Sunday, May 8, 2016

Victory Day: A Personal Reflection

May 9th, the day Nazi Germany surrendered against the Allied forces of the USSR, United States, and United Kingdom ending World War II, is today.

There is an old quote that says "World War II was won with American steel, British intelligence, and Soviet blood." The United States, with its vast wealth of raw materials and largely unharmed industrial sector, was able to mobilize its economy to sky-high levels of production and keep the military from running out of supplies. British intelligence was vital in intercepting and decoding Nazi cyphers and played a vital role in giving Allied forces the upper hand as to the Axis strategies.

And last but not least, Soviet blood. It is estimated that somewhere around 20-27 million Soviets from all corners of the vast empire died in the Second World War from a combination of war crimes, military casualties, famine, and disease. By contrast, Germany lost around 7 million people, and the United States and United Kingdom each lost less than a million in the war.

Because of the staggering number of people lost in the war, Victory Day is by far the most important state holiday in modern Russia.  The titanic struggle against Nazi Germany has been woven into Russian culture and identity as well as pride.

At 10 am Moscow time this Monday, Russia's well-known military pomp will be out in full display. Soldiers of the Russian Army will march through Red Square to world-famous military marches such as Священная война (The Sacred War) and Прощание славянки (Farewell of Slavianka) and the Russian people will pay tribute to their grandfathers who shed their blood to defend our Fatherland against the Nazi invaders. 

Some do not approve of the way Russia looks back on this chapter of its long history. There are some who deny the atrocities carried out by Stalin's government against the Ukrainian people in the years leading up to the war. Some gloss over the fact that Stalin's government cooperated with Hitler at the beginning of the war to invade Poland. The reality of Stalin's brutal and absolute rule is also somewhat overshadowed by the victory in the Second World War. 

These grievances, however valid, are often looked down upon when remembering the victory over the Nazis, and while the picture of history in the early Soviet Union is not completely rosy by any stretch, perhaps these things can be remembered and reflected upon on a day other than May 9th. There is no doubt in my mind that they must be remembered, but timing is important. 

In the United States, some are keen to point out the blatant racism plaguing the country during the Second World War when veterans of that conflict are given tribute. Again, they are right. The American military was segregated in World War II and racism was still institutionalized in American law. This is not to mention the widespread propaganda that painted the Japanese (or "Japs") as sniveling and deceitful subhumans. 

But however valid your message is, there is another part to protest, and that is the method of getting that message out. In both countries, bringing up the darker shades of history as the entire country comes together to reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought can come across as in poor taste and even disrespectful. 

Remembering these parts of history is not a bad thing-in fact it is a very good thing to keep people honest. But the timing on both sides could be a bit more different and the protest movements can be channeled into more effective methods rather than raining on the parade. There's a difference between constant apologizing and groveling for the sins of the past and looking upon them with an honest and open mind while retaining one's pride in his country and its history. 

For instance, I would not be opposed to wearing an orange and black St. George's ribbon on May 9th as a symbol of remembrance. I am fully aware of the disagreeable connotations it has with modern Russian nationalism especially in regards to the "struggle against fascists" in Ukraine, but that ribbon has been used in the Russian military since before 1917. It is a part of our history. I may not wear it at other times, but it is no sin in my eyes on May the 9th. 

And so while I do often criticize the Kremlin, today is a day for remembrance, for pride, for commemoration. I remember. I am proud. I am proud of this country I was born in and the heroic resistance of the people who I share blood with. I remember their enormous sacrifice and the many who never lived to see victory. I am humbled and moved by the photos I see of old men, their uniforms covered in medals and honors, who saw the horrors of that war first hand. And I hope Russia will continue to honor the memory of those whose struggle has become such an integral part of this country's identity and history. 

Подвиг народа будет жить в веках. 
С Днём Победы. Ура!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

With Warsaw Summit approaching, Duda stresses NATO unity in remarks at National Press Club

WASHINGTON-President Andrzej Duda of the Republic of Poland stopped by the National Press Club in downtown Washington D.C. this morning to deliver remarks to an audience of about 500 and to take part in a question-and-answer session with the hosts of the cable news program "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.

The event was organized by the Atlantic Council and Center for European Policy Analysis, two American think tanks with vested interests in Polish affairs both within her borders and in her region of Europe.

Introductions were made by Frederick Kempe, the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council and Wess A. Mitchell, the President of the Center for European Policy Analysis. Their remarks set the stage by emphasizing Poland's central location in Europe, its relatively large Armed Forces, and its growing influence in the region. Poland has also been particularly active in NATO since the Kremlin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine.

Poland is a country of 38 million people, eighth largest in Europe and slightly larger than Canada.

President Duda was elected into office in Poland's two-round Presidential election last year, beating out incumbent president Bronislaw Komorowski of the center-right Civic Platform party. He won the presidential election as a member of the right-wing Law and Justice party, but resigned from the party membership in May 2015. Before running for president he was a member of the Polish Sejm (equivalent to the House of Representatives) and the European Parliament.

"Poles and Americans...stand united and speak with the same voice on issues of importance."

Duda focused on foreign policy and cooperation with regards to security in his speech.

First, President Duda outlined Polish foreign policy and the three principles it is based upon, which he claimed "are based in the deep historical experiences of my country, sometimes very difficult and painful experiences."

"Three pillars define Polish foreign policy: first, the obeying of international law, international sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all states, no matter how strong or weak they are", Duda explained, in a clear nod to Warsaw's fierce opposition to the Kremlin's aggression in Ukraine and its sudden annexation of Crimea two years ago.

Duda then explained his second principle, partnership and dialogue among nations, and its contributions to stability. "History has taught us that such a system never guarantees a permanent peace in our world."

Duda's third pillar was that of "Euro-Atlantic Unity". "For the last twenty-six years, Poland has been a consistent advocate of trans-Atlantic cooperation." He expressed pride in Poland's membership in the European Union and in NATO, despite the soft Euroscepticism of his former political party. He then thanked the United States for its continuing support for Polish sovereignty and in NATO's unity.

"Our goals are the same. We need to keep NATO strong and united, with the United States engaged in European security as the leading guarantor of credibility in the alliance. It's our goal to strengthen the security of our common states, with a special focus on the Central and Eastern European countries. For Poland, this means strengthening NATO on its eastern flank."

Duda also stressed the importance of contributions from each different NATO state. This has been a recent controversy as the United States has pressed various European countries to add to their defense budgets to mixed results. While countries like Germany lag behind, Poland has maintained and turned itself into a considerable and modern power in the area of defense, and Duda was keen to remind his mostly American audience that Poland sent troops to be part of the coalitions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Just as everyone should expect NATO to come to their aid, everyone must also chip into the common maintenance of the alliance, and Duda maintained that Poland would stand firm to its obligations to NATO, specifically the policy of keeping defense spending as at least 2% of national GDP.

This focus on the unity of NATO by President Duda is not by coincidence. NATO's next summit will be in early July and will be meeting in Warsaw, Poland's capital and largest city.

Despite the various different perceptions and prioritization of threats across the countries of NATO, it is imperative that NATO members remember that they all belong to the same alliance with the same values and principles. According to President Duda, the main threat facing NATO was the rule of force replacing the rule of law; another not-so-subtle nod to continuing aggression in Eastern Ukraine as well as Syria.

However, Duda was quick to reassure the audience that he did not seek a hostile relationship with Poland's neighbors.  "What threatens Europe today is not a particular state, or a particular nation. It is the policy of a certain state which results in permanent violation of international law. Poland, like the whole of Europe, does not seek to isolate Russia. We don't want the Cold War to come back, as Prime Minister Medvedev suggested a short while ago in Munich...nations do not want to live in the balance of fear, however, we need to remember that if we're going to have a partnership, it must be built upon mutual respect for common rules is needed. In other words, in order for a dialogue to be possible, law has to be respected."

Duda called for sanctions to be brought against every country that violated those common laws, citing their nonviolent nature, and hoped that the upcoming Warsaw summit would reassure the international community of NATO's ability to resolve conflicts both in Eastern Ukraine and in the Middle East where the Islamic State still wreaks havoc.

In his closing remarks, President Duda cited President John F. Kennedy's famous quote "There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction."

In his question-and answer session with Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, President Duda was asked about a wide variety of both domestic and international subjects. Poland's recent constitutional crisis was a topic of discussion that emerged quickly. After Duda's former party, Law and Justice, won the parliamentary elections last October, it proceeded to nominate judges to Poland's Constitutional Court that would replace the judges appointed last minute by the rival party Civic Platform. The crisis has raised eyebrows and cooled relations between Germany and Poland, but Duda, now speaking in Polish rather than English, seemed calm and convinced that his former party was in the right. 

 The discussion also shifted to the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election, set to occur in November.  Ms. Brzezinski seemed very keen to ask President Duda about his opinion of Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has been running on a platform similar to the European right-wing, which tends to be more nationalist, populist, and isolationist than the traditional American right which advocates for decentralized government, individualism, lower taxes and firm foreign policy. Duda decisively avoided the question, saying that it was the American people's decision and that he did not wish to get involved in domestic affairs of the United States.  The President walked the tightrope as he reiterated broad support for NATO, an organization which has been called "obsolete" by the real estate mogul, but also claimed he understood the message of "America First", claiming he naturally wants to put Poland first as its head of state. 

President Duda also received a bit of criticism on Poland's reluctance to be pro-active in the Refugee Crisis, but he stood his ground and a bit of soft euroscepticism emerged when he explained that Poland was not going to be told what to do by Germany when it is capable of making its own decisions and mentioned that refugees were not heading to Europe with Poland in mind as it does not have as high a living standard or as generous a social safety net as Germany. 

Andrzej Duda is still a relatively new president and the government he oversees is less than a year old. His messages of unity across NATO will continue to resonate, but there may be more gridlock to come when it comes to the European Union as the union faces an enormous challenge in the refugee crisis. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Experts discuss Russian-Turkish relations and their international ramifications

On March 23rd, Johns Hopkins University hosted a discussion about Russian-Turkish relations and how they affect the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as the Middle East. 

Featured at the discussion were Kurt Volker, Olga Oliker, Eric Edelman, Avinoam Iden, and Svante Cornell, who was tasked with opening the talk. 

Eric Edelman, former Ambassador to Turkey, was quick to remind the audience that conflict between Russia and Turkey is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, the Russian and Ottoman Empire fought each other. When Russia was overtaken by the communists in 1917, tensions subsided somewhat, but Turkey’s accession into NATO kept embers smoldering.

After the fall of communism, Turkey saw an opening to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as both regions are home to large populations of Turkic peoples. In the Caucasus, Turkey quickly became friendly with Azerbaijan, a country that speaks a language called Azerbaijani which is nearly identical to Turkish. Similarly, four of the five Central Asian countries, Tajikistan being the exception, that became independent in 1991 are Turkic countries that have varying levels of similarity to the Turkish language.  Turkey’s allies in the West considered its new potential for influence as positive, but Russia disagreed. 

To understand Turkish foreign policy, one must understand Turkish domestic policy under President Erdogan. Erdogan has been in power in Turkey since 2002 when his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party swept to power. Though Turkey remains considerably freer than most countries that it surrounds, plenty of problems have arisen. Press freedom is under attack. The foreign policy program of “Zero problems with neighbors” has quickly become the exact opposite. The conflict with PKK terrorists in the southeast continues to fester. The economy is faltering. 

Turkish foreign policy took another hit when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24, especially after evidence emerged that the plane had spent less than a minute in Turkish airspace. 

Another squabble has to do with a small neighbor of both countries: Armenia. Turkey and Armenia have been at odds for over a century because Turkey refuses to call what the Ottoman Empire did to its Armenian population in 1915 genocide. Russia has recognized the events of 1915 as genocide since 1995 and because of this, Armenia enjoys relative friendship with Russia against Turkey and its other neighbor Azerbaijan, who also refuses to acknowledge the events as genocide. 

On the topic of Turkey’s oil-rich Azerbaijani cousins, Avinoam Idan, Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, stressed a relationship based on energy. Azerbaijan is sitting on a large amount of oil and Turkey hopes to get its hands on that oil. There also exists a possibility that a stronger Azerbaijan backed by will try to move towards unfreezing the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Russia, because of its friendly relationship with Armenia, would likely apply pressure on Azerbaijan to do the opposite by stationing more troops in Armenia. 

Russian support of Hezbollah, however, could hurt relations with respect to Israel and its borders, whereas it looks like Turkey and Israel are mending their relations. 

Another important point is that concerning NATO. NATO has doubled in size since the fall of communism, and most of the countries that have joined were once communist. The end of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term may also entice the Kremlin into taking military action somewhere else as the South Ossetia conflict took place at the end of Bush’s 2nd term, though this may be pure coincidence.

Next to speak was Olga Oliker of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. It’s important to remember that neither Turkey nor Russia wanted to harm relations with the other country. The actions both countries are taking shouldn’t be described as a proxy war either as in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and Russia “...are two different countries, supporting two different sides, for two different reasons.” 
Both countries are in a rut with economic problems in Russia and a wave of refugees spilling into Turkey, but Russia is more concerned overall with taking the stage as a great power than Turkey is and the Kremlin constantly is on the lookout for ways it can show Russia to be that great power. 

It’s also interesting to note that Turkey and the United States are not quite on the same side in the Syrian Civil War either and this represents an opportunity for the Kremlin to take action. 

The Kremlin’s openings for opportunities seem to come at the expense of the United States, which, according to Kurt Volker, former US ambassador to NATO. Indeed, the American involvement in the Syrian Civil War has been “bumbling”, while Turkey’s goals are clear, namely defeat of the PKK, the end of the Assad regime in Syria, and the prevention of an independent Kurdish state. Russia’s goals meanwhile run almost exactly contrary. The Kremlin is friendly with Assad and its involvement in Syria has definitively turned the civil war in favor of Assad’s forces and to some extent the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition in the north of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians. Meanwhile, Washington, Mr. Volker argues, seems to be going back on its already loosely defined goals. The United States doesn’t want ISIS to be powerful, but at the same time action against them has been largely restrained, and there’s not been much cooperation on the Refugee Crisis in Europe. 

The personalities of the Turkish and Russian heads of state have been considered quite similar for some time. Erdogan has been accused by his critics of wanting to turn Turkey into a state similar to Russia where the President wields considerably more power than in Turkey’s present parliamentary structure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both are disliked by pro-Western “liberal” Russians and Turks. And both leaders have led their respective countries into uncertain futures both on a global and domestic scale.