Friday, November 27, 2015

Yet Another Nationalist Spat: Russia and Turkey back at odds

For centuries, the Russian Empire and Ottoman Empire fought each other, Russia usually emerging victorious. The rivalry stretches back to the 1500s when the first Russo-Turkish War took place in 1568. Ten more wars between the countries would take place until 1917, and in the 20th Century, the Republic of Turkey’s decision to join NATO kept embers of the ancient showdown alive during the Cold War. 

And now, nationalism has pitted the Russian Federation and Republic of Turkey against each other once more. On Tuesday, the Turkish Armed Forces shot down a Russian SU-24 plane which had crossed into Turkish airspace. Both pilots ejected from the plane in time to avoid injury, but were captured by a Syrian Turkmen militia fighting in Syria. One is dead, killed by the militiamen that found him. The other has been transported to Turkey and will be returned to Russia. 

In a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Putin, visibly angry, condemned the attack in choice words, calling it a “stab in the back” and publicly accusing Ankara of supporting the Islamic fundamentalists in Syria and Iraq under the table. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled his trip to Turkey upon hearing the news and called it a “planned provocation”.  The Turkish Embassy in Moscow was the subject of a raucous protest where stones and eggs were thrown at the building. 

Ankara fired back immediately, insisting they were merely defending their territory and that they had warned the jet to change course multiple times before they shot it down. 

Russia has been crossing into Turkish airspace many times since the Kremlin decided to get directly involved with the Syrian Civil War. Russia possesses a military base in northern Syria not far from the Turkish border. 

Luckily, cooler heads are starting to appear. The Turkish Foreign Minister expressed his condolences to Mr. Lavrov and opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called for a deescalation of tensions. 

It’s important to remember even with the angry words thrown about that further escalation leading to war between Russia and Turkey is a very distant and unlikely possibility. Despite the strength of both countries’ armed services, war would be catastrophic for both sides. Russia risks walking into a direct conflict with NATO, an event that could only end in worldwide disaster, and Turkey would almost immediately sink their energy sector into oblivion as they receive ample supplies of natural gas from Russia. 

Neither side has much of a moral high ground in this spat. Not long after the plane was shot down, evidence emerged that the Russian SU-24 plane was in Turkish airspace for less than a minute. While NATO and Turkey have both warned that unwanted planes in their airspace could lead to the use of force, Ankara’s decision to shoot down a plane for spending mere seconds in their air comes across as trigger-happy and as if they were looking for a fight. It’s true that this is hardly the first time Russia has crossed into foreign airspace much to the irritation of various EU countries, but the Turkish Air Force regularly patrols and crosses into Greek airspace, which implies they operate under the idea of “Do as I say, not as I do”. The Russian pilot that has returned to Turkey has claimed the Turkish Air Force never warned him that they would use force, further complicating matters. 

It is too early to tell whether this will lead to a significant change in policy when it comes to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War, but it certainly doesn’t help much. A concrete solution to the Syrian Civil War could be delayed because of this spat and it’s sent a chill into relations between Moscow and Ankara. Turkey’s vehement opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad, who is supported by the Kremlin, will likely become more pronounced, as Ankara was quick to voice its skepticism about a “grand coalition that included Russia to defeat Da’esh. Whispers of a ceasefire and a permanent resolution may be on hold. Some have speculated that it’s time for Russia to directly arm the Kurds in northern Syria and stand by them when this war ends. This is a noble idea in theory as the Kurds have been Daesh’s bane  for many months, but it would infuriate Turkey, which still suffers from a festering wound in its conflict with the PKK. Turkey’s place in NATO will also contribute to hurting an already frayed relationship between the organization and the Kremlin. Closer to home, the Center for Strategic and International Studies has speculated that the energy ties Moscow and Ankara may be put under some strain. 

Both Russia and Turkey are driven by a strong sense of patriotism and even nationalism. Russia’s centuries of history have produced a rich and complex culture and a perseverant people. Russians are often known for being very patriotic even when things look grim. Likewise, In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk laid the foundation for a new and advanced secular republic in a region still struggling to find identity from colonial occupation and plenty of internal wars. Turkey, despite its problems, has grown into a wealthy, democratic, secular, and influential power. Ataturk’s thoughtful and determined likeness is everywhere in Turkey, from the bills and coins of the lira to the names of landmarks throughout the country. 

Patriotism is a noble value which both countries possess in large quantities. Nationalism, however, can be venomous, especially if it incorporates an ethnic element rather than a civic element.  And pride can blind a government into rash action that it can come to regret. When two fiercely patriotic countries clash with centuries of bad blood in the rearview mirror, someone’s bound to end up hurt, or killed. It’s time to put aside pride and make sure this is an isolated incident. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Democrats mull options for the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship

On Saturday night, the Democratic Party hosted its second presidential debate. 

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have fielded a small amount of candidates. Five candidates took the stage at the first debate, three were present at the second. 

Frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started the conversation in the first debate on a very strange foot. When asked “Secretary Clinton, Russia, they're challenging the U.S. in Syria. According to U.S. intelligence, they've lied about who they're bombing. You spearheaded the reset with Russia. Did you underestimate the Russians, and as president, what would your response to Vladimir Putin be right now in Syria?”, she spoke about how much the United States accomplished when Dimitri Medvedev was president between 2008 and 2012, stressing the jointly agreed nuclear arms deal, sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, and increased supplies to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. 

She eventually went on to admit things had changed under Putin, but complimented the Obama Administration for standing firm against Putin. “I applaud the administration because they are engaged in talks right now with the Russians to make it clear that they've got to be part of the solution to try to end that bloody conflict [in Syria].”

Clinton’s touting of her accomplishments under Medvedev’s administration is peculiar. It’s true there were no major hiccups in the relationship between the United States and Russia during Medvedev’s presidency save for the War in South Ossetia, but that ended after two weeks and quickly dropped off the international radar because it ended so quickly. It also took place when the Bush Administration was still in power-Clinton was not yet Secretary of State. Clinton also benefited from an administration that happened to be much less popular in Russia than the current Putin Administration. Between 2011 and 2012, Russia saw considerable protests against the Putin-Medvedev tandem of leadership and Putin’s approval rating, now soaring in the low 90s because of the tide of nationalism since the Ukraine conflict broke out, was stuck in the 40s when Clinton was Secretary of State. While Clinton’s claims were not untrue, they came across as odd considering how much things have changed since she left her post as Secretary of State and she failed to bring up specifics when she did allude to the present situation. 

Farther to the left, Senator Bernie Sanders claimed Putin “ already regretting what he did in Crimea and what he is doing in the Ukraine.  I think he is really regretting the decline of his economy.  And I think what he is trying to do now is save some face.  But I think when Russians get killed in Syria and when he gets bogged down, I think the Russian people are going to give him a message that maybe they should come home, maybe they should start working with the United States to rectify the situation now.”

Sanders’ claim that President Putin “regrets” what has happened in Crimea and Ukraine is probably untrue when Russian state media is still trumpeting the return of the Crimean peninsula to its rightful owner and embracing the narrative of fighting “fascists” in the Donbas. It has also loudly decried the United States’ lack of results in fighting the Islamic State and ridiculed the idea of America supporting the “moderate rebels” in Syria’s civil war, a criticism that is not entirely without merit. Russia’s intervention in Syria is also relatively limited-airstrikes have taken place but very few casualties have been reported. Russia’s intervention into Syria is not comparable to the invasion of Afghanistan that the Soviet Union came to deeply regret. If it escalates, that could become a more apt comparison considering the complex nature of the Syrian Civil War, but it’s not clear yet whether that will happen. 

Since that first debate, candidates Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee have dropped out. 

In the second debate, Bernie Sanders and Hillary wasted no time in condemning the Islamic State and the barbaric attacks that happened in Paris. Sanders told the audience that the United States would defeat ISIS "together, leading the world". 

Clinton seemed to subtly rebuke Sanders by telling the audience that this election was not just for the presidency, but the position of Commander-in-Chief. Clinton claimed she would be outlining what she'd do to cooperate with Europe to defeat ISIS. She stressed the US's role in training and supplying the Iraqis as well as the Kurds, but that it "was not an American fight". 

On Syria, Secretary Clinton decried the Kremlin’s support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, claiming Russia as well as Iran was fighting Assad’s battles. “This is an incredibly complicated region of the world. It's become more complicated. And many of the fights that are going on are not ones that the United States has either started or have a role in.” 

When Clinton was asked whether the Obama Administration underestimated ISIS, she waffled and deferred blame back to the Bush Administration's decision to leave Iraq by 2011. "with the revolution against Assad -- and I did early on say we needed to try to find a way to train and equip moderates very early so that we would have a better idea of how to deal with Assad because I thought there would be extremist groups filling the vacuum."

This doesn't instill much confidence. Clinton's eagerness to blame those who came before her, while not entirely without merit, reeks of the "politician" stench she is trying to rid herself of, especially with a tide of left-wing populist sentiment massing behind Bernie Sanders. 

Martin O’Malley to his credit mentioned the horrific tragedy that recently occurred in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula when a Russian airliner exploded and killed over two hundred people, most of them Russian tourists. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the heinous act, and while some evidence points that way, whether they actually did so is still not known for certain.

The outpouring of grief from the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut to a lesser extent seems to be leading to a more proactive coalition against Islamic State, a coalition Russia and the United States find themselves on some common ground but opposite ends of in other places. Both countries have expressed contempt for Islamic State and their barbaric rule over parts of Syria and Iraq, and both countries have endured horrible tragedy at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Russia’s support of Assad is firm but his position has been severely weakened and whispers of a transitional government have been heard. Whether there will be a strong coalition between the United States, European Union and Russian Federation against ISIS is not yet clear. But if compromises can be reached in the name of eradicating the Islamic State and its supporters, that could be a strong step in the right direction. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Republican Candidates reiterate their approaches to Russia

Two more Republican debates have occurred in the U.S.. 
In the fourth debate, the Republican candidates doubled down on their stances regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. Donald Trump again expressed that he would be friends with President Putin, Senator Marco Rubio was adamant once more to call Putin a gangster, and fiery HP CEO Carly Fiorina proposed for a large buildup of arms in Central and Eastern Europe, stressing that Putin was not worth talking to. Senator Rand Paul, who later got into a spat with Senator Rubio about the conservative merits of isolationism, proposed caution and criticized Fiorina for her assertion that Putin should not be talked to.
But how effective would these policies be?
Donald Trump delved in to slightly further detail about why and how he’d enjoy a good relationship with Putin. Apparently the two met on the in-depth news program 60 Minutes and hit it off. While Mr. Trump brought up an important point when he criticized the European Union for not acting more proactively towards the aggressive behavior of the Kremlin (after all, Ukraine and Russia are European soil and the people of the United States often wonder why Washington has to get involved in conflicts in Europe’s backyard), he again did not provide much concrete detail as to how he and Putin would be friends other than that. However, it looked like he wanted to shift attention from his “pro-Putin position” to other foreign policy issues.
Mr. Trump took a much more aggressive stance on fighting Islamic State in Syria, something the Kremlin claims to be doing, though their urgency has been called into question. In a rally in Iowa shortly after the debate, Trump angrily took no prisoners, saying he’d “bomb the (expletive) out of” ISIS and “take the oil” in hopes that confiscating the natural resources of Syria and Iraq that it would weaken ISIS.

Airstrikes from the United States are already hitting Islamic State with some success, at least in Iraq. In Iraq, where the conflict is much less complicated as Iraqi forces from Baghdad and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance towards ISIS strongholds like Fallujah and Mosul. Small independent militias also exist, but they are fighting nearly exclusively with the Iraqi forces. As strange as this sounds, Iraq has shown considerable muscle after their initial running from ISIS earned them international ridicule and gave ISIS a powerful propaganda tool. The Iraqi forces are also cooperating with the Kurdish Peshmerga, a former enemy.
Syria’s conflict is much more complicated than Iraq’s. A loose and disjointed coalition called the Free Syrian Army is fighting Assad, as are smaller terrorist groups like Al-Nusra, which are also fighting the FSA. To the north, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (also known as the YPG) are busy carving out Kurdish majority areas along the northern border for themselves in hopes for an autonomous country within Syria once the war ends. Despite Trump’s claim, however, Syria isn’t exactly the oil powerhouse that Iraq is, and while cutting off oil supplies would likely help weaken Islamic State, defeating them is not that simple.
The no-fly zone over Syria proposed by some candidates may not have been the worst idea in theory, but the risk of this now that Russia is directly involved in fighting forces opposed to Assad is astronomical. Senator Paul stressed this to the chagrin of some of the more hawkish Republican candidates. The chance of direct war breaking out should the United States shoot down a Russian plane is not a risk worth taking. A Paul presidency would be more cautious, and would likely see factions become more pronounced as hawks in the party clash with the more isolation-friendly members. The overall opposition to Putin’s foreign policy in both Ukraine and Syria would largely stay intact, however. Gov. Kasich, however argued with him, saying that no-fly zone should be established at least in the parts of the country that are under control of US-backed forces. He continued, saying “Russia’s recent military build-up and intervention in Syria are neither intended to defeat ISIS nor to relieve the suffering of Syrian refugees. Mr. Putin’s real goals are quite different: to take military action to rescue Assad’s criminal government from its death and to strengthen Russia’s strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is unacceptable and must stop.”

Giving lethal aid to Ukraine is supported almost unanimously by the Republican Party candidates but now that the conflict has effectively frozen over like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and Abkhazia/South Ossetia, the likelihood of that happening might not be quite as likely as it would have been earlier. Military assistance will likely still flow to the Ukrainian Armed Forces but it looks like the possibility of the war starting in earnest a second time is not in the interest of either Kyiv or Moscow. Kyiv does not have the capability and the Kremlin does not want to further aggravate its isolated position after invading Ukraine in the first place.
Perhaps the most aggressive of the Republicans’ candidates on foreign policy, Carly Fiorina, seems to endorse a large military buildup in Central and Eastern Europe. This would further drive our two countries apart and while the indignant frustration with the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior is valid, matching the aggression of a powerful nation the United States has a long historical rivalry with is still a very risky move. It was only thirty years ago that the United States and Soviet Union were throwing billions upon billions of dollars (roubles) at an arms race that involved multiple proxy wars, few of which ended well. Pro-Kremlin Russians like to say they are “defending their interests” in Ukraine and Syria from the encroachment of the United States and European Union. Despite the claims of Russian state media, the United States didn’t engineer the revolution in Ukraine. Aggression could validate the often-outlandish statements of Kremlin-run media and drive Russians to rally behind Putin and nationalist anti-American rhetoric even more than they already have. With the Ukraine conflict calming to a seeming stalemate, there is a risk in looking like the aggressor even though it is in response to previous aggression. One only needs to look towards Israel and Palestine to see that a tit-for-tat offensive is not always the best policy even when the reasons behind hold truth.
Going farther into Syria is a risk for the United States and probably would not find much popular support. But in terms of tangible hardship, Russia may be more at risk than the United States. The economy has been stagnant for over five years and sanctions still sting. Both countries have been through the pain and horror of a war that perhaps wasn’t ours to fight. One could argue to some extent that the United States has done it twice, once in Vietnam and once in Iraq. Russia lost too many brave sons fighting for an ideology in Afghanistan. The surrogate wars of the Cold War era rarely, if ever, yielded positive results.
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