Russia

Russia’s gas union eyes Pakistan, India

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Pakistan’s acute energy crisis is the immediate backdrop against which Foreign Minister Bilawal Zardari’s forthcoming talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow today need to be understood.

But then, Lavrov is a ‘Renaissance man’ in the world of international diplomacy and is sure to synchronise his watch with Zardari’s. For both countries, things have changed, old friends are leaving and life doesn’t stop for anyone. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry press release on Zardari’s visit stated tersely, “The foreign ministers will discuss the state of bilateral relations, regional and international issues. Special attention will be paid to the development of trade and economic relations.” 

The MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova subsequently disclosed that the Russian and Pakistani companies are “actively working to resolve the remaining issues” concerning the supply of Russian energy resources to Pakistan. She noted that the payment system is an issue, as Russia wants an arrangement in national currencies “or in the currencies of third countries that are protected from sanctions risks.” 

Also, energy cooperation by its very nature involves substantial long-term investments and the fact remains that, as Zakharova put it, “the US currency is a soap bubble, unsecured money that is printed even despite America’s huge public debt.” 

Importantly, Zakharova highlighted that the two countries have also decided to “discuss a comprehensive plan for energy cooperation, which provides for the construction of infrastructure and the supply of energy carriers” within a framework that holds the potential to “ensure the sustainable development” of Pakistan’s gas industry. A  Russian gas pipeline to Pakistan is in the making. 

Zardari’s visit to Moscow comes within 3 weeks of a  tripartite gas cooperation arrangement between Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan making headlines in the news cycle. The termination of Russia’s decades-old energy ties with Europe, including gas supplies via pipelines, motivates Moscow’s search for new markets, Asian markets being a priority. 

Thus, late last year, Moscow proposed a gas union with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan offering to help out the two Central Asian states that are struggling with gas shortages. Earlier this month, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan signed two separate agreements with the Russian giant Gazprom cementing the new partnership. A new vista is opening for Russia to use the existing gas pipelines in these two countries to export gas to their domestic market in immediate terms. 

Albeit in a bilateral format, this arrangement also positions Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan potentially as transit countries enabling Russian gas supplies to the regional and world market, especially China, South Asian countries and the ASEAN region. (Russia has proposed a similar arrangement to Ankara to route its gas to the European market via an energy hub in Turkey.)   

All energy projects are “geopolitical,” as the recent destruction of Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines, masterminded by the US, would show. But this one is a “win-win” for both Russia and the two central Asian states, as the income accruing to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan out of transit fee will be very substantial and long-term, whilst Russia gains access to new markets. 

Enter Afghanistan. On January 11-12, Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov came down to Kabul and held in-depth consultations with the Taliban leadership in pursuit of “Moscow’s unwavering commitment to developing a comprehensive dialogue with Kabul.” The Russian Foreign Ministry press release stated that the focus was on “mutually beneficial cooperation in such sectors as energy, agriculture, transport, infrastructure, industry, mining, in particular, the organisation of regular commercial supplies of Russian fuel and agricultural products to Afghan companies.” 

The press release said, “As the situation in Afghanistan stabilises, domestic economic operators may participate in the construction and operation of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India gas pipeline, as well as in the restoration of large infrastructure projects built on the territory of Afghanistan during the Soviet era.” 

Most important, the MFA added that “During the consultations, considerable attention was paid to the prospects of political and diplomatic recognition of the current Afghan Government by the international community, including by the Russian Federation.” It concluded that “The leadership of Afghanistan highly appreciates the efforts of the Russian Federation to assist the Afghan people in building a peaceful, independent and economically self-sufficient State.” 

Interestingly, in a TV interview soon after his return to Moscow, Kabulov openly alleged that the ISIL in Afghanistan is nothing but an Anglo-American project with an agenda to cause instability in the region. Indeed, the regional setting is changing dramatically. Russia has become intensely conscious of the burden of history and realises the imperative to strengthen its leadership role as the provider of security for the Central Asian region. The western threat to Central Asia and North Caucasus is continuing. 

Russia hopes to lead a regional effort to stabilise the Afghan situation and counter extremist groups, which act as a geopolitical tool for Washington. Russia (and China) increasingly deals with the Taliban rulers as the established government of Afghanistan. Fundamentally, terrorism is a major concern for Russia (and China).

Moscow estimates that the Taliban has the political will to act against the ISIS optimally, but lacks the financial resources. To be sure, Afghanistan will figure in Lavrov’s talks with Zardari. India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval will also be visiting Moscow shortly for consultations on Afghanistan. 

This is an appropriate time for India to improve its relations with Pakistan. Fortuitously, the SCO-related events will bring Pakistani leaders to India. PM Modi has announced that India’s G-20 Presidency “will be grounded in the theme ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ or One Earth, One Family, One Future.’” Conceivably, India should invite Pakistan to the G20 Summit in Delhi in September as a special guest.  

At a pragmatic level, the TAPI gas pipeline project  dovetails with the tripartite gas union that Russia is putting together with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote recently that Moscow has high hopes of extending the Central Asian gas grid to the South Asian region and to the ASEAN region in the medium term.

Andrei Grozin, head of the Department of Central Asia and Kazakhstan at the Institute of CIS Countries and senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the Russian daily that “This is already a new state policy of Russia, and it is obvious that neither Astana nor Tashkent will be able to refuse to participate in this project. Experts agree that by the middle of this century, Southeast Asia will become the main energy-consuming region. No matter how fantastic the expansion of the gas pipeline network to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China may sound now,  it will soon become a reality. Therefore, it is necessary to promote our raw materials to the southern markets today.”

Of course, such a mega project will raise hiccups in Washington. It comes as no surprise that the US Undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland (who midwifed the 2014 regime change in Kiev and openly gloats over the sabotage and destruction of Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipeline) is arriving in Delhi this week. 

Washington is upset that Western sanctions pressure on Russian oil exports has led to a significant strengthening of India’s energy ties with Russia. Not only is Russian crude sold to India twice as cheap as world analogues, but the Russian production of petroleum products is actually transferred to India.

After the entry into force of the European embargo on Russian oil products w.e.f February 5, India is set to become the main supplier of refined Russian oil to Europe with a potential export turnover in tens of billions of dollars. (Please see Russia gives India the supply of Europe with petroleum productsNezavisimaya Gazeta, Jan. 16, 2023Exports of diesel fuel from India are already increasing.

Technically, this does not violate EU sanctions against Russia. But it annoys the Biden Administration, which had anticipated that there would be potential to boost US exports to replace Russian  petroleum products in the lucrative European market.

The US will be uneasy about a “gas union” betwixt Russia, Pakistan and India. But India has vital interests in safeguarding its energy security. The western hegemony in the world order is ending. Russia’s “gas union” in Central Asia signals that the time has come for regional states in South Asia to respond with a unity of purpose. 

Why a Small City in Ukraine Is a Focal Point in the War

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Since the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive started gaining momentum in September 2022, the Russian army has largely been on the defensive. Russian drone and missile strikes continue to target Ukraine’s major cities, but its military forces have retreated from attempts to take KhersonKharkiv, or any other major Ukrainian settlement. Strong defensive fortifications built by Russian and Ukrainian armed forces across the frontline have stalled major advances as troops from both sides have mostly opted to dig in.

But the Kremlin has directed thousands of its forces since August 2022 to attack the small Donetsk city of Bakhmut. The war has in several ways been an “old-fashioned conflict, based on attrition, on devastating artillery strikes, and on dug-in positions reminiscent of the trenches of World War I,” as opposed to some of the quick offensives and counteroffensives that were seen during the first part of the current conflict.

According to a January 10, 2023, article in PBS NewsHour, the Ukrainian-backed governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, “estimated more than two months ago that 90 percent of Bakhmut’s prewar population of over 70,000 had fled since Moscow focused on seizing the entire Donbas.” The fighting and destruction have only intensified since Kyrylenko made this statement, but the Kremlin appears intent on capturing Bakhmut for propaganda purposes and to tout a tactical victory after months of retreats. According to a Ukrainian analyst, “Bakhmut is mostly a political goal for Russia—it’s being done mostly for the sake of propaganda reasons to show everybody that after so many months and utter failures in Kherson and Kharkiv, it still can capture a more or less significant city,” stated a TRT World article.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought to prove that Ukrainian forces still have the capability to hold back the Russian advance, and made a surprise visit to Bakhmut on December 20. On January 9, 2023, Zelenskyy declared that the defense of the nearby city of Soledar had led to the gain of “additional time and power for Ukraine.” But the Ukrainian armed forces have had to divert “significant reinforcements” to the battle from other parts of the country since January, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defense. And despite heavy Russian casualties, high Ukrainian casualties have also become a concern for Kyiv.

Western and Ukrainian officials have often downplayed the strategic importance of Bakhmut, depicting it as a sinkhole for Russian forces that may result in a “Pyrrhic victory.” Nonetheless, the phrase “hold Bakhmut” has become a Ukrainian rallying cry, and Zelenskyy’s visit demonstrated the growing symbolic importance of controlling the city.

Bakhmut, however, does possess some strategic value. Few major settlements exist to its west until the Dnieper River, and the flatter and open terrain would make Ukrainian attempts to reinforce from this direction vulnerable to Russian surveillance and firepower. Ukraine also has relatively poor road infrastructure, and Bakhmut serves as a critical juncture of transport and communication lines for Ukrainian forces in the region, including strategic supply lines to the Ukrainian-controlled settlements of Siversk, Lyman, Slovyansk, and Kramatorsk.

For Russia, seizing Bakhmut would allow it to disrupt these supply lines, as well as take pressure off the battle over Russia-controlled Kremmina, which Ukrainian forces have been fighting to recover. Bakhmut is therefore key to Russian attempts to consolidate and stabilize the Donbas, where Russia has fought since 2014 and initially made gains in 2022, before the Ukrainian counteroffensive in September.

Taking or destroying key industrial centers in the Donbas region will also reduce Ukraine’s industrial output, leading to its economy suffering further.

Bakhmut stands out as the only major area where Russian forces are on the offensive, but the frontline has been relatively stable up until recently. Yet throughout January 2023, Russian forces have moved to the city’s flank and made increasing gains in the nearby town of Soledar. After weeks of fighting, the Kremlin stated that Soledar had been captured on January 13, this was later confirmed by the Institute for the Study of War and Ukrainian armed forces.

Russian forces have enjoyed an advantage over Ukrainian forces in artillery numbers, and an early transition to a wartime economy by the Kremlin has further helped sustain months of relentless artillery strikes by it. Nonetheless, Russia has turned to countries like North Korea in recent months to obtain more artillery, and its artillery fire has decreased in recent days, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.

But Ukraine’s more limited artillery capabilities have also recently been threatened. Despite pleas for more 155-millimeter artillery rounds, Western manufacturers have struggled to supply an adequate quantity and ramp up production. This has forced the U.S. to ask South Korea for artillery and Washington also secured hundreds of thousands of 155mm artillery shells for Ukraine from its stockpiles in Israel. Meanwhile, according to U.S. defense officials, “A third of the roughly 350 Western-made howitzers donated to Kyiv are out of action at any given time.”

Western countries have now been focusing on delivering more advanced weapons to Ukraine, such as missile defense systems, tanks, and armored vehicles. Recent pledges by the UK and Canada to supply Ukraine with heavy vehicles (as well as pressure on Germany and the U.S. to do so as well) will no doubt help Ukrainian forces on the frontline. But with Russia currently dictating where the fiercest fighting will take place, Bakhmut’s vulnerability to artillery has made holding it a significant challenge.

Local militia groups and the Russian military have naturally played essential roles in the ongoing battle for Bakhmut and its surrounding regions. But perhaps most notable is that much of Russia’s recent progress has been made by the Russian private military company, Wagner.

Wagner has operated in Ukraine since 2014 and has expanded its reach to countries across Africa and the Middle East, while the company’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been keen to demonstrate his private army can accomplish major military objectives. Additionally, the deaths of Wagner mercenaries are not counted as official Russian casualties, making the costly effort to take Bakhmut easier for the Russian public to stomach. In early January 2023, the first Wagner fighters, who were “secretly pardoned convicts” recruited by the company returned home after completing their contracts, causing controversy in Russia and highlighting the role of the non-state actor in the conflict.

Western and Ukrainian observers believe that Wagner troops have suffered casualties in the thousands. Prigozhin, meanwhile, stated on a telegram channel in November 2022 that “Our goal is not Bakhmut… [itself] but the destruction of the Ukrainian army and the reduction of its combat potential, which has an extremely positive effect on other areas, which is why this operation was dubbed the ‘Bakhmut meat grinder.’”

It is also suspected that Prigozhin aims to seize the salt and gypsum mines in the region, similar to other Wagner efforts to gain access to resources across conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.

The outsized role of Wagner in the battle, as well as Prigozhin’s growing profile in Russia, has led to significant tension between the oligarch and the Russian military. After the capture of Soledar, Prigozhin claimed this was solely due to Wagner, while the Russian Defense Ministry claimed a few days later that victory was thanks to the Russian armed forces without mentioning the Wagner mercenaries.

The dispute between the Russian military and Wagner has come amid a leadership shakeup among the top brass of the Russian military. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, replaced Sergei Surovikin as the Ukraine campaign’s overall commander on January 11. The change indicates the Kremlin’s frustration with the fledgling promises of the Russian armed forces. Nonetheless, the slow success of Russian artillery strikes in Soledar combined with Wagner troops shows that the two can work together.

But Bakhmut, so far, remains elusive for the Kremlin. Whichever side controls the city will have an advantage over any potential offensives later in 2023 and will have more say over where the next major battles take place. While Ukraine’s armed forces remain united under a more centralized command, the Kremlin will have to be careful of the growing tension between its armed forces, local militia groups, and private military companies.

Halt This Crazy Rush to All-Out War

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The finest modern military thinker, Maj. Gen J.F.C. Fuller, wrote “the true objective of war is not military victory but the peace that follows it.’

Amen. Besotted by tribalism and propaganda, we often forget why we are fighting and what changes the current war will bring. We think killing fellow humans is a noble quest rather than the basest Stone Age behavior.

Case in point, the current war in Ukraine. There, ex-Russians now rebranded “Ukrainians” are battling Russia’s not so competent armies.

The United States and its vassals are pouring arms and money galore into the rebellious Ukraine – over $100 billion to date. This is an amazing amount of money considering hardly anyone in the US had ever heard of Ukraine and certainly couldn’t find it on a map, and that this flood of money comes from the US which is itself on the financial ropes and operating on borrowed money.

Getting America so deeply involved in the obscure Ukraine War was thanks to truly monumental propaganda produced by the six US government-controlled TV channels and court newspapers. Its 24-7 happy news about Ukraine and constant vilification of re-demonized Russia.

We are in fact involved in a war that dares not speak its name. Russia denies it’s a war at all and claims to be fighting a recrudescence of Euro fascism. The US and its subservient allies also deny a war is going on, while pouring arms and munition on an almost WWII scale into Ukraine – whose government the US spent $5 billion overthrowing.

Russia won’t call this war a war, still pretending it’s a `police action’ – rather like the past US invasions of Panama, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. But, as western arms and covert troops pour into Ukraine and Russia can’t manage to field adequate troops or weapons, holding on to the ‘police action’ fiction is preposterous.

What’s happening in Washington is that the Democrat neo-liberals smell Russian blood and are intoxicated by the prospect of first Russian defeat in Ukraine, then the collapse of the current Russian federation made up of 83 supposedly sovereign units. Russia is very fragile and vulnerable to foreign-engineered unrest. Russia’s Far East is dangerously exposed between US and Chinese ambitions.

The dramatic transformation of most of the formerly staunch communist republic of Ukraine into an arch-anti-communist Kyiv republic is a dire warning signal for Moscow. Russian leader Dimitry Medvedev just warned that Russia’s defeat in Ukraine would trigger a nuclear war. He could be right.

The leading American neocon, Victoria Nuland, boasted that it cost only $5 billion to overthrow Ukraine’s former inept communist regime and replace it by a TV actor, Volodymyr Zelensky. The Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine don’t even have a capable spokesman.

It’s by now clear that the so-called non-war in Ukraine is dangerously escalating towards a full-scale US-NATO-Russia war that might turn into World War III. The duty of great powers is to keep world affairs calm.

Instead, the US and its European satraps keep pouring fuel on the fire. Ukraine, once infamous as Europe’s most corrupt nation, is happily gulping down the billions from the US and Europe. Swiss banks are making a killing. So too arms manufacturers who had been facing flat or declining sales before this jolly little war.

Germany, the keystone of NATO power, is caught between its sensible goal of keeping good relations with Moscow and its subservience to Washington. If the Ukraine war intensifies, Germany will be caught in the middle – an obvious target for Russian tactical nuclear strikes.

Who in Washington has begun to add up the costs of keeping post-war Ukraine going. Without a steady inflow of billions from the US and its rich allies, Ukraine will likely collapse into warring fiefs. Worse, if Russia is somehow defeated, who will assume its financial upkeep and prevent this nuclear superpower from running amok? Will China sit back and allow its only major ally to be splintered? Would militants in China’s leadership not beat the war drums to re-occupy border regions lost in the 19th century to Imperial Russia?

Time for the Great American power to act to bring peace and stability, not more war.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis

A German-China-Russia triangle on Ukraine

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The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken probably thought that in his self-appointed role as the world’s policeman, it was his prerogative to check out what is going on between Germany, China and Russia that he wasn’t privy to. Certainly, Blinken’s call to Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday turned out to be a fiasco.

Most certainly, his intention was to gather details on two high-level exchanges that Chinese President Xi Jinping had on successive days last week — with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the Chairman of the United Russia Party and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev respectively. 

Blinken made an intelligent guess that Steinmeier’s phone call to Xi on Tuesday and Medvedev’s surprise visit to Beijing and his meeting with Xi on Wednesday might not have been coincidental.  Medvedev’s mission would have been to transmit some highly sensitive message from Putin to Xi Jinping. Only last week, reports said Moscow and Beijing were working on a meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping later this month. 

Steinmeier is an experienced diplomat who held the post of foreign minister from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 to 2017, as well as of Vice Chancellor of Germany from 2007 to 2009 — and all of it during the period Angela Merkel was the German chancellor (2005- 2021). Merkel left a legacy of surge in Germany’s relations with both Russia and China. 

Steinmeier is a senior politician belonging to the Social Democratic Party — same as present chancellor Olaf Scholz. It is certain that Steinmeier’s call with Xi was in consultation with Scholz. This is one thing. 

Most importantly, Steinmeier had played a seminal role in negotiating the two Minsk Agreements (2014 and 2015), which  provided for a package of measures to stop the fighting in Donbass in the downstream of the US-sponsored coup in Kiev. 

When the Minsk agreements began unravelling by 2016, Steinmeier stepped in with an ingenious idea that later came to be known as the Steinmeier Formula spelling out the sequencing of events spelt out in the agreements.

Specifically, the Steinmeier  formula called for elections to be held in the separatist-held territories of Donbass under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the OSCE. It proposed that if the OSCE judged the balloting to be free and fair, then a special self-governing status for the territories would be initiated. 

Of course, all that is history today. Merkel “confessed” recently in an interview with Zeit newspaper that in reality, the Minsk agreement was a western attempt to buy “invaluable time” for Kiev to rearm itself.

Given this complex backdrop, Blinken would have sensed something was amiss when Steinmeier had a call with Xi Jinping out of the blue, and Medvedev made a sudden appearance in Beijing the next day and was received by the Chinese president. Notably, Beijing’s readouts were rather upbeat on China’s relationship with Germany and Russia. 

Xi Jinping put forward a three-point proposal to Steinmeier on the development of China-Germany relations and stated that “China and Germany have always been partners of dialogue, development, and cooperation as well as partners for addressing global challenges.” 

Similarly, in the meeting with Medvedev, he underscored that “China is ready to work with Russia to constantly push forward China-Russia relations in the new era and make global governance more just and equitable.” 

Both readouts mentioned Ukraine as a topic of discussion, with Xi stressing that “China stays committed to promoting peace talks” (to Steinmeier) and “actively promoted peace talks” (to Medvedev). 

But Blinken went about his mission clumsily by bringing to the fore the contentious US-China issues, especially “the current COVID-19 situation” in China and “the importance of transparency for the international community.” It comes as no surprise that Wang Yi gave a stern lecturing to Blinken not to “engage in dialogue and containment at the same time”, or to “talk cooperation, but stab China simultaneously”. 

Wang Yi said, “This is not reasonable competition, but irrational suppression. It is not meant to properly manage disputes, but to intensify conflicts. In fact, it is still the old practice of unilateral bullying. This did not work for China in the past, nor will it work in the future.” 

Specifically, on Ukraine, Wang Yi said, “China has always stood on the side of peace, of the purposes of the UN Charter, and of the international society to promote peace and talks. China will continue to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis in China’s own way.” From the US state department readout, Blinken failed to engage Wang Yi in a meaningful conversation on Ukraine.

Indeed, Germany’s recent overtures to Beijing in quick succession — Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s high-profile visit to China last month with a delegation of  top German CEOs and Steinmeier’s phone call last week — have not gone down well in the Beltway. 

The Biden Administration expects Germany to coordinate with Washington first instead of taking own initiatives toward China. (Interestingly, Xi Jinping underscored the importance of Germany preserving its strategic autonomy.) 

The current pro-American foreign minister of Germany Annalena Baerbock distanced herself from Chancellor Scholz’s China visit. Evidently, Steinmeier’s phone call to Xi confirms that Scholz is moving according to a plan to pursue a path of constructive engagement with China, as Merkel did, no matter the state of play in the US’ tense relationship with China. 

That said, discussing peacemaking in Ukraine with China is a daring move on the part of the German leadership at the present juncture when the Biden Administration is deeply engaged in a proxy war with Russia and has every intention to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”  

But there is another side to it. Germany has been internalising its anger and humiliation during the past several months. Germany cannot but feel that it has been played in the countdown to the Ukraine conflict — something particularly galling for a country that is genuinely Atlanticist in its foreign-policy orientation. 

German ministers have expressed displeasure publicly that American oil companies are brazenly exploiting the ensuing energy crisis to make windfall profits by selling gas at three to four times the domestic price in the US. Germany also fears that Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act building on foundational climate and clean energy investments may lead to the migration of German industry to America. 

The unkindest cut of all has been the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline. Germany must be having a fairly good idea as to the forces that were behind that terrorist act, but it cannot even call them out and must suppress its sense of humiliation and indignation. The destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines makes a revival of German-Russian relationship an extremely tortuous affair. For any nation with a proud history, it is a bit too much to accept being pushed around like a pawn. 

Scholz and Steinmeier are seasoned politicians and would know when to dig in and hunker down. In any case, China is a crucially important partner for Germany’s economic recovery. Germany can ill afford to let the US destroy its partnership with China also, and reduce it to a vassal state. 

When it comes to Ukraine war, Germany becomes a frontline state but it is Washington that determines the western tactic and strategy. Germany estimates that China is uniquely placed to be a peacemaker in Ukraine. The signs are that Beijing is warming up to that idea too.

From Indianpunchline

Moscow’s Leverage in the Balkans

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Since September, Kosovo’s fragile stability that has endured since 1999, following intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has grown progressively precarious. Clashes between ethnic Serbians and Kosovo security forces saw Serbia’s military placed on high alert in November. Several high-profile Serbian officials, including President Aleksandar Vučić, announced that the Serbian military could be deployed to northern Kosovo to protect the ethnic Serbs, who make up the majority of the population in the region.

Moscow has natural incentives to provoke the crisis. An unraveling of regional security would create more obstacles for Serbia’s EU aspirations, optimistically slated for 2025. The West’s support for Kosovo has historically undermined Serbia’s European integration effort, and 51 percent of Serbs polled by Belgrade-based pollster Demostat in June 2022 said they would vote against EU membership in a national referendum.

But by escalating tensions, Russia can also prevent further EU and NATO expansion in the region, and potentially reduce Western pressure on Russian forces in Ukraine by diverging resources from Kyiv to the Balkans.

Throughout the 1990s, NATO took a leading role in the breakup of Yugoslavia, perceived to be dominated by Serbia. While the West supported Bosnian and Croatian independence initiatives and Kosovan autonomy, Serbia was supported by Russia. These policies led to considerable tension between NATO and Russia, with the Kremlin’s occupation of Kosovo’s Slatina airport in 1999 leading to “one of the most tense standoffs between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.”

However, Russia was too weak to adequately support Serbia in the 1990s. And after then-Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milošević was overthrown in 2000 and Russian forces withdrew from Kosovo in 2003, Serbian political elites instead pursued cautious integration with Europe while keeping the U.S. at arm’s length. At the same time, Serbia and Russia forged closer relations through growing economic ties, embracing their common Slavic Orthodox heritage, and sharing resentment toward NATO’s role in their affairs.

Territories under Serbian control continued to secede in the 2000s, with Montenegro peacefully voting for independence in 2006 and Kosovo in 2008. Yet unlike other secession initiatives in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s failed to gain universal recognition. Almost half of the UN General Assembly refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence, with NATO/EU members Spain, Greece, Slovakia, and Romania among them.

Moscow was firmly against Kosovo’s independence, and prior to the February 2008 declaration of independence, the Kremlin warned of geopolitical consequences if it were to move forward. Six months later, Russia invoked the “Kosovo Precedent” to invade Georgia and recognized the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent. The Kremlin is now using the same paradigm to justify its support for Russian-backed separatist territories in Ukraine.

Currently bogged down in Ukraine, the Kremlin is exploring fomenting additional unrest in the Balkans by exploiting Serbian nationalist sentiment. Doing so will undoubtedly redirect some Western political, economic, and military efforts away from Ukraine.

Russia’s influence over Serbia has grown in recent years, and Serbian politicians have become more assertive regarding northern Kosovo. Though overall trade between Russia and Serbia is negligible in comparison to the EU, Russia provides one-quarter of the oil imported to Serbia, while Gazprom finalized 51 percent share in Serbia’s major oil and gas company, Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS), in 2009.

Russia’s veto power at the UN Security Council has prevented greater international recognition of Kosovo, demonstrating Moscow’s usefulness as a diplomatic ally. Putin has, meanwhile, become Serbians’ most admired international leader, with pro-Putin and pro-Russia rallies having been held in Serbia since the invasion of Ukraine. According to recent polling, almost 70 percent of Serbians hold NATO responsible for the conflict.

Balancing Putin’s popularity and Serbia’s relations with Europe has been a delicate task for Serbian President Vučić. Though he condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he refused to implement sanctions against the Kremlin, prompting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to signal that Vučić had to make a choice between Europe and Russia in June.

But the Serbian leader had already signed a three-year gas deal with Russia in May, and in September agreed to “consult” with Moscow on foreign policy issues. Other ventures, such as doubling flights from Moscow to Belgrade, have demonstrated Serbia’s willingness to assist Russia in undermining Western sanctions.

More concerning to Western officials is Russia’s attempts over the last decade to alter the military balance between Serbia and Kosovo. A Russian humanitarian center located in the Serbian city of Niš, which is close to the Kosovo border and opened in 2012, is suspected of being a secret Russian military base “set up by the Kremlin to spy on U.S. interests in the Balkans.” Additionally, Serbia has increased imports of Russian weaponry, while joint military exercises between Russia, Belarus, and Serbia (labeled “Slavic Brotherhood”) have been held annually since 2015.

Russian-backed non-state actors have in turn become increasingly present in Serbia. In 2009, Russian private military and security companies, as well as organizations composed of Russian military veterans, began conducting, in coordination with Serbian counterparts, military youth camps in Zlatibor, Serbia. These were seen as attempts to develop the next generation of fighters and were eventually shut down by the local police in 2018.

Russia’s Night Wolves biker gang, which has played a pivotal role in the 2014 seizure of Crimea and the unrest that has followed in Ukraine since, also opened a Serbian chapter and conducted road trips in the region for years. And in December, a cultural center was opened by the Russian private military company Wagner—which is similarly fighting in Ukraine—in Serbia, “to strengthen and develop friendly relations between Russia and Serbia with the help of ‘soft power.’”

Using these forces to threaten a low-level insurgency in Kosovo would cause enormous alarm in NATO and the EU. But Russia’s efforts to fan the flames of Serbian nationalism will also be directed toward Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country’s Serb-dominated territory, Republika Srpska, accepted power-sharing stipulations as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995, and Russian forces similarly withdrew from the country in 2003.

Nonetheless, Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska (who was also the president from 2010-2018), has increasingly allied himself with the Kremlin and has taken greater steps toward declaring his region’s independence from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina over the last decade. Republika Srpska security forces are now well-equipped with Russian weaponry, while Moscow has given subtle approval to supporting and developing Republika Srpska paramilitary groups. A Bosnian-Serb militia group called Serbian Honor is believed to have received training at the humanitarian center in Niš and the Night Wolves have also repeatedly held rallies in the territory.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dodik has expressed his support for Russia, raising alarm over his ability to instigate unrest in Bosnia and Herzegovina with limited Russian state and non-state support. In response, the EU’s peacekeeping mission in the country, EUFOR or Operation Althea, almost doubled its presence from 600 to 1,100 since the invasion in February.

Yet this still pales compared to the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), which has roughly 3,700 troops in a country with a smaller population and less territory than Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is further aided by the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). Pushing Republika Srpska’s independence initiative to a point where Russia can officially recognize and support it may in turn rapidly overwhelm the smaller international force there. It would also provoke calls for independence among Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ethnic Croatian minority, whose leaders have close relations with Moscow.

Disagreements in the Western alliance over the collective approach to the Balkans have been revealed in recent months. While the UK and the U.S. placed sanctions on “various Bosnian politicians who are threatening the country’s territorial integrity,” the EU chose not to, notably due to opposition by Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary. And while Croatia was accepted into the Schengen area in December, Romania, and Bulgaria, already EU members since 2007, were denied entry by Austria, while the Netherlands similarly opposed Bulgaria being part of the Schengen area.

Effectively managing potential violence in the former Yugoslavia while continuing the integration efforts of other Balkan EU/NATO members would prove to be a difficult procedure for the Western alliance. Billions of dollars in aid and assistance have already been provided to Ukraine in 2022. Confronting additional instability in the Balkans would also highlight the flaws of NATO policy in the region since the 1990s and the lack of a viable, long-term solution to confront the issues plaguing the Balkans.

Yet regional integration efforts have picked up in recent months. In July, the EU restarted membership talks of bringing Albania and North Macedonia into the organization, Bosnia and Herzegovina was officially accepted as a candidate on December 15, and Kosovo applied for EU membership on December 14. NATO membership for both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina remains largely on hold, however, and is currently out of the question for Serbia, which considers NATO its “enemy.”

Considerable work will be required to integrate these divided states into the Western alliance, and recent attempts to speed up this process have been largely unsuccessful. The scheme by former President Donald Trump’s administration to change the Serbia-Kosovo border amounted to little, while the proposed Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo has been criticized for outlining the creation of another Republika Srpska.

The role of Russian intelligence and Serbian nationalists in the attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, which sought to derail the country’s NATO accession, reveals the lengths to which Moscow will go to achieve its aims. Western officials must, therefore, remain wary of Russia’s potential in the region. Escalating unresolved Balkan conflicts is now a major part of the Kremlin’s attempts to stall Western integration in Europe and take pressure off its war with Ukraine.

This article was produced by Globetrotter

How Organized Crime Plays a Key Role in the Ukrainian Conflict

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On November 1, the deputy director of Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation downplayed remarks made on October 30 by an agency official, who warned of Western weapons bound for Ukraine being smuggled into Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Nonetheless, the affair generated significant attention and reflected previous concerns expressed by European authorities over Ukraine’s vulnerability to organized crime and the repercussions for the continent.

Organized crime emerged as a potent force in Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Criminal groups exploited flawed economic privatization measures to amass significant economic power, while the collapse of the Soviet security state allowed armed criminal factions to replace government authority and entrench themselves permanently.

These developments were mirrored in many former Soviet states in the 1990s, including Russia. But after Vladimir Putin assumed the Russian presidency in 2000, he and his allies in Russia’s intelligence community reestablished a strong security apparatus and clamped down on many domestic organized crime syndicates.

However, the Kremlin chose not to eradicate them completely. Wary of further violence, Putin sought to consolidate power rather than risk a return to the instability that characterized Russia in the 1990s.

And perhaps more importantly, criminal groups could provide Moscow with unique opportunities. By turning a blind eye to much of their activities and legitimizing their wealth and businesses, the Kremlin gained access to illegal profit-making schemes, extensive smuggling networks, manpower, and other illicit services.

The Kremlin also expanded cooperation with criminal groups across the former Soviet Union. In Ukraine’s southeast, where criminal activity has been most concentrated, Russian intelligence figures have cultivated relationships for decades, with most of Crimea’s high-end criminal businesses dependent on relations with Russian criminal networks to survive.

Organized crime in Ukraine had also evolved significantly by the time Putin entered office. In 2006, a U.S. Embassy cable stated that Crimean criminals were “fundamentally different than in the 1990s: then, they were tracksuit-wearing, pistol-wielding ‘bandits’ who gave Crimea a reputation as the ‘Ukrainian Sicily’ and ended up in jail, shot, or going to ground; now they had moved into mainly above-board businesses, as well as local government.”

These developments allowed Russia to quickly assume political control over Crimea when Russian forces seized it in 2014. Dozens of pro-Russian politicians elected to Crimean political offices, including the Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov and speaker of the Crimean Parliament Vladimir Konstantinov shared suspected ties to organized crime.

In Ukraine’s Donbas region, the “density of criminality, combined with the weakness of local institutions” similarly allowed criminal groups to amass significant economic and political power after the Soviet collapse. But following the launch of Russia’s proxy war in the region alongside the seizure of Crimea in 2014, Donbas criminal groups also provided much of the manpower for newly-created militant groups and attempted to recruit others in neighboring Ukrainian regions to take up arms against government forces.

Despite their higher density in Crimea and the Donbas, Russian-supported criminal groups operate across Ukraine and the Black Sea region. Speaking with Mark Galeotti, an expert on modern Russia, in 2019, a Bulgarian security officer detailed a smuggling operation through Bulgaria’s port of Varna, bringing in drugs and counterfeit goods from Ukraine’s port of Odessa.

Operated by “Ukrainians working for a Russian-based gang,” the Bulgarian officer believed the criminal group was being taxed by Russian authorities and was “feeding information on Odessa” back to the Kremlin.

The threat of Russian-backed organized crime has only grown since Russia’s invasion in February. Conflicts generally tend to weaken state capacity, or the ability of governments to function properly, allowing organized crime groups to increase their power and influence. The Kremlin has expanded its use of criminality to both weaken Ukraine and complement its own war effort.

While reports of Ukrainian criminal groups smuggling Western weapons out of Ukraine have been consistently downplayed, it would be in the Russian government’s interest to dilute the effectiveness of Western military aid. Additionally, many weapons successfully smuggled out of Ukraine will likely end up in Europe, with weapons from Eastern Europe having been used in several terrorist attacks over the last decade. “Just beyond the countries of Western Europe, with their restrictive gun laws, lie the Balkan states, awash with illegal weapons left over from the conflicts that raged there in the 1990s,” stated Time magazine.

In April, Ukrainian officials also accused Russia of smuggling weapons into Ukraine from the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria in an effort to arm local allies, as well as using smugglers to bring in sanctioned weapons and military technology for the Russian military via Georgia.

Economic sanctions have in turn forced the Kremlin to expand its criminal profiteering activities, according to Western intelligence and law enforcement officials who spoke with VICE World News. A report by the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute mentioned an incident from April 2022 where the “Ukrainian Ministry of Justice officials charged a Ukrainian individual with helping a Russian business to launder money using a Cypriot company, registering their accounts into a private bank in Ukraine.” Meanwhile, a metal shipment worth more than $3 million was intercepted before it could leave a port in Ukraine’s Odessa region.

On top of existing, lucrative tobacco-smuggling networks, NATO and EU officials believe that a large tobacco smuggling ring in Belgium exposed in September was sponsored by both Belarusian and Russian intelligence to raise funds for their operations in the face of sanctions. Russian and Belarusian state-controlled industries have similarly increased cooperation with criminal groups to export oil, gas, and counterfeit goods to bypass sanctions.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, European security officials have also noted a rise in drug smuggling to Europe through the northern route from Afghanistan through Central Asia and Russia—likely due to Moscow easing restraints on these activities. Central Asian political and security circles have historically had direct involvement in the drug smuggling networks and often work closely with Russian criminal groups aligned with the Kremlin.

Taxing the drug trade allows Russian government entities to raise cash. But as with guns, flooding Europe with drugs creates its own problems. Court systems, prisons, hospitals, and other state and social institutions can be overwhelmed by increased drug flows, while distribution fuels local criminal activity—similar to Washington’s concern over Chinese drug trafficking to the U.S.

Additionally, Russia has turned to Central Asian smugglers to gain access to essential sanctioned products from abroad, while the Kremlin may explore selling Russia’s vast gold reserves on the international black markets depending on the compounding effects of sanctions.

And following the West’s decision to freeze much of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves and other financial assets, Russian criminals, in coordination with the Kremlin, have turned to cryptocurrencies to help raise funds and evade sanctions. Criminal hacking groups have also been used by Moscow to help launch cyberattacks on Ukraine and Western targets.

Notably, the Russian government has taken steps in recent months to further institutionalize illegal activity among Russian companies. In March, the Kremlin legalized “parallel imports,” allowing Russian companies to import commodities into the country without the consent of the overseas producer.

Though often innovative, the Kremlin’s embrace of organized crime underlines Russia’s sense of desperation as the most sanctioned country in the world. Yet Russia poses a greater challenge than other sanctioned rogue states like Venezuela, Iran, or North Korea. Its relatively large, industrialized economy, natural resources, extensive borders, and economic integration with Eurasia make isolating it far more difficult.

Continued collaboration with organized crime will be essential for Russia to safeguard its economy and prolong its war effort. Despite the risks of greater integration with the underworld and a growing dependency on their illicit networks, the Kremlin will continue these policies so long as sanctions remain in place.

Encouraging the growth of organized crime in Ukraine also has its own benefits for Moscow. Domestic criminal groups have helped Ukrainian men seeking to avoid conscription to leave the country, reducing the manpower available to Kyiv. In addition, sustaining Ukraine’s entrenched criminal culture and corruption prevents its further Westernization through economic and political reform.

Western law enforcement agencies have attempted to increase cross-country coordination with Ukraine to stem Russian-backed organized crime since the outbreak of the war. The European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT) gathered in April to discuss the situation, while entities such as Interpol, Europol, Frontex, and others have increased cooperation with both Ukraine and Moldova in recent months in “fighting serious and organized crime.”

The fight against Russian-backed organized crime clearly remains essential to Ukraine’s war effort. But as Kyiv has observed since the 1990s, just as much attention should be paid to how organized crime in the country will continue to evolve once large-scale fighting subsides.

What are some of the new technology applications in the Ukrainian war?

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Every war in history has spun new weaponry. The Ukrainian war is also a test ground for new applications, new weapons, According to The Economist, a live tracker at HALO Trust in Scotland, is able to chart Russian bombings, the kind of weapons used, within hours of each incident. This has given Ukraine access to a range of innovations.

Russia too has been prompted to boost its arsenal. This war according to President Putin is not going to end soon. This war has taken things from “abstract to reality”. Who would have contemplated the vision that North Korea will at some time in the near future assist Russia? Who would have contemplated that Ukraine would someday invade its border with the might of Russia?

What is the nature of any war?

To laymen, the nature of war has not fundamentally changed? But, numerous predictions have been made recently how new technologies would function and fare on a battlefield of the future?

We gather emerging technologies like, “hypersonics, drones, electronic warfare, jamming cyber weapons and particularly disinformation” have been emerging and evolving military technologies in the Ukraine battlefield, according to Brookings Institute.

Ukraine was able to get from the United States and its NATO allies, hundreds of armoured vehicles, 155mm Howitzers, HIMARS rockets, 1000’s of Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft weapons.

But, there are more high profile, advanced weapons that US will not provide Ukraine due to political sensitivities. Will US which has now developed a new version of the Stealth Bomber, think of its delivery to Ukraine? All these new technologies developed by US are “classified tech”. But, US has got its NATO ally, Germany, to deliver its first IRIS-T surface to air missile system, to Ukraine?  

The war in Ukraine is seen as a test case?

The war in Ukraine is seen as a test case for “wars of the future”? Although flashy technological transformations are being contemplated, the change to new warfare technology is not on offer.

Sensor based technologies are being seen in a variety of likely settings. We see operational data being collected for Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, there is the training of “online volunteers” who are able to intercept communication among the Russian military units on the warfront in Ukraine.

One of the most innovative war format is skilled military and non-military online volunteers from all locations in the world joining the battlefront “virtually supporting” Ukrainian ground forces. Small “Special Operation” teams are making it difficult to avoid detection of incoming drone warfare.

Not to mention, “social media” too is playing “SMART warfare” to counter disinformation.

What we are witnessing is technology used for civilian use is being used for warfare?

Could you believe, “Crowd Funding” is also being used for military purchases?

How we see Russia counteracting?

Russia too is not inactive. It is using military AI to further use in defence applications. We see “Cyber warfare” is on, in a big way. For its part Russian Oligarchs around the world are not sitting on their laurels. They are pumping in for the war effort. Russia has been able to deploy numerous Iranian produced “Shahed 136 Kamikazi” drones against critical energy infrastructure, such as Ukrainian energy grid for blackouts, blowing up gas pipeline, among others, for maximum impact damage to civilian infrastructure, especially in the bleak Ukrainian winter.

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

ISR is coordinating Russian troop movements and directing civilian strikes in Ukraine. But. is finding it at a disadvantage to combat Ukrainian ingenuity. The culture of innovation is ingrained in the psyche of Ukraine. It has proven very effective and decisive on the battlefield, so essential for long term Ukrainian security. Ukrainians are by nature very creative, with much ingenuity for precision strikes. Robotic and autonomous systems has enabled the flow of information for improvising improvements how “modern tech” is designed and used.

Although Russia’s war has been the driving force all along since February 2022, Ukrainian morale and ingenuity is enabling it to be more agile, faster, with the improbable possibility of sometime in the not too distant future, of even invading its border with Western Russia, which Russia has already contemplated.

For its part Russian experience is relying on its superiority in manpower and of its allies, including North Korea, Syria and Iran for its lifeline needs.

Defence spending in the West

The Ukrainian war has not only impacted technological innovation but has boosted defence spending in US and the West. “Defence is no longer an abstract, but a reality.”

The impact of sanctions, the US$60 ceiling on Russian oil, is ratcheting, it is not all that is contemplated by the US and its NATO allies. At some stage the West may even contemplate removal of Russia as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council.

President Putin has said that the war in Ukraine is a long drawn out war and Russia is not “sitting and waiting” for things to happen. What next in Russian arsenal, is on the minds of all nations?

What to expect in Russia’s winter offensive in Ukraine

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Wading through the 18,000-word transcript of an hours-long meeting that President Vladimir Putin took with the “soldiers’ mothers” last Friday in Moscow, one gets the impression that the fighting in Ukraine may continue well into 2023 — and even beyond. 

In a most revealing remark, Putin acknowledged that Moscow blundered in 2014 by leaving Donbass an unfinished business — unlike Crimea — by allowing itself to be lured into the ceasefire brokered by Germany and France and the Minsk agreements. 

Moscow took some time to realise that Germany and France connived with then leadership in Kiev to scuttle the implementation of Minsk accord. Then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko admitted in a series of interviews with western news outlets in recent months, including on Germany’s Deutsche Welle television and Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian unit, that the 2015 ceasefire was  a distraction intended to buy time for Kiev to rebuild its military. 

In his words, “We had achieved everything we wanted, our goal was to, first, stop the [Russian] threat, or at least to delay the war –- to secure eight years to restore economic growth and create powerful armed forces.”  

The so-called Steinmeier Formula (proposed by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier back in 2016 when he was foreign minister) on the sequencing of the Minsk agreement, had called for elections to be held in the separatist-held Donbass territories under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the OSCE; and, if the OSCE judged  the balloting to be free and fair, then a special self-governing status for the Donbass territories would be initiated and Ukraine’s control of its easternmost border with Russia restored.   

Putin admitted that Russia accepted the Minsk agreements ignoring the wishes of the Russian population in Donbass. To quote him, “We sincerely went to this. But we didn’t fully feel the mood of the people, it was impossible to fully understand what was going on there. But now it has probably become obvious that this reunion [of Donbass] should have happened earlier. Maybe there wouldn’t have been so many losses among civilians, there wouldn’t have been so many dead children under shelling…” 

For the first time, perhaps, an incumbent Kremlin leader admitted making mistakes. The above poignant passage, therefore,  becomes a touchstone for Putin’s future decisions, as the Russian mobilisation approaches the final stage and by end-December, an estimated 4 lakh additional Russian troops will have been deployed in forward positions. 

The bottom line is that Putin slammed the door shut on another Minsk-like hodgepodge of modern furniture and antiques. How does this translate as political reality? 

First and foremost, much as Moscow is open for dialogue without preconditions, Russian negotiators will be bound by the recent amendments to the country’s Constitution, which incorporated Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, and Zaporozhye regions as part of the Russian Federation. 

Second, Friday’s meeting has been, by any reckoning, an audacious initiative by Putin — risky, politically speaking. His interlocutors included mothers drawn from far-flung regions, whose sons are either actively fighting on the warfront, or have experienced the tragedy of sons having been killed in the fighting, or seriously wounded and need prolonged rehabilitation. 

They were strong-willed women, for sure, and yet, as one of them from the small town of Kirovsk in Luhansk told Putin while recalling the death of her son Konstantin Pshenichkin on the frontline, “My heart bleeds, my soul freezes, gloomy memories cloud my mind, tears, tears, and suddenly my son asks me: “Mom, don’t be sad, I’ll see you – you just have to wait. You will go through this life for me, and in that life, we will be together again.”

Putin claimed openly — highly unusual for a Kremlin leader — that he went prepared for the meeting. But he still had surprises in store. Such meetings are impossible to be choreographed as pent-up emotions are in play in front of TV cameras. 

Thus, Marina Bakhilina from Sakha Republic,mother of three sons (one of whom is a highly decorated soldier from the elite Airborne Forces, 83rd Brigade and recipient of the Order of Courage) complained that there’s no hot food on the frontline. She told Putin: “Do you understand what’s going on? If our people can’t provide our soldiers with hot meals, I, as a master of sports and a shooting CMC, would love to go there, to the front line to cook.” 

Putin replied gently, “It would seem that the issues have already been mostly resolved… it means that not everything is normal…” 

What stands out in such frank exchanges is Putin’s massive political capital, derived out of the great consolidation he has mustered in getting the nation to rally behind him. The overall mood at the meeting was one of commitment to Russia’s cause and the confidence in ultimate victory. Of course, this strengthens Putin’s hands.

This is where the analogy of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis comes unstuck. Public opinion wasn’t a key factor 60 years ago. In a nutshell,  common sense prevailed in 1962 as realisation dawned that any failure to take into account the rival power’s security interests could have an apocalyptic outcome. 

The difference today is that while President Joe Biden has insulated  himself and is not accountable for his dogged pursuit of a Russian defeat on the battlefield in Ukraine and an ensuing “regime change” in Moscow, Putin insists on holding himself accountable to his people. Will any western “liberal” politician in power dare emulate Putin’s extraordinary meeting with the “soldiers’ mothers”? 

If economic hardships lead to social unrest and political turmoil in western Europe, the politicians in power will be at a disadvantage. Putin is fighting a “People’s War,” while western politicians cannot even admit that they are fighting Russia. But how long can it be hidden from the public view in Poland or France that their nationals are getting killed in Ukraine’s steppe? Can the western politicians pledge that their “volunteers” didn’t die in vain? What happens if a refugee flow out of Ukraine into western Europe begins as winter advances? 

In military terms, Russia enjoys escalation dominance — a markedly superior position over its NATO rival, across a range of rungs as the conflict progresses. The accelerating Russian operation in Bakhmut is a case in point. The deployment of regular troops in the recent days shows that Russia is on the escalation ladder to wrap up the 4-month old “grind” in Bakhmut city in Donetsk, which military analysts often describe as a lynchpin of Kiev’s defence in the eastern Donbass region. 

New York Times report on Sunday highlighted the enormous scale of losses Ukrainian forces suffered in recent weeks. Evidently, the Wagner Group of Russian military contractors who were doing the fighting pinned down the Ukrainian forces in defensive position, estimated in the region of 30000 troops including crack units “that have been worn down by nonstop Russian assaults.” 

The Times report admits, citing a US defence official, that the Russian intention could have been to make Bakhmut city “a resource-intensive black hole for Kyiv.” This paradigm will repeat elsewhere, too, except that the Russian forces will be much stronger, far superior in numbers and vastly better equipped and will be fighting from heavily fortified positions. 

Putin made it clear at Friday’s meeting that vanquishing the neo-Nazi Banderites will remain a firm objective. Although regime change in Kiev is not a stated purpose, Putin will not settle for a repetition of the ceasefire and peace as in 2015, which left an anti-Russian, proxy regime of the US in power.  

That said, Putin underscored that “despite all the issues related to the special military operation, we do not change our plans for the development of the state, for the development of the country, for the development of the economy, its social sphere, for national projects. We have huge, big plans…” 

Taken together, all these elements define Russia’s so-called winter offensive. Putin’s hand-picked theatre commander in Ukraine General Sergei Surovikin is not in the mould of Patton or MacArthur. Basically, he holds the compass of the special military operations, while incorporating the experience accruing through the past 8 months of NATO involvement in the fighting. But never once did Putin use the expression “war” to characterise the conflict. 

Russia strategises with Iran for the long haul in Ukraine

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Ignoring the hype in the US media about White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s Kissingerian diplomacy over Ukraine, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, former KGB counterintelligence officer and longstanding associate of President Putin, travelled to Tehran last Wednesday in the equivalent of a knockout punch in geopolitics. 

Patrushev called on President Ebrahim Raisi and held detailed discussions with Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the representative of the Supreme leader and secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The visit marks a defining moment in the Russia-China partnership and plants a signpost on the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. 

The Iranian state media quoted Raisi as saying, “The development of the extent and expansion of the scale of war [in Ukraine] causes concern for all countries.” That said, Raisi also remarked that Tehran and Moscow are upgrading relations to a “strategic” level, which is “the most decisive response to the policy of sanctions and destabilisation by the United States and its allies.” 

The US State Department reacted swiftly on the very next day with spokesman Ned Price warning that “This is a deepening alliance that the entire world should view as a profound threat… this is a relationship that would have implications, could have implications beyond any single country.” Price said Washington will work with allies to counter Russian-Iranian military ties. 

Patrushev’s talks in Tehran touched on highly sensitive issues that prompted President Vladimir Putin to follow up with Raisi on Saturday. The Kremlin readout said the two leaders “discussed a number of current issues on the bilateral agenda with an emphasis on the continued building up of interaction in politics, trade and the economy, including transport and logistics. They agreed to step up contacts between respective Russian and Iranian agencies.” 

In this connection, Patrushev’s exceptionally strong support for Iran over the current disturbances in that country must be understood properly. Patrushev stated: “We note the key role of Western secret services in organising mass riots in Iran and the subsequent spread of disinformation about the situation in the country via Persian-language Western media existing under their control. We see this as overt interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.” 

Russian security agencies share information with Iranian counterparts on hostile activities of western intelligence agencies. Notably, Patrushev sidestepped Iran’s suspicions regarding involvement of Saudi Arabia. Separately, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also publicly offered to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. 

All this is driving Washington insane. On the one hand, it is not getting anywhere, including at President Biden’s level, to raise the spectre of Iran threat and rally the Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf all over again. 

Most recently, Washington resorted to theatrics following up an unsubstantiated report by Wall Street Journal about an imminent Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia in the coming days. The US forces in the West Asian region increased their alert level and Washington vowed to be ready for any eventuality. But, curiously, Riyadh was unmoved and showed no interest in the US offer of protection to ward off threat from Iran.

Clearly, Saudi-Iranian normalisation process, which has been front-loaded with sensitive exchanges on their mutual security concerns, has gained traction neither side gets provoked into knee-jerk reaction.

This paradigm shift works to Russia’s advantage. Alongside its highly strategic oil alliance with Saudi Arabia, Russia is now deepening its strategic partnership with Iran.

The panic in spokesman Price’s remarks suggests that Washington has inferred that the cooperation between the security and defence agencies of Russia and Iran is set to intensify.  

What alarms Washington most is that Tehran is adopting a joint strategy with Moscow to go on the offensive and defeat the weaponisation of sanctions by the collective West. Despite decades of sanctions, Iran has built up a world class defence industry on its own steam that will put countries like India or Israel to shame. 

Shamkhani underscored the creation of “joint and synergistic institutions to deal with sanctions and the activation of the capacity of international institutions against sanctions and sanctioning countries.” Patrushev concurred by recalling the earlier agreements between the national security agencies of the two countries to chart out the roadmap for strategic cooperation, especially in regard of countering western economic and technological sanctions.

Shamkhani added that Tehran regards the expansion of bilateral and regional cooperation with Russia in the economic field as one of its strategic priorities in the conditions of US sanctions, which both countries are facing. Patrushev responded, “The most important goal of mine and my delegation in traveling to Tehran is to exchange opinions to speed up the implementation of joint projects along with providing dynamic mechanisms to start new activities in the economic, commercial, energy and technology fields.” 

Patrushev noted, “Creating synergy in transit capacities, especially the rapid completion of the North-South corridor, is an effective step to improve the quality of bilateral and international economic and commercial cooperation.” 

Patrushev and Shamkhani discussed a joint plan by Russia and Iran “to establish a friendship group of defenders of the United Nations Charter” comprising countries that bear the brunt of illegal western sanctions. 

With regard to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Shamkhani said the two countries should “intelligently use the exchangeable capacities” of the member countries. He said the danger of terrorism and extremism continues to threaten the security of the region and stressed the need to increase regional and international cooperation. 

Patrushev’s visit to Tehran was scheduled in the run-up to the conference on Afghanistan being hosted by Moscow on November 16. Iran and Russia have common concerns over Afghanistan. They are concerned over the western attempts to (re)fuel the civil war in Afghanistan. 

In a recent op-Ed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov alleged that Britain is financing a so-called “Afghan resistance”  against the Taliban (which is reportedly operating out of Panjshir.) Kabulov wrote that the US is baiting two Central Asian states by offering them helicopters and aircraft in lieu of cooperation in covert activities against the Taliban. 

Kabulov made a sensational disclosure that the US is blackmailing the Taliban leaders by threatening them with a drone attack unless they broke off contacts with Russia and China. He said, specifically, that the US and Britain are demanding that Kabul should refrain from restricting the activities of Afghanistan-based Uyghur terrorists. 

Interestingly, Moscow is exploring the creation of a compact group of five regional states who are stakeholders in Afghanistan’s stabilisation and could work together. Kabulov mentioned Iran, Pakistan, India and China as Russia’s partners. 

Iran is a “force multiplier” for Russia in a way no other country — except China, perhaps — can be in the present difficult conditions of sanctions. Patrushev’s visit to Tehran at the present juncture, on the day after the midterms in the US, can only mean that the Kremlin has seen through the Biden administration’s dissimulation of peacemaking in Ukraine to actually derail the momentum of the Russian mobilisation and creation of new defence lines in the Kherson-Zaporozhya-Donbass direction. 

Indeed, it is no secret that the Americans are literally scratching the bottom of the barrel to deliver weapons to Ukraine as their inventory is drying up and several months or a few years are needed to replenish depleted stocks. (herehere  ,here and here

Suffice to say, from the geopolitical angle, Patrushev’s talks in Tehran — and Putin’s call soon after with Raisi — have messaged in no unmistaken terms that Russia is strategising for the long haul in Ukraine. 

Biden nods to compromise in Ukraine

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The midterm elections in the US witnessed razor-thin races as Senate and House control hangs in the balance. But that didn’t discourage President Biden from holding a press conference on Wednesday to stake claim that the “giant red wave” didn’t happen. 

Biden said: “Democrats had a strong night.  And we lost fewer seats in the House of Representatives than any Democratic President’s first midterm election in the last 40 years.  And we had the best midterms for governors since 1986.” 

Biden, however, eschewed triumphalist rhetoric and committed “to continue to work across the aisle… (although) it’s not always easy.” 

For the world capitals, Biden’s remarks relating to Ukraine were the most keenly awaited segment. Succinctly put, Biden was far from emphatic that Republicans in control of the House now would be cooperative. 

He said: “I’m prepared to work with my Republican colleagues.  The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well. In the area of foreign policy, I hope we’ll continue this bipartisan approach of confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.” 

When asked whether US military aid to Ukraine will continue uninterrupted, Biden merely replied, “That is my expectation.” He contended that the US hasn’t given Ukraine “a black check” and only equipped Kiev to have “the rational ability to defend themselves.”

Biden had an impressive record as senator in coalition building in the Congress. But today, his bid for a second term as president comes in the way.  If he chooses to be a candidate in 2024, that would leave Republicans with no choice but oppose him viscerally — personally and politically.

Biden had some interesting comments on the announcement in Moscow earlier on Wednesday regarding Russian troop withdrawal in Kherson city. Biden said the Russian move was on expected lines and the interesting part is that Moscow waited till the midterms got over.

Biden avoided giving a direct answer when asked whether the Russian evacuation would give Kiev the leverage to begin peace negotiations with Moscow. But he didn’t refute such a line of thinking, either. Instead, Biden added that “at a minimum, it (evacuation) will lead to time for everyone to recalibrate their positions over the winter period. And it remainsto be seen whether or not there’ll be a judgment made as to whether or not Ukraine is prepared to compromise with Russia.” (Emphasis added.) 

Biden said that on the sidelines of the G20 summit at Bali (November 15-16), there there might be consultations with world leaders, although Putin himself was not going to be there. Indeed, some sort of diplomatic messaging is going on. In fact, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Tass on Thursday that “It was decided that Russia will be represented by (foreign minister) Sergey Lavrov at the G20 summit.” 

Biden took a second question on Kherson developments to say furthermore that the Russian evacuation will not only help the sides to “lick their wounds” but “decide whether — what they’re going to do over the winter, and decide whether or not they’re going to compromise.” (Emphasis added.) 

Notably, Biden has spoken twice about “compromise” (read territorial concessions) by Kiev, which is a major shift from the US stance that the Russian forces should get out of Ukraine. Biden concluded: “That’s — that’s what’s going to happen, whether or not. I don’t know what they’re going to do.  And — but I do know one thing: We’re not going to tell them what they have to do.” 

Taken together, Biden’s remarks are consistent with the “scoop” by NBC News on Wednesday, citing informed sources, that during the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s unannounced visit to Kiev last week, he studied Ukraine’s readiness for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. 

The NBC channel reported that Sullivan was exploring options for ending the conflict and the chance of starting negotiations and raised the need for a diplomatic settlement during meetings with Ukrainian authorities. It said some US and Western officials increasingly believe that neither Kiev nor Moscow can achieve all of their goals, and the winter slowdown in hostilities could provide a window of opportunity to start negotiations.

Interestingly, Kremlin-funded RT promptly picked up the NBC report and highlighted it. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova also chipped in commenting, “We are still open to negotiations, we have never refused them, we are ready to conduct them – taking, of course, into account the realities being established at the moment.”

The Russian authorities continue to maintain that the evacuation of their forces in Kherson stems purely out of security considerations. The onus has been put on the recommendation by Army General Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. The general claimed in a televised speech that the evacuation from Kherson  creates stronger defensive lines for the troops and will save the lives of soldiers and civilians. 

Suffice to say, Lavrov’s presence in Bali will be of pivotal importance. Presumably, he will have contacts with western counterparts. Indeed, Biden’s remarks about territorial compromise signal a sea change in the calculus. 

Also, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while opening a discussion with the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday about the possibility of peace between Ukraine and Russia, confirmed that there is indeed “a window of opportunity for negotiation” moving forward. 

The general urged, “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.” To be sure, he spoke with an eye on the Russian military command. 

The backdrop is that the Democrats’ loss of control of the House of Representatives makes it difficult for them to freely promote the foreign policy line of the Biden administration, including assistance to Ukraine. Henceforth, Biden will have to negotiate decisions on Ukraine with the Republicans. This is one thing. 

Second, the cascading economic crisis in Europe holds explosive potential for political turmoil, especially if there is another refugee flow from Ukraine in the harsh winter conditions, which is a real possibility.

The blowback from sanctions against Russia has lethally wounded Europe, and bluster aside, there is really no replacement for the inexpensive, reliable, abundant Russian energy supplies via pipelines.

All this is becoming hugely consequential for western unity. The recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China shows that dissent is brewing.

Above all, the massive Russian mobilisation threatens to give a knockout blow to the Ukrainian military, but there is no appetite among Europeans for a confrontation with Russia.

The UK, Washington’s steadfast ally in Ukraine, also is under immense pressure to disengage and concentrate on the domestic crisis as the new government tackles a funding hole of the order of £50bn in the budget.

Going ahead, the notions of regime change in Moscow that Biden had once espoused publicly and the neocon project to “cancel” Russia has hit the wall and crumpled. That said, the US can draw comfort that the Russian pullout from the west of Dnieper implies that Moscow is not intending to make any move on Nikolaev, leave alone Odessa — at least, in the near term.

On the other hand, if the Ukrainian forces surge and occupy Kherson and threaten Crimea, it will pose a big challenge for the Biden Administration. From Biden’s remarks, the is confident that it has enough leverage in Kiev to ensure that there is no escalation.

For the present, it is premature to estimate that Moscow only took the bitter decision to abandon Kherson city, which was founded by a decree of Catherine the Great and is etched deeply in the Russian collective consciousness, with a reasonable certainty that Washington will restrain Kiev from “hot pursuit” of the retreating Russian army to the eastern banks of the Dnieper river.

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