News in brief N°6

A summary of select international news: The importance of the Russian elections, why major war is increasingly a topic of conversation, Syria’s Kurd’s struggling with internal and international political problems, foreign aid as a policy tool, who actually hosts the most refugees.

The Russian presidential elections took place on Sunday, 18 March. Vladimir Putin, the incumbent, won a second consecutive term. The president’s term in office is six years long, and a given person can only hold the office two sittings in a row. This will be president Putin’s 4th term. He stepped down from the office after the first two successive wins to become the prime minister from 2008 to 2012, during which period Dmitry Medvedev held the office of president. Following this, Putin returned to the presidency and was therefore formally in keeping with constitutional requirements.

It was expected that Putin would win this round, and he did so with nearly 77% of the suffrage. According to the state election commission, 67% of the electorate participated in the elections. The reporter, Shaun Walker, does a good job explainingthe importance of this election. There are numerous pertinent points on the matter of this past election and the one yet to come in 2024. For one, who will be the next president of the country following this term and will there be a change in leadership in Russia over the next six years?

Putin has led Russia after taking over from former president Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin captured the highest office of the country thanks to a coup d’etat that ejected Mikhail Gorbachev from power. Post-Soviet Russia under Yeltsin was a period of great turmoil, hardship, social dissolution, state disintegration, appropriation of major companies and social assets by private businesses on the cheap, massive increase in inequality, and failure of basic services that people once considered norms. For example, it was not at all certain that Russia would retain its current borders and it was believed, by Russians and by Western leaders, that there was a chance that the country would break up into multiple states and statelets. Also, basic necessities like heating during winter time failed in parts of the country, threatening people with hardship, illness, and death. Putin’s popularity is therefore not founded on thin air. He kept the new federation together and averted state collapse while successfully returning some small yet significant part of the social provisions so that people were not staring pauperism and murderous deprivation square in the eyes. Under Putin’s leadership, a small circle has wielded concentrated state power, while general insecurity is a persistent scourge for the majority.

The formulation of political power and leadership that’s been both constructed and coalesced around this president is a matter of great importance. His eventual retirement and the manner in which it’s carried out will impact the future composition of this power structure. This will have consequences for Russia, but also the region, and global politics thanks to the geopolitical significance of Russia. Russia is the only truly Eurasian country in the world. It runs across two of the world’s continents: Europe, as well as the populous and fast rising Asia. These are two zones of present and past great powers; control over them is fiercely fought over. Even leaving all other factors aside, this simple fact of spatial geography makes Russia significant in world politics.

The looming question for this election, then, regards the post-Putin structure of political power and the policy tendencies of any future government in that country. Will the ruling elites have a clear and uncontested line of succession? Will Putin himself lay the road for this? Will there be a palace coup or major fights between the ruling elites for the shape of things to come? Will Putin retain leadership even after this current term in the presidency is up? Will he wield power from the background or will the constitution be changed to permit him to remain president following this term? If there are conflicts, will this leave room for outside powers to sow discord, wield significant influence within Russia in the future, or sweep in and pick up the neglected pieces that are currently within Russia’s zone of influence (i.e. Central Asia, Belarus, Armenia, etc.)? Under this period of potential disarray, any outside power that wishes to amplify the chaos or improve the chances of it taking place may well choose to place increasing pressure on Russia in order to aggravate internal tensions or distract and overwhelm Russian strategists. Therefore, the following questions are also essential to consider: Will pressure be heaped upon that country in the months and years to come? Will the country’s already fragile economy weather the situation and will existing hardship mount, increasing the already significant burden upon the majority of people? In the most extreme, will the country be threatened with reduced cohesion and will its influence and suzerainty over regional countries be eroded? Effectively, will there be a shift in the balance of global forces as a result of the Russian succession question?

A danger arises in the event that very intense pressure is heaped upon Russia by various outside powers. If that country’s cohesion, integrity, and independence are truly threatened, then there is risk of a war, especially if the threat is perceived as an existential one. Russian officials have given plenty of warnings that they already feel threatened and that they fear that the continued existence of the country, such as it is, is not secure. During an interview, Putin had this to say regarding the possibility of nuclear war:

If someone made the decision to destroy Russia, then we have the legitimate right to attack. Yes for the human kind this would be a global catastrophe. For the world it will be a global catastrophe. But me, as a Russian citizen, and head of the Russian state, then I want to ask myself a question – but why do we need such a world if there is no Russia? [This is a rough translation, available via the subtitle option of YouTube]

This is not simply a warning regarding nuclear war but also an expression of the existing pressures and intense competition between world powers. At lease some strategists in the US agree in part. The following are a selection of excerpts from a documentcalled Cultural Perspectives, Geopolitics, & Energy Security of Eurasia: Is the Next Global Conflict Imminent?, published by the US Army Command and General Staff College Press.

Russia’s strategic change is driven mostly by its concern over the NATO’s expansion at the expense of former Warsaw Pact countries (Eastern Europe) and former Soviet republics (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania).

[…] Estranged from the West over NATO Expansion, and especially because of the situation in Ukraine, which led to the Western sanctions, Russia seeks closer economic and political rapprochement with China.

[…] Current National Security Strategy, military doctrine, and other guiding documents of the Russian Federation reflect Russian strategic military culture. Amid other concerns, the main point behind these documents is responsiveness to NATO expansion. This is the core principle which is driving Russia’s strategic efforts in the region and beyond.

[…] Simply put, Russian leaders want to limit the expansion and influence of NATO, create a buffer between Russia and NATO, re-establish its influence in former Soviet states, and return to being a regional and global power.

[Russia] is paranoid about a surprise attack from NATO or the US.

[…] Russian leaders rely on nuclear “saber rattling” any time they perceive that Russian interests are being threatened, such as the expansion of NATO or the deployment of missile defense assets to Europe.

[…] Considering that NATO was created to counter the expansion of the Soviet Union, it is not surprising that the Kremlin views expansion as a threat. Every time a former Soviet state is incorporated into NATO, the buffer shrinks. Without that physical buffer, Western military forces move closer to Moscow, eliminating the Kremlin’s ability to trade space for time. Similarly, missile defense erodes the Kremlin’s most powerful strategic and political weapons, its nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the West is willing to attack any “disruptive” country that lacks nuclear capability in order to “force its political will” on international and regional affairs. Therefore, the Russian leadership views its nuclear weapons as its most important political tool because they would have limited to no ability to affect regional and international affairs without them.

Syria is an acute battlefield for international power, one that has thrown the country into a period of long war and disastrous social hardship. Turkey and their allied militias have, on 18 March, captured the city of Afrin from Syrian Kurdish forces. The final battle for that city was relatively brief and did not go down the route of long house-to-house fighting. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to attack Manbij next and continue the fight all the way along the northern strip of Syria to the border with Iraq. This territory is held by the country’s Kurds who effectively govern it as an independent country though they do officially include it within Syria. The main governing body claims to possess an anarchist and socialist ideological framework. One must wonder if Turkey intends to expand its border by extending its influence or direct control over this land. Also, any collaboration with Russia, Iran, and Syria on this topic or its opposite as direct competition with them is an open question. Likewise their relation with the US, which has bases and troops in the Kurdish governed territory. The Kurds are obviously under great pressure and it’s hard to imagine how they could maintain a great degree of independence in the long-term when they are opposed by Turkish, Iraqi, and Iranian governments as well as by that of a resurgent and determined Syria.

The Kurds are wholly surrounded by these states and have no independent access to international lands, waters, or airspace. Their US partners, meanwhile, are on the back foot and have momentum against them. Their depth of commitment – how much resources and manpower they’re willing to commit to maintaining an independent Kurdistan – is in question. Even if they were fully committed, the possibilities available to them appear slim. The nationalist character of the Kurdish autonomous and independence movements is also a factor in limiting room for action. The Kurds have failed to put forward an effective non-nationalist, and in the case of Syrian Kurds, a socialist and therefore non ethno-linguistic structure for any future zone or state that would attract significant numbers of people under the unity of an identity that isn’t founded on ethnic or linguistic distinction. Furthermore, the official spokespeople and international communications from the umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces organisation have not communicated adequate criticism of foreign geopolitical ambitions held by their US partner. Therefore, they don’t adequately address fears of possible outside occupation or suzerainty. Effectively, the question in non-Kurdish people’s minds may be, why exchange a local master, that of the Syrian central government, for a distant and foreign one, that of the US?

An internal memo from the staff of the US representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, proposes that foreign aid should be conditioned on support for US policy. The 53 page memo has been reviewed and reported by Foreign Policy magazine. The advisory document states “that all U.S. foreign assistance should be reevaluated to ensure that taxpayers dollars are spent to advance U.S. interests[…]” Despite this explicit statement, the furtherance of US interest and policy as a “return on investment” from foreign aid is not a novel practice. Such aid has been tied to various demands in the past, such as the  opening up of a recipient country’s currency markets to finance capital, the privatisation of sectors such as water delivery which could then conveniently be bought up by foreign businesses, cuts in social programs that can result in a precarious people accepting low wages and insecure labour conditions, compliance with US foreign policy, or a stipulation that a portion or all of an aid budget go to US contractors for related purchases such as for weapons (yes there’s such a thing as military aid, which can amount to payments for a common strategic stance between donor and recipient coupled with subsidised sales of US-made weaponry). The US is not alone in placing explicit or separately negotiated yet implicitly required preconditions for so-called aid. The provision of such state funds, earmarked as aid, are often given to a country’s smaller allies, partners of convenience, or in exchange for a certain degree of economic or geopolitical access (such as for the construction of desired energy pipelines, development of port facilities that would benefit the donor, and so on).

An example of conditional aid is the European Union’s 2016 Migration Partnership Framework, which identified several African “partners” in a bid to keep migration away from Europe. The European Commission identified these “compacts” as providing a “tailor made approach, designed to deliver clear targets and joint commitments. The compacts combine different policy elements like development aid, trade, mobility, energy, security, digital policy[…]” This is to say that what is called aid money is not somehow set apart from trade deals or international struggles over power and policy compliance; they are a common part of negotiated exchanges between donors and recipients.

There are 22 million refugees the world over. According to the latest report by the International Organization for Migration, the countries that host the largest numbers of refugees are (2016):

  1. Turkey
  2. Pakistan
  3. Lebanon
  4. Iran
  5. Uganda
  6. Ethiopia

Together, they account for over 1/3 of the 22 million total. The same report states that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 28% of the global total of refugees are hosted in Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. High income countries host a relatively small number of the total refugee population.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has threatened that his country would develop nuclear weapons if Iran develops them first. This was said during an interview with the US’s CBS television program, 60 Minutes. When asked why the Saudis view Iran as a rival, he responded that, “Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia.” Iran has a civilian nuclear programme that is and has been under intense debate and scrutiny via the leadership of the US, France, and the United Kingdom, along with many of their allies. Saudi Arabia is one such critic of Iran’s nuclear programme, and is itself in the midst of negotiations with existing nuclear powers for assistance in the development its own nuclear capacity. Russia and China have been less strident in their critique of Iran, and they have even defended Iran’s right to non-military nuclear power and systems.

On 13 March 2018, days prior to the above mentioned threat, Saudi Arabia’s government cabinet approved a policy for the development of a civilian nuclear programme. They plan to complete two nuclear reactors in the short-term, and over a dozen more in the long-term. The country is reviewing construction bids from foreign firms in China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the US. This decision has been long in the works and there’s been talk of such a possibility for years. The pace has picked up more recently. In October 2017, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia’s statesperson charged with the country’s nuclear plans expressed the desire for domestic “self-sufficiency” in the production of atomic fuel. This effectively amounts to the Saudis saying that they won’t accept restrictions on productive capacity, a restriction that may avert or delay the production of weapons-grade nuclear materials. A type of such restriction is currently present in the case of Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both signatories of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty is a rather short read. Here are some excerpts:

[…] the benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear technology, including any technological by-products which may be derived by nuclear-weapon States from the development of nuclear explosive devices, should be available for peaceful purposes to all Parties to the Treaty, whether nuclear-weapon or non-nuclear-weapon States[…]

[…] Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes to accept safeguards, as set forth in an agreement to be negotiated and concluded with the International Atomic Energy Agency in accordance with the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Agency’s safeguards system, for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfilment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Procedures for the safeguards required by this Article shall be followed with respect to source or special fissionable material whether it is being produced, processed or used in any principal nuclear facility or is outside any such facility. The safeguards required by this Article shall be applied on all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities within the territory of such State, under its jurisdiction, or carried out under its control anywhere. [this section is part of article I of the treaty]

[…] Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.

The implementation of this treaty requires interpretation, debate and exertions of power. Notably, it defines a top tier of “nuclear weapon States,” signatories that sit at the top of the hierarchy and who are not compelled by the treaty to abandon their arms. The exclusive list of such signatories is Russia, the US, China, the United Kingdom, France. Countries that have not signed on to the nuclear control treaty but still possess atomic weapons are India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel. Furthermore, some countries have hosted such weapons on behalf of others although they don’t themselves formally possess them. For example, the presence of US nuclear warheads in Germany.

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