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Syrian Ceasefire Dissolved

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

The national ceasefire brokered between the US and Russia aiming to pause hostilities between major players in Syria lasted only seven days before falling apart. The Syrian Armed Forces General Command formally declared that “the US-Russian ceasefire deal started sin
ce September 12th is over” on September 19th which was followed by government jets bombing targets in and around Aleppo. Fraught with hesitation and both sides throwing blame from the start, the ceasefire crumbling apart throws any possible diplomatic solution into greater obscurity. Most importantly, the relationship between the US and Russia has taken a serious step backwards as both scramble to reassess and posture in the aftermath of the symbolically significant failure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Unfortunately small scale violations that may have been manageable were overshadowed by two major incidents, first the accidental US bombing of Syrian government forces on September 17th in Deir-el-Zour, and the September 19th strike on a UN aid convoy that killed the director of the Syrian Red Crescent. The convoy that was hit was on the very same path that the ceasefire was trying to protect in order to provide much needed assistance to civilians under siege in hard to reach areas in Aleppo province. Russia and Syria denied participating in the strike, though Russia simultaneously claimed that the convoy was “escorted by terrorists.”  Russia’s definition of terrorist groups was a significant concern that remained unchallenged upon the signing of the deal.

If the ceasefire had been successful, the Americans and Russians  had plans to coordinate on a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to counter extremist groups which would have heralded a great step in resolving the crisis via the two major powers working together against a common foe. Russia’s targeting of what the US designates as ‘moderate rebel groups’ is likely to resume which will further drive a wedge between the two nations. The ceasefire had excluded attacks on ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham following its formal split with Al-Qaeda, which means these jihadi groups will gain the most in the fallout of the agreement.

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Following the breakdown of the ceasefire attacks from Russia and the Syrian government escalated, causing a US intelligence official to remark the bombing campaign was one of the deadliest since the inception of the Syrian Civil War more than five years ago. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby announced that the US is “suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia that were established to sustain the cessation of hostilities” while also reiterating blame for the September 19th strike on Russia and the Syrian regime. Earlier that day, President Vladimir Putin stated the US was creating “a threat to strategic stability” in Syria and ended cooperation on a deal with the US on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

Approximately 430,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian Civil War as of mid-September, according to the watchdog group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The worsening of relations and evaporation of talks between the US and Russia in September stands to be one of the greatest setbacks in the war in 2016. It may be some time until US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov, or their successors, can formally broker another deal with any tangible impact on the situation on the ground. In the meantime, the US and Russia will act independently with at times overlapping and at times conflicting agendas.

At the very least, the US and Russia should aspire to coordinate attacks against their shared enemies in ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham while working towards alternatives in terms of other rebel groups.  ISIS is losing its war in Iraq to the point that the possibility of retaking Mosul, their capital in Iraq, is now more feasible than ever. If the focus on ISIS is decreased within Syria, that will undoubtedly complicate the offensive in northeastern Iraq and push back the day when over a million people may be freed from the oppressive grip of ISIS in Mosul. For both the sake of Iraq and Syria, American-Russian cooperation is pivotal, if not absolutely necessary.

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Putin’s Foray into Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria on September 30th signalled arguably one of the most significant change of events in the Syrian Civil War since its inception. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is answering the necessary charge in order to act “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.” While Putin more recently reaffirmed that Russia has no intention of deploying ground forces in Syria, the air campaign by conservative estimates is expected to last a minimum of one year. Above all, the aggressive move has firmly embedded Russia’s commitment to Assad’s Syria and opened the door for further Russian diplomatic leverage in the conflict and wider region.

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s control over the country has been reduced to only 20-30% of the country’s area, accounting for around 60% of the population. At least 220,000 have been killed in the conflict since 2011, though the most active watchdog group, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), has put the figure at between 250,000 and 340,000 as of October 15th. Assad has welcomed the Russians with open arms, and made his first visit outside the country since the war began to coordinate the effort with Putin in Moscow. Iran’s invitation to the negotiating table over Syria has also strengthened Assad’s bid to stay in power while also strengthening Russia’s role.

The lion’s share of the Russian air raids have been focused in the northwest of Syria, rather than the northeast where ISIS strongholds are concentrated. SOHR said Russian airstrikes have killed 370 individuals: 52 from ISIS, 191 rebel fighters from other groups, and 127 civilians. There has been significant controversy over Russia’s thus-far preference in targeting opposition rebels groups closer to the West rather than extremist groups like ISIS. The US has both warned and criticized Russia’s actions in Syria, but has relatively done little that would sway Putin from changing course.

In addition, Iran is now sending thousands of troops to Syria to bolster the new regime offensive, dropping pretenses for a more overt participation. Backed by the Russian air raids, Syrian government units, Lebanese Hezbollah armed fighters and Iranian forces targeted rebel positions around Aleppo and Homs. Iran has also been active in fighting alongside Iraqi army forces and irregular Shiite militias in Syria’s neighbor to the east. Reports indicate recent key gains have been made in Iraq, as ISIS may soon be fully ousted from the north-central city of Baiji, site of the country’s largest oil refinery. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has welcomed Russia in the fight against ISIS, and several strikes have already struck inside Iraqi territory.

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Coordination between Russia and the US in the Syrian airspace remains tense especially as any incident would further escalate the situation to neither’s benefit. Obama and the US’ credibility has taken a hit while hesitating over how to more fully respond to the dramatic geopolitical shift. Russian statesman Iliyas Umakhanov remarked, “[The US] is going to have to recognize that Islamic State is the real threat that has been countered only by the Syrian regular army commanded by President Bashar al-Assad.” Secretary of State Kerry expressed concern that the Russian involvement will only further the regional crisis, and US officials on several occasions have requested restraint from Russia to no avail.

Whatever the military outcome will be, the increased Russian involvement has added a huge obstacle to any effort at a political Syria without Assad. Western countries that previously claimed “Assad must go,” including the US, will find this position less and less feasible over time as the alternatives flounder. Over the last four years the effort to find, support, or build a moderate opposition have fallen far short, and these new changes will only make those options tougher to pursue.

Furthermore, Russia is flexing it’s muscle in Syria not just for Assad or the country itself, but to also project influence and power in a tumultuous time. Rather than pulling back from chaos or biding time, Russia is trying to paint itself as a savior by entering into a new conflict. While the US and West have rightfully questioned Putin’s true goals in the Middle East, their commitment and grasp on the region are also coming under greater scrutiny. Russia will be fighting in Syria for the foreseeable future and has launched a strong bid to be the primary shot caller in the crisis. Further hesitation from the West in responding will solidify that bid, for better or for worse.

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Deconstructing the Donbass

Man standing next to a crater in Debaltseve, Ukraine

Man standing next to a crater in Debaltseve, Ukraine

It has been nearly a year since Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, and yet tensions remain extremely high in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbass region. Since fighting began in April 2014 between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army, more than 5,500 have been killed and nearly a million people have been displaced. On February 12th of this year, a Franco-German proposed ceasefire known as Minsk II was reached between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Despite the recent detente, the fragility of the agreement and the future of the provinces remains uncertain.

Map of Ukraine with the Donbass region highlighted

Map of Ukraine with the Donbass region highlighted

In September 2014 the Minsk Protocol (or Minsk I) attempted to broker a ceasefire between the Ukrainian army and separatist units, but it failed to properly quell the conflict and soon after effectively broke down. A heavy rebel offensive in January of this year resulted in the separatists gaining control of the highly symbolic Donetsk airport, prompting the need for a renewed halt to the fighting. Minsk II called for an immediate and full bilateral ceasefire, the withdrawal of all heavy weapons, the release of hostages, and allowing the restatement of Ukrainian government control. It also calls for constitutional reform in Ukraine with the adoption of a new constitution by the end of the year. Although Minsk II has thus far slowed fighting, the battle for the city of Debaltseve left approximately 500 civilians killed after the institution of the ceasefire. The strategic city of Mariupol similarly falls under a gray area within the agreement, and sporadic fighting has persisted on a small scale in pockets throughout the Donbass.

Russia has repeatedly denied its direct involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but it is clear the Kremlin is more connected than they are letting on. Separatists have been confirmed as coming from Russia, but Putin refers to such combatants as ‘volunteers’. The true extent of Russian material support and their level of military engagement has been shrouded in uncertainty due to Russian interference, though it is clear a weakened Ukraine is beneficial to Russia’s regional aims. Amnesty International has cited growing war crimes and rising Russian involvement as destabilizing to the situation.

Pro-Russian rebels atop tank in Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian rebels atop tank in Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine

Outside of the Donbass, Russia has greatly increased its military capacity in Crimea and the Black Sea, moving mobile ballistic missile systems to the Crimean peninsula and expanding its surface ship and signals intelligence ship deployments. General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme commander in Europe remarked, “What we’ve seen is easy to describe as the militarization of Crimea … Crimea has become very much a power projection platform.” In response, NATO nations have stepped up their presence in the Black Sea region and have been conducting joint military exercises. While tensions seem to be growing, the actions are largely posturing and not necessarily indicative of impending conflict.

Further recent revelations have shown just how far Putin may be willing to go to get his way in the region. Putin admitted that he ordered the Russian defense ministry to deploy elite units to Crimea “under the cover of strengthening the protection of our military facilities,” and he was preparing to arm the nation’s nuclear weapons.

The Minsk II agreement came at a surprise to many, and if it can successfully be carried out it would mark the first significant step towards ending the crisis. While the West has hesitated at escalating the conflict by militarily backing Ukraine more directly, it should further pursue the diplomatic route so long as military conflict remains at a minimum. Future internal political questions will remain for Ukraine ahead as it considers federalization and decentralization, which should also be monitored with respect to the will of the Ukrainian people, especially the 5.2 million living in the zone of conflict.

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What’s Next for Russia and Crimea

Ukrainian military officials leave their posts, escorted by Russian forces

Ukrainian military officials leave their posts, escorted by Russian forces

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on March 18 that he signed a treaty with Crimean leaders to annex the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine into the Russian Federation. Putin claimed earlier in March that pro-Russian self-defense forces (not Russian military units), entered the Crimean peninsula and established control over government buildings, airfields and the strategically significant Sevastopol port on the Black Sea. The action comes after months of anti-government protests in Ukraine culminated in the ousting of their Moscow-backed President, Viktor Yanukovych. In response, the US, EU, and other Western governments have condemned the military incursion, suspended Russia’s membership in the G8, and have placed economic sanctions against Russian officials with further measures pending. Ukraine has pulled its forces out of the peninsula to avoid military confrontation, leaving the peninsula and over two million Crimean people under Russian control.

Direct warfare between Ukraine and Russia is very unlikely and would be devastating for both;  Ukraine would be affected more in terms of loss of sovereign authority and Russia in terms of tarnishing what legitimacy and reputation it has left. War is an option that neither side wants.

What is more likely to occur is a quasi-controlled Crimea territory under Russian control that deepens the political and economic divide between Russia and the West. More trade agreements and political summits will be either cancelled or postponed, and effective cooperation in the near future will be largely undermined by the Crimean issue. Putin has staked too much on Crimea to withdraw quickly, and the West cannot let the controversy go unpunished else leaders will receive criticism for appearing acquiescent and weak. The focus on the conflict between Russia and the West will likely center on saving face rather than direct and significant action from this point forward.

Timeline of Key Events

November 21, 2013: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refuses to sign a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of increased ties to Russia, sparking national outcry

November 2013 – February 2014: Anti-government rallies in Ukraine demanding political and economic reform result in massive rallies, the occupation of government buildings, and violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators

February 20: The deadliest clashes yet result in over 70 deaths as government snipers fire on protesters

Late February: Ousted former president Yanukovych flees to Russia, early elections are scheduled in Ukraine, and Russian armed forces begin to take control of military installations in the Crimean peninsula. Anti-government protests end after Yanukovych’s departure

Early March: US, EU and other international governments condemn Russian intervention in Ukraine and begin issuing economic sanctions and cancelling agreements with Russia

March 4: Russian President Vladimir Putin claims he has reserved the right to protect citizens in eastern Ukraine but vowed force would only be used as a last resort

March 16: A referendum taken in the Crimea shows overwhelmingly support to leave Ukraine and join Russia

March 18: President Putin signs a treaty with Crimean leaders to annex the Crimean peninsula to the Russian Federation

Crimea2

Despite the strong rhetoric against Putin’s actions, producing a tangible deterrent to Russia could potentially cost the West just as much as it would affect Russia. In today’s globalized economy, the reality of options that the US and the rest of the international community can implement effectively is limited. Actions such as suspending Russia from the G8, cancelling trade agreements, and organizing additional military exercises are more important in a symbolic sense than a practical one.

European nations are too highly dependent on Russian natural gas, and international business leaders don’t want a war over the Crimea which would undercut their profits. The sanctions and cancelled summits thus far have been targeted on Russian economic and political leaders believed to be profiting on the Crimean crisis and more have been promised, but the impact will assuredly not coalesce Russia into doing an about face on the issue.

Crimea has a population of about 2.3 million, the majority of whom are ethnically Russian and speak Russian though almost a quarter of the population are ethnically Ukrainian. There is an additional Crimean Tatar minority which has returned to the peninsula after they were forcibly deported in WW2. The Tatars have expressed their fears of increased persecution under Russian authority and many have fled further west into Ukraine. Thus clearly the ramifications of the intervention have angered more than just the world at large, it has had a real impact on stirring up past grievances.

The closest comparison to what is happening in Crimea at present is the reaction to the conflict over South Ossetia, which has been under de facto control of Russian and South Ossetian authorities since the 2008 Georgian War. Similarly to Crimea, South Ossetians passed an unofficial referendum that voted for independence the ruling government did not recognize, and Russian military forces occupied the area in the name of protecting their civilians. The vast majority of the international community condemned the incursion, and in addition to Russia only four other countries (two of which are tiny Pacific island nations) recognized South Ossetia as a sovereign state.

What is next for Russia and Crimea depends on how Putin and Western leaders manage their leverage over one another. Neither stands to gain significantly from isolating the other side economically or even politically, but simultaneously backing down would only serve to embolden the competition. Crimea will continue to be officially considered part of Ukraine though the reality that it is under Russia’s wing will serve as a wrench in negotiations for some time.

The majority of the Crimean people voted in favor of joining Russia, and those have effectively had their wish granted. Excluding select elements of Russia’s leadership, few others stand to gain, and even then in the long run it is hard to tell if the benefits will outweigh the costs of the decision to intervene.

 

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Sochi Olympics 2014: Behind the Games

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Scene from the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

The Olympics are  a unique opportunity for the many nations of the world to come together in competition through sport. Inevitably when different countries come together, political, social and cultural differences are brought to the attention of the public, and the current Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are no exception.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed his personal reputation on the line for the Sochi Games, and in many ways the games’ success will be seen as reflective of Russia as a whole. At a budget that has surpassed $50 billion the games are the most expensive Olympics of all time, more than the 2012 London Summer Games but also more expensive than the previous 21 Winter Olympic Games combined dating back to 1924. In addition to the allegations of rampant corruption on an unprecedented scale, Russia has been criticized over the decision to host in Sochi specifically, its stance on LGBT issues, and problems with human rights in general.

The $50+ billion price tag on the games is so notably suspect because of the sub-par conditions of many of the facilities and the lack of accountability for the money spent. A senior International Olympic Committee official stated that it was common knowledge that a third of total spending on the games disappeared due to corruption perpetrated by business associates with connections to Putin. Others place the figure even higher with some alleging that well over half the money allocated to the games were pocketed. A popular Twitter account highlighting many of the hastily and incomplete construction results has garnered more than 300,000 followers, but also glosses over a larger problem. Unfortunately, the total lack of accountability for billions of dollars spent in Sochi is reflective of the status quo in Russia, a deeply ingrained issue that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

Sochi2

Located on the Black Sea the Sochi area was previously best known as a summer beach getaway for many Russians complete with palm trees. The nearby ski resort of Rosa Khutor in the northern Caucasus mountains is 30 miles away where the alpine events are taking place. Also close by are many smaller regions that have sought autonomy or independence, including Chechnya and South Ossetia, the latter of which Russia and Georgia fought a brief war over in 2008. Perhaps most vocally, the ethnic Circassian people have expressed their disdain for hosting the games specifically at Sochi because of its historical significance as the site of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Russians in the late 19th century. For further context, in addition to the proximity to disenfranchised and separatist groups, Sochi is comparably equidistant from the heart of the Middle East to the capital of Russia, Moscow.

After multiple bombings in Volgograd a city in the north Caucasus in October and December that killed 7 and 34 people respectively, the issue of security has been paramount for Russia. Journalists and experts have accused Russian security of engaging in mass surveillance  of virtually all electronic devices and even spying in bathrooms, but at the end of the day if any and all attacks are prevented, Russian will likely assert it was all worth it. Furthermore, attracting intense criticism and controversy has been Russia’s stance on LGBT issues, specifically the law passed in 2013 by a vote of 436-0 banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors. The conservative Russian culture and the government itself have quietly ignored the issue in regards to the games and this is likely to continue in order to avoid a backlash. The law has not been actively enforced in any context at the Olympic Games, but it has simultaneously served as a platform for discussion and advocacy on the issue in the West.

While the Olympics are largely regarded as a tremendous opportunity to gain international prestige and promote a country’s stance on the world stage, the problems and conflicts that exist within and because of the games should not be ignored for the sake of convenience. Russia and Putin  in many ways are using the Olympic games as a tool to further their own means, and the extent to how successful the outcome will be remains to be seen. Hopefully, the attention and pressure to address many of the issues outlined above, from corruption to human rights, may influence Russia to implement positive change in the future.

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