Monday, August 31, 2015

U.S. - Russia relations after 2016: Isolation, Engagement, or Confrontation?

This article is one of my columns for the American think tank Free Russia Foundation.

Ever since President George Washington advised Americans that it would be best to stay out of other countries' disputes in his Farewell Address, Americans have been often sympathetic and supportive of the idea of isolationism. Until World War I, the United States was only minimally involved with affairs beyond its immediate borders.  Even then, America's involvement came late. President Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 Presidential Election with the slogan "He Kept Us out of War", an obvious allusion to World War I raging across the Atlantic. That reluctant attitude towards involvement in foreign wars continued when President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American people that he would not send American troops to fight in the Second World War. It was only the attack on Pearl Harbor that prompted American military action in World War II. 

Since then, however, the United States has been heavily involved in many different disputes around the world. From wars in Korea and Vietnam to intelligence-engineered coup d'etats in Iran and all over Central and South America, to wars in the Middle East and bombings in what was once Yugoslavia, the United States has been involved in all corners of the world since World War II ended. Sometimes the causes were noble, other times perhaps not so much. The United States directly and indirectly supported repressive regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, and even apartheid-era South Africa in the fight to contain communism. 

When President Barack Obama was swept into office in 2008, he touted a more restrained approach to foreign policy centered on diplomacy. Obama has seen victories and defeats with this approach, but the war between Ukraine and Russia remains an open and unresolved conflict.

More blunt isolationism, however, seems to still resonate with many Americans, and this is most clearly summed up by three words uttered by the leading Republican candidate.

"It's Europe's problem."

That's what U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has said when asked about the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the invasion of Russian troops into the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. In an interview with CNN in Scotland, Mr. Trump claimed that Europe should take more responsibility for the crisis, explicitly pondering why Germany had not taken a greater role in resolving the conflict. After all, Ukraine and Russia are European countries, are they not?

Trump has also said he's going to get along very well with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While his remarks on the relationship between President Obama and President Putin, namely that Obama and Putin "hate each other "and have a "very bad relationship" do carry elements of truth, exactly how he'd mend U.S.-Russian relations is not yet clear.

Considerable consensus is evident among the other Republican Party candidates in regards to the Ukraine crisis. 

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush supports supplying Kyiv with lethal aid and an increased presence of American troops in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. His Floridian counterpart, Senator Marco Rubio, has been vocal in his support for supplying Kyiv with weapons, as well as the possibility of letting Ukraine join NATO, an ambition that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has expressed interest in holding a nationwide referendum for. Rubio called President Putin a "gangster", referencing the assassinations of Aleksandr Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov in recent remarks: "He [Putin] is basically an organized crime figure who controls a government and a large territory. ... This is a person who kills people because they're his political enemies. If you're a political adversary of Vladimir Putin, you wind up with plutonium in your drink or shot in the street." 

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is also very supportive of both arming Ukraine and bringing both Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, as well as rebuilding missile defense systems that were dismantled under the Obama Administration and is in agreement with Governor Bush in regards to an increased troop presence in the Baltic states. 

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin did well to explicitly mention the conflict in Ukraine during the first major GOP debate. “I would send weapons to Ukraine,” Walker said. “I would put forces on the eastern border of Poland and the Baltic nations, and I would re-instate, put back in place the missile defense system in the Czech Republic.” Indeed, an American military convoy recently a made public trip through the Czech Republic. The convoy saw hundreds of Czechs waving the Stars and Stripes and cheering the passing American troops. 

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas also is supportive of sending Ukraine lethal aid, as is Ben Carson. Carson, however, was previously and publicly unaware that the Baltic states were members of NATO, raising some American political pundits' eyebrows

Governor John Kasich of Ohio has been vigorously supportive of supplying lethal aid to the Ukrainians as well. He is on record as saying “For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are not giving the Ukrainians [the ability] to defend themselves against Putin and the Russians.”

Despite the consensus coming across among many Republican candidates, some differences exist among the candidates specifically around Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul. While Senator Paul supports "isolating" Russia because of its aggression in Ukraine, he seems more reluctant to directly engage or supply Ukraine with aid. Mike Huckabee, once the Governor of Arkansas, is also quite wary of military escalation, instead opting to focus on economic isolation. 

On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner and President Obama's Secretary of State for many years, seems to employ more hawkish ideals than her boss. Clinton, like many of the Republican candidates, has alluded to providing greater financial and military assistance to Kyiv, but whether Clinton would sign a bill  as president directly arming Ukraine is unclear. Clinton has made strong remarks about Putin, though, comparing him to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. She has also spoken highly of the Ukrainian government and armed forces. "I think the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian civilians who’ve been fighting against the separatists have proven that they’re worthy of some greater support.” After many years of directly working with the president, though, it's questionable that a Clinton Administration would do much different than the Obama Administration. Hillary may also face opposition from those who lean farther left within her own party if she becomes president. 

If Vice President Joe Biden runs and wins the White House, the United States will have someone at the helm who is a seasoned and experienced character who has visited and met with leaders in the Baltic states and both Ukraine's President and Prime Minister. Biden, however, probably will not waver far from Obama's current policies, which, while they have thrown the Russian economy into considerable instability, have not visibly convinced the Kremlin to change course. Biden has also displayed more caution in regards to the War in the Donbas than Secretary Clinton or even President Obama. Farther to the left, Independent-turned-Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders has expressed interest in economic isolation, but has been, like Senator Paul, very wary of military action.

There are over twenty candidates running for President in the United States. However, there are probably only about three courses to choose from when you boil it down regarding Ukraine and Russia. Americans can choose the status quo with Clinton (or Biden if he runs), stronger action against Putin with most of the Republicans, restrained action with Senator Paul or Senator Sanders, or uncharted isolation with Donald Trump. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Moldova: Squinting towards Europe and Romania

The Republic of Moldova, a small Romanian-speaking country to the southwest of Ukraine, formed a coalition government recently consisting of three different pro-European Union parties.

Even though the left-wing, pro-Russian Party of Socialists won the most votes and the most seats overall in the Moldovan Parliament, the drop in support for the Party of Communists ensured that the pro-European coalition in Moldova would be ruling the country as it has a total of 55 seats compared to the 45 total seats occupied by the Socialists and Communists.

Moldova, like Macedonia and Ukraine, has been grappling with a sharply divided population since it became an independent country, separated into pro-European and pro-Russian camps. Similar to Ukraine and Georgia, it also has not yet found a resolution to the frozen conflict that sits on its eastern border.

As Moldova became an independent country in the early 1990s, it was almost immediately pushed into a conflict with the tiny de facto independent state on its eastern border known as Transnistria" or "Pridnestrovie". Transnistria is a thin sliver of land that never wanted to leave the USSR, but with growing nationalist sentiments rising in the 1980s, it found itself with nowhere to go sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. Fortunately for the Transnistrians, they outnumbered the ethnic Moldovans in their small strip of land. The Supreme Soviet of Moldova, dominated by nationalists as the USSR crumbled, started to enact policies that, despite not being outright discriminatory in nature, alienated many people living in Transnistria. War broke out, and the Transnistrians with the help of Russian and Ukrainian volunteers (in addition to help from the Russian Army), were able to fend off the Moldovans and implement a ceasefire. Transnistria has been de facto independent ever since. 

If Transnistria was recaptured by Moldovan troops there is a possibility that the region would be able to tip the election to the pro-Russian side. 

While the pro-European parties in Moldova have "won" the most recent election, they still must fight an uphill battle because of significant support for the opposition, corruption, poverty, and the frozen conflict. Moldova is dysfunctional to say the least. 

If Moldova's government can jolt the country to life, it will likely pursue closer ties with the European Union, but if not, the Socialists and Communists could claw back into power. 

Pro-European sentiment seems to be on the rise in Moldova. Throughout the 1990s, the Party of Communists had a strong hold on power, but the last five years have revealed a tide of pro-European parties gaining ground in the country.

The other dynamic that is interesting in Moldova is the possibility of reunification with Romania. Both countries speak Romanian, and Moldova's national anthem upon independence was the same as Romania's. The idea is still popular in Romania but more controversial in Moldova, and the pro-EU parties in Moldova have been more concerned with EU accession than a union with Romania. Still, the countries share common ground and if Moldova was able to pick itself up and become more economically powerful by meeting the various requirements for EU membership, reunification could come back into the country's political dialogue. 

If Moldova wants to do anything, though, they're going to have to look internally first. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and is plagued by corruption and ineffective leadership. 
The major problems to address are as follows.

First of all, Transnistria simply cannot be ignored. Every frozen conflict that has emerged has crippled and undermined the countries that have been involved. It may be, at this point, better for Moldova to cut its losses with the rebellious sliver of land where the sickle and hammer still flutters above government buildings. This could be a difficult pill to swallow for Moldovans, but it would effectively let the country focus internally on its own problems. Re-absorbing the breakaway country would make resentment fester and present an electoral challenge for the pro-European government.

If Moldova does eventually choose to retake Transnistria by force, it's taking a huge risk.  More than a thousand Russian troops still patrol Transnistria, and the Kremlin has shown that it is not afraid to act militarily if its perceived interests are threatened, not to mention the possibility of a second breakdown of talks in the Donbas War not so far away.

In theory, economic sanctions could be a third alternative. Transnistria's tiny size and border between Ukraine and Moldova (two countries with pro-EU governments) means it is heavily dependent on the countries around it. If Ukraine and Moldova cut their trade with the region, Transnistria will have no choice to capitulate to their demands...but the threat of Russian military action would still be a possibility.

A fourth option could be to kill them with kindness. Moldova is a tiny country. It is not a member of NATO or the EU. Realistically, it invites risks it won't be able to deal with if it deals with Transnistria forcefully. If this relatively new government steps up investment and development with EU approval, it could effectively swing the region into considering a return to Moldova. Chisinau will have to ensure the ethnic minorities in the region (mostly Russians and Ukrainians) are respected and given levels of self-governance, but Transnistria is small and unrecognized. It does not possess leverage. This isn't to say Moldova's very powerful itself, but Moldova does have a pro-European government and the European Union may see this as an opportunity to both expand influence, appease its Romanian contingent, and develop stronger economic development in the face of Kremlin aggression.

Moldova also needs to look internally. It's richer than its breakaway region, but still extremely poor and dysfunctional. Fortunately, it might not have to look too far to find a neighbor willing to assist it.

Romania ascended into the European Union in 2007 with Bulgaria, but was decried for its poverty and corrupt government at the time. Since becoming part of the EU, though, the country has cleaned up its act and sent dozens of government officials to prison for corruption. Romania is on the up and up since it entered the EU, and the political will to help Moldova exists as many Romanians hope for an eventual reunification with Moldova-the countries speak the same language, share a religion (Orthodox Christianity), and now their ambitions towards Europe are similar, not to mention they were once one country many years ago.

Whether it is in Moldova's best interest to unify with Romania is unclear as of now. To do so now would be difficult and controversial since Moldova is so much poorer than Romania, but down the road and provided the Moldovan government can put the country on the right track, the possibility of reunification may emerge stronger in the years to come.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Enter the Ottomans: Turkey joins the fight against ISIS

After much complaining and squabbling, Turkey has decided to join in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Turkish Grand National Assembly voted its consent back in October, but only now have airstrikes come from Turkish F-16s. Ankara claims this is the start of a broader strategy rather than a one-time maneuver.

Turkey, a member of NATO, has received strong criticism from other NATO states for seemingly not doing much to combat the evil group running rampant across Iraq and Syria. There's also been considerable speculation that Turkey is turning a blind eye to ISIS militants crossing the border in hopes that the group will undermine the Assad regime in Syria.

Two recent events have turned the tide in Turkey. A suicide bombing in a town named Suruc, just across the border from the Kurdish town of Kobani left 32 dead and one hundred injured. Turkish officials have since identified who they believe carried out the bombing-an ethnic Kurd who had ties to Islamic State. This likely came as a surprise as Kurds, while many are conservative Muslims,   have fought ISIS for many months outside Turkey. Another clash on the Syrian border left a Turkish soldier dead and several others injured.

There is an essentially important third dynamic in this conflict: the Kurds. Much of Turkey's southern border looks out over an area of Syria that ethnic Kurds have defiantly carved out over the last few months. Kurds are an ethnic group that are spread out over Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, but it is Turkey where they have been fighting a long, drawn-out conflict with the designated terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, often known by its initials PKK.

As it turns out, ISIS is not the only organization being targeted by the Turkish Armed Forces in this new campaign. The Turkish Air Force has also targeted and struck PKK strongholds in Iraqi Kurdistan. This comes after rising tensions between the PKK and Turkey culminated in the end of the ceasefire between the two parties and the PKK attacking and killing Turkish police officers.

The PKK is not a fundamentalist Islamic group like ISIS, but it has sent its message of Kurdish separatism by violence just the same, and they have contributed heavily to the long and still-unresolved rift between Turks and Kurds in Turkey.

This new flare-up may have far-reaching ramifications. The People's Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, a left-wing Kurdish interest political party that won 80 seats in June's general election, has often been smeared by other parties as an extension of the terrorist PKK, allegations it denies. Whether it is or it isn't, the PKK's resurgence means the HDP will be heavily scrutinized by the rest of the Turkish government and may even be banned in lieu of the recent violence. This is sure to drive the wedge between the Kurdish southeast and the rest of Turkey even further. And this time, left-wing Turks who voted for HDP a month ago will probably not be on board to defend the party they voted for.

Interestingly, the strikes conducted by the Turkish military in northern Iraq against the PKK were conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan. It's not clear whether Masoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005, allowed or authorized these airstrikes, but seeing as Iraqi Kurdistan still answers to a dysfunctional Baghdad, he may not have had any say in the matter at all. President Erdogan of Turkey and Barzani enjoy close relations, but the airstrikes may contribute to destabilization of Iraqi Kurdistan if they continue.

Turkey has been wary of the rise of Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan has considerable autonomy from Baghdad and the areas that Syrian Kurds have fought for control of have broad autonomy as well. The Kurds' success around Turkey has ignited speculation that an independent Kurdistan may soon be a reality. This, coupled with the fact that Kurds are an antsy majority in Turkey's poorer southeastern region, some of whom still itch for independence, has Ankara worried.

Syrian Kurds fighting for the YPG interviewed by TIME magazine expressed skepticism when asked about Ankara's entry into the ISIS coalition. It can be argued that Turkey has been stuck between a rock and a hard place, only wanting to avoid conflict, but that conflict may be impossible to avoid at this point. Syrian Kurds as shown in the interview, however, argue that Turkey has had multiple opportunities to contribute to the fight against ISIS which it has let pass.

Turkey is a regional powerhouse. It is a comparatively wealthy and democratic country, founded on principles of secularism and civic nationalism which have kept it together and made it much stronger than the vast majority of Middle Eastern countries. It also boasts one of the biggest and most competent militaries in the region and has the capability to put ISIS on its heels.

There may have been an opportunity here for Turks and Kurds to unite in even a limited capacity, but that possibility has shrunk considerably with the recent actions of the PKK. It's a shame, considering
that if faced with a common enemy, the well-equipped Turks and the tough-as-nails Kurds had the capacity to drive a spike straight through the chest of Islamic State.

While many Turkish Kurds aren't supportive of the PKK, a crackdown on the HDP could absolutely reignite tensions between the two peoples and drive the Kurdish population to consider independence again. This is something Turkey is extremely unlikely to allow as it goes against the Turkish constitution and the Turkish military is absolutely able to crush any serious uprising. Unless the PKK quickly reconsiders and ends its recent provocations, the region will further destabilize.