sign a humiliating deal with its archenemy that was openly backed by Turkey, and armed by Israel.

Ankara, which has played the most visible role in escalating the conflict by sending arms to Azerbaijan and recruiting former Syrian opposition forces to fight against the Armenians, has long envisioned itself as a major energy corridor between East and West. Now that its client Baku has won the war, Turkey’s influence in the region is expected to grow. As Azerbaijan’s leader pointed out, Turkey will also take part in the peace-keeping process, which suggests that Moscow and Ankara will de create their own “occupations zones” in the region – a model that the two countries already applied in Syria.

At the same time, according to Ukrainian political analyst Dmitriy Dzhangirov, Armenia, as a defeated nation, could face waves of destabilization.

“I believe Russia knew about the Azeri war plans in advance, but refused to share them with Pashinyan who is perceived in Moscow as a pro-Western and liberal figure. Now the Armenians will be even more dependent on Russia, since what has left of Nagorno-Karabakh will be in hands of the Russian peacekeepers”, said Dzhangirov.

Although the presence of Russian peacekeepers is seen as a guarantee that Azerbaijan will not be tempted to resume the war and capture the remaining portion of Artsakh, primarily the capital Stepanakert and the Lachin corridor, in reality Baku could create serious troubles for Russian troops on the ground. It is worth noting that just hours before the deal was reach, Azerbaijan’s Armed Forces downed Russian military helicopter over Armenia, close to Nakhchivan border.

“This is a planned provocation that resulted in the death of Russian pilots. There can be no other explanation”, said Russian military expert Alexei Leonkov. He emphasized that Azerbaijan is not a NATO member and that Russia can be tougher with Baku it than it was with Turkey after it downed the Russian Su-24 jet in Syria in 2015.

However, Russian media did not pay much attention to the incident in Armenia, and Azeris living in Russia came out to the streets of Saint Petersburg to celebrate their country’s military victory over Armenian forces, just hours after the Azeri Army Russian shot helicopter. Such an ambivalent Russian position can be interpreted as another Russia’s weakness and geopolitical humiliation. At the same time, it was a clear message to the Armenians that they cannot rely on Moscow.

“If your ally is the Russian Federation, you should be aware that everything that’s written in various agreements will be implemented only on paper, and Russian help will be very limited”, wrote a prominent Russian blogger whose pseudonym is Donetsky.

Even though many Armenians will be disgusted and will likely blame both Pashinyan and Putin for their defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh, the country is expected to remain in Russia’s geopolitical orbit, although Russian influence in Yerevan could start declining.

“Pashinyan will certainly have a very hard time”, said Alexander Iskandaryan, Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan.

“Protests in Yerevan will be quite massive, and troops will start coming back from the warzone. In addition, there are already many refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia and they have nowhere to return. The situation in the country will be very turbulent”, said Iskandaryan.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia sign deal to end Nagorno-Karabakh war”

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With UN Embargo on Arms Sales to Iran Lapsing, Will Russia take on US to reap Bonanza? https://www.juancole.com/2020/10/embargo-lapsing-bonanza.html Mon, 19 Oct 2020 04:04:18 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=193921 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – As of today, the 2007 UN Security Council embargo on conventional arms shipments to Iran expired. At least from the point of view of international law, Iran can now purchase powerful and advanced weapons such as the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, or the Su-30 fighter jet. Still, although Iranian officials have already expressed interest in acquiring the latest state-of-art Russian military technology, it is unclear exactly how much business the two countries will do in this regard. If Russia does agree to such sales, a significant rise in tensions between Washington and Moscow will ensure.

For its part, Washington has menaced those nations that decide sell weapons to Iran after today. It is uncertain if the Kremlin will dare to confront the United States over the Islamic Republic, risking an expansion of already unwelcome US Treasury Department sanctions. The real possibility that the erratic but often pro-Russian Trump will lose the election raises the stakes for Moscow.

At least as far as rhetoric goes, however, the Russians aren’t exactly shaking in their boots at Washington’s financial saber rattling. Recently, Russia’s long-serving and sometimes waspish Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow has no intention of taking into account the United States’ “aggressive” demands concerning Iran.

“The fact that the United States threatened to introduce sanctions on all those who will contradict the US interpretation of the current situation once again confirms that Washington wants to behave like a bull in a china shop,” Lavrov said, adding that the current US administration has lost diplomatic skills almost beyond retrieve.

Now that the arms embargo has expired, Russian Ambassador to Tehran Levan Dzhagaryan at least says that his country is ready to supply the Tehran with its S-400 air defense system. “Russia does not have any problem with delivering the S-400 to Iran and it did not have any problem before either,” Dzhagaryan said.

The ambassador, however, protests too much. Moscow has in fact up until now refused to provide Iran with an S-400 missile system, even though this request allegedly came from the very top of the Iranian political leadership. Four years ago Iran tried to purchase Russian weapons, but Kremlin-friendly analysts made excuses for President Vladimir Putin’s refusal to play ball. They used the same rhetoric they are using today, arguing that that Tehran simply does not have money. However, at the time, Iran was willing to invest $8 billion in arms supply, which was not an unattainable amount of money for the Islamic Republic. Thus, it is more likely that even then Russia did not want to risk antagonizing Israel, the Gulf states, as well as the Kremlin’s “dear Western partners” by selling weapons to the UN-sanctioned Iran.

To be fair, however, at that time the UNSC embargo was still in effect, and Russia would have suffered opprobrium from the international community if a sale had gone forward, and it could not have counted on any support if the US sanctioned Russia over it. Now, however, the current UNSC has rejected the Trump administration’s demand that the embargo be extended. That body has, in addition, all but called “delusional” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s allegation that the US, having left the 2015 Iran nuclear deal or Joint Plan for Collective Action (JCPOA), has the authority to reimpose sanctions on Iran unilaterally.

Aside from the UNSC embargo, Russia during the past five years has had other reasons to avoid too close an embrace of Iran. For one thing, playing hard to get had benefits all around. Historically, Russia has used Iran as a counterweight or source of leverage to balance its relations with Western powers, particularly the United States.

Lavrov’s anti-American rhetoric does not necessarily mean that Moscow will provide systems like the S-400 to Iran. For one thing, the severe sanctions that the US has imposed on Iran since May, 2018, have devasted that country’s economy and led to a steep decline of the Iranian currency, which has lost 60 percent of its value against the dollar in the past two years. The coronavirus pandemic is also hitting the country hard, giving rise to skyrocketing unemployment. Tehran may simply be too strapped to go on a big arms buying spree, despite the end of the UNSC prohibition.

Still, Russian and Iranian military cooperation will likely materialize in the form of limited arms sales. For instance, Russia could offer defensive weapons like the S-300, which proved to be easy targets of the Azerbaijani Air Force in Nagorno-Karabakh. Reportedly, however, a battery of this anti-missile system in Armenia was recently destroyed by Azerbaijan using the Israeli made drone IAI Harop. Will Iran still be so eager for it?

Other hardware may nevertheless be of interest. Some Russian reports allege that some time ago Tehran handed over to Moscow an impressive list of weapons and military equipment that Iran wanted to buy. The Islamic Republic was interested in Su-30SM, Su-35 fighters, Yak-130 combat training aircraft, A-10 AWACS aircraft, Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems S-400, T-90 tanks, coastal mobile missile system “Bastion” with anti-ship missile “Yakhont”, surface ships including missile boats equipped with cruise missiles “Caliber”, and diesel-electric submarines.

Tehran’s perhaps overly ambitious requests aimed at equipping their various armed forces across the board, provoking some Russian skepticism regarding Iranian ability to pay. That is why some Russian authors think that Moscow and Tehran will likely make deals on the less advanced and much cheaper Buk and Tor missile systems, as well as Russian export of anti-aircraft missile and cannon systems Pantsir to Iran, since those are things that the Islamic Republic can afford. On the other hand, Russia is expected to refrain from supplying Iran with offensive weapons such as the Su-30 aircraft and the latest weapons such as the S-400 for both financial and political reasons.

Because of the economic crisis, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and Western sanctions, a large-scale purchase of weapons and military equipment by Iran does not seem realistic at this point. Still, now that the legal the barrier to arms sale are removed, Tehran is expected to increase the quantity and quality of its own production of military equipment, since it desperately needs to modernize its armed forces. If no one can clean up selling advanced weaponry to Iran anymore, at least some money will be made licensing industrial know-how for weapons production with suddenly cheap Iranian labor.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CGTN: “Iran says UN arms embargo on Tehran has been lifted as deadline expires”

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War for Oil, again? Why are Russia and Turkey intervening in the Azerbaijan-Armenia Clashes? https://www.juancole.com/2020/09/intervening-azerbaijan-armenia.html Wed, 30 Sep 2020 04:04:02 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=193543 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – Clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh threaten to destabilize the Caucasus. Turkey and Russia – the major foreign actors in this proxy conflict – are still not directly involved in bloodshed that erupted on September 27, although Ankara openly supports Baku by providing full political and propaganda support, while the Kremlin hesitates to side with its ally Yerevan, as it aims to preserve the role of the regional arbiter.

There are reports that Ankara transferred its proxies from Syria and Libya to fight the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh – a region of Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Yerevan since the conclusion of war in 1994. Turkey, however, denied such accusations. On the other hand, there are claims that Armenia is attempting to transfer hundreds of Kurdish fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan to Nagorno-Karabakh via Iran.

The Iranian state has long been firmly allied with Armenia, and is in danger of being drawn into the conflict, as unconfirmed video circulated appearing to show that Iran had shot down an Azerbaijani drone that entered its territory. Although some Iranian clerics reportedly urged their country to support fellow Shiia Azeris, Tehran ironically enough aligns with Christian Armenia. It is worth noting that, according to Iranian reports, during heavy clashes between the Azerbaijani Armed Forces and Armenia-sponsored Artsakh troops several rockets landed in Iranian villages near the line-of-contact between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. Tehran had to deny that it allowed the passage of Russian weapons bound for Armenia after unverified video footages were posted on social media.

Russia is also Armenia’s ally, since Yerevan is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), although that does not necessarily mean that Russia will directly get involved into the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Key Article 4 of the Treaty, “if one of the States Parties is subjected to aggression by any state or group of states, then this will be considered as aggression against all States Parties to this Treaty”. However, Azerbaijan attacked the Armenia backed self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, not Armenia itself, which is why for Moscow hostilities in the disputed region are seen as a showdown between Armenians and Azerbaijanis for control over Nagorno-Karabakh. In other words, Russia is attempting to maintain good relations with both, Yerevan and Baku. Although the two sides are de facto at war, as they both declared martial law and mobilization, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan turned up on the same Russian primetime TV show to explain their positions on the conflict.

The Kremlin is still trying to portray itself as a key mediator in this decades old conflict, as any changes on the ground would ruin not only Moscow’s reputation, but also its lucrative position. Over the years, Russia has been selling weapons to both, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and even though Yerevan is a member of Russia-dominated Eurasian Union, the trade turnover between Russia and Azerbaijan reached $3 billion in 2019, which is much higher than the trade balance Moscow has with Armenia. Also, Azerbaijan is an energy-rich country, and two pipelines that carry oil and gas from the former Soviet republic westward through the Caucasus both pass near the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

In case the conflict spills over the borders of the disputed territory, the very existence of the energy corridors could be under threat. Still, at least at this point, such an option does not seem very likely as that would have a strong impact on Turkey’s energy supplies. Natural gas and crude oil, rather than alleged Neo-Ottoman and Pan-Islamic ambitions, are the key reasons for Turkish explicit support to Azerbaijan, as Ankara aims to reduce its dependency on Russian energy. That is why, for Turkey, Baku is the most important partner in the Caucasus and Ankara remains one of the most important buyers of the Azeri energy.

Russia’s interests in the region are also based mostly on energy. The Kremlin aims to prevent the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline, as well as Southern Gas Corridor, as such projects would bypass the Russian Federation and undermine the country’s influence in the Caucasus. As long as there are hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, flawless gas and oil supplies to Europe via Turkey will be under threat. Since Azerbaijan’s oil reserves are expected to last for 30 more years, in the long term foreign actors will likely manage to resolve the conflict in the region, one way or another. In spite of harsh rhetoric from the Turkish side, Ankara is expected to eventually agree to ease tensions, especially if the Azeri forces do not make any significant progress on the ground.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Turkey pushed its proxies in Libya to capture the energy-rich Sirte province, but after Russia, Egypt France and the United Arab Emirates warned Ankara not to cross the “red line”, none of the sides managed to break the stalemate in the conflict over the North African country. Given that the Nagorno-Karabakh war has been treated as a frozen conflict over the past 26 years, it is very unlikely that situation on the ground will radically change without wide deals between Russia and Turkey.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

RFE/RL: “Turkish-Russian Rivalry Influences Azerbaijan-Armenia Fighting”

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Trump and Israel are only Winners of Serbia-Kosovo “Historic” Deal, As EU warns over Jerusalem https://www.juancole.com/2020/09/winners-historic-jerusalem.html Wed, 09 Sep 2020 04:03:27 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=193065 Belgrade (Special to Informed Comment) – Former wartime foes Serbia and Kosovo signed a deal on economic normalization that has very little to do with relations between Belgrade and Pristina, as its main beneficiaries are the United States and Israel rather than local populations in the Balkans. Under President Donald Trump auspices, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic committed in Washington to moving Serbian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti agreed to mutual recognition with Israel, as well as opening the embassy in Jerusalem, becoming the first Muslim-majority nation to do so.

According to video footage that became viral on social media, Serbia’s President appeared to react with some puzzlement when Trump announced, in the Oval Office, that the Balkan country agreed to move its embassy to Jerusalem in less than a year. Vucic was scratching his head bemusedly as US President spoke, which is why many speculate that Serbian leader apparently did not know what he signed.

Just a few days after the “historic summit” in Washington, the European Union warned Serbia and Kosovo that they could be hurting their chances for EU membership by moving their embassies to Jerusalem. The threat would hold more weight if Serbia had not already been left languishing on the “European path” for two decades and ife all European Union members so much as recognized Kosovo. Still, it is unusual for Brussels so directly to take on both the US and Israel.

The Serbia – Kosovo deal was primarily important to Trump in order to demonstrate at least some foreign policy success. That is why the agreement on economic normalization was signed in Washington, as one of its main goals was to emphasize Trump’s dominant role. In addition, a photograph of Vucic sitting in the Oval Office looking like a naughty schoolboy summoned by the headmaster Trump also became viral, and it said a lot about Serbia’s place in the modern world.

The deal signed in Washington also clearly demonstrated who “the real boss” in the Balkans is. Besides Norway and the Donbass, the so called Western Balkans is the only energy-rich territory in Europe, especially in terms of coal reserves and hydroelectric potential. As natural gas and crude oil become scarce, natural resources in Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania could play a very important role. That is why the region will likely stay in the US sphere of influence, and may never join the EU. Also, the Serbia – Kosovo deal includes the US request for energy diversification, which means that Serbia may have to reduce its purchase of Russian natural gas. That could be one reason that Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova posted a picture on Facebook of Vucic in the White House, alongside a picture of Stone from the 1992 film Basic Instinct, at a police interrogation where her character briefly exposes herself.

“If you are invited to the White House but your chair stands like you are in an interrogation, you should sit like in the picture number 2. Whoever you are. Just trust me,” Zakharova wrote.

Vucic, on the other hand, said while he was in Washington he “defended Serbia’s close ties with Russia, including an arms purchase, and his refusal to impose Western sanctions against Moscow over its policies in Ukraine”. However, given that Serbia’s President agreed to unconditionally remove the Serbian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it is not very likely that he would have opposed any Trump request that he join in anti-Russia sanctions. In other words, the US likely did not make such requests at all. If it did, Vucic would have broken ties with Russia, just like he agreed to ban Huawei’s 5G technology in Serbia, even though the Chinese company is reportedly heavily involved in a new system of video-surveillance in Belgrade.

Finally, Serbia’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem will undoubtedly spoil the country’s relations with Palestine, as well as with the rest of the Arab world. On the other hand, Belgrade will not get any concessions from Israel. In fact, before the “historic deal” in Washington, the Jewish state was among the countries that did not recognize Kosovo. In an exchange of Serbia’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognized the independence of Kosovo, which Serbia still considers as part of its territory. Pristina is also unlikely to benefit from normalization of relations with Israel, and the step may worsen its relations with other Muslim countries after it opens embassy in Jerusalem. Thus, at least in the short-term, the only winners of the Serbia – Kosovo deal seem to be “the most pro-Israel president in American history” and Bibi Netanyahu.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Euronews: “Serbian president Vucic asked about moving embassy in Israel to Jerusalem”

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