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The Next Russo-Turkish War?

Turkey has not won a war against Russia since the 1600s, although there have been at least half a dozen of them. You would think that even the most aggressive Turkish leader would try to avoid another one, but you would be wrong.

President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for the past seventeen years, says he is going to start a war with Russia at the end of this month. Just in Syria, of course, where both Turkey and Russia have already been meddling in the civil war for years. He’s not completely deranged.

“We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said on Wednesday. “We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]….A (Turkish) offensive in Idlib is only a matter of time.”

Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, is the last province controlled by rebel forces, and Turkey is their patron and protector. Russia’s military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime in 2015 saved President Bashar al-Assad from almost certain defeat, so there was already strain on the Turkish-Russian relationship – but until recently it was kept under control.

While Russia was determined to stop militant Islamists seizing power in Syria, it was also angling to lure Turkey out of its membership in the NATO alliance, so in 2018 Moscow and Ankara made a deal at Sochi on the Black Sea. The northwestern province of Idlib, where all the surviving rebels had retreated, would remain under Turkish protection, at least for the time being.

That deal broke down last year for several reasons. Almost all the other rebel forces in Idlib were subjugated (after considerable fighting) by the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organisation, which is just al-Qaeda with a name change. (You remember al-Qaeda: the 9/11 attacks, head-chopping, ‘Islamic State’.) And Turkey made no effort to stop the jihadi take-over.

Turkey also didn’t keep its promise to free up the M5 freeway, which runs between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities. (Its northern section, in Idlib province, was in rebel hands.) So in December the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, launched an offensive to clear the jihadi forces off the M5. They have now succeeded, and Erdogan is very cross.

Western media unanimously condemn the ‘ferocious’ Syrian offensive (so unlike the gentle offensives conducted by Western forces), and focus only on the refugees who have fled the fighting. They almost never identify the people the Syrians and Russians are fighting as al-Qaeda, preferring to describe Turkey’s jihadi allies as “some rebel groups in the area”.

But there is little chance that NATO will come to the aid of its Turkish ally even if Erdogan acts on his threat to attack the Syrians and Russians. And he may well do that: in recent weeks he has been pouring thousands of Turkish troops and hundreds of tanks into Turkey’s ‘observation posts’ in the province.

The Russian response to Erdogan’s threats has been steadily hardening. After a last-ditch meeting between Turkish and Russian delegations in Moscow on Tuesday failed to produce results, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned: “If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian republic…this would of course be the worst scenario.”

He added sarcastically that Russia would not object if the Turkish military took action against the “terrorist groups in Idlib”, in line with the Sochi accord. But what would the Russians actually do if Erdogan carries out his threats?

Erdogan is threatening air strikes against targets throughout Syria, not just in Idlib. He has a big air force, and he could certainly do that, but Russia has a bigger one. Would it just sit idly by and let its Syrian ally be pounded from the air? That seems unlikely. A ground war between Turkish and Syrian troops could well be accompanied by air battles between Russia and Turkey.

You can spin the speculation out endlessly – what would the Israelis do? What would the United States do? – but the likeliest outcome is that Erdogan backs down and the ceasefire line in Idlib is redrawn to leave Highway 5 in Syrian hands.

However, ‘likeliest’ is a long way from ‘certain’. This could end up as a major war, and since Turkey can easily block Russian ships heading for the Mediterranean, Russian victory would not be quick or easy. But they would win in the end, as they always do, and Russia’s victory would make it the paramount power in the eastern Mediterranean.

It would also entail the fall of Erdogan. There’s always a silver lining.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Western…province”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Erdogan vs. The World

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not an ‘Islamist’, in the extreme sense of the word. He doesn’t wear a suicide vest, he doesn’t behead people, he doesn’t even go around holding one finger up in the air to signify his hatred of those who fail to acknowledge the One True God. But he certainly does like the Islamists a lot.

In the heyday of the ‘Islamic State’ in northern Syria and Iraq, it was Erdogan who kept the Turkish border open so that thousands of foreign fighters and their families could go to join that terrorist proto-state, which was a descendant of Osama bin Laden’s original Al-Qaeda organisation.

More recently, he has stationed Turkish troops in Syria’s Idlib province, the one remaining rebel-held part of the country, where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, another offshoot of Al-Qaeda, subjugated all the other rebel organisations last year and now rules unchallenged.

Unchallenged, that is, except by Syrian army troops backed by Russian airpower who are gradually winning back control on the province in a slow, grinding offensive that last week captured Idlib’s second-biggest city, Maarat an-Numan. So it’s no surprise that the Turkish army in Idlib is now firing directly on Syrian forces.

The story is a bit muddy, with Turkey claiming that four of its soldiers in Idlib were killed by Syrian shellfire on Sunday. But the Turkish government said it had killed 35 Syrian troops in retaliatory fire, and Erdogan added: “Those who question our determination will soon understand they made a mistake.”

He also warned Russia, Syria’s ally, “not to stand in our way.” The Russians will take this seriously, since Erdogan deliberately set up an ambush in 2015 and shot down a Russian plane that strayed into Turkish airspace for only 17 seconds. But Moscow won’t back down, so Erdogan is now playing with the prospect of a shooting war with Syria and Russia.

That would be enough on his plate, you might think, but he is also intervening in the civil war in Libya. He backs the Islamist-dominated government in the capital, Tripoli, against the rebel army led by General Khalifa Haftar that controls most of the country, and he has just sent troops to support it.

The troops are Syrian Arabs, part of the same Islamist puppet army that Erdogan used recently to invade the Kurdish part of Syria. His intervention in Libya puts Turkey into a potential confrontation with France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, all of which back Haftar. So does Russia.

Nothing daunted, Erdogan is spouting the same tough-guy rhetoric over Libya: “We will not hesitate to teach a deserved lesson to the putschist Haftar if he continues the attacks on the country’s legitimate administration and our brothers in Libya.” So there’s a few more potential enemies for Turkey. His plate is getting rather full.

But Erdogan’s not finished yet. He has also militarised a dispute with Greece and Cyprus over seabed oil and gas reserves, to the extent that Turkish fighter planes are now violating Greek airspace almost daily. And he has demanded that Athens demilitarises sixteen Greek islands that are close to the Turkish west coast (making them permanent hostages, totally vulnerable to Turkish invasion).

France has now sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean, and President Emmanuel Macron has explained that “Greece and France are pursuing a new framework of strategic defence.” ‘Defence’ against whom? Turkey, obviously. Who else could it be?

Turkey is still formally a member of NATO, so technically France and Greece are its allies, but Erdogan doesn’t seem bothered by that. Neither was he bothered by the fact that the United States is also a NATO member when he invaded northeastern Syria last October to drive the Kurds, America’s key allies in the war against Islamic State, from their homes in the border region.

He got away with that: the Kurds had served their purpose and Trump just abandoned them to their fate. But is he really wise to take on almost everybody else at once?

Like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Erdogan is a strongman ruler who has to win an election every four years. Putin is perennially popular in Russia and wins easily – but Erdogan usually scrapes through with just over half the vote. The country is divided down the middle, and the other half loathes him and his Islamist policies.

One reasonably small and successful war might actually benefit Erdogan by mobilising Turkish nationalism, but three at once? Against Russian and Syria on one front, France and Egypt on another, and Greece plus France and perhaps other NATO and European Union members on a third.

He used to be a fairly competent strategist, but he has been in power too long (17 years) and he has finally lost the plot. This is megalomania.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 14. (“Nothing…full”; and “Like…policies”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Putin the Immortal?

Five years ago somebody posted photographs on the internet showing a man who looked a lot like Vladimir Putin in photographs from 1920 and 1941. In both shots he was in military uniform, defending the interests of the Russian people then as he still does today.

But how can this be? He wasn’t even born until 1952. So the wave of faux speculation starts that Putin is an immortal hero who returns at intervals to save Russia. Or maybe just that he’s an immortal vampire. At any rate, he’ll be around forever. It was nonsense then, and it’s nonsense now.

Last week the Russian president announced a wave of constitutional reforms, and the vast majority of foreign observers, especially in the West, immediately jumped to the conclusion that Putin is changing the system so that he can stay in power forever.

Twenty years in power (his current term as president expires in 2024) is not enough for Putin, the foreign pundits insist. He can’t risk leaving power, they explain, or Russians would start asking where his vast illicit wealth came from. And then the pundits spin off into lengthy tirades about how he is Evil Incarnate, even comparing him to Stalin.

Joseph Stalin, who ruled the old Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953, was a mass murderer without a conscience. Nobody was safe from his paranoia: he even killed most of the other heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution. He was probably responsible for the deaths of ten million Russians.

And Vladimir Putin? Here’s Simon Tisdall, columnist and former foreign editor of The Guardian: “Like Stalin, (Putin) has made many enemies and caused untold misery….cronyism and corruption on a vast scale…military aggression and disruption abroad…..Again like Stalin, retirement is not a safe option for the ex-KGB spy who normalised assassination as a modern-day tool of state policy.”

Where to start? Perhaps with the obvious point that Stalin killed tens of thousands for every death that can be attributed to Putin. Moreover, corruption in Putin’s Russia is far less than it was in the 1990s under the first post-Communist president, the Western-backed Boris Yeltsin, a drunken puppet who made ordinary Russians cringe.

‘Military aggression and disruption abroad’? Guilty as charged, in the illegal restoration of Crimea to Russian control (though most people in Crimea welcomed it), and in backing anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine.

But there is a litany of Western invasions and military interventions (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Serbia, Syria, Yemen) that didn’t meet the highest legal standards either, and had equally messy outcomes. Nor do Western governments lag behind on the assassination front.

More importantly, Russia’s western border is a thousand kilometres east of where it was in 1914. It is a minimum of 300 km. east of where it was as recently as 1991. Putin has not challenged that new frontier once (with the partial exception of Ukraine) in 21 years in office. You could have a much more frightening and disruptive person than Putin in the Kremlin.

The old KGB was a ruthless organisation, but also a rational and realistic one. Putin is a man steeped in that tradition, not an adventurer or a fantasist, and we should probably be grateful for that. So what are the odds that he will still be running things after 2024?

He will be 72 years old in 2024: definitely time to start thinking about what happens after he’s gone. And I’m going to make a bold assumption here: that he is a Russian patriot.

Being Russian means that he fears disorder above all else: Russians sometimes call themselves “Italians of the North”, and they don’t mean it in a good way. So he wants a strong state, run with a firm hand, even after he has retired, which means that a clear and orderly succession is very important.

However, living on under somebody else’s firm hand is not an attractive prospect for Putin. He may or may not have fabulous sums of stolen money tucked away – the evidence for that is unclear – but you make a lot of enemies in a quarter-century in power, and they could hurt you badly after you have relinquished it.

So what Putin needs is a position that gives him the final constitutional say when big changes loom, but lets him withdraw from the daily exercise of power. Something like the chairmanship of a strengthened State Council that can overrule both president and prime minister when necessary (but does so very rarely).

And lo! That appears to be exactly what he has in mind. The details of his proposed reforms are not yet clear, but a weaker president, a stronger prime minister, and a State Council presiding serenely from afar are all part of the package.

I’m not saying that’s what will actually happen, but I think it’s what he’d like to happen.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 2. (“Five…now”)

Soleimani Killing

If the Iranians played the game the same way that Donald Trump does, then their revenge for the American assassination of Iran’s leading general, Qassem Soleimani, would be a simple tit-for-tat. Just kill US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the man who actually organised the hit and then boasted about it.

If Pompeo was too hard to get at, the Iranians could get even by murdering any one or two of a hundred other senior US officials. Probably two, because the US drone that hit Soleimani’s car coming out of Baghdad airport also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the most powerful pro-Iranian militia in Iraq. An eye for an eye, and so forth.

Tit-for-tat is clearly the game Trump thought he was playing. That’s why he warned late on Saturday on Twitter that the US has identified 52 Iranian sites, some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture”, and warned they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND HARD” if Tehran retaliates for Soleimani’s murder.

But that’s not the game the Iranians are playing at all. It’s a much longer game than tit-for-tat, and their targets are political, not personal.

Tehran’s first response has been to announce that it will no longer respect any of the limits placed on its nuclear programmes by the 2015 nuclear treaty, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Donald Trump pulled the United States out of that treaty in 2018, and Iran has given up hope that the other signatories (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany) would defy the United States and go on trading with Iran. It signed the deal in order to end the sanctions, but all the sanctions are effectively still in place

Tehran didn’t say that it is now going to start working on nuclear weapons, but it will resume producing enriched nuclear fuels in quantities that would make that possible. Iran knew that it was going to have to pull the plug on the JCPOA eventually, but Trump’s assassination of Soleimani lets it do so with the open or unspoken sympathy of almost every other country in the world

And there’s a second, less visible benefit for Iran from Soleimani’s murder. It greatly strengthens Iran’s political influence in Iraq, which has been deteriorating quite fast in recent months.

Ever since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has been the scene for intense competition for influence between the United States, which dominated the country militarily, and Iran, whose state religion, the Shia version of Islam, is also the faith of the majority of Iraqis.

There are still about 5,000 American troops in Iraq, but they are now vastly outnumbered by local pro-Iran Shia militias, who did the heavy lifting during the 2014-17 military campaign to crush Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. Lately, however, the pro-Iran faction has been losing ground.

When popular protests broke out in September against the huge corruption of Iraqi politicians and the impoverishment of the general population, the pro-Iran militias started killing the protesters. That was General Soleimani’s idea, and a very serious mistake on his part: the street protests began to target Iranian influence as well.

But Soleimani’s murder has largely erased that resentment: he is now yet another Shia martyr to the cause. The prime minister of Iraq showed up at his huge funeral procession in Baghdad on Saturday, and an extraordinary session of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday passed a resolution demanding the expulsion of US troops from Iraq.

The Iraqi political elite may or may not carry through on that policy, but there is genuine outrage that the United States, technically an ally, would make an airstrike just outside Baghdad airport without telling Iraq. All the worse when it kills an invited guest of the Iraq government who is the second most important person in Iraq’s other main ally, Iran. This is what contempt looks like, and it rankles.

In just one weekend Iran has had two big diplomatic wins thanks to Soleimani’s assassination. The Iranians will certainly go on making deniable, pin-prick attacks on US assets and allies in the Gulf in retaliation for the US sanctions that are strangling the country’s economy, but they may feel that they have already had their revenge for Soleimani.

Iran doesn’t want an all-out war with the United States. The US could not win that war (unless it just nuked the whole country), but neither could Iran, and it would suffer huge damage if there were a flat-out American bombing campaign using only conventional bombs and warheads.

Apocalyptic outcomes to this confrontation are possible, but they’re not very likely. The Iranians will probably just chug along as before, staying within the letter of the law most of the time, cultivating their allies in the Arab world, and waiting for Trump to make his next mistake in their favour. He’s reliable in that, if in nothing else.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“If Pompeo…murder”)